Pied Piper’s problem

Paul Graham of Y Combinator once said, “Why is it so important to work on a problem you have? Among other things, it ensures the problem really exists.” When founders and founder wannabes flood to join the startup army, this is overlooked so many times as the excitement of making a “vision” or “dream” come true trumps anything else. And the failure comes when the mere feedback you receive is just “it is great but SO WHAT”?

I am a fan of the great fictional compressor company Pied Piper. Can’t say I am always amused by Silicon Valley’s satirical jokes but I respect the show’s efforts in truly revealing and dramatizing many of startups’ early stage agonies. I love every each one character of the Pied Piper clan. They are just so REAL. And their realness presented to us a classic example of “what is the problem?”

In season 3’s final episodes, Pied Piper finally launched their consumer compressor product and the user sign on pace went berserk. However the team quickly learned the active usage compared to the massive user base they’ve achieved is practically zero. Monica set up focus group studies and invited the deeply troubled CEO Richard to listen in. During a Q&A session, all of the study participants expressed their utter confusion over the product and Richard had to charge into the study session. Their conversation went like this:

Bernice: Oh, you are the one that has forgotten the download button. (after Richard introduced himself as CEO of Pied Piper)

Richard: Yes. But no, no, actually there is no download button because, um, well you don’t need a download button. We are past it. That is the old thing. … with Piped Piper, you don’t need to download anything or send anything at all.

Clark: So it is all on my phone? Wrong, it says zero k used so it is not on there.

Richard: aha, that is the best part of it. You are right, it is not on your phone, but you don’t need it to be on the phone. If you can see it on the phone even though there is nothing there at all. ….

Richard went on and explained how the peer distribution system works and how neural network will help optimize the flow of file sharing. Although his efforts worked to convince a dozen focus group participants, it didn’t help to change the fate of Pied Piper (which sure will rebound in season 4 as the plot thus far has suggested :-)).

What was really happening with Pied Piper and what doomed its fate was, simple, it solved no problem.

Their problem wasn’t that the troubled users couldn’t understand their product. Even if Richard can clone himself so that every customer can receive a personal lecture from the very CEO himself Pied Piper’s product still wouldn’t fly. Google has built a search engine that rendered the operating rules of the entire world wide web rewritten and no Google users are in need to know what Google is really doing behind the scenes. Let along the simplicity of user design, Google users come with one problem and leave with the exact answer they seek — information. Pied Piper did nothing but a demo of their compressing technology, enough to wow the engineering community but serve their broad user base no actual solutions.

Suppose it is true that most of you are like me, constantly feeling the pain of slow internet — for example, failures in loading image files or playing videos. And suppose it is possible that Pied Piper technology can enable this great “filter” that somehow compresses down the size of incoming files for quick downloading. Was the slow internet result of poor service by my cable company? I have no need to care. Nor do I need to care about what Pied Piper did to fix the speed issue. All I need to know is I don’t have to suffer from endless waiting for my video to resume anymore!

How do you know your product has really got a future? — People stop questioning what your product really is doing and your marketing efforts always outbeats your expectation.

I can’t wait to see SV season 4 and many of us already can guess what is going to happen. But for many founders there is only one season to make or break it. For all reasons, know the problem first and solve it for a brighter future.