Solve Problems. Don’t Build Ideas.

In the past couple of months since moving to New York City I’ve found myself reconnecting with some of the entrepreneurs who I had known since the beginning of my journey. Many of my closest friends come to me with their ideas, seeking feedback like any hustling entrepreneur. And then last weekend in San Francisco one of my tech friends asked for ideas to work on. I almost cringed. Again and again, I have retold one of my greatest lessons learned in the past year:

Stop building your idea. Start solving a problem.

Startup ideas are bound to fail. This is not something that I realized until I tried to build one myself. Throughout last summer and the fall I had pitched an idea for a bookmark curation site. As it turns out, it’s not a compelling problem for many people. To cut to the chase, the average consumer can live without an improvement to their current bookmarking tool. And the business for bookmarking isn’t highly sustainable. I tried to build a business from a startup idea, and I failed.

I admit it wasn’t my natural inclination to drop an idea all of the sudden and begin exploring problems. I had the support of one of the godfathers in Silicon Valley (confidential for now), and I will never forget his advice. He said to stop thinking of startup ideas to build and instead think of problems to solve. Young founders such as myself are notoriously challenged with discovering ripe problems in the world because we don’t have much real world experience. To give you context, consider this example: ZenPayroll makes the process of setting up payroll for your company very easy. I would have never understood the painful payroll process until I started a company. Luckily the guys at ZenPayroll previously discovered this, and so they’re solving a huge problem for small business owners.

I immediately began to list the problems in my life. From the moment I woke up until I went to sleep, I wrote down all of the problems I noticed all day long for a week. Eventually I narrowed down the list to one of my most significant problems: email overload. Up to that point I had been okay with simply dealing with the problem. Passively dealing with a problem is the exact opposite mentality of an entrepreneur.

I did not consciously think of the email overload problem or solutions until I shifted that mindset from idea building to problem solving. I caution you to not over think your subconscious. Instead you should closely observe the painful or inefficient processes in your life.

You can toss nearly every successful company into the problem solving equation. Mark Zuckerberg is introverted and he needed a way to find more cute girls at Harvard. He built Facebook to solve his problem. The guys at Google did the same for finding and organizing information. Glider aims to solve problems related to email overload.

So, where do you begin to look for problems? Ask yourself the questions: What do I want to make absurd two years from now?  What products can I not live without? As I mentioned a couple of months ago, I believe the next big technology companies will be lifestyle automation companies.

Next, take your problem and follow the startup process:

1. Validate your problem.

    • Who needs this solution to the problem? Is there a market for the solution?
    • Setup a landing page in this format to be sure the solution to your problem is clear and concise.
      • The problem is in the headline and the three bullets highlight the minimum features.


2. Relentlessly pursue product/market fit.

    • Have you made a product that satisfies the needs of the market?
    • Caution: Sometimes you might build a product that has no market. Also known as a startup idea.

Tips from Joel Gascoigne, Founder of Buffer:

When you reach product/market fit you essentially have built something people want. You naturally get traction, and things unfold very quickly. Reaching product/market fit is perhaps the most important thing for a startup. Andreeson puts it this way:

“Do whatever is required to get to product/market fit. Including changing out people, rewriting your product, moving into a different market, telling customers no when you don’t want to, telling customers yes when you don’t want to.”

3. Scale.

  • Repeat what worked in step two.

And it’s as simple as that! Let me know if you need any help.

About The Author

John Marbach

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07 2012
  • Shani Shoham

    Great post and so relevant to our time.

  • mukoshy

    Awesome lesson, thanks.

    I am also learning this from experience, i built a number of ideas only to realize that I am actually not solving any problem.

  • wilhn

    This also happened to me and my team. We were building a product for 3 months and when we launched it, BAM, nobody wants it.

    But, I learned a lot from it

  • Franck Tchouambou

    A lot of the stuff you find on mixergy is on Youtube for free if you look hard enough.

  • jimihendrix

    thanks for the reboot!

  • William

    Helped me so much I failed the class