Are You Solving a Real Problem?

“I gotta’ fever and the only prescription is more cowbell” – “The Bruce Dickinson” –  from the SNL skit with Christopher Walken

Many of the startups I meet have gotten the message that in order to have a sustainable business model, one has to solve a problem.  That solution can come in a few forms – perhaps it is providing a capability that did not exist previously or making it quicker and more efficient to satisfy a recurring need.  For the former, I would suggest LinkedIn which opened up the world to our personal business profiles and for recruiters, gave them access to people who were currently employed – not just those in transition.  The latter would be characterized by Uber – transportation on demand.  So, the message seems clear, but achieving this goal has remained somewhat elusive.

I see a good number of pitches every week.  I think one recurring theme is the absence of an understanding of the importance of this message; you need to ease the pain or bring comfort for your product or service to be sustainable.  So, many pitches start with the standard “how many times have you tried to…  only to be frustrated by…” Unfortunately, at times, the “problem” they present is one that many of us rarely encounter like booking a trip around the world.  When the problem they present is not real, you can feel the silence in the room.  It makes me harken back to the old Family Feud scenario – you know, the one where the host asks a question like, “Name something that rhymes with ”time” and the overthinking parent responds “sublime.”  This is usually followed by an attempt at supportive applause from family members who know in their heart that answer is not going to appear when the host announces “our survey said.”

So, how does this happen?  I am still somewhat surprised at the lack of market research and even “web surfing” that is done when someone comes up with the centerpiece of their investment thesis.  It is like they are Bruce Dickinson, and all they are focused on is more cowbell.  As the great scholar in this space Jeff Timmons once said, “an entrepreneur knows the difference between an idea and an opportunity.”  Look, I am clearly not at the center of the startup universe, but when I see an idea which looks just like other pitches I have seen and a presenter is not even aware of that competing product or sights a difference such as “ours is a mobile app,” it makes you understand how tough this part of the equation really is.

So, please make sure that before you invest a lot of time and energy, you get some objective people (like advisors or others you know in your network) to provide some really critical feedback on how much “pain” is caused by the problem you are addressing.  It may take longer to get on the road to success, but with the right approach, you have a much better chance of completing your journey.


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