What is the first milestone you need to achieve once you’ve set up shop for your startup? Perhaps, one that will help you ensure that you’re on the right track and that you indeed work towards building the right product for the right customers? Well, more or less it’s about making sure you’ve validated a problem-solution fit. And, of course, that you’ve achieved that by following the right steps, ensuring yourself a steady footing.
Note here that, as we’ve previously highlighted on our blog, the road is being shaped as you move on it; nothing is written in stone. In the same fashion, by validating a problem-solution fit we don’t mean that it’s a one-off process. At least, not one that once completed you’ve got it made for good and for all. If you ask us, it’s quite the opposite. And that’s because you’ll definitely be called upon re-evaluating both your offering and your customers’ needs, as well.
Market and customers’ needs
These change from time to time. And, when that happens, you need to find yourself in a position that will allow you to detect them, early on. To put it another way, you’ll need to be looping through a continuous testing process. However, the first validation, the first test you need to conduct — and make sure you get some good conclusions out of it — is that of the problem-solution fit. That’s, actually, a prerequisite for the next steps.
The problem-solution fit is what we’re going to discuss below. Together with the problems that may arise if you don’t conduct the experiment; or fail to get some useful results out of it 😉. Will that hold you back? Of course! And that’s simply because if you don’t produce enough hard evidence that you do meet the standards — or, much worse, if you’ve carelessly omitted this critical step — you’ll inevitably be forced to retrace your steps all the way back to defining the problem.
Try to answer this question: “Is the problem worth solving?”. You need these answers before you can start building, in any direction. The key here is to avoid having to reverse engineer your way to some answers; or, much worse, fail for lack of direction. That would be such a terribly wasteful way to go. :/
Why is a problem-solution fit that critical?
Once you get into building a company from scratch, that alone means that you’ve endeavored into uncertainty and hardship. There are so many parameters you need to take into account, long before you can make the right decisions and put your plan into action. And, for startups, things are a bit trickier. To use an example, it’s as if you’re exploring the backcountry with no map. No matter the product type you’re aiming to build and no matter the market type you plan to target, the data you have in your hands is yet to be validated. You only start with a set of assumptions. That’s what you have. That you should treat them as such.
Now let’s get into the meat of the topic. Let’s see exactly how a problem-solution fit helps you obtain/get access to more tangible facts.
Problem-solution fit: start by removing the riskiest parts of your endeavor
A problem-solution fit helps make sure that your initial hypotheses have been validated (proven right); and that your solution — the one you’re about to build— does solve a problem worth solving. A problem you initially assumed your customers have, one that you need to verify whether it’s one they care to solve 😉. That’s what’s going to bring paying customers in. And that’s what you’ll be using to build your business on. To be more precise, a problem-solution fit helps you get closer to these facts.
Problem-solution fit: from theory to practice
This critical step of validating your initial assumptions, is part of the Customer Development process. It was originally introduced by Steve Blank. And, ever since, there have been a host of books, articles and discussions within the startup community, highlighting its effectiveness. But, the truth is, though we’ve all heard, read or even discussed this concept, we can rarely appreciate theory without putting it into practice.
It’s not unusual to wheel out Customer Development, Lean Startup, Agile Development and other methodologies that help startups minimize risks and still fail to understand their value and best practices. And, despite the fact you can get closer to sustainable growth without performing a reality check at each step, are you sure you have made the most out of them? Could you repeat this kind of success? Or was it a success by chance? You must be mindful throughout the entire endeavor. Otherwise, failure could lurk around the corner.
With that quite uncomfortable truth in mind, let’s take a closer look at how we can start working on a problem-solution fit.
We’ve put together a list of indicative questions that you’ll need to answer, in order to validate your assumptions. Furthermore, we’ll also introduce an overview of practical tips you can use to test these hypotheses, based on your unique scenario. That includes type of product and market, special features and parameters, etc.
Questions you have to answer to validate a problem-solution fit
1. Validating the problem
First of all, you need to get in your customer’s shoes and collect as much information as you can. That is, regarding the problem you’re planning to solve. Do they have it? Does it pain them? Are they looking to solve it? WIll they pay for a solution? In short, you need to make sure that this still “hypothetical” problem is a loose end worth pulling on. To put it on paper, try to determine what our customer’s reality is.
For this purpose, you need to answer the following questions:
- Do they have a problem worth pursuing? Are there enough people that have it?
- Is it one that we claim to be solving?
- Do they care to solve it? Is it a pain in their neck?
- Are they willing to pay for it? Would that make us a viable business?
- Does a case of not solving the problem cost them in time or money?
2. Validating the solution
Secondly, and though you may not follow the process to the letter, in terms of a predetermined sequence of steps, you also need to thoroughly investigate if your solution is one that matches your customers’ needs. In particular, you need to be more specific as to what you plan to offer. To put it another way, our core question has to do with our intention. What is our promise/intention? In the same fashion as with validating the problem, we need answers to some questions regarding its solution:
- Will they trust our solution?
- Will your solution be good enough, as compared to solutions produced by our competitor?
- If it’s a solution offered as service, then is it engaging enough for them to adopt and keep using over time?
- Is it affordable to them?
- Is it affordable enough for us to keep new vendors off the board for at least a while?
3. Consider your implementation
Finally, though ideas come 10 for a dollar, the difficult part is to implement them. As they say, a paper plan works just perfect! But, how about reality? So, it’s time for our reality check considering all the problems we’ll need to resolve. That is, once we’ve started building our solution. Here are a few questions we ourselves need to answer:
- Is it feasible to implement our initial idea? (especially, for tech products)
- Do we have the available resources to produce that outcome in a reasonable timeframe?
Did you notice that the questions above are all close-ended questions (yes/no)? Well, there’s a reason for that. Since you need strong evidence that your initial assumptions are valid, you need to shape your questions in such a way that they can be easily falsifiable. And that is true for both the questions you have to answer to proceed with your strategy and the questions you’re going to ask your potential customers before you can define your business plan.
And the latter — asking potential customers questions — is one of the ways you can also use for your validation process, on all aspects of your product. Read on to get more ideas on working towards problem-solution fit 😉.
How to validate the problem-solution fit
Apart from directly asking your (potential) customers any useful questions, you also need to come up with ways to test the initial assumptions, pertinent to your business model. More specifically, after discussing with your team to determine which assumptions were initially taken for granted, you’ll have to prioritize your efforts and focus on the riskiest one first. Though we’ve already mentioned this, it needs thorough consideration. It’s exceptionally easy to veer off course and stress over things that are less important; minor even. Or, perhaps, it’s just the wrong timing. Sometimes, there are considerations that are not currently that important. So, once you decide on these riskiest assumptions, it’s time for the crash test. To that end, you may use some of the following tools. These are just ideas:
- Create a generic landing page that summarizes your value proposition and prompts your visitors to take action. The CTA — and the transition that leads to it — would be the crucial part of your test.
- Craft a prototype, an explainer video, a demo or a presentation based on that. Invite a group that belongs to your customer segment, to take part in a survey. Get their feedback asking questions, such as the ones mentioned above.
It could be a combination of different tactics, if needed. In any case, as the problem-solution fit method dictates, you’ll have to shape your tests to allow for a pragmatic conclusion; positive or negative. And that would be feasible, as discussed, by formulating falsifiable hypotheses. Ash Maurya, author of Running Lean, explains that part in his book, quite aptly.
Doing it the right way
Some startups may fall into a trap where their assumption about the solution to a problem may not be what customers need. That’s largely the reason why all initial hypotheses — and leaps of faith — need to gradually be validated; using the most affordable, fast and efficient tactics.
Minimizing waste should be a matter of top priority for startups. And validation experiments, as those described in the problem-solution fit process are of paramount importance; both at the beginning of each venture — the riskiest part of the endeavor — and throughout development.