27 Questions to Help You Identify and Validate Your Business Problem for Entrepreneurs
After guiding thousands of aspiring entrepreneurs around the world to design and launch their first startup, I learned that the #1 problem they run into is deeply understanding the customer’s problem and ultimate goal.
It’s exciting and even intoxicating to get obsessed over our ideas for solutions. Maybe it’s a super cool app or an awesome device that the world has never seen. Whatever it is, ultimately, someone has to buy it. Our “ideal customer” is the person we believe will appreciate our solution the most. More importantly, our ideal customer is the person we most want to help. We understand them and we will stop at nothing to solve their problems and help them achieve their goals. In fact, this is the basis for a potentially long-term business that will stand the test of time. This means, that even as times, technology, preferences, and behaviors change, you will pivot and persevere in helping your ideal customer.
Table of Contents (click to skip to the section):
A Cautionary Tale For Why We Must Obsess Over Customers, Not Solutions
When you are obsessed with your products or services, you run the risk that the world will change around you and find yourself obsolete. One example is Blockbuster Video – they insisted renting DVDs will never get old. They loved their product and business model so much that they didn’t want even consider what their ideal customers really wanted as their preferences changed. As it turns out, they didn’t want DVDs, they wanted personalized entertainment and they wanted it on-demand. Netflix stepped in, fixing some of the problems with in-store DVD rentals, such as by letting you keep a DVD as long as you wanted without late-fee penalties. Eventually, since they were focused on their customer, they pivoted to streaming on-demand content. Today, they continue to obsess over our needs and wants so much that they can now produce their own original content that absolutely fall in love with and binge-watch.
Kodak experienced a similar fate to Blockbuster. They were so obsessed with their products (i.e. digital cameras and photo printers) that they missed out on our real mission – to share our memories with others. So naturally, several other companies stepped in to satisfy our real problems and goals. Smart phones started serving as digital cameras, Facebook and Instagram because the place to digitally “print and publish” our pictures, and eventually, Dropbox, Google Drive, and many others stepped up to help us store countless photos. Kodak’s solutions did the job for us for a long time and got us as close as they could to our real mission (to share our experiences and memories with others). However, since they focused on their products more than their ideal customers, they ultimately missed out on taking advantage of the new tech and shifting attention to online platforms for sharing our experiences with others.
Find and Obsess Over Your Ideal Customers and the Solution Will Emerge
When you find that ideal customer, your mission is to obsess about the problem because if you can solve that problem and help them achieve their objectives or goals, they will happily hire your products or services. Think about any product you have ever purchased that was not the cheapest product around but totally felt right for you. It didn’t matter how much it cost, in the end, this product connected with you and got you the result you were after. This is why we pay a premium for some products and services. I pay more for Apple products because I feel they understand me and what I’m trying to do and how I want to use technology.
When you understand your problem, you have everything you need to solve it.
Clearly defined and understood problems give birth to great solutions.
The Problem with Problems
One of the biggest challenges is to correctly and clearly identify a problem and validate it is the correct problem to solve. Problems can be deceiving because sometimes we unknowingly identify problems that our ideas solve. Here is one example of a problem with problems.
The “Lack of” Problem
The problem I hear most from first time entrepreneurs is that their is a “lack of [fill in the blank with your idea] in the world…” The moment I hear “there is a lack of…” I know that the very next thing they are going to say is exactly what their solution solves or provides. The problem with “lack of” problems is that it’s nearly impossible to prove. When something is lacking, how do we know anyone wants it? If it is lacking, then people probably don’t know they need it. If they don’t know they need it, then it will be pretty hard to teach them that they need something they don’t even notice.
The other problem is that when you focus on a “lack of” problem, you can basically design any solution you want and simply update the lack-of-problem to perfectly match your idea.
How to Upgrade a “Lack of” Problem
One day to upgrade a “lack of” problem into something more constructive is to ask yourself, “what happens as a result of people lacking [something]?” For instance, if you say that people are lacking ways to post their awesome photos online, then any online photo sharing platform becomes a solution.
However, you can reframe that problem to: people are struggling (or spending too much money) to share their photos with their closest friends and family members. From this perspective, yes, a better way is lacking, however now you can focus on what your customer is struggling with..sharing photos, at a lower cost, with their closest friends and family. This might lead you to consider several other great solutions such as Animoto (video slide shows that look like music videos), iPhoto albums, Instagram’s closest friends feature, WhatsApp group texts, Dropbox photo albums, Google Photos, Instagram collections, personal websites, IG stories, etc.
Most of those solutions would not have been possible if we had simply said people are lacking a platform where they can share their pictures. In that case, I could have just built my own vision of a platform that posts pictures. However, would that have helped me share my photos with friends and family? Perhaps, but in reality I didn’t need to focus on that. I just needed to focus on a platform for posting pictures whereas the solutions I mentioned above have built in functionality for sharing collections of experiences and memories with my closest friends and family.
What Comes First? The Problem or the Solution
Ideas are easy to come by. They are truly, as the saying goes, a dime a dozen. Ideas are cheap. Solving validated problems and executing those solutions is what ultimately matters.
The problem and solution dilemma that I often encounter at events like Startup Weekend is that people come in excited about an idea; what is not always so clear is what problem it solves. The good news is that you probably already know the problem, the bad news is that you skipped over it so quickly, you didn’t even notice it.
So, which comes first? The problem. Even though ideas (i.e. insights) often seem to spark out of nowhere, they actually come from a complex and seemingly magical interaction and of problem data and experience, solutions for other problems, and your personal knowledge bank. POOF! All of a sudden, you have an idea. The underlying processes happen so quickly and subconsciously, that you believe the idea just came to you.
At this point, your mission is to figure out what problem your idea solves. This poses a challenge to many, but it is critical you understand your problem clearly before you move on, or else you risk possibly solving the wrong problem for the right customer or the right problem for the wrong customer.
What to Research When Obsessing Over Problems
Focus on these 5 areas when obsessing over the problem
- The person(s) or group(s) affected by the problem, directly or indirectly [ideal customer]
- The job to be done that is affected by the problem [your customer’s ultimate goal]
- The problem specifics – when and how it manifests itself [the story of the problem]
- What are the costs and/or consequences of the problem [impact of problem]
- The scope of the problem [how many people are affected by this problem]
27 Questions To Get You Obsessing Over the Customer and Problem
Setting the Scene
- What is the story of the problem? Write it like a scene in a movie. How does the problem unfold, when does your customer figure out it, or do they miss it and just suffer the consequences? This helps paint a big picture understanding of the problem before you get into the rest of the questions. Your story doesn’t have to be right at the beginning, but you need one to start so you can edit and iterate as you learn more.
- Introduce us to your ideal customer? Who is the protagonist or the main character in the story? What’s their situation? Introduce us to this character. Give them a name. Any other relevant characters in this story? Tell us about them too.
- What original job or task was she attempting to perform/complete when she runs into a problem? In other words, the original goal that your main character was pursuing when they ran into problems. Going forward, we will call this original goal the job to be done. This is important because as entrepreneurs, we want to keep focused on the ultimate prize for our ideal customers.
- Does your ideal customer realize there is a problem? While you (the entrepreneur) may know the problem has occurred, your customer may not. Sometimes, they only realize or experience the symptoms of the problem later in their process.
- When, specifically, does the problem occur? You might find this in your response to question #1. It is also possible that the problem is there before your ideal customer begins their journey.
- When does the problem become noticeable? Problems can occur, but they may not be noticeable until later or when it’s too late. And just because they are noticeable, doesn’t mean anyone notices it. For example, lightbulbs in refrigerated coolers in supermarkets start to show signs that they are going to break down before they actually do. However, people don’t notice those signs. Someone came along and solved this problem by using sensors and dashboards to warn supermarket operators of these problems early enough to order replacement bulbs right before you actually need them. The same goes for the sensors in airplanes that let airlines know when an engine starts to show signs that a problem has emerged.
- When does does the problem actually get noticed by someone? At what point in your story does the problem get noticed by someone?
- What does your ideal customer say or think to themselves as they becomes aware of the problem? How do they interpret the problem? Do they fully understand it?
- Describe what happens leading up to that moment when someone becomes aware of the problem. Tell it as a story as well. How does someone actually come around to noticing the problem? This will help you consider how you communicate, write copy, and position your solution.
Breakdown Down the Problem
- How does your ideal customer know it is a solvable problem?
- What is/are the pain points of this problem? Let’s dissect the problem into its smaller pain points. List as many as you can.
- How does the problem affect the end result of the ideal customers’ job to be done? Be specific.
- What, if any, are the additional burden/costs incurred as a result of the problem affecting the job to be done? What’s the impact of the problem?
- How might your ideal customer measure the pain points and problem? Brainstorm as many metrics as you can and be creative. You may find a metric your future customer has not yet considered.
- Based on those measurements, what value is considered very bad? Not so bad? Average? Good? Imagine you are creating a dashboard and setting the red lines for where things go bad and really bad.
- How does the value/cost of the problem vary as you move up or down the measurement scale of the problem? Some problems can get very expensive with even just an incremental increase. Think of a flat tire. One flat tire can be replaced by you with the spare tire in your trunk. Increase that to two flat tires and now you need a tow truck to come rescue you and your car. I’ve been there!
- Who directly suffers from the problem? Who indirectly suffers from this problem? Brainstorm as many people as you can that are directly or indirectly impacted by the problem. These might be the other characters in your problem story.
- Introduce us to each new character in the problem story. For each description, include how they are impacted by the problem. Any new measurements or metrics? Add them above.
- Do the new characters have their own unique job to be done? They might run into the same problem, but for different reasons. Perhaps they have another objective when they hit this problem. What are those objectives?
Uncovering the Opportunity in the Problem
- What does the problem cost in the short-term? What does it cost in the long-term? (if applicable). Sometimes, problems have higher costs in the long-term. Other times, those costs remain the same. Think about your case.
- How much is solving this problem worth to your main character? To the other characters?
- Which character in your problem story would be most able to pay to solve this problem?
- Which character in your problem story would be most willing to pay to solve this problem?
- How many people are attempting to perform this job to be done in your local market?
- How often are they encountering the problem?
- In what ways does your ideal customer currently solve the pain point or problem? List all possible ways. It’s important to understand what solutions people are using or putting together to solve their problem.
- Finish the story, how do the characters in your story go about solving their own problems. How do they select a current solution or alternative? How do they purchase it? Where do they purchase it? This final part of the story will help you figure out how to design a business that can bring your solution to market.
Remember: Rarely do people just sit around and do nothing. Knowing what people are doing today will give you a great start to moving on to the next step in the process – designing your solution.
Here are a few great books to help you with taking your business ideas from concept to creation:
- Competing Against Luck by Clayton Christensen [learn how to apply the theory of jobs to be done]
- The Lean Startup by Eric Ries [learn how to apply the build-measure-learn philosophy]
- Sprint by Jake Knapp [learn a 5-day process for solving big problems]
- Cashflow Quadrant by Robert Kiyosaki [learn about the mental challenges to becoming an entrepreneur]