The Problem with Problems

Not every opportunity is a problem.

gk on April 15, 2013 in Entrepreneurship About a 4 minute read.

I've got a crazy story for you. I went to high school in San Antonio, Texas. As a senior, I had some scheduling conflicts and somehow ended up in a journalism (yearbook) class with one of the coolest teachers imaginable. His name was Mr Thomas, but as required of the coolest teacher imaginable™, he insisted on being referred to only as 'Rob'. This guy could have been a Simpsons character. He was in a rock and roll band. He joked. He teased. He brought a guitar to class and began the morning with some impromptu balladeering:

Oh what a beautiful morning,
oh what a beautiful day,
I've got a disturbing feeling,
everything's going Gk

In his class, we laughed, sang, mocked, and worked our asses off. Shockingly, we actually learned an insane amount along the way and somehow created an incredibly high-quality yearbook. Eventually we graduated and Rob quit teaching to rock out with his band. Fast-forward ten years and Rob is producing TV shows in Hollywood (e.g. Cupid ). Fast-forward another ten years or so and he's breaking KickStarter records left and right and 'disrupting' Hollywood.

Yes, he's *that* Rob Thomas. The Veronica Mars guy.

My point isn't to name-drop (honestly, it isn't - but it is a really cool story). What I've really been thinking about a lot lately is the whole Lean Movement™. I love it, but I'm also somewhat uncomfortable with it. I haven't been able to put my finger on it, but I think my issues largely just come down to language and terminology (starting with 'Lean' itself, but running throughout: ‘MVP’, ‘Problem’, ‘Product-Market-Fit’, ‘Doppleganger’, ‘Fail Fast’, etc. ).

Words, semantics, terms, they really matter. They especially matter when there are much better, clearer terms available that allow for more accurate and meaningful expression. The example that Rob's recent experience brings to mind is ‘Problem'.

As entrepreneurs, we are implored to look for problems to solve. We are supposed to identify pain and sell aspirin. That’s the way opportunity is defined: as a problem awaiting a solution. We are supposed to validate problems in the market. I actually agree with all that, but it leaves out huge swaths of incredibly worthwhile games that entrepreneurs could be playing.

My training in Philosophy has taught me that language matters. A lot. The way we frame questions, the terms we use and concepts we employ often pre-determine the answers we get. A the least, the concepts we begin with define the possibility-space from which our answers will ultimately come.

So, I like framing things at the highest possible meaningful level. I would rather use the term ‘Desire' in place of ‘Problem'. Desire includes problem, but also goes far beyond it. For instance, a problem is a problem when you have the desire to fix it. Sure, it's just semantics, but semantics matter. Problem may more precise in certain circumstances, but it leaves so many opportunities out in the cold.

Rob is not 'solving the problem of there being no Veronica Mars movie'. He is, rather, fulfilling many, many people's burning desire for there to be one. The difference is important - if he were focused on solving people's problems, there would likely never be a Veronica Mars movie. Rob's example is accurate, but complicated (he did after all have the 'platform' of a hollywood show to build on, and entertainment products are generally not the boot-strappy kinds of products that Lean advocates for). Still, $5.7 million is $5.7 million.

Look at the 10-year Hoodie KickStarter. No one has the ‘problem’ of foreign-made raggedy hoodies. But many, many people *want* a hand-crafted, American-made, hoodie from a non-multinational company that is guaranteed to last 10 years. Brand is vital here (another weakness in the lean literature). Fashion products, lifestyle products, entertainment products, games, etc. can all be viable businesses (gasp - even startups!), but lean misses them almost entirely.

There is a Better Way and it is incredibly simple: wherever Lean talks about ‘Problem’ simply substitute ‘Desire’.

Taking on this relatively subtle shift in terminology, the Lean approach, philosophy, and processes are generally right on. Yes, yes, yes, you should get out and talk to the market. Yes, you should validate the existence and intensity of desire in the market. Yes, you should craft a product that directly addresses this desire. Yes, you should create an offer for this product that frames it in terms of the desire (e.g. Benefits not Features). Etc., etc.

When it comes to business, ‘Desire’ is a far more effective concept than ‘Problem’. There are many examples: SEO services address the desire to rank higher in Google, not the problem of not ranking higher. Makeup addresses the desire to look more desirable. While it is possible to go through the mental gymnastics of re-framing a someone’s desire to look good into a 'problem', the exercise is generally not helpful. It also tends to delve into negativity rather than aspiration.

The Lean terminology is limiting in this sense. Businesses are hard-enough. Yes, it totally helps to have very specific, acute desires that you address, but imposing conceptual limitations on yourself at the outset is not always helpful.

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