The startup problem

Recently, I had the rare and exhilarating opportunity to meet with 7 different startups in a single day. I heard seven product pitches. Seven teams of entrepreneurs so passionate about their companies, they are wiling to risk it all. Do you know what I didn't hear? Seven problem statements. Seven reasons the world needed what they were building. Seven reasons that the risk was worth it.

Its not that none of the seven were solving a problem, its that some of them didn't (or couldn't) articulate it. Instead, they focused on the solution. The cool new thing they were building. The software that would make something happen. Frequently jumping right into the what and how, without the why.

If you are a startup entrepreneur, your #1 job is to passionately and convincingly explain the problem you are solving. Can't do that? Stop everything you are doing, and obsess over this requirement. Your goal should be a 1-3 sentence problem statement. So clear that someone not familiar with the industry you are in, can understand it. I don't care if you are in the nuclear physics or open source software industries, you should be able to clearly explain the problem to the average person you encounter in your life.

Why does it matter? Because as an entrepreneur, you are always selling. Not just selling to your customers, selling to everyone. Selling the opportunity to investors and potential employees. Selling board members, mentors, and advisors on helping you. Selling your spouse on why its worth the risk to put it all on the line for this. Sell your friends on the reason you haven't seen them in ages. Selling the stranger at the cocktail party on the fact that you actually do important work, and aren't crazy.

Now, if you are a high growth startup entrepreneur, knowing the problem you are solving and passionately telling everyone about it is just the first step. The next step is to make sure you are solving a 10x problem. A 10x problem is one you can solve 10 times better than the alternatives, or solve the problem for 1/10th the cost of your competitors. You sell your product for 20% less than the competition? So what, thats not enough. Your product is 30% faster than the competition? Get out of here, not good enough.

Your customers have an alternative to your product. Maybe its not a direct competitor, but at the very least the alternative is the status quo. Doing nothing or continuing the way they've always dealt with the problem.

Now, you are asking them to make a change, to switch to your product instead.  The price of your product isn't the only cost to the customer. There is a switching cost. Not just the real costs to switch, but the inferred costs as well. The cost associated with taking a chance on you, the risk that you'll actually deliver on what you say you will. That you'll be around in the future and be able to grow with them. That you'll be the partner they need.

Customers won't switch to a startup for 20% cheaper or 30% faster. You need to be 10x better.

In my next post, I'll share with you a crazy simple technique to help get past the surface an opportunity, and down to the 10x problem.