The Problem with Problem-based Entrepreneurship

Start-ups and new businesses get created for different reasons. It may be based on a skill you would like to scale-up and monetize; it may be something you’re passionate about that you want to share with a larger audience; it may be a discovery you’re involved in that you’d like to apply in a new & unique way. Before you build your start-up, it’s important to consider both what your immediate goals are (financial model, action plan), but also consider what your end game is.

A recent trend has shown entrepreneurs encouraged to start from a problem: what is the problem you want to solve? This may seem noble, but there’s an innate issue with this approach. The more effective your solution is, the more quickly and easily the problem will get solved, and the less your company can profit from it. Entrepreneurs taking this approach often get stuck in the “help your audience, but not too much” mindset. I’ve personally heard entrepreneurs say “our product worked too well. It wasn’t a sustainable model”. Starting from a problem means that you’re limiting your skills, knowledge, and experience to solve a specific problem. You’re in a limited mindset that forces you to squeeze your round skill-set into a problem’s square peg.

I’d like to suggest that although this strategy may work well for some start-ups, in most cases, you’re capping your potential impact, and therefore, your potential gain.

Here’s why it’s important to consider your end game. Let’s say that, thanks to your product or service, your problem is solved tomorrow. Then what? Can you pivot to another market, or apply it to another problem? Then what? What’s important is not the problem; it’s what you’re offering.

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust

The journey is the reward

Try a different approach. Start by doing what excites you, and then discovering and honing your unique set of skills, so that when you do find a problem worth solving, you’ll be doing it your way. You may find yourself at the same problem you’d originally planned on tackling, but with a whole new energy: driven by passion and enthusiasm to use your skills in a way that will serve others. This is what’s known as a human-centric approach, because it focuses on the people you’ll be serving (including you), and keeping them happy.

“Human-centric” approaches are effective because—rather than focusing on the problem—they focus on resources. What have we got, and how can it serve others? The passion-based approach is exciting because it involves doing what you already love doing, finding out how it can help others, and improving at it until you do it extremely well. Then, paired with complementary knowledge (or partners with that knowledge), you can learn to apply it in a business model that serves yourself and your market without being contingent on specific problematic conditions.

Design-based approach

Another human-centric approach is called the design-based approach. This approach integrates “design thinking” into your business process to create beautiful, functional, and innovative products and services. Paired with market research into what people actually need and want, it’s a powerful tool for creating successful ideas that are in tune with people’s needs. Rather than taking a financially viable product and squeezing it into a trendy wrapper, the design-based approach encourages design thinking at every step of a business’ development, to deliver a response to a market’s needs as simply and elegantly as possible. This is a human-centred approach because it involves intense research into what would actually serve people best. It also helps develop a holistic design approach to doing business, which ensures that all aspects of a business are contributing to its mission and in line with its core values.

Ideally, your business is something you’ll pour money and energy into for a very long time, and your approach is the vehicle you’ll use to drive it forward—pick one that you can feel good about. Your business should be something you’re really in love with. Rather than getting caught up in a problem, look out for opportunities; they offer a lot more freedom to move, learn, and grow.

Andrea Di Stefano

Andrea Di Stefano

Andrea Di Stefano writes on the subject of personal development and spirituality, sharing his collected insights on “character ethics” as they apply to industries as varied as education, public health, and finance. He’s currently Editor for McGill’s academic publications and founder of Avant Midi Inc., a personal development, spirituality, and self-empowerment online publishing house.