How to Solve a Real Problem - Startup Weekend Style


Solving the wrong problem, sucks. You spend all this time thinking you are building something everyone is going to love, only to find out no one gives a S@%#.

Uh, so what happened?

This past weekend I had the fortunate opportunity to coach at Startup Weekend. A first time attendee, I left the weekend impressed with how Startup Weekend (a non profit) is changing the way entrepreneurship is taught, inspired by what you can build in 54 hours, and amazed at how much time people spend building a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist.

A 54 hour time constraint makes it painstakingly clear that you have to understand the problem, and quickly, if you want any chance of building a real product and a presentation that wows the judges. Banging your head against the wall as you constantly pivot is a recipe for disaster.

The following is a short guide about how to nail the problem, so you can build the right product in a 54 hour Startup Weekend style blitz.

Start With Why
Friday night of Startup Weekend is speed dating of ideas, personalities, and skill sets, turning a room full of disconnected people into 15 weekend projects. Of the 50 ideas that got presented on Friday night, almost all of them started with “my idea is….” Very few started with the problem they wanted to solve and even fewer talked about “why,” which left the audience with little information to decide which projects they believed in joining.

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” ~ Simon Sinek @ Ted Talk

Almost everyone has seen Simon’s Ted Talk. Most people like it, share it, and the go back to building products that have no purpose.

At Contour, I built stuff. Beautiful stuff that thankfully customers loved, but it didn’t have a purpose other than stuff for our customers. Yes we had values, but those weren’t ever tied to a deeper purpose about “why” we were all there, other than the camaraderie of building a company together with easy to use products.

Understanding “why” doesn’t have to be a painful process and it doesn’t mean you have to build a non-profit. It’s true that not every product can be given away for free, like a pair of Tom’s shoes, but every product can be started because of something you believe in. Tom’s purpose is simple, “We are in business to help change lives.” You can build almost anything under that purpose.

To find why, start with what you are passionate about. List out what you love to do and more importantly, why you like to do it. Generally, your motivation comes down to basic needs: happiness, improving, changing, making better, loving, feeling, or any emotion that makes you feel good. Even if the purpose is just to have a lot of fun, be clear about that. Tie everything you do to ensuring everyone is having fun.

With a clear why, you can inspire the best people who also believe in your same purpose.

Finding Real Problems

“The problem is we don’t understand the problem” ~ Paul MacCready

Visiting with teams on Saturday afternoon, with only 24 hours left to go, it was scary to see the different discussions being had. Some were clear about what they were building and others were still on the white board trying to get a group to agree. The most frustrated groups weren’t clear about the problem they were solving and instead were pivoting around their ideas. An exercise that rarely goes well when you mix 5-10 people.

One of the original “ideas” was an app to help you remember what you learned from the digital content you consume. It was a fun idea that was interesting enough to gather 10 people on the team. Borrowing this idea, lets see how you could have discovered the problem.

Customer Journey: In order to discover the most important problems to solve, you would start by mapping out a customer journey, from beginning (finding the content) to the end (remembering what you learned).

Identify the Problems: Within the customer journey you start to recognize patterns, i.e. insights, based on what is hard to do or could be done better. Making some assumption you might discover that you are inundated with too much information, you are consuming content on multiple devices so you are using multiple systems to remember what you consumed, you forget what you learned, and when you want to recall it there is no single place you can go.

Picking a Single Problem: Now that you have identified a handful of problems people have in finding, remembering, and recalling content, you can narrow the scope to a single problem you want to solve. Especially at Startup Weekend, your product and pitch will be way more impactful if you solve one problem really well, even if you plan to solve the whole journey after the weekend.

Validating the Problems
Startup Weekend prides itself on getting out of the building, a philosophy I completely agree with. Talking to people is a fantastic way to validate the problem you are solving, even before you build anything.

Many people don’t understand the point of customer interviews. People generally ask questions about their theoretical product hoping to hear positive comments that maybe, if they build it, they would buy it. Answers that make you feel good, but are irrelevant to building the right product.

“A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” ~ Steve Jobs

The real goal of the interviews is to validate the problem you are solving. Talk to enough people and you will hopefully find insights that are consistent with the journey and problem you already mapped out. If they aren’t, then you missed the real problem they have.

When interviewing random people on the street you only have a few minutes and therefore enough time for only a handful of questions. No easy task, but it can be done.

Continuing with the same app example, here are some questions you could ask.

Q: On a weekly basis how many hours of digital content do you consume with e-books, articles, and videos?
The intent of this question is to understand the profile of your potential customer and to get a sense of how much content you need to be worrying about.

Q: Do you take notes, highlight, or save the content in any way?
You want to understand what percent have an existing behavior to bookmark or save what they are consuming.

Q: If no, why not?
The answer to this question will help you understand what is preventing people from attempting to save what they read.

Q: If yes, why?
Validating why they are saving all or part of the content is super important. Assuming they save the content to remember it is a dangerous assumption you don’t want to make for the customer.

Q: How do you currently save and recall the content you save?
We will get a variety of answers, but here we want to hear the different ways people solve this problem today. This begins to tell us what solutions already exist, the process people use, and potentially what is/isn’t working today.

Notice, none of these are leading questions or anything about your solution. They are strictly focused on trying to understand the customer so your team can go back and figure out the best solution to solve the problems you have now validated.

Don’t be fooled by the variety of answers you receive. Finding an incredibly narrow, but passionate group of people with the same problem can be a fantastic way to get your company off the ground. Sometimes having a lot of people NOT fit your profile is exactly what you need to narrow your focus and keep your product simple so it gains sticky traction with a single customer type.

Nailing a real problem is hard. It’s why a lot of entrepreneurs build products based on problems they are passionate about because it means they know the issues, inside and out.

Understanding the why, helps you make it through the moments you want to quit in frustration. Mapping out the customer journey opens your eyes to a series of interesting problems to solve. And validating those problems with real people, makes sure you aren’t building something that no one needs.

Startup Weekend was an amazing experience that validated just how hard it is to nail a single problem. There were plenty of ideas being thrown around when the weekend started and by the end there were only a handful still standing, solving a real problem.

Thanks to @Zacharycohn for the help on this post.