Solve problems with "why"

In my last post, I talked about the importance of having a "hair on fire, pay anything to solve" problem when you are building a product or business. For a lot of entrepreneurs, this is hard to get to. You'd think it would be easy, but it's not and I get why. Entrepreneurs have passion, they have ideas, they have drive. All important qualities and a great way to start, but those qualities often lead to blinders that keep you from focusing externally on the customer and the problem you can solve faster/better/cheaper.

There is actually a very simple technique to help you find the real problem customer's will pay you to solve. It's a technique that comes from conflict resolution/problem solving. The technique is called "5 whys" and it's the idea of asking why 5 times. The theory goes, within 5 questions of "why," you'll get to the root of the problem or issue.

Let's look at an example that is common is many of your personal lives:

Your significant other (S/O): "I'm mad at you."

You: "why?"

S/O: "Because you didn't take out the trash."

You: "Why does that make you mad?"

S/O: "Because I shouldn't have to ask you to do some of the work around the house."

You: "Why is that a problem now when it hasn't been before?"

S/O: "Because you know I am working long hours this week at work, and the kids started school again this week so there is so much to keep up on."

Based on that interaction, with just 3 questions, you've learned that the problem isn't that you didn't take out the trash, the problem is that you didn't recognize your significant other's need for more help. They don't necessarily need you to take out the trash, they need you to have some empathy, understand the situation and be proactive.

If your significant other was a customer, they wouldn't pay you to take out the trash, but they would pay you to have empathy, understanding, and be proactive. The problem isn't the trash! Had you not asked why, you'd think it was the trash. Had you not asked why 3 times, you wouldn't know the real problem is empathy, understanding, and being proactive.

At this point, you might think I'm a bit crazy with this example, but it does have a direct relationship to you and your customers. The first problem you discuss is probably NOT the problem they'll pay you to solve. The problem they'll pay you to solve is often deeper, and understanding the real problem will lead to significant business and financial success.

The best way for me to drive this point home is to share a real life example. I'm lucky to be called an advisor to an exciting startup named TalentIQ. They are in the big data space, and can be described as a "people intelligence" company. They keep databases about people up-to-date with current and relevant information that can't be easily found, verified, or understood otherwise. They sell this value to talent recruiting, sales, and financial organizations. The product that customers pay for today is not the product the founders started with.

Sean and Henry originally recognized that hiring top talent is hard, in part because the best talent already has a job and isn't applying for a new one. So they built a sourcing tool, a search product that recruiters could use to easily find the best talent based on specific criteria, regardless of employment status. They had success with this product and dozens of customers, some household names, started using the software.

The sales were coming in, but not at the rate they wanted. So they continued to interview their customers, and asked "what makes your job as talent recruiters difficult?" When they got an answer, they continued to ask "why?" They dug deeper. Then they learned that while customers did indeed have a need for their original software, they actually had a bigger problem. They had stale databases with thousands of past applicants, and the perfect candidate for a new role may be in that database. However, the information in that database was likely wrong...if for no other reason than it was old...out of date. Even better, TalentIQ's technology could easily solve that problem, it was an easy shift and was inline with their original vision.

Sean and Henry had their "ah-ha" moment, because they had the perseverance and humble nature to go beyond the surface, and dig deeper. They asked why. Over and over again. The sales started rolling in, at a rate even greater than they had imagined. Today they enjoy a rapidly growing business, with mind-blowing revenues that most companies would envy for the first year of their existence.

What Sean and Henry did may seem simple, but it's hard. Really hard. As entrepreneurs, we have to be open to changing the original product we envisioned, in order to meet our customers needs. We also need to remain unsatisfied with initial traction. It's easy for a few people, a few customers, to say our product is good. Great business aren't built on a few customers, they are built on hundreds, thousands, even millions. You won't get to that level unless you are willing to ask "why," over and over again. Get out of your own way, dig deep, and get to the real problem.

Don't just take my word for it, or the example of TalentIQ. Look at other companies. Uber's most popular product is UberX, but their original idea was town cars/limos driven by professional drivers (Uber Black). Twitter started out as a group text messaging concept, but I doubt anyone uses their text messages features today. These examples go on and on, as do the examples of companies that were never smart enough to dig deeper. Which category will you be in?