Product Development April 16, 2020

Are you ACTUALLY scratching your own itch?

Pat Griffith @PatGriffith

Last week I was reading The Mom Test and came across this doozy: "If they haven't looked for ways of solving it already, they're not going to look for (or buy) yours."

The point of this, in context, is that people will very frequently - while thinking they're being honest - get caught up in the moment and say things like "omg I would definitely pay money for X". But quickly you find out that X already exists and they've not even done so much as a google search to find it. So clearly they wouldn't actually pay money for X.

How many times has the following happened to you:

You come up with an idea that scratches your own itch. OMG it's so perfect. It's going to help you so much, and surely there are other people similar to you so it'll help them, too. You might just have a neat little business on your hands.

So you start building and/or researching your idea, and then you find some competitors doing literally the exact same thing. Maybe you can differentiate yourself. Maybe you can pivot. But regardless, it raises an interesting question:

If solutions to this problem already existed, and you never found them because you never even so much as did a google search to see how you could fix your problem... then are you ACTUALLY scratching your own itch? Or are you just caught up in the excitement of coming up with a clever solution?

This has happened to me more times than I can count. Surely there are other ways of starting businesses than by scratching one's own itch, but it's something that I carry with me now. Am I being real with myself? Or am I just being excited?

  1. 17

    I don't agree with this.

    Mathematically speaking, there are enough people in the world and enough different ways to position a product to still have a market.

    Most ideas are not new, they are just spin offs of other ideas that are made better or marketed better or positioned differently or suited for a smaller audience in the same demographic. Maybe same product different demographic

    You almost always have a business on your hands, the question is are you going to be happy competing in that niche? Does your competitor have a monopoly? Are you willing to pursue this for 2-3 years? How big is your moat?

    Its much more nuanced than if you have a competitor or not, having a competitor is a good thing. It tells you there's a market.

    We're doing something similar with

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      the point is not that there are existing solutions, the point was to ask the people you interview to ask wether they looked for a solution, which did they try, what were the problem.

      a lot of times people will be exited when you present your solution, but if you dig deeper you will realise it is not a problem worth solving.

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      I'm not sure what you don't agree with. Nowhere did I make a claim that competition is a bad thing.

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        The part where people won’t pay for your product because they couldn’t google your competitor.

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          Ahhh, okay. The point I was trying to make had nothing to do with whether people would pay for your product or not, and also nothing to do with whether the idea is any good or not, or whether it could be a great business or not. The only point I was trying to make was to be more honest with ourselves in the assessment of whether we'd actually use/pay for something we created, or if we're just tricking ourselves into think that we're our own first customer.

          You don't HAVE to scratch your own itch in order to build a great business. The point I was trying to make wasn't about the viability of the businesses, though, and about the honesty of the mind.

          BTW I agree with all the points you make in your post. Just wasn't sure where the disagreement came from. Now I know! Thanks.

    3. 1

      so who is your main competitor?

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        We have many, gumroad, samcart, ejunkie are a few to begin with.

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          Hmm, so if what I need is a payment funnel for my SaaS website my only option of those is your product? As in I don't want to sell a downloadable or an item, but my service. I guess Stripe Checkout should be a more direct competitor here?

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            well, yes that is why we kept it open to just sending an email to the user, So you can fulfill your client's request as you see fit.

            Right now we don't support recurring payments. But i'm sure there will be products that solve this problem if you look hard enough.

            If your payments are not recurring, you're more than welcome to use SimpleFunnel.

            We might have recurring payments in the future. But I haven't found many products right now that are this generically positioned.

            You can reply to the email I sent you and we'll get you access. We're launching in the next 2 days :)

    4. 1

      I like this answer but we also need to consider the competition level. If the level is low or medium then you have less chance of failing. But if the level is high then it could be risky of making the product financially stable.

      I understand your point and not disagreeing with it but the democracy of each niche should be considered.

    5. 1

      Even though there are related competitors, you might even target a whole new market! As described in the book "Competing Against Luck", when the existing solutions are unsatisfactory for a job to be done, many people choose to not employ one of the current offerings, and just stick with whatever thing they're doing now.

    6. 1

      OP, great observation. Namkam, great reply.

  2. 5

    I love this!
    It really hits home on how much I fall in love with "being a genius".
    The longer I'm in this business, the more I feel that growing a channel is paramount to creating a product. "if a tree falls in the forest" and all that...
    Today, before coding/building, I try to see if I can get other people easily onboard.
    If not, maybe I'm scratching my own ego, and not my own itch ;-)

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      I feel like the Mom Test still applies when growing a channel pre-build. People could give positive feedback or just really like your marketing/branding. You get excited, build the product, then find out there are myriad reasons people decide to not use it.

      I think to some degree, you have to just get something out there for people to use and be ready to add features, pivot, or drop the idea entirely.

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        Agreed. And even if we we're talking strictly about building a community, or even an email list, we still benefit hugely from knowing what kind of community people want, how they want to interact, what they're looking for, what's missing for them from existing communities, etc. I feel like the Test can be applied on the most macro and most micro of levels.

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        I usually try to add a "manual" step in between testing the waters and building, i.e. doing it manually for people and seeing if they'll pay for the non-immediate version.
        Not always possible :)

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      Yep. Sadly I have to spend just as much time wrestling my ego as my idea.

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    That was my biggest aha moment from Mom Test. When I do user interviews now and describes recreating features we are thinking about with Zapier etc that gets me really excited about it.

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    Great insight, Patrick. I think Jason Fried once talked about how ideation can be really exciting and intoxicating, and that before you pursue the idea, you should wait until the honeymoon phase is over (say a few weeks) and see if you're still interested. I'm sure I'm butchering what he said, but that was the gist of it.

    Also, I think words matter a lot and can really influence your thinking and behavior. As such, I absolutely hate the phrase "scratch your own itch" in the context of starting a business. If it's merely an itch, it's probably not a problem that's important to anyone, including you. "Scratching an itch" is fine for side-projects or hobbies. But if your goal is to start a meaningful business, you should try to solve a serious pain point that you have.

    I'm sure there are counterexamples where an "itch" did eventually turn into a real business, but that's not an approach I would bet on. JMHO 🤷‍♂️

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      But it so hard to resist picking up the domain for 3 weeks :)

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      how ideation can be really exciting and intoxicating

      It's crazy. Like a drug. The more I go through the cycle, the more I logically understand that my feelings aren't real, or at least that the cloud I'm on is blocking my view of a lot of reality. But even knowing that logically isn't enough. Still to this day I can't stop myself from starting to work on an idea within 5 minutes of having it. It's just such a rush. But I'm at least getting better.

      If it's merely an itch, it's probably not a problem that's important to anyone, including you.

      Well said! Even if you're being honest with yourself and you ARE scratching an actual itch of yours... not a great gamble to make. We pay for things that solve pains, not scratch itches. Language is important! Great reminder.

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        It wouldn't surprise me if some scientific study showed that the brain in startup-ideation-mode was similar to the brain on stimulant drugs.

        When I get moonstruck with an idea, what I usually do is spend a few hours or day (or maybe two) just brainstorming, researching and note-taking – just getting everything written down. Often during research, I'll discover that the "brilliant" idea I just had actually has a lot of well-developed solutions already in market and I have nothing to add, then my enthusiasm fizzles.

        But the point is to just get everything out of my brain and written down so I stop thinking about it. If I don't do this, then my brain is distracted because it keeps saying, "Hey, these ideas are super important and valuable and I gotta explore this more and I have to remember everything!" But if I write them down, brainstorming runs its course and I don't have to worry about forgetting.

        Truth is I almost never return to these brainstorming documents. But maybe one day, one or two of them will be useful. In the meantime, I just have to do this to get my brain to shut up.

        The real costly mistake is spending weeks or months jumping into product development when you're in the honeymoon phase and you haven't spent any time validating your idea outside your own head.

        P.S. as I write this, I'm now wondering whether I'm making the same mistake on my own project? Better head over to the Ideas and Validation Group and ask some questions! 😋

  5. 3

    Yeah, sometimes it's so hard to tell.

    I am looking for a certain product, I am 99% sure it does not exist. But there are many SIMILAR product and I found out that I always keep finding excuses why don't I use those products.

    I keep thinking "aaah, if it only had feature X then I would pay for it...", but is it really true?

    On the other hand I am actually using the product that I have created so far. I think dogfooding is extremely important.

    In fact I stopped developing my previous product exactly when I realize that I no longer have a desire to use it myself.

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      I found out that I always keep finding excuses why don't I use those products.

      So much YESSSSSS to this. OMG. This describes exactly the point I was trying to make, but in a much more clear way :)

      I come up with an idea. My ego convinces me that it's a good idea and solves a real problem, and that I'm customer number one. Then I find 15 products that do the same thing, and rather than even try them I instantly point out that this one's landing page isn't pretty enough, that one only has Facebook login, etc. I just make excuses for why I've never used (or even searched for) the existing solutions.

      I agree with your point below, too, that sometimes details definitely matter, and it COULD be true that the specialness of your product is in the details. But I think usually in this situation I'm lying to myself.

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      And BTW, sometimes small details DO matter.

      Look at electric cars - they did exist before Tesla, but there was so many things wrong with them. Only by making the product "right" it started to work out.

      So sometimes the fact that you never paid for some kind of product before doesn't mean it cannot be made so perfect you actually WOULD pay for it.

  6. 2

    I've been trying to scratch my own itch with a couple of products and went nowhere with it.

    I'm an extremely frugal person, hardly buy anything at all. But even I am not that frugal then it comes to business and has a potential to save time.

    So I basically, focus on "which business itch can I scratch with my prodcuts" :)

  7. 2

    I think there's a really useful way to apply the "personal itch scratching" on a smaller level.

    Simply put: Do you ACTUALLY use new features?

    Often times I'll get excited about a new feature because of the tech. I'll have fun testing it and think, "oh, everyone will love this" but then 2 weeks later I never touch it. Example: I added location building to Happyfeed and I think 10 people use it per day (less than 1% of users). I don't use it myself either!

    Generally, I try to give myself 2 weeks to run new features past this test and it's always pretty accurate. If you don't use it frequently 2 weeks after release, delete it or change it.

    The tricky part is having the patience to wait 2 weeks because we all know how exciting new features can be and how badly you want them out NOW.

  8. 2

    Yes, I've done the same with both my products and

    True, sometimes we get too excited with our own problems and build products from it. But, there is a risk of that product not being needed at all. It ends up just as a lone product sometimes due to lack of product-market fit..

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    The concepts of “The Mom Test” have really helped me. But I don’t think it does a great job of explaining how to tease out good ideas that fall in the category of “customers didn’t even know they wanted this”. People may not have been googling “ device that fits in my pocket and does everything” but it still makes for a great product once they see it.

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      But I think even “device that fits in my pocket and does everything” you can break down into things that people actually needed.

      • damn, I find myself in need to check e-mails in the car often, but I don't have a computer under my hand
      • it would be awesome if I could carry my camera with me always, so that I can record when my daughter says her first words
      • it would be amazing if my phone could have a much bigger screen so that I can read text messages easily, maybe we can get rid of buttons somehow?

      What I am saying is that even a smartphone wasn't invented "from nothing", but rather as a combination of other devices, answering multiple unrelated needs.

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        In other words: Don't try to create a smartphone. Try to solve multiple problems and only in the end package them as a one, polished product. :)

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        Good point. Now every example I try to think of makes your point stronger. Thank you for the insight.

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    I'm not a fan of the term "scratch your own itch" because this leads to situations you see all the time with a million notes apps and a million "to do" apps. You see it on Product Hunt almost every day: "I wanted a to do list app that was jusssst exactly the way I wanted it to be, so I built this....."

    No consideration for the fact that a million to do list apps already exist and 99% of them would be fine for 99% of the people who want to use them.

    I dunno... but maybe before you scratch your OWN itch it would be better to see if what's itching a large number of people, and scratch THEIRS instead.

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      I think there are two camps on this, and they're not mutually exclusive – in fact both are good – and they are:

      1. Talk to customers and find a large enough problem (both in terms of pain and size of market) that you can solve.
      2. Solve a pain point that you personally have.

      #1 reduces market risk, but it may be an uphill battle if you don't have the problem yourself – you may not understand the problem/customer/market well if you don't have experience with it, which makes crafting the solution more difficult (but not impossible). Also, you may end up chasing something that lacks "product-founder fit" i.e. you find out over time that you don't really care about the problem/customer/market.

      #2 increases the chance that you understand the problem/customer/market very well and that you care about the problem personally. The risk is that you don't talk to other customers and don't realize that you're the only one with the problem, or the market is too small, or that your solution doesn't resonate with others, or as you mention the market is oversaturated with existing solutions.

      Ideally, you do both and get the best of both worlds.

      Although as I write this, I'm one of those people building another "to do" app to solve a pain point around personal productivity. I'm squarely in camp #2 and doing some (but probably not enough) of #1. Sometimes it's easier to give advice than to take it. 😋🤷‍♂️

    2. 1

      I've never thought about this before, but this is a really great point @Primer. Maybe itches are the obvious things that we all sense and scratch. They by nature don't require a lot of digging, and so we all make solutions to scratch them. Like @stevenkkim says below, we should be focused on serious pain points, not itches. Of course the phrase is more colloquial at this point... but language is important.

  11. 2

    Honestly I hate when this happens, but I do do some research before I go in. But somehow, someway I would always find a competitor when I'm months-in building my solution. It's extremely annoying.

    But it's fine if you still roll out your solution, the fact that you didn't know about another competitor means there's A LOT of space for you to run your show.

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      Having competition is generally a good sign. My post wasn't claiming otherwise.

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        Yeah for sure, it's just, sometimes you go down the rabbit hole of building your solution. Only to realise you could have just used on of the competitors products lol. That's happened to me recently.

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    Yes, I initially created as an internal tool for myself to rapidly prototype SaaS web apps, but then after a conversation with a friend I commercialised it as many other people had the same problem.

    I think scratching your own itch, or at least solving a problem in an industry that you're knowledgeable about is important (plus a bunch of other criteria that I use).

  13. 2

    Yeah happens alot. I think it means that the idea isn't important enough to you. Less of an itch and more like a mole on the skin that you don't notice.

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      This is a perfect analogy :)

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    Nice observation Patrick! I like it and can definitely relate to the opening but what's the moral in your opinion? How would you source and smoke-test business ideas?

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      I think the moral is simply that we lie to ourselves and are unaware of it. And that, because of this, we need to be more regimented in our ways of thinking, because otherwise our egos will convince us of things that aren't true.

      (by "we" I mean some of us... I don't know that everybody is like this)

      In terms of how to source ideas... well purely for the "scratch your own itch" variety, I think we look at things that we already pay for, and things that we've tried to pay for but couldn't because they didn't exist.

      So using me as an example:

      I've built two different accountability tools swearing to myself that I've scratched my own itch... but never once have I used BeeMinder or Stickk or any other such tool. That doesn't mean that my idea wasn't a good one, but only that I highly doubt the origin of my idea was ACTUALLY that I was scratching my own itch.

      On the other hand, what are some things I HAVE paid money for (that I could reasonably build)? Online communities. Writing software. Server configurator software. Calendar software. Etc.

  15. 1

    I think exactly the same way.

    I try not to force things.

    I try to always find something I would pay for right away.

    If that's really the case, the next step should be to jump on your keyboard,
    hoping some guys developed a solution to your problem.

    Then, if you actually find what you look for, you should be exstatic, and draw your credit card instantly.

    If not, you wouldn't pay for it.

    1. 1

      Then, if you actually find what you look for, you should be exstatic, and draw your credit card instantly.

      Right. If you're trying to go the "scratch your own itch" route, I think this has to be true.

      Currently I'm actually trying to solve a problem that I USED to have but don't have as much anymore, so the above probably wouldn't be true to me. But that's okay, because I HAVE paid for this thing before so I know it's real.

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        Yeah, it makes sense.

        But I think it's all about regularly reminding yourself why you paid for it in the past, and being honest with yourself about it.
        And I think it can possibly be tricky sometimes (but a good option).

        Additionally, another thing : when a guy targets software developers, you got to realize these are people who like to build things themselves.

        It goes in the same direction as your post.
        A lot of times, we wouldn't want to pay for someone else's software, we want to build our own.

        So, the value really has to be there.

        1. 1

          A lot of times, we wouldn't want to pay for someone else's software, we want to build our own.

          Yeah this is such a good point. Maybe it's our egos, or maybe it's because we're curious tinkerers who like to build things, or likely some combo... but definitely using our own solutions is always so much more attractive lol.

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            Yeah, I also think it's a combo :D

            So, that has to be taken into account

  16. 1

    I totally agree with you on this. I don't know what it is, maybe its because I'm a software engineer in me. My last two side projects were just me trying to scratch my own itch if I'm completely honest.

  17. 1

    Regardless. Scratching your own itch isn't a prerequisite for a startup idea to be profitable.

  18. 1

    I will always do an analysis before jumping in with 4W, 1H. Why, who, what, how, where. Check the competitors to see if you can differentiate. After that, putting it down for a while. Let the idea stay as my background process.

    If the idea stays, I will further work on it. Otherwise, just throw it away. Just leave it in the google docs. Ideas are cheap. Why attach to one that you don't feel comfortable with?

    Sometimes, it's just thinking too much. Over analyzing. If you are an experienced founder, you know what I mean. You are just hindered by past experience since the do-able bar has raised over the years.

  19. 1

    Definitely a good question, though I'd go so far as to ask one more: would you pay to have this itch scratched? You mention competitors doing the same thing - that's a good thing, because it means there's an actual market of people out there already paying to solve this problem. I've seen (and created) too many products where people might use it, but they'd never pay for it. Entering a market without competitors rarely means you're first, it means there's no market.

    For example, I'm working on Nodewood, a SaaS starter kit. This scratches an itch for me, because every time I start a new SaaS project, I have to code up the user authentication, the subscription, the billing, all that. Worst-case, this is a framework I can use for my future SaaS projects and save weeks of time getting them off the ground. However, there's competition! Laravel has Laravel Spark, a very similar product, but using PHP on the backend. We've each got strengths and weaknesses, but people are paying for this itch to be scratched. The market is there. And you need to be sure of that before you dump tons of hours and money into a new product.

    1. 1

      I've seen (and created) too many products where people might use it, but they'd never pay for it.

      Yeah this is a super important point, and I've only recently realized that I've often conflated the two. I've made a lot of things that people tell me how much they love, and that people sign up for. But the second a price tag goes up, crickets. And in hindsight it makes total sense, because these were all "nice to have" things, not "i need this" things.

  20. 1

    Yes. I'm scratching my own itch both with SaaSHub & LibHunt. That's how I've managed to support and improve them over a long period of time.

    "Or are you just caught up in the excitement of coming up with a clever solution?" - yes, I have a long list with projects following into this category. I consider those like falling into the "hobby" category. As you've pinpointed, it's exciting and mentally rewarding to come up with "clever" solutions.

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