Problem or Vision?

In this post I’d like to note down some thoughts on whether a company should focus on solving a problem or having a clear vision. I don’t actually know the answer, but I’d like to share my thoughts on it.

In the last 3 years I’ve been asked many times; ‘What problem are you solving?’, by Angels or VCs. However, I can count on one hand the number of times somebody has asked — ‘What does your market look like in 5 years?’ or ‘What’s your vision for this product?’.

So, as a company, should you:

  1. Clearly identify an important problem in a market and work hard to solve it.
  2. Paint a vision for the world and strive to achieve it.

Here are my thoughts and it’d be great if people could share their opinions too.

Problems with just solving a problem:

  • Straight off, solving a problem sounds much more negative. You’re looking for things that are wrong and being cynical, maybe even pessimistic.
  • You are encouraged to target ‘low hanging fruit’ — therefore your product development is driven by ‘laggards’ and customers who have the problem the most. This could breed mediocrity rather than innovation.
  • Rightly so, you adopt a heavy focus on customer development, but is it a dangerous assumption that people know what they want?
  • You might also assume that, ‘the customer is always right’, are they? Henry Ford didn’t think people knew what they wanted; “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
  • It’s also possible that purely solving a problem encourages short term thinking. You might create a solution which solves that problem today or tomorrow, but will you create a solution that serves the market in 3, 5 or 10 years.
  • Ben Horowitz thinks that you need a product which is 10x better than the current solutions to win in a market. I think if you focus too heavily on just solving a problem, you may only build something that is 10% better.
By focusing on a problem — are we being a little too conservative? Are we targeting the low hanging fruit, rather than reaching for the stars?

My visions for having a vision:

  • First of all, you need have to balls to have a vision. It’s not easy standing on a pedestal or in a meeting and saying what you think the world should look like.
  • Preaching a vision for a market means you’ll speak to aspirational customers, the innovators, But. it’s these customers that move the market forward.
  • By targeting the early movers in your market, you’ll set the bar high, these customers want something completely unique.
  • Believing in a vision might mean saying ‘No’. You might take feedback from a customer, but if it doesn’t help you achieve a long term goal, you might actually turn down business.
  • It’s easier to make decisions when you know what you want to achieve. Having a clear vision can help keep you focused and not get distracted.
  • A vision means you think long term.
  • A company vision is more motivating. Its more compelling to motivate yourself and others by striving to achieve some sort of change in the world.

I think having a vision for a product or your market means that your company is unified in striving to create something truly outstanding. It can feel like you are giving everything to truly push the world forward, not just paper over the cracks with a quick fix.

That’s not to say that companies shouldn’t try to solve a problem, not at all, but I do feel that if you want to build a remarkable company that defines a market, you must have a clear vision. I don’t think solving a problem is enough.

What do you think? Should you do both?

@jdroutledge1

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