“Would you like to make more money?”
“Is hiring people hard?”
“Are you overwhelmed by email?”
“Do you wish you were healthier and more fit?”
For most people the only answer to these questions is “yes”. They’re truisms. Universal truths. Universal problems. And they’re unsolvable.
Too many startups confuse big vision and trying to solve universal truths. Big vision is important. You need a lofty, change-the-world type goal. But claiming you’ll solve a universal problem is usually an indication that you don’t understand the real problems at-hand.
When selling to prospects, founders make the mistake of starting with a question that can only have one possible answer, and when they get that answer they use it as justification for their solution.
Startup founder: “Do you have a hard time recruiting great talent?”
Prospect: “Yes. It’s very hard.”
Startup founder: “I thought so! I’ve got the perfect solution for you.”
It goes like this: Big, obvious problem (universal truth) … our solution … win!
Except it doesn’t really work that way. All the real issues, challenges (and opportunities!) lie in the dot dot dots.
For starters, asking these kinds of questions is pointless if you want to learn about a customer’s pain (which you should). The actual pain is many levels deep, nuanced and specific. Let’s break down the universal truth, “I want to be more healthy and fit.”
What’s the real problem here? It could be a lack of time. But that’s probably not specific enough; most people have 30 minutes of free time a day, and they still don’t exercise. Maybe people are too embarrassed to go the gym and workout in front of other people? Maybe people are embarrassed about the locker room experience? Maybe people don’t know how to work out or what’s right for them? Maybe it’s all of the above for one segment of people and other problems for another segment?
You have to really understand your customers’ problems–peeling away the onion layers–until you get right down to the core. Asking “yes/no” questions, especially those where everyone is almost always going to give the same answer, won’t help you learn anything useful.
Secondly, the leaps of faith you’re making are just so massive you can’t possibly know the gotchyas that are going to hit you square in the face. Even if you’re an industry insider with domain expertise, you’re bound to hit some snags that you could have discovered in advance. Attempting to solve a universal truth without identifying the risks and connecting the dots is a surefire way to fail.
Earlier I said that universal problems aren’t solvable. That’s not actually true. Universal problems are solvable, but they’re only solvable when you truly understand your customers: how they operate, buy, what they care about, their pain, etc. You have to fill in the dots and know the gotchyas in advance if you ever want to solve the big, hairy problems that truly matter. Don’t sell solutions to universal problems, sell solutions to the underlying problems that allow you to genuinely make a difference for your customers, and over time realize your big vision.