Ideas and Validation January 31, 2020

Don't have an idea for a business? Good! You're doing better than most.

Kevin Conti @Kevcon80

Over the past few weeks, I've been realizing that I've been building businesses backwards.

Now that my eyes are open, I'm seeing it everywhere.

I think it's a systemic problem, and I want to help stop the bleeding.

Tell me, what's wrong with these sentences?

  1. "How do I go about validating this business idea?"

  2. "I have a business idea. How do I get in front of the people who want it?"

  3. "How do I pre-sell my business idea?"

The answer is, all of them STARTED WITH AN IDEA BEFORE A PROBLEM!

If you have a business idea, this may be happening to you too.

How To Solve the Problem:

The way to avoid this whole disaster is to put your idea to the side for a second.

(If you don't have an idea, even better, since you won't be biased towards a particular solution.)

Instead, go spend time finding a problem.

Go talk to the people you want to help and ask, 'what sucks right now?' Find out what problems are painful for them, completely ignoring the solution for now.

Once you really understand what subset of people are experiencing that problem the worst, and how exactly they are dealing with it right now, congrats! You've discovered a legitimate pain, a group of early-adopters, and a list of current alternatives!

Only now can you put your solution hat back on.

Imagine what a better place that puts you in.

Imagine knowing how your features map to solving the pain.

Imagine how much easier that makes your job of selling your product.

Imagine building a solution confidently, knowing there are people on the other side waiting to buy.

This can be yours, if you spend some time finding out if the solution you're working on has a pain that's worth solving.

Hope this helps.

  1. 8

    My problem with problems is that they are not a problem. I love getting a problem and hacking at it until I get a solution. And yet I feel like going aroundand skiing people "hey, what's your problem?" is not a solution to my problem with problems.

    I feel that as a developer working in a huge consulting company where everyone around me is also a developer I don't have enough exposure to people with real problems.

    How do you find other people's problems? How do you find niches?
    How do you recognize that someone had a generic problem solution to which could be an actual solution?

    1. 17

      Many people struggle to identify problems because they mistakenly narrow their focus to only problems that don't have solutions. Those are really hard to find. Almost impossible.

      A common failure mode to mitigate this challenge is by solving a trivial problem. For example, "What if I made a service to help people choose better usernames for forums! Nobody's solving that!" Well of course there are no solutions to that problem -- because nobody cares. There's no point in solving a problem that nobody cares about.

      The key is to realize that this is exactly backwards. Instead of tackling unsolved-but-trivial problems, do the opposite and solve already-proven-but-massively-valuable problems. In other words, solve problems that others are already solving.

      When you think of it that way, problems are easy to find. Just ask: What are people already spending lots of time and money doing? People don't spend their time and money on just anything. They spend them to solve massively valuable problems.

      People spend lots of money on food, shelter, transportation, education, beauty, improving their status in the world, improving their safety, connecting with each other socially, etc. Businesses spend tons of money on hiring, salaries, sales, marketing, ads, communication tools, security, legal, taxes, etc. These are all problems they're paying to solve.

      Pick one that resonates with you, then come up with a creative and effective solution… tailored to a particular niche of customers… and deliver it to them through a channel that's not too crowded or prohibitively expensive… for a price that's sustainable. It's as simple as that.

      1. 2

        This is a very very helpful and reasonable answer, thank you so much for posting it.

      2. 1

        Thank you so much for this. This was one of the most valuable pieces of information that i've ever gotten from IH!

      3. 1

        Completely stunned with how easily you put it all together. It seems so obvious, even if it is a very contrarian point of view.
        Unfortunately, most people try to find spaces where nobody is, building products nobody wants or not worthy of solving.

        Instead they could be simply building better solutions in crowd spaces! Finding proved markets with niche needs is one of the best ways to go for it. 💪

      4. 1

        This is great. If you don't know what problems are worth solving, look at what people and businesses are already spending time, energy and money on.

    2. 4

      I'm really happy with what I just wrote in another comment below, so I put it up on my blog. I think you should see it too:

      1. 2

        Hey! That was me!

    3. 2

      The only thing I know you can do, is to do more things. Research more. Read more. Engage with different communities

      Swim along with them, see what they're doing, be curious.

      Give it time, relax and have fun

      And then you can start noticing a lot of problems in that new niches.

      As for finding new niches it can literally be as simple as going to or exploring personal interests to adjacent areas.

    4. 2

      Everyone has problems. Just by asking questions, you’ll learn. What’s the most annoying part of their job? What takes way more time / money than it should? What’s getting in the way of what they want, and why?

  2. 6

    You cannot be more true.

    Some day I think my product is just solving my problems. And that's it.

    1. 2

      Thanks! Yes, this is exactly when you need to get in front of more people. Good luck!

  3. 4

    Coincidentally, Arvid Kahl of FeedbackPanda just released an in-depth guide to exploring problems. If you want to explore this topic more, I highly recommend starting here!

    1. 5

      Thanks, Kevin! I've been writing about the Audience -> Problem -> Solution -> Product paradigm quite a bit, in the first stage chapter of Zero to Sold most recently.

      I completely agree with your approach. We (as mostly developer) always think of products and ideas first, because that is what we use to solve our problems ourselves. It takes some training to rewire your brain to look for people, their problems and how to solve them, not for people who want to buy the specific product you've been thinking of.

      1. 3

        You're welcome! I've been excited to dive into what you're writing, hopefully this weekend! Seems like you and I have been on the same thoughts recently.

      2. 2

        Wow, Zero to Sold looks awesome! Also props for giving so much valuable knowledge away for free. Not usual today!

        1. 3

          I wouldn't be where I am without the Indie Hackers community. This is the least I can do :D Thanks so much for your kind words!

  4. 3

    Great points! Thanks for writing them up, Kevin!

    I've been feeling very similar things and am working to try to flip my mind around. It's surprisingly difficult. Simply focusing on "problems" instead of "product/service ideas" seems to not quite be the full change needed, for me at least. Focusing on problems feels better, but it also feels only one step removed from coming up with product ideas to me.

    My hunch is that the key is the focusing on problems plus lots of communication. It's easy to get caught up in the hype around "building" or "validating" or "marketing" or "advertising" or whatever high-level concepts we want to get stuck on, but at the end of the day we've got to be working with real people to solve their tangible problems. Anything short of that is just playing pretend.

    1. 2

      Definitely. Just thinking about the problems doesn't magically solve anything. At the core, the issue is that the mental model a founder has is not complete. It may be just a little inaccurate, it may be completely off. Talking to real people solves this.

  5. 1

    Great!! I totally agree with this.

    And as others commented, I too see very few (little unique) problems on and others are the ones that already have solutions. Through this community, I figured out that the existing solutions aren't reaching everyone. So even if a solution exists, if someone can make and market it better, that's a better solution too for the same problem..

  6. 1

    Great, thought-provoking post @Kevcon80. It would seem to me to take this a step further, it seems to make sense to me to look for problems in a domain you’re familiar with. I’m a software engineer so it seems I’d be better suited to solve problems I see in my profession. As apposed to looking for problems in the Human Resources area, which I know little about.

    How do you and others feel about this? Is it better to move away from what you know?

    1. 1

      I've been wondering this as well. Seems to me like you can run into issues with solving only what you know, since many of us tend to fall into the same circles. I have a gut feeling that there are more painful problems that get completely ignored in other domains, but their ideas are harder to find for the typical bootstrapper.

      1. 1

        Right. To me it makes the most sense to pursue in a domain you’re familiar with. This way you have the knowledge to recognize something as a problem or not. I don’t see this mentioned very often as most people are picking a market to go after without a lot of thought. At least that what it seems.

  7. 1

    Loving this / well put @Kevcon80 // At first, I wasn't sure what the title meant — and yes fully agree that we'll be biased and lean towards asking the wrong questions when starting with an idea.

  8. 1

    I have been struggling with this recently as well. I have been focusing on a problem. Doing lots of conversations with potential people that have the problem. I keep feeling like I am running into road blocks where it seems like there isn't a great problem to solve. Its not worth solving. Seems like it is hard to find the right people that have the problem.

    I'm almost now feeling like there is no problems anymore. haha. More confused than anything at this point.

    In some ways its a chicken and the egg problem. If I just put some solution out there that solves a problem than I could maybe start finding people that it somewhat relates with and then fix it from there to solve their problem. But not sure about this approach.

    Bottom line is, I don't think I'm good at finding problems.

    1. 3

      You're right, it's hard to find problems.

      However, saying "there are no problems anymore" is wrong. You know it's wrong. If it was right, no one could start a successful business.

      I know it's frustrating when you learn that a problem isn't worth solving. Another way to look at it, however, is to realize that you have just saved yourself tens or hundreds of hours of wasted time! By recognizing it was a problem not worth solving, you'll be finding a good problem that much quicker.

      Two good frameworks for finding if a pain is bad enough:

      1. Use the Eisenhower Matrix. Find a pain that is both urgent and important. These are golden for an entrepreneur, but hardest to find. Second-best, find a pain that is important, but not urgent. You'll have more work in selling the thing, but it's still a viable pain.

      2. Find a pain that can be solved 10x quicker or 10x cheaper. Keeping this frame of reference allows you to quickly identify which pains are really bad.

      "Oh, this program you have to use everyday for your job takes you four hours to run a report? Why is that? Could it be done in 24 minutes (240/10)?" (TurboTax method)

      Or, "This service costs your company $1,000/month and you only use one core feature? Could I build that core feature for only $100/mo?" (LessAnnoyingCRM method)

      1. 1

        Right on all accounts! I'm just kind of in a trench right now with this.

        1. 1

          Yeah, it’s a struggle. Best of luck with moving forward!

  9. 1

    Wonderful point and wonderful post. Tagging @amax because I think he'll want to read this!

    1. 2


      1. 2

        OH YES! I recently asked the IH community the same thing. Because I felt exactly the same.

        Why should I backfit my idea. By starting at the problem you already kind of validated your product! Sure you have to check if the target group for this problem is big enough but it just does make so much more sense.

        Also when you hear people telling their success stories often times it was something like: And then I had this problem that really was a pain in the a**. And I realised that there is a bigger need for it.

        When you try to think of something that would be cool you could waste so much time because no one needs it.

        One thing that I would add is that it is even more powerful if you can find the problem in your domain! Sure your friends maybe have some nagging problem at their work but most of the time you have no real insights into the domain. So talk to people that do work in an area you have expertise in!

        Great Post @Kevcon80!

        1. 2

          Definitely! At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if a successful product was problem-validated first or not. People take an educated guess and are right sometimes. It’s a prime example of survivorship bias.

          However, if you want the best chance at YOUR idea being successful, you damn-well better validate the problem you are solving first :)

  10. 1

    Hi Kevin! Thx for sharing your story!

    I've been using this approach (unconsciously I guess) some time before and that is indeed true - the amount of problems you can grasp out of a simple conversation with your friends/co-workers/relatives piles up pretty fast :D

    On the other hand though, would that be the only thing which will drive you, that someone else has it? I've been running into the feeling that I don't really identify myself with a given problem someone else has, and stopped drilling it some time soon. Shouldn't it be - like DHH and Basecamp fellas tend to say - helping you or someone from a very tight circle of yours first? Just curious of your experiences.

    1. 1

      I think this falls into the category of product/founder fit (or more accurately, problem/founder fit). If you can't see yourself working on a problem for, say, five years, then you probably shouldn't pursue it.

  11. 1

    Is there room for some ideas where the problem is not clearly laid out? Ecommerce, smart phones, the automobile - these did not appear to be solving problems at first few years launch.

    1. 2

      Check out Arvid Kahl's discussion on "Unkown unknowns". This is exactly what you're getting at, and he does a far better job than me on explaining how to search for them.

      EDIT: Thinking about this more, you ask about room for ideas where problems are not clearly laid out, then mention solutions... In all of those cases, the problems existed and could be made clear with enough probing. It was the solution that was not apparent from the beginning.

      1. 1

        Thank you for the link and fair point. Maybe a better example is a video game.

        You could spend a 1,000 hours doing research and probing customers about their problems with games but it probably would only help your success rate an extra few percentage points. The success of a video game is largely inherit in the product itself - is it fun to play. So maybe you more effectively get yourself to a successful game by spending more time on product and almost no time on finding a problem.

        1. 1

          I’m not sure I have any thoughts on entertainment / B2C market, as that’s way out of whatever limited expertise I have :)

    2. 2

      I think smart phones certainly solved some problems like not being able to use the internet on the go and look things up. Though obviously some of the early gadgets are unusable for most people for various reasons.. if nothing else they can be too expensive.