Charlie O’Donnell is a VC investor at Brooklyn Bridge Ventures. His blog, Thisisgoingtobebig, is a smart, candid stream of insights and tips that I read and re-read weekly. Recently he hit on a theme that I see frequently and touched on here before: Too many entrepreneurs rush to ideas and solutions before truly understanding the problems that customers have. In a world where ideas are too easy to execute, the winners will be those who love digging into the problems first.
Because of the importance of solving a problem, one of the 8 key questions we ask in the Minimum Viable Concept Test (after showing people a new product idea) is: “How well would this service solve a problem or fulfill a need for you?” This question helps us understand whether the solution is a must-have or a nice-to-have. The latter simply have a low chance of success when they enter the marketplace.
As an example, I recently ran an MVC Screener Test of the new-ish social networking app, Path. Path describes itself as “the smart journal that helps you share your life with close friends and family.” It is designed to allow you to share more, current moments and activities with a smaller circle of contacts. The app has gotten some positive momentum and a bucket-load of press coverage in the past few months. I wanted to understand user interest beyond the hype and a million or so early adopters. I’ll share the full results in a future blog post, but here’s a preview of how people rated Path on Need Fulfillment:
Path scored in the Bottom 20% of the all of the MVC Tests that we have run in the past 8 months. Only 7% of people said it would “Definitely” solve a problem or fulfill a need and another 17% said it “Probably” would. Clearly Path is not hitting on a broad pain point.
I believe that the problem with Path is that it is trying to meet a need that relatively few people actually have. First, Path calls itself a “smart journal.” Well, keeping a journal is a classic example of something that sounds good in theory, but few people are able to follow through on it. Second, Path focuses on allowing users to share everything they are doing right now. It’s probably not a good idea to highlight what many feel is the most annoying thing about social networks–constant updates. In fact, in its latest redesign even Facebook relegated most updates to the upper-left quadrant of the screen–the zone of darkness in many an eye-tracking study.
Now, some innovations aren’t about problems and solutions. One might argue that there was not a clear, existing “problem” that Twitter or Facebook solved. That might be true, but a poor response on Need Fulfillment is a warning sign, and it means the odds of success are even longer. When my clients have a low score on Need Fulfillment, I suggest that they go back to customers and dig deeper into their problems, barriers and issues.
Just a little more digging into the problem early on–rather than rushing to a solution–can make a ton of difference in the marathon race to become a successful startup.