Don’t Sell Solutions to Universal Problems

“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.

January 8, 2013 Posted in Startups by

  • http://www.onceabeekeeper.com/ Kevin Swan

    Completely agree, Ben. I also find it ironic, considering your post about universal problems, that the ad to my immediate right on your site is Ramit Sethi telling me he can “Add Hours to my Day!” by showing my how to find more time. :)

  • http://www.instigatorblog.com/ Benjamin Yoskovitz

    Ha! Well I should have pointed out that claiming you can solve a universal problem may work –as a marketing tactic. I suspect Ramit knows what problems he’s solving and how to solve them.

    Claiming you can solve a universal problem can also be part of your Unique Value Proposition.

  • http://www.businessmoneytoday.com/ Phanio

    Seems to follow the lean movement – not selling people what they can’t have but actually giving them what they can. The problem in taking your offerings to a niche market is that it is a niche market – hard to grow and hard to market to. But, you make very good points – get specific in your need and get specific in your solutions.

  • http://twitter.com/byosko Ben Yoskovitz

    I think a niche market is easier to market to — you know who you’re trying to reach. Marketing to everyone is very difficult, how do you message things properly, brand properly, know what matters to all the constituents, etc.?

  • http://www.businessmoneytoday.com/ Phanio

    Marketing is about understand your customers – their needs, their wants, their pain and where they get their information from – then drafting a message to convey how your business and its offerings can satisfy all of that. If you understand 10 niche customers then you can understand hundreds or thousands. Plus, with social media, internet marketing, ect – marketing to 100,000 people is just as easy as marketing to 10. The problem with niche markets is that they are small and usually offer no growth for your company after a certain point. Plus, many niches are fads and disappear as fast as they appear.

  • http://twitter.com/byosko Ben Yoskovitz

    Some niches can be extremely large–I guess it depends on your definition of a niche. There could be hundreds of thousands if not millions of customers in a niche. I’m not sure what you’re thinking about as a niche that disappears; which understandably would not be a good niche to go after.

  • David N. Sharifi, Esq.

    Articulating the problem / solution statement is 50% of any business plan.

  • Debarati

    Absolutely agree with you. Hence we believe in taking the MVP route where a product gets developed after understanding the customer’s expectations and their problems with the product. We are a Ruby on Rails development company who help start-ups to realize their entrepreneurial tech dreams.

  • http://www.yepi8.org/ yepi8

    yes, i like to make more money

  • Pingback: How To Become Rich And Famous: Product/Market FitBullet HQ

  • Pingback: Software Marketing Tweetables 14 January 2013 | Smart Software Marketing

  • Pingback: Peel the onion back on the problem your business is solving | Entrepreneur Secret Sauce

  • Pingback: Don’t Sell Solutions to Universal Problems | The Startup Voice

  • Carl Jonas Sjonander

    Thanks for a really good post!

  • http://www.nateanglin.com/ Anwell Steve

    Excellent post! I love working out as your best example since it’s really happening to most people nowadays, especially entrepreneurs – having problems of working out or taking an exercise should not be an excuse to someone who wants to be physically fit. But anyway about your topic. Most start-ups really have this fault on solving people’s problem by referring to the products or services they offer. It’s important to know what’s your prospect’s concern and analyze and help, not for the sake that your products or services shall be bought.

Ben Yoskovitz
I'm VP Product at Codified (makers of VarageSale).

I'm also a Founding Partner at Year One Labs, an early stage accelerator in Montreal. Previously I founded Standout Jobs (and sold it).

My bio »

or

Follow me on Twitter

Get updates and special content
When I publish new content, get it directly in your inbox. Subscribers will get special stuff as well not available on the blog (but I promise it will be infrequent + high quality.)
Get the Lean Analytics Book!
Awesome Jobs
Check out the job opportunities at my portfolio companies.
Startup & Investor Resources
Find Stuff
My Photos