Disruption 101: What Problem are you Really Solving?

Disruption 101: What Problem are you Really Solving?

Posit: No startup can disrupt an industry without redefining and rewriting, to the most basic level, the specific problem it is solving. And as with everything, simplification is more difficult than it sounds.

The secret to rewriting the problem? It should have no 'technology' in it. For the sake of this argument, by 'technology' I do not mean it as we use the word today (broadly to indicate computer technology), but all man-made technology.

It should be an innate human need, articulated as such.

To exemplify, think about this:
Do people want a taxi-hailing service, or, do people just want to go from place to place, when they want to, in the most inexpensive way (time and money wise)? It is, of course, the latter.

If you're trying to solve a problem in this sphere, it's best stated as "Helping people move from place to place at any time in the fastest and cheapest possible manner".

How does this restatement of the problem as a 'human need' help?

  • It states a long-term need that is unlikely to go away as technology changes
  • CRITICALLY: It allows for latitude in "how" a startup wants to solve the problem. It allows you to be "MUCH" better than incumbents by artificially distancing yourself from their solution for the problem. For E.g. a startup doesn't HAVE to offer cabs to solve the transportation problem. It could offer ANY alternative.

Also, tactically:

  • It solves the issue of 'solutions force-fitted to problems'
  • It keep founders away from feeling like "also-rans" in a competitive industry

One might think this is all theory, but let me offer some (anecdotal) evidence at least. Look at the stated problem statements of two companies:

Meru Cabs: "To give urban commuters in India a world-class travel experience, by using technologies evolved in developed countries" // Also stated, at times, as: "Reliable, Safe and Transparent transport solutions for you" (Source: https://www.slideshare.net/sandipcadd/meru-cabs-indias-finest-taxi-services)

Uber: "Make transportation as reliable as running water, everywhere, for everyone" (Source: https://www.quora.com/What-is-Ubers-vision-statement)

This is Meru (founded 2007) vs. Uber (launched 2011). Where these companies are at today, serves as (partial) proof of the posit, at least.

State your problem like your startup's life depended on it.


P.S: Contextually, want to debunk the old myth often taught as a reality of stating the right problem: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!” (HBS, n.d. Source: https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/what-customers-want-from-your-products). That's nonsensical. People want neither.

P.P.S: More examples of well-stated problems (re-worded the stated vision in some cases)

The Boring Company: "To solve the problem of soul-destroying traffic". :-)

AirBnb: "a world where you belong anywhere"

AAPL: "tools for the mind that advance humankind"

AMZN: "place where you can find anything you want to have"

DBX: "making work better"

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