How to Avoid Building Something No One Wants By Solving Known Problems


Entrepreneurs have been solving the same problems for ages…and making billions of dollars in doing so. Some of today’s most successful startups are solving age old problems but with 10x improved solutions.

There are some needs that nearly everyone has. Needs that people have been finding ways to meet since the beginning of time.

These are needs that don’t need to be “validated.” We know that people have certain needs. We know this because basic math or biology would prove that it’s true, and/or because people have already made efforts (time, money, or otherwise) to solve these needs.

The hardest and riskiest part of a startup is not building the product, monetizing it, or it’s strategy…the biggest reason why early stage startups fail is building something no one wants.

By starting with a known need, the risk of solving a problem no one has is significantly reduced. There is still a risk that the solution will not be wanted by customers — the solution will still need to be validated. In a separate post, I describe how “Doing What’s Working” (applying validated solutions to solve new or different problems) can reduce that risk. However, starting with one unknown is less risky than starting with two unknowns.

The below quote from esteemed investor and entrepreneur, Dave McClure, while somewhat vulgar, alludes to his preference for companies that solve basic needs.

“Great companies do 1 [or more] of 3 things: Get you laid, get you paid, [or] get you made.” – Dave McClure, 500 Startups

You don’t need to do customer development interviews to learn that people need to eat, have shelter, get paid, get maid, get laid, etc.

Some of the most successful companies in history, like Airbnb, Uber, Netflix, and WalMart, meet known needs.

1. Airbnb: Money + Shelter

For the supply side (homeowners), Airbnb provides a way to earn money for excess capacity by renting out space. For the demand side (renters), Airbnb provides a cheaper solution to the most common alternative, hotels. For the demand side, a place to stay is, at it’s core, shelter. Shelter is something people have wanted (and spent lots of money obtaining) perhaps since the beginning of time. There are many other companies, with combined value probably in the trillions, that provide solutions to shelter.

Airbnb solves these problems by taking advantage of new technology that enables it to provide a 10x better solution. The Internet makes communication (connecting two parties) and providing quality assurance and transparency much easier. In addition, it turns out that many people like the experience of staying at someone else’s house way more than than the experience of staying at a traditional hotel.

2. Uber: Transportation

People have been moving from “point A” to “point B” since the beginning of time. To meet transportation needs, entrepreneurs have created solutions such as horseback riding, the wheel, cars, busses, planes, and trains. There are many multi billion-dollar ideas that help people get from point A to point B.

Now we have Uber, which takes advantage of new technology to solve this age old problem with a 10x improved solution. It wasn’t possible for Uber’s service to be provided before. But now that everyone is walking around with small computers in their pockets, it is. Maybe the next 10x solution to transportation will be self-driving cars.

3. Kraft and WalMart: Food

Eating is a need not just because it tastes good, but because it is essential to survive. I have no idea how much people across the world spend on food, and it is not important to know the exact numbers, but I know that it is an extremely high number. In other words, it is more than just biology and logic that tell us that people need to eat; it is the action that people take daily to solve the need.

Companies like WalMart, WholeFoods, McDonalds, Kraft, and GE (refrigerators) have made billions meeting this age old need. More recent innovation includes Fresh Direct, Blue Apron, and Soylent. each with a different solution to the same core problem. Pre-historic solutions to the need for food that probably made for great businesses might have been selling spears, teaching someone how to hunt, prepared food, etc.

4. Netflix: Entertainment

Entrepreneurs have been successful in providing entertainment for generations. Shakespeare is probably within the top 1% of most well-known and respected people in the history of the world. Now, we have Netflix, which has made it cheaper than ever before to be entertained. Netflix provides an innovative pricing and business model to this age old need.

5. Skype: Communication


Humans have a natural desire and need to communicate with other human beings. Communication is also essential for people to do business (make money/save money).

There has been a tremendous amount of innovation in communication over the years, and several companies have profited massively from solving it. Solutions to the need of communication have included pen and paper, snail mail, telephone, mobile phone (Gordon Gekko style), etc.

Now we have email, Snapchat, Yo! and Skype. I personally consider email to be one of the most valuable innovations of all time. It has massively improved the way business can operate. With it one can communicate with anyone, anywhere in the world, at any time…for free! Products like Snapchat and Yo! tap into different means by which people prefer to communicate — photos in the case of Snapchat and binary in the case of Yo!. Skype makes it virtually free to communicate by live video and audio with anyone in the world. This is a massive improvement to quality of life and the ability to make money.

Hard Problems

It’s not enough for people to have a need. It must also be hard for people to satisfy the need. To build a successful business, you’ll need to provide a product or service that makes it easier for people to satisfy a given need, or is better in some way than other options people have for satisfying the need.

The need also needs to be an essential need. A need that is extremely important for them to solve. In an enterprise setting, this would mean helping the individual making the buying decision improve the metric that their compensation is tied to.

Key Takeaways

As you can see from all the above examples, some of the most successful companies in history started by meeting known needs. They didn’t have wildly new business ideas. They just had highly innovative solutions to pre-existing problems. Solving a problem that you know someone has can mitigate the risk of building something no one wants.

Many of the best startup ideas seem obvious. They are massive improvements to pre-existing and widespread problems. They solve problems we know people have. Problems that entrepreneurs have been making billions for solving since the beginning of time.

How can this be applied to your next venture? Think about a problem that people have demanded solutions for, and that companies have made billions solving, for centuries.

Today, my new book “Where Startup Ideas Come From: A Playbook for Generating Business Ideas” is available on Kindle for free. This post is a summary of one of four methodologies on how to get startup ideas included in the book.


To learn more about the book and get the Kindle edition (which can be read on your computer or any other device) for free in exchange for a tweet, click here.


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