Is Your Startup Idea A Vitamin Or A Painkiller? and how to test it!

In the startup world you want to be a painkiller and not a vitamin. A painkiller is a solution that solves a problem, where the user is in enough pain to pay for a solution or use it frequently enough to generate adequate ad revenue. A vitamin is a solution that also solves a problem but the user’s pain is lower than the pain of paying for it. This could be because the user’s needs are adequately met with their current solution or the problem does not affect the user as strongly as you assumed.

Mouse Trap

The Lean Startup philosophy teaches you to test your riskiest assumptions first. What I have found is that startup founders tend to focus on building a better mousetrap without even taking the time to learn if their target customer needs a better mousetrap. This idea of having a problem worth solving is also known as problem/ solution fit, and it is a critical first step to the success of any startup. So to avoid the misstep of not having a good problem/ solution fit you need to first test the following assumptions:

  1. Your target users have this problem
  2. It is not adequately solved by the current market
  3. There is an opportunity to offer a solution that is 10x better than the current market

Qualified Learning

The best way to learn if your target customer needs a better mouse trap is to get outside the building and talk to them. Set up 5–10 individual interviews (no groups) with someone you consider your target customer. Be open ended with your questions — you are here to listen and learn, not sell your idea to this person. It is best to create an interview script to make sure you ask the critical questions in the same way for each interview. This will make it easier for you to look for response patterns across individual interviews.

Start by asking some general question about the person to make sure they are your target customer. Next, you need to discover if the person experiences the problem hypothesis and that they are in as much pain as you assume without actually asking “do you experience problem x.” Asking this way can lead to false positives as it is easy for someone to just say “ya sure” when it might not even be on the top of their list of challenges for this topic. You can get around this problem by asking general questions about the challenges they face when attempting to complete a task and ordering those challenges from greatest to least. There is a chance that your problem hypothesis is not even in their top 5. If this is the case, ask them to place the problem hypothesis into their top 5 list. If the problem is not in the 1 or 2 spot, it is a clear indication that your target customer does not experience pain with this problem and you should pivot to a new target customer or a new problem hypothesis, possibly one that is at the top of their list.

Next, you need to address three key questions about your target customer: 1) How does this person currently solve the problem hypothesis? 2) How happy are they with that solution? and 3) What would make them happier with that solution?

  1. Knowing how people currently solve this problem will give you an idea of your potential competition. If they do not currently have a solution for this problem, it is an indication that the pain associated with it is extremely low and that there is no opportunity here.
  2. Knowing how happy they are with their current solution will allow you to determine if there is an opportunity to better meet your target customers’ needs. The happier they are, the harder it is to convert them to a new solution even if yours offers extra benefits.
  3. Lastly, knowing what would make the person happier with their current solution gives you an insight into what sort of added value might drive your target customer to switch from their current solution to yours.


Problem Hypothesis: New hikers have a tough time finding new hikes

Is this person my target customer?

  1. Do you hike?
  2. How often do you go?
  3. How long have you been going?
  4. What would you consider your experience level?

Does this person experience this problem?

  1. What are some of the top challenges you experience when it comes to your hiking hobby?
  2. Can you sort those challenges from greatest to least?
  3. (if problem is not on the list created in b) Where does finding new hikes rank on the list?

How does this person currently solve this problem?

  1. How do you currently overcome this challenge?

How happy is this person with their current solution?

  1. On a scale of 0–10, how satisfied are you with your current solution for this challenge?

What is their current solution missing that you could offer?

  1. What could your current solution do to get a higher number?

Quantified Learning

To validate what you have learned from customer interviews you should conduct a quantified experiment by using a simple survey. Create this survey based on the same questions you asked during the in-person interview. One additional step you can take with the volume of the survey is turning the 0–10 score into an Net Promoter Score (NPS) of the current solution using the following formula:

If the NPS for the current solution is below 0, it is a good indication that there is room for you to convert your target customer to your solution. Another indication of problem/ solution fit is if you have a large number of responses to your survey. If no one answers your survey it means you either are not using the right channels to reach your target customer or that they just don’t care, which is an indication of low pain.

Pivot or Persevere

After conducting customer interviews and collecting quantifiable data, you need to decide if you should persevere by testing the next set of riskiest assumptions, or pivot by testing a new problem hypothesis, and/ or a new target customer.


  1. Being a painkiller means there is a good problem/ solution fit
  2. To find if you have a good problem/ solution fit, conduct customer interviews
  3. Quantify what you learned from the interviews with a survey
  4. Pivot or persevere

Hope this prevents you from being a vitamin by guiding you on finding problem/ solution fit. Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter with any questions.

Follow me on Twitter: @anthonyjgrove



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