Products Should Solve Real Problems

There's an idea that gets thrown around a lot which is to build products (or businesses) to solve problems you have first hand experience with. Solve a problem for yourself. If your career is in tech, especially the 'building tech for tech people' subcategory, it can be very hard to ever face these 'real problems'. Or, you end up building more developer tools (a very reasonable thing to do).

Everyone who's spent time around startups has probably heard stories of the founder who had a 'boring' idea for a company, built a 'boring' platform to solve it and then sold that company for $500M dollars. This is a good example of 'real problems' being solved.

Often, and perhaps importantly, these 'real problems' often have straightforward solutions. The number of features tends to be low. They use boring technology, free from buzzwords. When complexity comes in, its because there are real edge cases in the real world.

Counter this with many companies who ship features because someone internally, far disconnected from the problem, thought of an interesting idea. As a general rule, when a feature comes with a statement along the lines of "and this will give us a chance to try this new framework/tool/library/design idea I have been looking at" its more than likely not solving any real problems.

If you're building a product for people in the 'real world' it should be solving a 'real problem'. There's a place for crazy ideas, MVPs and passion projects, I have dozens of them littered throughout my GitHub. If you're asking people to pay you, in their money or their time, you need to trade that for things that are valuable to them.

What do you do then if the problem you want to solve lives far outside your day to day? I've been there, I spent a long time building a company to help diagnose prostate cancer, I am not a doctor. The answer there is find people for whom what your building solves a 'real problem' and be very skeptical.

It's easy to know five percent about a topic, come up with what might be a good idea and then look for people experiencing the problem you want to solve. It's easy to meet people who have a somewhat similar problem but "just don't get what I am doing". When hearing this if what you're solving isn't a problem you're facing, this should be a sign to adjust your world view, not to try make others adjust theirs. No matter what you build, the problem is the square hole. Your job is to build the square peg to fit it, even if you thought at first you might need a circle.

This post, like so many others I've written is advice to myself. I have a desire to build meaningful things, things that help people. I need reminding that I need to build to solve the problems they have, not only the ones with appealing sounding solutions.

Subscribe to Elliot C Smith

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.