Fall in Love with the Problem, Not the Solution

The top three aphorisms I use when coaching founders are the CEO has three responsibilities, sell it before you build it, and stop solving problems that aren’t problems yet. But, if I had to pick the most important aphorism I have for building a company, without a doubt it’s this: fall in love with the problem, not the solution.

I know too many founders who are, at this very moment, out there building solutions to problems, and some of those solutions are even pretty good. But if, for whatever reason, the idea doesn’t pan out, I can already tell they’re ready to move on to something completely different. Because the founder just doesn’t care that much about the problem. And that, more than anything else, is what will eventually kill their company. Not a lack of funding, not bad product-market fit, but a lack of motivation to try something else and find another way to solve that problem when their first solution doesn’t work out.

You’ve probably heard the famous Thomas Edison quote about not failing to invent the lightbulb 10,000 times. The actual quote is so much better. 

“I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”

When you keep trying to solve the same core problem, the vast majority of your previous experience is immediately applicable. Fail to make a cake right? Make another cake and try something slightly different. Eventually you’ll have a delicious cake. But when you switch from one problem to another, or even one vertical to another, less of your experience is applicable. If you screw up that cake and then try to make concrete, only a tiny bit of that cake experience is useful. This multiplies the impact of failure because you apply so little of that experience on your next endeavor.

I know, because it happened to me. Back in 2011, I was working on OneTrueFan, a startup that used game mechanics to improve engagement on websites. Unfortunately, neither users nor publishers seemed interested in our solution. I still remember the lunch I had with my best friend and co-founder Todd where, despite the $80k in the bank, I told him, “I got nothing” and suggested we shut the company down. We ended up working on a social game for the next few months because, as it turned out, I didn’t really give a shit about audience engagement.

A buzzword in fundraising right now is the idea of “founder/market fit,” and while it’s a newer phrase, it gets to the heart of this issue. As a founder, were you put on Earth to solve this very specific problem, or do you just have a neat idea? Far too often it’s the latter and, in my mind, that’s the difference between a job and a calling.

Maybe you used to be in love with the problem, but your enthusiasm has waned over time. Back in 1993, I remember telling someone that I didn’t care if I was working for a plumbing company, I’d work anywhere if I was helping people get online. (Nearly 30 years later, here I am coaching a plumbing app.)

For nearly a decade, I was completely focused on the consumer internet. I helped put crazy, awesome stuff on the internet, like Sun.ONE, IGN and the Metal Gear Solid Name Generator. I had a blast doing it. But eventually, everyone was online and it became way less interesting. I was no longer Prometheus bringing fire to the mortals. I was just working online. It turned out what I was really in love with was being a part of nascent companies. I got to work with so many early revs of things we take for granted today, but once they were commonplace, I was bored shitless. Now I coach early-stage startups and I have access to all the nascent companies I can handle.

The next time you find yourself worrying about your startup failing, ask yourself what happens if you never make this idea work? If the answer is, “well, I’ll just go do something completely different,” consider if it’s worth investing more time and energy on your startup, given that most startups don’t succeed. Personally, I like the idea of starting companies where when it doesn’t work out the first, second or even third time, I still have plans.  

This applies to more than just starting companies too. At the end of our weekly writing conversation, I asked Megan if she always knew she wanted to write professionally. She told me how she started off after college working for a fashion magazine in New York City. It was her “dream job”, but after nine months of it she realized it actually sucked, a lot. At that point, she didn’t become a car saleswoman. She thought about other ways she could put her passion and experience to use. A few other solutions failed along the way, but because, more than anything else, she wants to write professionally, she’s getting paid to write this right now. 

— Eric Marcoullier

I’ve got stories for days about falling in love with problems and falling in love with solutions. Some good, some bad, all useful. If you’re looking for a startup coach, give me a shout at eric@marcoullier.com or visit my coaching site.

(Photo by Colin Lloyd on Unsplash)

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