How to get a startup idea ? Start with the problem. Not the Solution.

We love ‘problem solvers’ – people with the uncanny ability to provide solutions to problems that we never thought existed. Right from childhood, we are taught that problems are meant to be solved – and solved quickly. As we grow up, we are faced with a plethora of products designed to solve every one of our problems including lore about how two legends named Jony Ive and Steve Jobs transformed entire industries with their breakthrough solutions. We then move to a corporate environment where we are exhorted to ‘be a part of the solution and not the problem’ and ‘let’s discuss the solutions, let’s not discuss the problem’ and to ‘move fast and break things’

Is it any wonder then, that we became wired to ‘solve’ rather than properly frame the problem we are about to solve ? We become averse to discussing the elephant in the room – the orphaned ‘problem’. So it gets tied up in a corner of the room with his mouth taped  and hands and feet tied like Cacofonix at the final feast in Asterix comics – unable to move, while the rest of the meeting is spent ‘ideating’ solutions and ‘strategising’ execution. Discussing the problem becomes a taboo topic.

Entrepreneurship is all about falling in love with, and then only solving, the right problems. While there is a lot of information about ‘solving’ problems, there is very little ‘out there’ that touches upon how to frame the problem in a way that permits clear thinking and deep understanding of the problem that will occupy the best parts of the best years of the entrepreneur’s life! Add this challenge to the already ‘solution focused’ mindset that is wired into us right from childhood and we can see why entrepreneurship is such an obviously risky proposition.

Siam Computing, thanks to our deep expertise and active interest in the field of Design Thinking has seen several ideas that more often than not, are shortsighted and do not really solve the problem as claimed. We see frustrated entrepreneurs who work hard on trying to solve a problem, pivot repeatedly but still reach a dead end. They work so hard at a solution to a problem that they think their target group has. Until they finally give up believing that the market is not ready for their offering or that there is too much crowd in the marketplace.

We believe there is a better way. It lies in an emotion called Empathy.

Empathy : The key to better understanding a user’s problems

Empathy is a word we hear a lot these days. Everyone seems to be very excited about this emotion and its transformative effect on solving problems. According to the Interaction Design Foundation , empathy is our ability to see the world through other people’s eyes, to see what they see, feel what they feel, and experience things as they do.

Ideo provides a slightly different and yet wider perspective on empathy. IDEO believes that empathy is “deep understanding of the problems and realities of the people you are designing for”

Entrepreneurs believe that ‘market research’ will help them uncover facets of their target audience in an effective manner. However, we believe that market research will help uncover only a few aspects of the user’s psyche. Part of this is because traditional market research only uncovers ‘facts’ about people and not their ‘motivations’ and ‘thinking’. A new business model or idea needs to be tempered by both facts as well as motivations.  That’s where empathic research comes into the picture.

“Unlike traditional marketing research, empathic research is not concerned with facts about people (such as their weight or the amount of food they eat), but more about their motivations and thoughts (for instance, why they prefer to sit at home watching TV as opposed to going out for a jog).”

One of the most powerful uses of empathy is that it ensures that the entrepreneur sets aside his own assumptions and beliefs about his products and focuses instead on gaining insights into the users of their products and services and their needs . This helps uncover hidden problems and solutions that go a long way in improving the quality of the product or service. 

Focusing on empathy while looking for solutions also helps create more long lasting businesses. Focusing on a solution alone, based on preconceived notions of what is best for the customer based on the perception of the entrepreneur will result in a short term solution to what is possibly a long term customer need. So we at Siam think that businesses are actually setting themselves up for the short term by not mapping their business problem statement along the lines of empathising with their target audiences.

How Empathy allows better product design 

The Embrace Warmer had its genesis when a team of postgraduate students at Stanford were tasked with developing a new type of incubator for developing countries. Their direct contact with mothers in remote village settings who were unable to reach hospitals, helped them to reframe their challenge to a warming device rather than a new kind of incubator.

The Embrace Warmer is a classic example of how ‘connecting’ with the target audience in their real world can spark breakthrough thinking and revolutionary products that benefit the entrepreneur team, the customer or end user, and the Planet.

We could go on, but we believe that curiosity to know more and ask the 5 Why’s to get to the bottom of the issues while at the same time truly understanding the target users need through empathy will be the basic building blocks of building businesses that last. We have covered the 5 Whys as a separate blog given it’s immense importance in the scheme of things while looking for the ‘Real’ problem. We would strongly encourage you to read the article.

So, how does one become empathetic?

According to Hackernoon, Empathy is a biological capacity that has a deep evolutionary origin, it’s the act of taking another individuals perspective, and then simulating the affective value of their experiences. It’s a capability that is innate and is often a sub-conscious realization for familiar scenarios.

It’s about getting rid of our own preconceived notions of right and wrong, good and bad, useful or useless and truly ‘plugging in’ to our prospective customers and target audiences. Trying to understand their motivations, thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, goals and ways of living and working provide infinite possibilities of creating products and services from the ground up. 

In his article in the Harvard Business Review Peter Bregman states that Empathy begins with Curiosity. Because very often, we have no idea what is going on in the minds of our target audiences. 

In her blog on inc.com Jessica Stillman points out three habits that will help Entrepreneurs increase their empathy levels.

1.Getting curious about strangers

Curiosity expands our empathy levels. When we talk to people outside our usual social circle and encounter lives and world views very different from our own, we are able to understand more and more aspects of our circle. Curiosity is a key driver to better understand the beliefs, attitudes and goals of target audiences and users of the product or service that the entrepreneur plans to roll out.

2. Expanding your circle of empathy

Empathising with the ‘usual suspects’ who share our own worldview is easy. The challenge is in empathising with people who have a diametrically opposite world view. To an entrepreneur, this may mean keeping negative emotions aside as his focus group or interviewee goes into great detail about why the product is never going to work and wonders loudly why anyone would waste their time and money buying something like this. He needs to be able to take such feedback in his stride and more importantly, make course corrections accordingly

3. Listening and being vulnerable

Empathy is a two way street. Business owners also need to open up about their own motivations and the way they see the product’s uses unfolding over a period of time. Opening oneself up for feedback is not easy. But doing this at the very beginning of the journey will eventually help build better products. 

Conclusion

Products and services built on a platform of Empathy survive the ‘long haul’ and will keep the entrepreneur in business far longer than if he tried to ‘shoehorn’ his approach to the target market. Empathy, like a muscle, must be exercised often. Entrepreneurs need to get out of their offices and comfort zones to get out there into the ‘wild’ and see for themselves how people perceive, use and review their products.

Opening themselves up for feedback and then working on it provides not only concrete improvements with each iteration, but also creates a feeling of authenticity and trust in the minds of the target consumers – something that early stage entrepreneurs need on their side, more than anything else.

Further reading

Siam Computing believes that building a business is a step by step process. Similar to building a dream home. It starts with a strong foundation that is built solidly, built with care and built to allow scaling at a later point in time.

While empathy is very critical when trying to define the problem, Root Cause Analysis kicks in soon after this step. The entrepreneur and his team need to look at framing the business problem and then going into the root of the issue. Exercises involving asking the 5 Whys are time consuming and often skipped because it is easier to do so. However, skipping important steps while laying a foundation would result in a construction project that is both dangerous, as well as non scalable.

We focus on the 5Why’s and how to go about the practice, in our next blog.

This is the first of many blogs on this topic and the more we research, the more we realise how much information there is, to share with you all. 

We’d LOVE to hear from you on feedback about this topic as well as any other topics that you would like us to touch upon. We believe that the best products and services are co-created and we believe that our blog must also reflect this ethos.