I created a product the other day. Just another digital thing in a career of creating digital things. Something about an API for maps integrated into a custom app to serve the hospitality industry. My sales deck was slick. My business case appeared to support a profitable outcome. The tech was fairly straightforward, at least by today’s standards of specialists for every conceivable corner of the industry. Ok, super. Consulting 101.
After I congratulated myself for awhile, I tried to get back to a startup concept I’ve been working on for a few months. If you’ve ever tried to launch a startup from an idea in your head and a blank sheet of paper, you know this is not the same thing as product assignments like I’d just completed.
It seems, on the surface, to be the same basic function or set of work functions. Like singing in the shower, you just perform for yourself instead of an audience. You know how to make digital things. Make a new one into a business, right?
Product people like to consider themselves mini-CEOs - you’ll find this ridiculous descriptor frequently in product management circles. So being an actual CEO, which is the assumed role of founder - along with every other job from designing prototypes to sales to programming to spreadsheets - seems like it would be a simple enough transition. Product people need to know all of these roles to varying degrees to mix and match design, tech and business acumen to lead a team.
But staring at a my startup concept - one I loved last month before I found a glaring hole in it, as often happens to founders - I realized there was a significant difference between working in a product role to create a new product and a founding a startup to create a new product.
The problem is the problem. More specifically, it is having a well defined problem.
When you work for someone, regardless of industry and size and budget and other variables, you know the variables. Or at least with some research and digging, you can define all the variables the client failed to mention. This is why many developers and designers in our industry amuse themselves in the fantasy they could re-create AirBNB or Uber or Facebook. That their billion dollar outcomes is just a matter of scale and timing. But not really.
Any startup that did well got the problem right. Maybe not at first. Or maybe not Twitter, at all. But usually, those that succeed have a well defined problem set. This, along with stock options that enable the purchase of San Francisco real estate, is why successful startups are often staffed by the best and brightest, with pedigreed engineering, marketing, legal and finance talent lining up to work there. They are working on a well defined problem. That is what top colleges teach. This is why A students get As. They solve well defined, albeit complex, problems.
But the founding team is often not, objectively, the same pedigree. Or at least wired very differently than the objectively brilliant minds they employ. Founders take tests by thinking about how the test could be better, or how the content relates to some other test. You don’t get a perfect SAT score thinking about how an SAT in the year 2100 would best use virtual reality. There isn’t time, and that’s not today’s problem.
This very rare and useful skill of invention and connecting dissimilar ideas makes a founder a distracted, often difficult to manage employee until they are the one defining the problem to solve. A founder is given tests at work all day, and instead, naturally wanders off looking for solutions no one asked about, or connections that cross departments that never talk.
While it doesn’t often translate easily to employed roles (rare exceptions with forward thinking employers excepted), it does show up as an advantage when you are trying to create something new. Founders are people that solve problems before anyone asks them or identifies the big idea as a problem worth solving. This often means creating a complex problem and working on it yourself.
In the middle of the night.
With ample caffeine.
Trying to block out voices in your head that you are insane and that most of your college classmates just did some boring crap like .NET and already retired.
But I digress.
To be a founder you have to frame the problem correctly. AirBNB could’ve easily sold air mattresses with a pitch about using them to make money on Craigslist. Uber could’ve done alright as a software solution for limo drivers. As the old yarn goes, Ford could’ve made faster horses. Ford, the world’s largest producer of horse steroids.
Framing a problem is not easy. Aside from the intense competition to define and solve every problem you thought was unique, a problem large enough to justify building a company around must be quite large. If you take investment money to solve the problem, it needs to be a minimum 9 or 10 figure problem. But to glaze over my math, the point is that a sufficiently large problem that isn’t being addressed by anyone else, or at least addressed well, is hard to find.
Said another way if I wrote country music, a good problem is hard to find… and a refrain with something about a girl that got away and beer.
Of course, once a company scales, employs people and is referenced constantly in the business press, MBAs can roll in and make a compelling business case about under utilization of high end real estate or secondary marketplace economics or whatever else. But the original problem, the insight that builds a large company, is far less clean, sterile and bloodless. AirBNB found a great problem - young people in expensive cities that were already selling their plasma would gladly take $20 to rent out their couch, and other young people would gladly pay $20 to sleep on a couch within walking distance of an overpriced ramen place.
Uber’s great problem wasn’t about reimagining global transportation, it was that people would pay a total stranger for a ride.
Instagram found that people wanted to socially share photos that were filtered to look better than their own limited knowledge of photography and the standard camera app of a smartphone could create.
Even old school startups like Southwest Airlines were clear, solvable problems - Texas was too big to easily drive, and too small for national airlines to justify routes between cities. It turned out that many routes fit this model.
So while I kick myself for setting down my startup notebook and wandering back towards product jobs, I know certain things to be true. I know until I have the right problem set, all the methodology and technology and UX skills in the world won’t make my startup an investible entity.
Secondly, doing product work for clients means they already did the hard part. They have a defined problem for you to solve, areas to research, variables to tweak. You don’t have to reach into the ether and pull out the future. Any ol’ mini-CEO can take it from there. You don’t even have to be a founder.
From Issue I: April 2019 of This is Bookmarkable. Dig this? Subscribe.