Deciding to start a startup is a big decision. As Paul Graham says, starting a startup is all consuming and will take over your life. But for those who have big dreams and want to take it on, a often asked question is — how do you decide on what to work on?
Luckily there’s plenty of good articles around on ways to find startup ideas. One way that comes up quite often is to start by solving your own problem. The benefit of solving your own problem is that you already know the target demographic. It’s you! So naturally you already know a lot of the specifics and the details around the problem, making it a great starting point for creating a good solution for it. Although there are some caveats to this method, it’s definitely one of the best ways to get started.
In this article, we’re going to dive a bit deeper into the benefits of using this method. Let’s get started!
Why you might be the best person to solve your own problem
You can fast track the discovery process
One of the main benefits of solving your own problem is that it saves you lots of time in trying to understand a problem. For example, if you were tasked with solving problems for other teams or businesses, you would need lots of time invested up front to dig deeper into the specifics around the problem. Typically on a big project, you could spend up to 3 months working with someone to deeply understand their problem. You would cover questions like:
- How often does this issue come up?
- Does this problem affect other things in their workflow? If so, what are the knock-on effects?
- How many people does this affect on the team?
- Does this affect people across different disciplines?
- What kind of emotional responses do people have when faced with this problem?
- What kind of impact does this problem have compared to other ones in the business?
- Is there a deeper underlying cause to the problem?
- How does this problem affect the bottom line of the business?
This often means tons of interviews, observation and research. This also leaves room for misinterpretation because often a different team member would describe the same problem in a completely different way. And it was up to us to read between the lines and try to figure out what the problem actually was.
But if you’re solving something for yourself, you already know the answers to most of these questions. You don’t have to worry about misinterpretation. Although you may not have thought specifically about some of them, you could easily sit down and write out answers to each one. This saves you a lot of time and lets you skip straight to creating a solution. When we created Askable, we were working on multiple client UX projects and frequently needed to recruit participants for face to face user testing. Over and over, we ran into the same problem. Use a market research company which was expensive and slow, or find people ourselves which meant constant headaches managing a schedule, sending out reminders and paying the participants after the user test. For us, the problem was something we knew intimately well and allowed us to skip straight to thinking about a solution.
You know the landscape
If you work in a specific industry, you most likely already know what kind of products already exist in that area. Say for example you work in civil engineering. You’re probably quite familiar with the main project management tools. You may already know what kind of products other teams use and if you’re particularly passionate about your work, you may know what new products or features that are in development or launching soon. This gives you a good feel for what’s already out there and if there’s room for your solution to grow beyond your own use.
Also as an outsider looking in, often things that seem really obvious are taken for granted. For example, someone outside of the UX industry might just assume that a platform exists for recruiting and managing user testing participants, and not even bother to check for any untapped opportunities there. Only someone who’s worked for inside the industry would know that market research companies still expect you to fill out pdf briefs and send requirements back and forth over email, leaving plenty of room for a disruptor to come in and dominate the space.
You actually care about it
It’s a problem you face. It’s something that you have to deal with all the time. Something that is painful for you and causes unnecessary stress in your workday. So the benefit of working on a solution is that you naturally care about it. One of the most common causes for startups to fail is that the founders’ simply gave up on the idea but using this method means you’re more likely to stick with it.
As you go through the ups and downs of your startup journey, having a deep connection with the problem you’re solving will help keep you focused on what’s important and carry you through the crappy days.
You know who should test it
Every product manager knows how important it is to test your product. Say you identified a problem and created an MVP version of a product that solves that problem. You will need people to use it, and give you feedback. It is generally not a good idea to involve family or friends because that can make honest feedback difficult. Also, resist the temptation to recruit any random person off the street – unless your product fits a very wide demographic.
You need the person who is the right target demographic to use or buy your final product. That way you know their feedback will be much more meaningful for your decision making.
There are several options for getting the right people. You could try reaching out to people directly, going to trade shows or conferences, or going to where your target demographic hangs out. However, you may need to do as much testing during the startup phase if your target demographic is… you.
Being able to conceptualise, build and test in a real environment yourself, makes the development cycle super short. Of course, ultimately you’ll want to test it with other people as well, but again the benefit is that you’ll likely know a person or two who works in a similar role to you. While it makes sense to utilise those contacts, it is also worth the effort of getting some people who have no prior connection with you to test your product.
Starting up is faster and cheaper
A knock-on benefit of all of the things mentioned above is cost. By removing a lot of the processes and steps you’d typically need to start, you can save yourself a ton of time and money.
You don’t need to invest heavily into up front user research and planning. You don’t need to beta users signed up and you don’t need to do a whole bunch of follow up interviews. If you’re technical, you can work on a solution right away. If you’re a non-technical person you can still save tons of time by hacking together a solution using existing products to test the concept. For Askable, our early MVP was no more than a Typeform linked up to Paypal and a bunch of spreadsheets. Once you’ve got an MVP, you can quickly test your MVP in your own workflow, check the results, and revise.
It’s easier to build your team
So you’ve tested and built your MVP, its working for your own use cases and other people are starting to use it too. It’s time to expand the team!
Because you’re solving your own problem, getting people to join you in your mission is easier as well. When talking about the problem, you’ll come across as being more authentic because you actually know first hand the pains it caused. You also know how much better life could be with a proper solution in place. It’s also much more compelling for your customers to know that you as the founder has a background in the industry of the problem you are tackling with your startup.
You can create a convincing sales pitch
This one is very similar to the point about team. When it comes time to growing your startup’s user base, people will take you more seriously and you’ll have an easier time with telling your story to people who’ve shared similar experiences. Being able to say “I was working in the same role as you, and I was having this problem so I solved it and I’m hoping it solves it for you too” is very powerful. Additionally, having a background in the same vertical means that you are more likely going to be involved in any existing communities. That gives you an opportunity to contribute and add value to the community, which is the golden rule of content marketing.
How to Identify a Problem Worth Solving
There might be something that immediately comes to mindLets take a look at some now:
Find out what is a problem to others
One catch with solving your own problem, is that for the product to grow, there has to be other people out there just like you. And there has to be enough of them who also want what you want, for your idea to become a viable startup. Otherwise you’re solving a problem so specific to you nobody else would ever use it. So it pays to step back and ensure the problem you are solving is a problem to others as well.
Don’t accept something just because it’s always been that way
Being so close to the problem means there’s a chance you don’t even think of it as a problem. It might just be something that you consider part of the job, and that’s the way it’s always been. You need to train yourself to think critically and don’t accept anything at face value. Look for things that you find yourself repeating frequently. Look for things in part of your routine that make you feel frustrated. Maybe there are tasks that you deliberately avoid because of how annoying or painful they are to do.
Broaden your knowledge of new technology
Sometimes you might miss a problem because you don’t know that it’s possible to solve. Other industries may not necessarily have faced exactly the same problem but technology they have used for other solutions may be something you can apply.
Solving a problem may require using technology from a completely different field. Unless you have a basic understanding and interest in emerging technology, you might dismiss a problem as ‘too hard to solve’ or ‘not worth solving’. This is particularly true if you work in older, more established industries. Simply being in a field and thinking about the problems you face isn’t enough. In this regard, you need to be an expert in your day to day work, but have a broad knowledge of all different kinds of new tech. Tesla is a great example of this. If you worked in the auto industry but didn’t know about or care about electric motors, new battery tech, or software, it would be difficult for you think critically enough about the existing problems of the combustion engine.
Time to get your thinking cap on
Try starting with these questions:
- What tasks do you have to do that hold back your workflow?
- If you could skip any part of your day to day work what would it be?
- When was the last time you were frustrated at work and what caused it?
Askable was started because of a frustration with the time it took to find suitable user testers for UI and UX changes on apps an websites for digital agency clients. We knew it was a problem because we faced it all the time. It didn’t take us long to confirm there were many other companies and agencies in the same boat.
Don’t just settle for the way things have always been. Work out what you can do to make work or life easier for yourself and you may be on your way to something big.