Solutions In Search of a Problem

During a few recent chats with my friends in the industry, I’ve heard a common refrain coming up about technologies or products being offered for sale. Typically these are advanced ideas given form that are then positioned as products for sale in the market. Overwhelmingly the feedback comes down to one phrase:

This is a solution in search of a problem.

We’ve probably said this a number of times about a protocol or a piece of hardware. Something that seems to be built to solve a problem we don’t have and couldn’t conceive of. But why does this seem to happen? And what can we do to fix this kind of mentality?

Forward Looking Failures

If I told you today that I was creating software that would revolutionize the way your autonomous car delivers music to the occupants on their VR headsets you’d probably think I was crazy, right? Every one of the technologies I mentioned in the statement is a future thing that we expect may be big down the road. We love the idea of autonomous vehicles and VR headsets and such.

Now, let’s change the statement. I’m working on a new algorithm for HD-DVD players to produce better color accuracy on plasma TVs that use PowerPC CPUs. Hopefully that statement had you giggling a little no matter what your tech level. What’s the difference? Well, that statement was loaded with technology that no one uses any more. HD-DVD lost a format war against Blu-Ray. Plasma TVs are now supplanted by LCD, LED, and even more advanced things. PowerPC has been replaced with RISC architecture and more modern takes on efficient CPUs in mobile devices.

If you’d have bet on the second combination of things back in the heyday of those technologies you might have made yourself a bit of money. You’d ultimately find yourself without a product to sell now, though. Because technology always changes. Even the dominant form of tech eventually goes away. Blu-Ray may have beat HD-DVD but it couldn’t stop streaming services. LCD replaced plasma but now we’re moving beyond that tech into OLED and even more advanced stuff. You can’t count on tech staying the same.

Which leads to the problem of trying to create solutions for problems that haven’t happened yet or are so far out on the horizon that you may not be able to create a proper solution for it. Maybe VR headsets will have great software that doesn’t need a new music match algorithm. Maybe the passengers in your autonomous vehicle won’t wear VR headsets. Perhaps music as we know it will change and not even be as relevant in the future. There’s no telling which butterfly effects will impact what you’re trying to accomplish.

Solve the Easy Things

Aside from the future problems you hope to be solving with your fancy new product you also have to take into account human behavior. Are people more likely to buy something to solve an issue they don’t currently have? Or are they more apt to buy something to solve a problem they have now? Startups that are looking five years into the future are going to stumble over the problems people have today on their way to the perfect answer to a question no one has asked yet.

I wanted a tablet because it was cool when they first came out. After using one for a few weeks I realized that it was a solution that didn’t address my pressing issues. I didn’t need what it offered at the time. Today a tablet solves many other issues that have come up since then, such as note taking or having quick access to information away from my desk. However, those problems needed to develop over time instead of hoping that my solution would work for something I couldn’t anticipate. I didn’t need a word processor for my tablet because I wouldn’t by typing much with an on-screen keyboard. Today I write a lot on my tablet because of the convenience factor. I also take notes because I have a pencil to write with instead of my fingers.

Solving problems people have right now is a sure fire way to make your customers happy and give you the breathing room to look to the future. How many times have you seen a startup with a great idea that ends up building something mundane because they can’t build the first thing right or they realize the market isn’t quite there yet?

I can remember specifically talking to Guardicore when they were first out of stealth and discussing how their SDN-based offensive security systems worked. It was amazing stuff with very little market. When they looked around and realized they needed to switch it up they went full-on into zero trust security and microsegementation. They took something that could be a great solution later on and pivoted to solving problems that people have right now. The result is a healthy company that makes things people want to buy instead of trying to sell them a solution for a problem they may never have.

If you are looking at the market and thinking to yourself, “I need to build X because it will revolutionize the way we do things” stop and ask yourself how we get there. What steps need to be taken? Who will buy it and when? Are there problems along the way? If the answer to the last question is anything other than “no” you need to focus on those problems first. You may find that you don’t need to build your fancy new vision of perfect future success because you solved all the other problems people needed fixed first. Your development efforts will be rewarded with customers and income instead of the perfect solution no one wants to buy.


Tom’s Take

Solutions without problems to solve are a lot like one-off kitchen gadgets. I may have a use for an avocado slicer twice a year. I also have a knife that does the exact same thing a little slower that I can use for many other problems around my house. I don’t need the perfect avocado slicing solution for the future when I’m making guacamole and avocado toast every day. I need a solution that gets my problems of slicing, chopping, dicing, and cutting done today. Technology is no different. Build what solves problems now and you’ll be a success. Build for the future if and only if you have the disposable time and income to get there.