It all starts with a problem

­­In the beginning, there was a problem. For centuries, the problem persisted. Until finally someone thought to himself: “hmmmm, I wonder if there’s a way to fix that”. And he fixed it. When he showed his invention, the Problem Solver, to his friends, one of them jumped up in excitement and said: “that’s exactly what I need! If I give you food, will you spend your hunting time making me one of those, too?”

I’m not 100% sure this is how commerce begun, but it could be. Whatever the case, all went well and smoothly for centuries – until engineers showed up and started creating solutions just because they could. And thus was born one of the cardinal sins of business.

Mistake #1: Not starting with a customer problem

Jumping straight to the solution is bad for business. It is the blind spot that keeps your engineers churning out products nobody wants. You’d think that enough products have crashed and enough companies gone bankrupt for this to be common knowledge by now. And you’d be wrong. The internet and your local megamall are bursting with the notorious “solutions in search of a problem”.

The question you need to ask is: what customer problem are we trying to solve? Please re-read the last sentence and note the word “customer”. It’s not enough to start with a problem: it has to be a problem that your customer has. At this point it doesn’t matter if the customer is unaware of the problem; the focus is for you to understand that the customer has a problem and you can help. Note that this thinking is completely opposite to the typical approach of “we have this cool new product and are looking for customers to help us by buying it”.  

Know what the problem is? Good. Now I want you to get a big pen, write the problem down on a piece of paper, and tape the paper on a wall. That piece of paper is now a shining beacon that will help you to steer clear of…

Mistake #2: Not building your product as a solution to the customer problem

Sooner or later, you’ll have a meeting, someone will open their mouth and some variant of this will come out: “wouldn’t it be cool if our product also had feature X?” Before you realize, the idea develops into three different varieties of feature X, coupled with additional features Y and Z. And you’re thinking to yourself, “you know what, it could be really cool”…

Easy, Neo - don’t take that red pill just yet. First, let’s talk about Swiss army knives. Wonderful devices, if you’re in the middle of nowhere and need to remove a splinter from your heel while opening that nice bottle of chardonnay you brought along for the trip. But have you ever tried putting together a piece of IKEA furniture with a Swiss army knife? I promise you, by the fifth screw, you’ll be ready to suffer a weekend trip to the woods, without wine and with a splinter in both heels, in exchange for a good old regular screwdriver.

For a customer in search of a good screwdriver, your Swiss-army-knife-of-a-product will communicate exactly one thing: you don’t understand their problem. Which is a pity, because you actually do, but that fact is muddled by all the unneeded features. So now the customer is trying to figure out what problem your product is primarily meant to solve, which means they’re confused, which almost certainly means no sale.  

Back to the meeting. It’s your job to fight the “bright and shiny” syndrome, point to the piece of paper on the wall and explain to everyone how features X, Y, and Z have nothing to do with solving the problem. Focus on solving one problem really well, instead of five problems just so-so. Trust me, your customers will thank you for it.

Mistake #3: Assuming you know how the customer wants the problem solved

Now your team is focused on building a screwdriver instead of a Swiss army knife. Hooray. But what kind of a screwdriver?

What do you mean ‘what kind of a screwdriver’?

I mean, do you know what kind of a screwdriver the customer wants? Yes, you might have market research and focus groups and web surveys and a detailed mapping of the features and value propositions of competing screwdrivers. But unless you have already sold your screwdriver and seen it in action, all you have is an opinion. To compound the fuzziness of your situation, the customer probably has nothing more than an opinion, either. The cherry on top is that both your and the customer’s opinion might be wrong. 

How do you clear the fuzziness? Simple: give your customer a role in your product development cycle. I’m not advocating “co-creation”, or whatever buzzword is trending right now, but simply that you make sure you’re actively testing your ideas with real, potential customers along your go to market process.

The world is full of laboratories with ground-breaking research projects, and garage scientist developing revolutionary devices. The first group is usually dead before their work finds a practical application, while the second group is usually just tinkering for their own amusement.

The question is: do you want to tinker or do you want to build a business?

Image credit: By Roland zh (Own work) under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons