Solving Perceived Problems

One of today’s golden rules of tech startups is to “solve a problem you have”. For example in Paul Graham’s essay How to Get Startup Ideas he states

Why is it so important to work on a problem you have? Among other things, it ensures the problem really exists. It sounds obvious to say you should only work on problems that exist. And yet by far the most common mistake startups make is to solve problems no one has.

He then goes on to list why so many people solve problems that no one has and some examples ot those. I would make one more caveat to this – work on a problem you and others are perceived to have.

One thing I’ve learned (especially in sales) is that human beings are generally irrational beings. Our brains are easily tricked by our biases and fallacies. As a consumer looking at businesses I find myself constantly asking questions like “why on earth would someone want to sign up for that” or “who the heck would buy that”. The reality is that the justification for the solution to our problems are not universally the same for everyone.

This came to light to me roughly 1-2 years ago when I started asking iPad owners a very obvious, but generally awkward question – “What made you buy an iPad?”. The answer was hardly ever the same.

“It just so much more usable”

“I use it for writing email while I’m sitting on the couch”

“Oh you know…”

No one could tell me a legitimate answer for how it solved any specific problem. And if it did (“I don’t have to load up my computer when I’m sitting on my couch and I can browse the web”) seemed like such a small problem that it barely justified the price point.

What I’ve found is that there is a complete disconnect between what we determine is our problem and how it is described in written and oral form. This is an unique challenge that pretty much every startup and business has – what’s my problem and how do I articulate that problem to a larger audience. More importantly how is my solution specifically solving that problem. Because in fact that is all your startup is really doing, right? Solving a problem.

I’ve been reminded of this recently about a new blogging service called Ghost. In a Hacker News discussion, this was the response of someone defending the platform explaining why Ghost was superior to WordPress:

There are number of other reasons:

You want to avoid PHP.
You don’t need most of the feature bloat that comes along with WordPress.
You want to use Markdown.
You want to try something different.

This simply amazes me, not because it’s wrong per say, but because it just amazes me that these are people’s legitimate justifications. Are these really the biggest technology challenges we face in blogging today? (The perception is that yes they are) Since blogging platforms (and all platforms really for that matter) are simply tools, we then seep deeper in the Cyclical Nature of the Hammer Industry. As I’ve pointed out, the hammer industry continues to exist simply because we are convinced by good marketing and sales that we need to upgrade – when in reality it doesn’t actually solve our problem (and if it does, the marginal gain is so minute that it’s not worth it).

And thus this is where the lines between what problems we actually have and the ones we perceive are slowly getting blurred. No longer are the days of starting businesses that allow us to solve immediate and easily defined problems such as shelter and food. We’re now having to solve complex problems that neither can be articulated correctly or simply cannot be traced back to any basic human needs.