Startups have many problems. Across all my channels I probably look at between 5 and twenty startups in the earliest stages of their lives each week. In many cases the entrepreneur has given me a brief that they want me to do X and they have given me some information about the company. In a very large proportion of the startups it is not clear what the problem is that they are solving, who the customer is or how they are going to make money.
Since I started working in startup back pre-2003 I have spoken to thousands of entrepreneurs and this appears to be a pervasive and nontrivial problem. There are many many entrepreneurs who do get it. In part this is because they have nous that the rest of us like, or because they have gone through on e of the many amazing training courses available – whether from Ycombinator, Udacity or a huge range of startup blogs like this one.
At the same time there are so many entrepreneurs who have never come across this idea and so they build a product to service an idea not a customer with a problem.
So being really clear, the first things that you need to be sure of as an entrepreneur are:
Is there a real problem?
If you can’t give me 10 real people’s names and what the problem is in their words I’m going to be a bit cynical. In a lot of cases if you can’t do that you haven’t got out the building and started trying to sell the idea. You haven’t seen your idea splinter as it comes into contact with reality. It’s better to do it now than it is later when you have spent thousands of hours and a shed load of money and are into serious panic mode.
Do the customers care?
Some problems are so small, so trivial or just not worth solving. You may have proved it but if the customer is going to pay you peanuts and there aren’t enough customers out there to justify buying enough peanuts to make a jar of peanut butter then why bother? In many case a lot of people cannot accurately describe their customers (partly because they have never met any)
How hard is it to solve?
It’s amazing building mousetraps. Seriously. There is nothing better than to sit down and make or build something awesome. I built a sandpit once for my kids. It was made out of IKEA slats from an old bed. It was glued together and had a waterproof inner line. It was a work of art. They played with the cheap plastic sandpit we got from Tesco. In that case I supplied a wonderful but over engineered solution that cost massively more – both in cash and time – than they wanted to pay.
So What to Do?
Get out the building! Talk to customers as early as possible and build what they want. It’s actually far less scary than sales because you aren’t actually selling anything to anyone. All you are doing is asking
“Do you have this problem?”
That can be put into conversation in so many ways. As you do it hundreds and thousands of times as you get into your startup you get a real sense of who the customer is. Then they tell you this is the problem I really have and this is how you can solve it for me.
Without even sounding a teeny bit salesly you can then ask
How much would you pay for that?
And they tell you. Bang! In just a few hours a potential customer has said if you build me this I will buy it from you. Then all you have to do is jot down their email or phone number and move onto the next person.
“Do you have this problem?”
And pretty soon you have a bunch of answers that you can categorise and derive the feature sets that customers really want. And you have a nice big email list of people who can can say to
You said you had this problem and that you would buy the solution if it cost $X. Well guess what we have got a solution for the problem and it costs $X. Press this button to go to the checkout.
This converts. It is far easier than building a business in any other way.
In a nutshell this is what I do for my customers. I help them to get from the idea to delivering the first products to customers