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Why I keep a list of problems, not ideas, as an entrepreneur

Good startup ideas and how to find them

At the heart of every startup venture sits a worthy idea, hopefully worthy. That idea must be a solution to a problem for which people have a strong desire to solve. Yet, it’s said that ideas are cheap. There are in fact so many ideas. Most of them bad or redundant. An objectively good idea, though, is priceless in the right hands. It’s also essential for every startup. So to arrive at a great idea I keep a list of problems, not ideas, and this is why.

The best ideas are easy to overlook

According to Paul Graham a good startup idea is one that is obvious and still overlooked. Why? Because if the solution is not obvious to a person with the right knowledge it is probably too complex to be workable. If the solution is unlikely to be overlooked by anyone then it probably exists already.

The goal is to look at the problem with the right knowledge in mind and perceive a new obvious solution. By writing down the problem immediately, instead of an idea, you are able to revisit the problem as you gain fresh perspective and knowledge. There are good reasons why an obvious solution may have been overlooked. Sometimes the people with a particular problem are not the same as those capable of knowing the solution. Or a solution that was too complex or costly for an industry is now workable.

Writing about the problem ensures that it might actually exist

The most common reason startups fail is that they make products/services that nobody wants. Even very smart people are susceptible to the mistake of building unwanted solutions. One way to fall into that trap is to jump quickly from problem to solution. An idea can sound so plausible that it can fool one into rushing to work on it. So one needs to be very careful to validate the existence of the problem before investing time and money. Validate the problem before validating any proposed solution. It’s possible to imagine problems that don’t really exist. Or for solutions to exist of which you’re unaware. Research can illuminate existing solutions. If they exist they may even push you to see a new and better idea. Or, existing companies may be immature and you can learn from them. It’s ok for there to be competition. Very few startups are directly killed by competition from other startups. Besides, competition is a good sign — you’re not the only person who thinks this problem exists.

Writing out the problem can reveal there are more parts to it and that can increase the value proposition

Often it feels natural when writing about the problem to add descriptions of pre-conditions or further consequences. What’s happening while writing is an exploration that leads to a deeper understanding of the problem. This opens up new avenues to potentially solving the problem. Or it may become apparent that two separate problems on the list are related. Possibly a single solution can solve more than one. This is a way to strengthen the value proposition with a better idea. Good ideas depend on a lot more than technically solving the problem It’s been said that a first time founder thinks about product. A second time founder thinks about distribution. In actuality there are a number of things beyond the product that an experienced founder thinks about.

It’s tempting to think that one simply needs a solution to the problem to have a successful business. In fact many other factors will affect success.

  • Can you effectively build the solution?
  • How easily can the target market be reached by marketing?
  • Are there barriers to distribution?
  • Will it be possible to scale the solution?
  • How easily is the idea copied by a large company?
  • Is there a group that wants the solution very strongly?
  • Is there an “out” from that group to a larger group?
  • Will more people have this problem in the future?

By keeping a list of problems instead of ideas it’s possible to revisit the list easily and to come up with multiple solutions. Sometimes it’s not the first technical solution that has the most value. It might be the one that is easiest to market or distribute that is your big winner.