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Are you working on a real problem or did you just make one up?

I hacked together a cheat sheet to figure it out.

Are you working on a real problem or did you just make one up?

Thursday June 15, 2017,

7 min Read


I’ve worked on at least a dozens of ideas and turned them into real products. That’s not the number I am most proud of though. The number I am most proud of is the number of products that I’ve made and seen going to the grave. Out of those dozen-or-so products, almost half of them failed within first six months. Every time, there were different reasons — high customer acquisition cost, no product-market fit, no funds, or dying passion sometimes.

If I be honest with you and learn from the past, all these reasons were just variations of one core one — my failure to understand the difference between real problems and made-up problems.

A make-shift solution to a real problem will get you everything from customers to product-market fit to funds. An elegant solution to a made-up problem will yield nothing besides irritation, frustration, and depression.

The art is in identifying what sort of problem you’re solving with your product. And I might help you a bit with this blog post.

Are you playing blind to the sure shot signs?

There are some sure shot signs that we tend to miss because we are emotionally connected to the solutions we build to solve a problem. And it’s a bad thing. A REAL BAD THING. Instead, get yourself emotionally attached to the problem (instead of your solution) you are trying to solve.

“Move fast and break things,” you must have heard it an ample number of times. Just moving fast is not enough. A direction is just as much important as speed. If I had to argue personally, I would rate direction way above speed.

“Direction is so much more important than speed. Many are going nowhere fast.” — Unknown

When you connect with the problem instead of your solution, you will make progress in the right direction, and you’ll not be afraid to change the course if required. Otherwise, you stay in love with your version of the solution and remain blind to the sure shot signs that your solution is not working out.

If you couldn’t make even a dollar of revenue in 12 months of launching your product, don’t be shy in considering it a failed experiment. Rise, dust yourself and move forward. You now know one extra thing that doesn’t work. Rinse and repeat.

Of course, you shouldn’t be waiting for twelve months with every attempt, and I am sure you’ll figure it out by your third attempt how to tell if an idea is not working within the first couple of months.

Are you building something incremental?

“If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way.” — Napoleon Hill

The worst kind of failures I have seen are the ones that are incremental ideas on top of something else that neither you own nor you control. Why are these the worst kind? Because in the beginning you’ll get paying customers easily but after some time (it could be weeks, months or even years), you’ll realize that all of a sudden, no one seems to be interested in whatever you have to offer.

You will then see current users canceling their accounts and churning out. It will feel like a heartbreak — as if someone, maybe God himself, is conspiring against you. The reality would be that the product on top of which your product was an incremental enhancement, has built that feature into its product. Therefore, killing the need for your product in the market.

Now, the question is how do you figure out if your product is incremental in nature? Try answering the following question.

“What are the requirements that an ideal customer must satisfy to be able to use our product?”

Answering the question will be difficult, I know. Try listing out the dependencies that your product needs to function at its best. The higher the number of dependencies, your product tends more towards being just a feature.

Example time. If you are building a “Bot for Weather” as a product then, the list of the dependencies that your ideal user will have to satisfy will look something like this —

1. A computing device (desktop or mobile)

2. An operating system

3. An internet connection

4. A Facebook Account

5. The Messenger App

Only once these dependencies are satisfied, your product can be used. Now, for each of these dependencies, ask, “How likely is it that XYZ will build this thing baked right into their platform?”

Questions will look like these:

“How likely is it that a computing device will build a weather feature baked right into their product?”

“How likely is it that an operating system will build a weather feature baked right into their product?”

And so on.

If the answers are mostly yes, what you’re building is just a feature. Even Facebook fears the day when the companies owning the operating system and computing devices will ban the app on its platforms. You don’t have to be that finicky. But if it is likely that Messenger app itself might have the weather reports to offer, you’re in a bad position.

Are you building it because someone told you the world needs it?

“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.” — Maya Angelou

Passion is a funny thing. One night, you’ll spend juggling in your bed sleepless, and a few weeks later, you’ll find yourself questioning yourself, “Why am I even doing this?”

When intoxicated with enthusiasm the first day, we skip asking ourselves the hard questions, like, “Why will I do it?”, “How the world is a disabled place without my product?”, “What will keep me going during the days when things won’t work the way I want?”

With us brimming with what-we-thought-to-be-passion on the first day, we skip over these questions, and on the dull days, we try finding out answers. It never works, and worse, it makes you feel like an imposter — someone who you’re not.

If you haven’t asked yourself the tough questions then, it’s time to do it now. And if the answers do not satisfy you, consider pivoting your solution or to a different problem altogether before you realize that you had no passion at the first place.

Are you at a dead end in the product life-cycle?

“When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on.” — Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Do you feel your product is completely matured already but still doesn’t have the kind of traction that you expected out of it?

This last question is here only for a sanity check. If you answered in negative to every question above, the answer to this question must also be in negative. If you believe you are at a dead end of your product and don’t know what steps to take next, it’s likely that you didn’t answer to one or more questions above with honesty.

Who am I to question your honesty? I am a nobody. I was once in your shoes and had spent years working on zero-traction and incremental problems. “Why did it take me years to realize my mistake?”, I ask myself sometimes. The answer I get is not something that I particularly like.

“I kept denying even when the signs were all around me because I was not ready to accept the fact that I can come up with bad ideas too.”

If the answer to every question above except the last one was a ‘no’, perhaps, you are in some denial too. Don't worry, you are not alone.

Originally published on Medium.