How to Find a Problem to Solve

Lately, I’ve been thinking about startup1 ideas. Or more precisely: how to get startup ideas.

I think Paul Graham put it well:

“The way to get startup ideas is not to try to think of startup ideas. It’s to look for problems, preferably problems you have yourself.”

It feels unintuitive. Yet it makes total sense when you think about it.

Businesses — at least the good ones — sell solutions to customers’ problems.

Google solved the problem of information retrieval. You no longer need to go through books or ask experts. Instead, the information you need is right at your fingertips.

Amazon solved the problem of access to variety of products. No need to visit multiple stores for different things; everything you need is just a click away.

Spotify solved the problem of access to music. No longer do you have to buy entire albums just for one song — you can now listen to whatever you want, whenever you want, wherever you want.

So, how do you find these problems?

Three questions to ask yourself

Here are three questions you should ask yourself when identifying potential problems to solve2

Question 1

I’m in no doubt that startups are incredibly hard.

All the startup founders I’m following on X have talked about the intensity that is required to successfully start a business.

(For me, this is one of the most exciting things about startups. I want to do exceptional work and a startup is a great opportunity for it.)

Since a startup is hard, you should ideally be solving a problem that you personally find interesting. That way, you’ll be committed to put in the hours needed.

Thus, the first question to ask yourself when looking for problems to solve is:

Which problem am I excited to solve?

Ideally it should be a problem you’re experiencing yourself, something that would improve your own life significantly if it were solved.

In fact, many startup started this way, with something that their founders desperately needed themselves.

Another subtle benefit of building something that you need yourself is that you know that at least one person in the world needs what you’re building.

And if one person needs it, chances are there might be others who need it too.

You just need to find these people.

Question 2

The second question to ask yourself is:

For which problem can I build an MVP quickly and cheaply?

In startup lingo, MVP stands for Minimum Viable Product.

It’s the simplest, most pared-down version of your product that solves the problem at hand.

An MVP allows you to test your idea in the real world, gather feedback, and iterate quickly. It’s your chance to validate your assumptions and see if people actually need your product.

Chances are that your assumptions are wrong.

So it’s important to deliver an MVP as quickly and cheaply as possible.

For a SaaS product I don’t think it’s reasonable to spend more than four weeks on an MVP.

If it takes more than four weeks for you to build a solutions, you’re probably wasting time on unnecessary features.

You don’t need a “reset password” option.

You don’t need a pixel-perfect UI.

And you definitely don’t need dark mode.

You can always add these features later, but for know your product will be crappy.

Just focus on solving one problem exceptionally well, put your product into the hands of users, and iterate from there.

Listen to user feedback and improve your product accordingly.

However, if you find that no one wants or needs your product, then be ready to pivot or even abandon the project.

Don’t waste time on a project that will go nowhere.

It’s better to throw lots of things at the wall and see what sticks.

Ship, ship, ship!

Question 3

When you know which problem excites you and it’s something that you can solve quickly and cheaply with an MVP, the third question to ask yourself is:

For which problem can I sell a solution?

You can have the best product in the world, but it won’t sell if people aren’t aware of it.

I like Visakan Veerasamy’s take on it:

People with “superior product” are always shocked and dismayed over and over again to be defeated by people with “superior distribution”.

“But the superior product must win!” Why? “Because it’s the superior product!” To who? “To me! And the 10 people I’ve talked to!” Ok but your competitor has talked to 10,000 people and they like his product well enough. And he’s hiring your product guy, oops, better luck next time.

In other words, you need to get your product into the hands of customers.

This last question is about figuring out for which products you can do it, preferably better than the competition.

For instance, it would be much harder for me to get software for logistics companies into the right hands compared to productivity tools for developers.

I don’t know anyone in the logistics industry, but as a developer, I could use my network to distribute a product to other developers.

No matter what you do, you’ll most certainly fail

Over the long run, 90% of startups fail.

You have the odds against you. But don’t let that discourage you.

In fact, if you know that the failure rate of startups is high you can use that information to your advantage: if you know that one out of ten ideas is going to work, you won’t give up after the first four-five-six failures.

So: ship more!

Throw stuff out there to experiment. Listen to users and iterate.

Let go of products that don’t work out. Eventually you’ll find something that works.

And if you share you’re journey in public on X you’ll gather a following of curious people. It’s basically free marketing for your future product experiments.

  1. When I talk about startups in this post, I mean a solo maker or small team building a product that they can sell to a large number of people, with or without venture capital. Paul Graham would probably not agree with this definition, as he defines a startup as a company that is designed to grow fast. The sole purpose of a business should be to improve your life. If that means growing fast, cool. But I believe most people would be better off optimizing for profitability and calm growth. 

  2. At the risk of stating the obvious, execution is worth way more than ideas. In fact, ideas are useless until they are put into action. However, you want to avoid the awful ideas as these will cost you time and money, no matter how well you execute them. That being said, a great idea with good execution is worth more than a good idea with the same execution. So you want to find great ideas that you can execute well. Hopefully, these questions will help with the former.