Why Startup Ideas don’t work... Find a Problem Instead.

Nana Adom Mills-Robertson

Start with thinking about the problem you want to solve in the world instead of thinking about the next big startup idea. 

This isn’t my advice. 

This is advice from someone who has advised, invested and built multi-million dollar companies. Additionally, this person is the CEO of Y Combinator - arguably the most successful startup accelerator in the world which believed and invested in Airbnb, Dropbox, DoorDash and multiple other companies. His name is Michael Seibel. 

Michael always tells founders to “Start with a problem” that they want to solve instead of trying to come up with a “startup idea”. 

In other words you should throw-away your beaten old idea-book and replace it with a problem book. Problems shift your perspective by forcing you to focus on the facts about a given situation, instead of going straight to the solution (e.g an app). This helps you prevent building a solution for a problem that does not exist or may not be big enough to build a sustainable company around. 

This is great advice...But there’s one catch. How do you go about constructively finding and writing these problems down...correctly? How do you even identify if something is a problem? What are some of the characteristics that a problem should have? That’s exactly what this article is for. 

After this article, you will learn: 

  • What a problem really is
  • How to think about problems
  • What to write down in your own problem book

Note: We built a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) of a GRAVETI problem generator webapp, (right now it's best on desktop, but we're still hacking away at the mobile version) that you can use to quickly jot down problems when you notice them, and get them sent to your email automatically - (no emails are collected or used by us). The app is there so you can find and record better problems.  

There are many definitions for problems. The definition that would be most helpful for potential startup founders is as follows: a problem is the gap between the current existing situation and a desired future situation. 

Problem Gap Analysis

With this in mind - you should write out a problem statement. A problem statement highlights the facts of the problem (Current Situation + Gap/Pain)  without giving any solutions to it. 

For example, in the story about how GRAVETI was founded, Alex Rodriguez and Sam Ndely had the same problem statement. There is a limited amount of people of color showing up and participating in tech events in the Twin Cities. Instead of rushing to create an app that would match people of color to different tech events happening in the Twin Cities first (a possible solution), they opted to understand the problem intimately before introducing any solution. The best solution turned out to be GRAVETI (a community for people of color in the Twin Cities who want to get involved in the tech scene).  

Or take Tyrre Burks, CEO of Player’s Health - here in Minneapolis. Tyrre used to play Football, but had to retire at the age of 23 due to injuries he had received as a teenage athlete. These injuries had never properly healed because of the mismanagement of his health records by youth sports organizations. Retiring early as a result of mismanaged injuries received as a child is a common problem that some athletes face. This presented Tyrre with a problem: Injuries received by young athletes were not being properly monitored and managed within youth sports organizations. That problem served as the foundation that Tyrre would use to build his company.   

To come up with a problem statement:

  • Focus on what the current situation is + the pain from that situation (The first and second box from the diagram above). 
  • Do not put down a solution or an answer to the problem. At this stage you are trying to identify a problem.  

Once you’ve identified a problem. Dig deep. Research and find out what the root causes of the problem are instead of just writing down their symptoms. 

In Tyrre’s case a symptom of the problem could be inconsistent medical file sharing between youth sports organizations. However, a root cause of that problem would be that different youth sports organizations do not know how to get access to and/or interpret health data. 

There is no right way to find the root causes of a problem. But here is a rough rule-of-thumb to go by:

  • Reach out and talk to others who you think might have the same problem. You could reach them through forums on reddit, coffee shop conversations, cold-emailing, or even joining certain facebook groups. This will differ based on the problem that you’re trying to solve. 

To have a better problem-taking system, you should use the 5W2H system. This amazingly simple system is used by change management specialists, continuous improvement specialists, and seasoned operators of businesses to assess all the dimensions of a problem. Here’s the system: 

What is the problem?

-This will be the problem statement that you came up with earlier 

Why is it a problem that should be solved?

-This adds more context to the problem statement - why it’s an issue

Where does the problem take place? 

This can be anything from a department in an organization to a specific city etc…

Who is affected by the problem? 

-What groups of people are affected by this problem and what are their characteristics?

When did you first notice the problem?

-What day/time did you first notice the problem?

How is this problem experienced?

-Identify some of the symptoms that the problem has. Also really dig down on the pains and frustrations that these problems cause. 

How often does this problem happen? 

-Within a given time period, let’s say a week, estimate the number of times the same problem comes up. 

Hopefully this article will help you come up with better problems. Now here's the call to action - start noticing problems wherever you are. When you have a problem to jot down, you can go to our GRAVETI problem generator webapp that we built using Bubble (a no-code-app) to fill out the problem statement, and effectively use the 5W2H system. 

Good luck out there!

Nana Adom Mills-Robertson

Nana Adom Mills-Robertson has a deep interest in entrepreneurship and economic development. He is a regular contributor to GRAVETI's blog. On any given day you can find him thinking about topics like value-creation, increasing access to entrepreneurship, and eco-system development.

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