Despite Dave McClure’s imploring to “kill a feature” and Eric Ries‘ urging to “cut your product in half, then halve it again,” most startup founders I encounter are trying to work their way toward Product-Market fit by planning and building new features. The analytical mind of an entrepreneur, both engineer and business-side, naturally tends toward solving problems and ostensibly, features solve problems. But it’s the wrong approach for most startups.

Solution-centralism starts in Customer Discovery.

More often than not I encounter surveys that pay scant homage to the problem, usually has a means of filtering respondents. For example, a typical survey asks “do you have this problem” and if so, how appealing do these solutions sound?  Tweaks to the problem description involve messaging more than understanding.  In other words, the startup team focuses on understanding what words resonate with respect to the problem, as if  the problem itself is fully understood.  Interestingly, the problem continues all the way through to asking pricing questions that evoke dubious responses like “would you be willing to pay?” or “how much would you be willing to pay?”  There is no direct connection to value in these questions.

You hear this in elevator pitches all the time, too.  Egocentric pitches assume the features (and even the benefits) make the problem compelling.

In fact, the opposite is true. The willingness to pay depends on the depth of pain (or passion).

One of my favorite Eric Ries quotes:

If you can’t sell magic, you can’t sell your solution.

Nobody cares about your solution.  They care about solving their problems.

Solution-centralism continues in Customer Validation.

Your product is out the door and you have some market signal, but are still searching for Product-Market Shanggri La.  And you have the feature list and engineering spec that is going to get you there.  Everyone does.  You’re one feature away.  Always.  Your iteration loop has an invisible exit gate.

This is the chasm before The Chasm.  This is where you become the anti-Dropbox, a shattered “tip of the spear.” This is where you become unable to answer who you are:

  • too many features;
  • features people don’t use;
  • features across too many market segments;
  • features to keep up w/ Jones’ Widget Co.

Stop.  Please.


Problem-centralism Wins

Be a problem expert. In this age of fast development and no IP protection, whoever “owns” the customer, wins.  You own the customer by understanding and solving their problem better than anyone else.  This is why Customer Development, when properly done, is critical to your success.

  • When surveying users early on, focus on problem statements before solution.  (FYI, I am working on an application to help with that.)
  • Interviews are critical toward establishing empathy.  Emotion indicates resonance and cues you when to dive deeper, rather than going shallow and broad (like surveys).
  • Product demonstrations are not for “show and tell,” but rather is this solving the problem (exercising the passion).
  • Messaging/positioning around problem lures the unsuspecting and suspicious alike.
  • While iterating product toward what resonates, kill features.

Ultimately your addressable market size depends on amount of pain (passion) in the market, i.e., the size of and number of market segments that share a “big enough” pain (or passion).