A common piece of startup advice for founders is to find pain points and solve them. More specifically, “morphine” level pain points. Problems that are so severe, that your potential customers are begging you to create a solution.
If you describe your product to a potential customer and they respond, “Hmm… If that existed I’d probably use it.” That’s not a morphine problem. If you describe it and they say, “I swear to God, if you can solve that for me, I will pay you whatever it costs. I’ll carry you on my shoulders through the street screaming your praises.” That’s a morphine problem.
Every industry on the face of the earth has these. Doesn’t matter how large or small, how old or new the industry is, you will stumble upon morphine problems if you start digging.
When you find one of these golden nuggets, you’ll think you discovered a goldmine. You’ll furiously search Google for existing solutions, competitors, news articles… You’ll wonder briefly why the gold nugget was sitting on the surface and no one had picked it up, but rather than waste time with thoughts like that, you’ll jump into spreadsheets to plot out potential growth or revenue. Maybe you’ll jump into the Lean Startup Canvas and prep some customer interviews. You wonder if @ replying to Sam Altman enough on Twitter will increase your chances of getting into Y Combinator.
The more people you talk to, the more it reaffirms that there is indeed a morphine problem. You get giddy at the idea that maybe this truly is a goldmine. You notice it’s a little odd that it’s not one person, but many across this industry who all seem to have the same exact problem. It also seems to be somewhat well known among them, not some closely held secret. It strikes you as odd that no one has solved this and all your research turned up very little solution wise. It feels like a blue ocean. You glance back at your gold nugget and notice it doesn’t seem as perfect for some reason. However, you know in your heart and head that you have convinced yourself that you discovered gold. So screw it, it’s time start digging!
(Before you chime in, “Don’t you pan for gold?”. Nope, most gold production comes from mines.)
You recruit your friend to co-own the mine with you. He does the same research you did and has no doubt, “there’s gold in them hills!” (Plus, he is the only Mining Engineer you know who will work for equity.) You lease equipment from Amazon Gold Mining Services (AGMS) and get to it. You dig and dig and drill and drill. You mine as quickly as you can. Obviously, you found the perfect spot to drill on the first try, because that’s how mining works right? Suddenly you hit something! Oh my god, this must be a huge vein of gold! You climb down and notice it’s not shiny at all. It’s jet black and somber looking. It’s a casket. Inside is a startup named GigaPing. You recognize the CamelCase lettering. It’s a failed Web 2.0 startup that shut down in 2010. They appear to have built the same thing you are building. Hmmm… From what you can gather of an old TechCrunch article, it had everything except that one key feature that you plan to build and because features are SUPER DUPER critical to success, and your certain you “know” why they failed. Silly gooses. Plus, they didn’t know about “blitzscaling” back then, so they never had a chance. You get back to digging, even more sure that this is a sign that gold is just a little farther. You remember to reply to all Marc Andreessen’s tweets for a week, just in case you’ll need to skip the seed and go right into the A round. Again, another crashing halt to the digging as you strike again. You grab your friend and you both climb down, since you’ll want to share in the discovery moment together. Fuck. Another casket. You pry it open. It’s a failed startup named Information.ly. You think, “This was obviously from 2013. Whoa… That wasn’t long ago…” You struggle to find much information online. It appears they bootstrapped it, because there isn’t any tech media coverage. From the Internet Archive you can see most of their home and about page. You can’t believe how similar it was to what you are trying to build. They even had that one key feature! It’s obvious that it failed because it was bootstrapped, right? Plus, it all about execution! …And I know I can execute better than these people whom I have never met and have no clue about their background, experience, work ethic, intelligence, capital, or connections. You loudly declare, “Nicola Tesla remained celibate his entire life to focus all waking hours on work…. I bet I can do that too… I bet Information.ly wasn’t willing to go that far!” You triumphantly clench your fist around the original gold nugget you found. Ouch! Its sharp edges cut your handly slightly. You have never really stepped back for a second and taken a close look at the nugget. You mutter, “Weird, I don’t remember gold having sharp edges….” Upon returning to the office, your mine co-owner walks over to you. He’s holding his laptop and on it is a picture of something that looks just like your gold nugget. He seems perplexed by something he discovered on the Wikipedia entry for Gold in the “See Also” section. He pauses… “Have you ever heard of this thing called Pyrite?”
I can remember once digging that same mine. In early 2014 I had stumbled into what I believed was an amazing opportunity. It wasn’t a small gold nugget. It appeared so big that I’d need a rent a crane to lift it. A friend is a political consultant who had managed several dozen campaigns. He described how he and all of his campaign manager friends coast to coast spent most of their days cleaning up technology for campaigns, helping them adopt and piece together existing tech, and constantly lowering their hopes for every having a day where they didn’t have to fight with garbage software.
He gave me an 10,000 foot overview of the entire political software industrial complex. It was (and still is) horrible. If you think the political system of the U.S. is broken, you have no clue how bad its software solutions are. It seemed unreal that obvious problem after obvious problem hadn’t been solved. There was gold everywhere. My gut reaction was that it seemed impossible that this industry could be so fundamentally flawed. Simple solutions seemed so possible here and there, that I found myself only seeing what I wanted to see. Willing myself to believe we had just struck the motherload. Every campaign manager we talked to was chomping at the bit for what we were describing to build. It was probably the most obvious set of customer interviews I have ever done where these people had morphine level problems.
My friend had found his mine co-owner. I was in. A third miner joined us and we got to digging. The drill barely pierce the surface before hitting the first casket. Their zombie site looked like garbage, so we brushed it off. We shifted the rig slightly to the left a few paces. Another try and another dead startup a foot down. How is this possible? It’s like we were digging in a cemetery of failed startups. We needed some more intel on how to better dig and it needed to come from people other than the campaign managers themselves. We pushed our networks to the max. We milked every introduction we could get until we reached people high up on both sides of the political industrial complex. Including the municipal, county, state, & federal levels. For-profit and non. Likeable and dispicable. We talked to them all.
Something happened that has never happened in my 14 years of startup life. Every person we met tried to talk us out of what we were attempting. I don’t remember the exact words from the one advisor, but his words felt like, “Are you fucking idiots?!?” He knew we had talked to a bunch of other people already who had told us to run as fast as we could from political software. He couldn’t understand why we still wanted to meet him, like eager puppies to jumping at the chance to pitch our software. He did us a kindnesses and walked us through the real situation behind each “opportunity” we had discovered, the startups that tried and failed at it, why they failed, and then the giant overarching reason they never really stood a chance. It felt like a prescription to rid ourselves of this disease of an idea. We wanted a second opinion (and a third and a forth). So, we reconnected with all those we had talked to previously, relayed his comments, and were shocked by how many of them not only fully agreed, but it jogged their memories of even more things we were up against that are unique to political software.
He was right. We were behaving like “fucking idiots”. Long story short, the political software space behaves like politics. The is no Lean Startup Canvas that has a section on it to cover the nonsense you find there. It behaves by rules that no amount of Stanford B-School classes or Elon Musk speeches could prepare you for. One advisor explained to us why nearly every startup in this space fails and why most that last are non-profits, in this sentence: “It’s fucked because it’s fucked.” I still don’t know exactly what that means, but I got the gist.
We were stumbling blindly into a live battlefield. Mortars hitting all around. A tank crushing through the side of a house as rebels flee at the back. Jets screaming through the sky. And there we were, walking up to a commander and asking him if he thought this was a good place for us to open our new Subway franchise. “Ya know… Because, everyone looks so tired and hungry and the local populace seems in need of jobs. (And who doesn’t like sandwiches, am-I-right?)” He doesn’t reply. He simply gives a thousand yard stare and makes us shrink. No words are need. Our idea. It’s fucked because it’s fucked.
This isn’t a situation where these political insiders are too close to the their industry or their own services to have perspective. It’s not that these advisors are too jaded to possibly be impartial or mindful of reality. No, they definitely understood. The had lived the reality. They had lived the market research. We took the same mis-informed attitude that tech founders have used to approach politics since the beginning of the Valley. We were tourists pretending to be locals and trying to tell them about life in their own city.
Sometimes there is a good reason why a glaring problem remains unsolved. When you find something that to even the untrained eye is obviously broken and it appears that no one has stepped up to capitalize on it, take a moment to pause and ask yourself, “What is really going on here?” Not what they are telling you is the problem, but what the real underlying cause is. Sometimes you are missing a key piece of information that you have to study and find first. Many times… Hell, most of the time, the real cause of the problem is not the obvious guess, it’s something much more complex. More deeply rooted. More based on factors that can not be easily controlled for. Sometimes more based on the need for an industry or societal level shift, than a packable solution.
Hearing about a morphine problem is not a clear indicator of a startup need. It’s an indicator of a big problem, for no doubt real, but not necessarily an indicator that it is solvable by a startup. There are many problems that are only suitable for non-profits and others only a governmental entity has the scale to address it. Sometimes the only real solution is an industry change from the inside, not from an external offering.
A couple tips on how to get to the real problem as quickly as possible.
Customer interviews are only part the info you need.
If I helicoptered Casey into the middle of a desert and Casey talks to person after person who is dying of thirst, Casey would quickly realize, “Wow, this is a real problem to solve.” One person says he’d pay $50 a gallon. Another says $100 and another says $500. That’s 150 times the cost of a bottle of Fiji Water! … “I wonder what they would pay for a bottle of VOSS here??”
This is a big problem with customer interviews. This is exactly what they can feel like. They can give you a false sense of hope that there is someone willing to exchange money for value you can provide. Customer interviews are still an amazing tool and I will always continue to use them.
But you need to imagine a huge floating asterisks* next to the head of the interviewee as they talk (something like… *Please use extreme caution before drawing conclusions from anything I’m saying.)
If there is a road to success, it’s paved with the caskets of failed startups.
There is an app for everything these days. I expect an on-demand ferret sitting app to launch any moment now. There is also an app to expedite the validation of whether or not the problem you are exploring is both real andsolvable. It’s called “Failed Startups” and it’s free to download.
Most founders with ongoing operations in your intended space aren’t going to sit down with you and explain in intimate detail the workings of their business, customers, marketing, challenges, etc… Some may and more power to you if you can get them to do so (*Keep in mind they could be feeding you disinformation). For the rest of us, the vast world of failed startups in your intended space holds a treasure trove of value.
From my experience, many failed founders will talk openingly and in detail about their experiences and learnings. You simply need to approach them with genuine interest in learning from their story, appreciation for them opening up, and empathy for how bad it must have felt to fail. That’s it. That’s the entire cost to you for unlocking information that might have cost them $500,000 and two years of their life.
When you realize how very few ideas are original and how unlikely it is to come up with one, you will also realize how many failed startups there must be in the space you are looking to enter. Even if we surmise that 75% of them failed because of bad leadership, that would still leave a quarter that are still holding onto a missing piece of the map that you need. Something that will help you better navigate this road. Maybe even the piece of the map that says, “This road is closed. Extremely dangerous. Do not proceed.”
I wish you the best of luck in your gold mining adventures.
— — — — — — — — — —
If you enjoyed this piece, please hit Recommend!
This article was written from scratch and published the same day as part of a 31 day writing challenge. To follow me on Medium through this writing challenge, go here:https://medium.com/the-writing-challenge