Problems Don’t Exist

Problems do not existI have long held the belief that entrepreneurs should stop talking about abstract solutions and frame their pitches in terms of solving real problems, but I was wrong.

Problems don’t exist.

They are in no sense real. You can’t touch them. You can’t see them or hear them in and of themselves. They certainly don’t smell or taste like anything in particular.

They are not ontological entities.

And here’s the biggest problem of all (pardon the recursiveness)…

When entrepreneurs start talking about problems, they stop talking about people. Click To Tweet

Problem People

This topic has come up twice in two days. First at Lean Startup Machine and then at #agileUXnyc. It’s the idea that an entrepreneur’s job is to find a problem and the propose a solution. Lean Startup methodology dictates that you should never build a solution and then go looking for a problem. Josh Seiden’s talk at #agileUXnyc also emphasized that.

But problems are nouns, and that’s a bad thing.

It is an uncomfortable holdover of platonic philosophy that the Western world treats abstract concepts and relationships as entities that can be manipulated as independent objects. But they’re not independent. They’re intensely contextual. Here’s my definition:

A problem is an active relationship between a human being and a situation that triggers a negative emotion. Click To Tweet

When I say active relationship I am speaking specifically of a relationship that extends over a period of time.

If you stub your toe and have an instant of pain, that’s not a problem. It’s an event. It only becomes a problem when the pain lasts an extended period of time. Then you’ve probably broken your toe.

If you’re not in pain beyond that instant, then you don’t expend any effort to reducing the pain. You never look for a solution.

If the customer isn't actively looking for a solution, then they don't have a problem. Click To Tweet

Efficiencies, Luxuries, and Implicit Problems

At this point, many will object to my definition. Mark Birch correctly states in his post on implicit problems

…you have people that refuse to think of something as a problem until they actually see the solution with their own eyes.  It is in that moment of truth that they realize that there is indeed something better.

It’s certainly true that there are inefficiencies in the world and that these can be uncovered and turned into opportunities by an intrepid entrepreneur. I do not dispute that. I am using a very strict definition of “problem” to illustrate a basic point:

It is more costly to convince someone they have a problem than to target an early adopter who is keenly aware of their pain. Click To Tweet

Eskimos, Ice Cubes, and the Noble Truth

Not so vitamin waterThe traditionally clever marketing and sales person can convince Eskimos to buy ice cubes and occasionally rational consumers to buy pet rocks and vitamin water. Marketing can shift an efficiency into a problem and a useless luxury into a burning need. It’s the sad truth that its the same part of our brains that get triggered when we “need” a new $500 pair of shoes as when we need a new tire because we have a flat. (Buddha was on the money with that noble truth.)

Marketing costs money….and time….and time is money…umm…you get my point: It’s hard work.

But regardless of whether you are creating a luxury or an efficiency, there are early adopters who are actively seeking solutions. They are the trend setters looking for new designers offering something that Madison avenue does not. They are the IT managers deep in the bowels of a monolithic SAP installation trying to tweak the ERP module.

Those are the people that we call innovators and early adopters because they are willing to try new things in order to solve what is to them an active desire/pain. In other words, they have problems.

The early majority won’t have a problem until you either market to them (thus creating awareness and a negative emotion in the customer’s grey matter), or perhaps they see the early adopter strutting around with those fancy new shoes and get jealous.

I Want You

The great thing about early adopters is that they are actively looking for you. They can be targeted with Google adwords because they’re actively plugging in keywords trying to find a solution. They’re out on the streets looking through back alleys and used clothes stores for a trendy neck scarf fix.

All you have to do is be there.

They’ll put up with a half-baked solution with bugs. They’ll send you feedback because they love being listened to. They’ll become evangelists and pimp your product to their friends.

Man on Segway

So if you’re trying to innovate in a brand new market and you find yourself saying that “everyone” will want your product once they see it, you’re probably solving a problem that no one has. You probably have no clear customer or early adopter target. You’re probably desperately pitching VCs because it will take tens of millions to bring your solution to market. (Anyone want to buy a Segway?)

Instead of burning your life savings on marketing, try finding an early adopter who is actively looking for a solution.

It’s All in Your Head

There are added benefits to focusing on people rather than problems…

…your product becomes an experience.

(I’ll talk about that more next week.)

Discussion (11 comments)

  1. Mark Birch says:

    Early adopters are great and you need that in the early going. The fact is that you really do not have the time or budget to do a big marketing push. You correctly state that there are people our there willing and wanting to use a new product.

    The only problem is getting from early adopter to skeptic. That is where Implicit Problems come in. Also note, people in consumer markets are not the same as people buying for organizations. There are early adopters in both, but the function in vastly different ways.

    1. Tristan says:

      Totally agree. Past early adopter is a whole different story.

      Hopefully at that point an entrepreneur will have a half-way decent product, a solid understanding of the value proposition, and a lot of practice at selling.

  2. tedstockwell says:

    Just a quibble about the definitions:
    The Event also becomes a Problem by creating or increasing an awareness of risk.

    The stubbed toe may not be a problem, but the risk of recurrence, or fear, is a problem.
    Only after I stub or break my toe, will I enter the market for steel-toed slippers.

    Defensive products often address problems, but only find adopters among those
    who have suffered the event, and not those equally at risk but lacking awareness
    (e.g. firewalls, offsite backups).

    1. Tristan says:

      Agreed, I would throw that all in the marketing bucket. With enough marketing dollars you can sell anything. Fear. Water. Pet rocks.

      Still, for a new product I would prefer to target early adopters who are already afraid and paranoid.

  3. Lucretia Pruitt says:

    You know, there’s an old saying in sales: “people only buy 2 things: good feelings and solutions to problems,” having had to effectively figure out how to sell both? I think you cannot approach selling the second (the $300 pair of jeans) with the first (a mass produced, mid-priced pair of jeans) and the same holds true for non-tangible things (services rather than goods.)

    But it seems as though this is simply an issue of semantics. I believe that we identify a “point of need” and develop solutions that help the target customer solve that need. But whether you call that a “problem” or something else? If you are finding your user/customer *after* you build? You are relying on being lucky rather than good.

    1. Tristan says:

      Totally concur.

      I need to update this with a note about when in the product lifecycle I’m talking about.

    2. Tristan says:

      Hmm…never mind. I can’t figure out where to put it. 🙁

  4. Giles Farrow says:


    Sorry but I find your position here rather convoluted and somewhat disingenuous.

    You clearly need all three:
    – Customers
    – A problem
    – A solution

    Two out of three won’t work

    If just market a solution to early adopters, they won’t buy if there is no problem.

    Same goes if you identify a customer segment with a problem but don’t have a solution to sell, or you don’t target any customers i.e. everyone.

    I still believe in starting with a problem. As in start your thinking about a problem – then move to who has that problem and explore there. Your marketing should always be aimed at people and how they will benefit.

    I don’t think this is what you’re advocating but to be clear…

    I don’t believe in just putting out solution and hoping people will figure what it is for.
    And I don’t believe in just treating “early adopters” as a customer segment either.

    1. Tristan says:

      I think you are looking at this from a marketing perspective.

      This is an argument about putting your customer’s viewpoint and perspective above any other product consideration during initial product creation. Particularly the early adopter if you are bringing a brand new product to market.

      I am absolutely NOT suggesting that there doesn’t need to be a problem or a solution. I am stating there is no such thing as a problem without a real human being (or I suppose some sort of feeling creature if we want to be animal inclusive) who has an ongoing pain.

      I’m not sure why you would think I’m being disingenuous or otherwise deceitful in this. From what you describe I suspect our biggest disagreement is probably on the definition of ‘disingenuous.’

  5. Kate says:

    Much food for thought here. I may comment more later…but in the meantime, just wanted to compliment you on your AWESOME CLOTHESPIN DOG sketch. Well done.

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  9. Kevin Walsh says:

    Good article.

    Problems are not the only thing that motivate people, though–at least not that definition of a problem. People are either motivated by fear (and the many negative emotions that result, like anger, frustration, annoyance…) or Love (and all of it’s related qualities of Joy, Gratitude, Compassion, and so on…). A good example is gift-giving: people may buy a gift because they are worried about what others will think if they don’t, or they may buy a gift for another because of the Gratitude or Love that they experience for the person.

    I actually check in with myself frequently to determine where my decisions are coming from. If they are a result of negative emotion, I know that the solution is not any external product or service, but to resolve whatever misunderstanding I have within myself that the situation triggers with negative emotion. Once resolved, I make the decision from a place of peace, in the direction of serving myself or others.

    So, I plan to include a piece of my vision at the end of my early adopter interviews, after assessing the problem and how they are trying to solve it. After all, I have never experienced a pain to go see a movie, but I frequently get excited to see a movie.

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