Problem & Problem Solving

The Problem with “Find a Problem Worth Solving”

Saeed Khan
6 min readAug 15

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A common piece of Product advice is for people to “Find a Problem Worth Solving”. This is often the first piece of advice in a list of how to build a company.

On the surface, it makes sense. I mean, why would you focus on a problem that’s NOT worth solving? But “worth solving” is doing a lot of heavy lifting there.

🔸 What exactly IS a problem “worth solving”?

🔸 How do we know we have a problem worth solving?

🔸 What does a problem “worth solving” look like?

At its origin, was Twitter — let people send status messages — a problem worth solving?

OTOH, there is the search engine Neeva which wanted to develop an ad-free privacy focused search engine. They raised $77 million. They shut down after only a few years, never gaining the traction they needed. Was that a problem worth solving?

The point is that we don’t know what a problem worth solving is. If we did, we’d see far fewer failures in startups and products.

VCs invest in startups and 90% of those startups fail (for various reasons), but about 35% of those startups EXPLICITLY fail because there was no market need for their product. i.e. There was no problem worth solving.

Given that over 1/3 of startups fail because of no market need, addressing that issue — in a startup or an existing company — SIGNIFICANTLY increases the odds of success for that startup or new product.

When I work with clients, I try to get them to focus on being intentionally specific about the problems they want to address.

🔹 WHAT are the characteristics of that problem?

🔹 Exactly WHO has that problem?

🔹 WHEN does the problem manifest itself?

🔹 HOW are they (the WHO) currently trying to address it?

🔹 WHY is a better solution needed?

🔹 WHAT barriers might there be to adopting your solution?

🔹 etc.

There are, of course, other questions, but clarity and specificity on a given problem (or opportunity) are how we understand whether the problem may be “worth solving”?

Evaluating Problems

While there is no surefire way to KNOW that a problem is worth solving, there are ways to evaluate problems that can help understand the nature and extent of a problem and whether you might want to attack it.

I wrote about it in this post:

To summarize that post, there are five factors to consider when evaluating market problems. Given a target audience, evaluate these 5 factors:

  • Unworkable (how painful)
  • Unavoidable (how necessary)
  • Urgent (how time sensitive)
  • Underserved (how many alternatives)
  • Universal (how widespread is the impact for that target audience)

I’ve modified my lingo a bit since I published that article but the 5 factors remain. i.e. The words are now Painful, Necessary, Urgency, Alternatives, and Impact. I’ve even created a canvas for it.

Problem Evaluation Canvas

Drop me a line on LinkedIn if you’d like a copy of that Canvas.

Two things to consider

Two things that I’ve learned and I try to elaborate on are:

  • The Problem isn’t Really the Problem
  • Opportunities Expand with Knowledge

The Problem isn’t Really the Problem

In Neeva’s case, the founders said:

“Contrary to popular belief,” the co-founders wrote in the blog post, “convincing users to pay for a better experience was actually a less difficult problem compared to getting them to try a new search engine in the first place.”

The problem wasn’t building the search engine or even getting people to pay, but it was getting people to SWITCH from Google. Why? Because Google is the default search engine EVERYWHERE, and works hard at keeping itself the default. And the supposed PAIN of “privacy” wasn’t enough of a compelling motivator for people to switch.

The PROBLEM was the awareness and getting users to change their default search engine from Google (or Bing or whatever) to Neeva. And if they had solved THAT problem, there would have been other problems to solve, because Google and other competitors wouldn’t have sit still watching users switch to a competitor.

One way to approach this is to ask a set of cascading “What Would Have To Be True?” (WWHTBT) questions. i.e.

🔸 WWHTBT to get people to use Neeva? — Market it to attract initial users.

🔸 WWHTBT to get people to pay for Neeva? — Provide a great user experience for those concerned with privacy.

🔸 WWHTBT to get people to use Neeva regularly? — Have them make it their default search engine?

🔸 WWHTBT to get people to make switch their default browser Search Engine to Neeva? — Provide an easy way (is there one) for them to switch to Neeva

🔸 etc

That last question is critical. Search Engines such as Bing had failed getting people to shift their default search engine. Google pays A LOT of money ($BILLIONS with a B) each year to the browser makers to be the default.

WWHTBT for a startup to change that? See where the problem really lies?

Opportunities Expand With Knowledge

This is a tough one for people to internalize. People want to sell into a big market, but when starting out, it’s really important to focus down and start with a niche of some kind. It could be simple use case or a small region or a very specific market segment etc. But start small, learn, and over time your markets/opportunities will grow.

EVERY successful company/service started as a small company/service solving a specific problem. It’s easy to look at successful companies and think they were always big and successul; but they all started small.

🔸 Amazon started by selling books online. Now they sell everything (and more)

🔸 IBM started by providing tabulating equipment for the 1890 US Census (and then grew into general purpose computing, and more)

🔸 Microsoft started by selling BASIC language interpreters for personal computers, and today is neither exclusively “micro” nor “soft”?

If you want to be a successful BIG business in the future, start by being a successful SMALL business now. There are so many examples of successful companies that started by doing one thing for a niche group, and then expanded once they learned more AND customers learning about them. i.e. the learning aspects work both ways.

🔹 MailChimp — started with a simple newsletter creation tool for their design clients, because their clients didn’t like creating newsletters. As they grew to add more capabilities, people came to them.

🔹 Shopify — started as a shopping cart solution for the founders’ own snowboard equipment store. Clearly they’ve grown well beyond shopping cart functionality.

🔹 Cards Against Humanity — started with $15,000 of funding on KickStarter, and is now a $10M+ business with games, expansion packs and more.

The list could go on and on. The point is think small. Focusing on a problem only a small number of people *think* is worth solving is a GREAT starting point.

It doesn’t guarantee success. But it does guarantee focus and the ability to learn about your target customers and tailor a solution that meets THEIR needs. And once you’ve done that, the only way forward is up.

A little feedback please

If you’ve read this far, thank you. I’d like some feedback on the article to make it better. It should take just 1 minute, but will really be valuable to me. Thanks in advance.

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Saeed Khan

Product Consultant. Contact me for help in building great products, processes and people. http://www.transformationlabs.io

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