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Ask HN: What are good ways to find startup problems to solve?
40 points by pigpigs on Aug 14, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 46 comments

If you're looking for a startup, something that's supposed to start cheap and scale huge in <10 years, then you're probably only looking at problems that can be addressed by software on the internet.

That being said, you don't have to look there. You can start a huge variety of businesses just by gaining modest expertise in something new and then charging people for doing that thing. EX: get a $1K drone, learn to fly it, and charge half of what it would cost a helicopter/plane to get the same shot. It's not a startup, but it's a business, and it might lead to a startup.

Startups seem to be bimodal (no I don't have data for this) in that they're either business-focused or solution-focused. Uber is business-focused. They don't give a damn about anything other than fat stacks of cash. Tesla is solution-focused. Musk just needs the business to last long enough to achieve his goal of shifting the market away from fossil fuels.

It's a lot easier to find a business opportunity than to find a solution you're passionate about AND makes for a good business. Most people who just pursue a solution end up in non-profits or simply realize that there's no way to sustain an organization providing that solution.

If you're just looking for a chewy problem to solve, then PM me because I'm working on a good one.

This question has also been in my head for a while.

I suggest maybe we stop looking for problems to solve and start solving problems we have.

A simple problem that I have right now is ,

I am in need of a high quality technical text book that is in my local language (swahili).

First I can't buy anything from amazon or the other online retailers because I don't have a credit card.

Second, even if I am able to order from amazon I wont be able to get a Swahili version of the book ( Due to a myriad of corporate reasons).

Third, I'm broke I can't afford the dollars that also accompany the shipping costs and the tax that my government has just raised.

So, I sit down and think. Maybe it is about time, we start giving some love to the millions os swahili speakers eager to contribute to the recipes of this big cake called internet.

I find static sites cheap, and elegant. I mix the solution with strong security, and use modern tools to bring speed and relevancy. Many people start to use my platform, a new eco system is born and bam there goes a new amazon, solving a real problem and I'm sure as hell I can afford to pay in my local currency.

The company gets acquired by, guess who? Then you zero the clock and start the whole process again.

From the example above, you can notice, I never looked for a problem to solve but I just solved the problem I had.

But how would your startup make money, if your customers don't have credit cards and are broke?

How do you make something for the hand-to-mouth working class, who are neither so poor that you can coax the wealthier into donating, nor have any disposable income?

The customers are broke because the quotes are in dollars, and the TSH is less valuable than USD. Which again another startup problem waiting to be solved.

The lack of credit card, is another problem that I have. Which is another startup problem waiting to be solved.

People pay if there is value in what you are offering.

How is the value of the Tanzanian shilling relative to the dollar a problem to solve with a startup?

I admit to over each on that statement. But my point still stands, with context of the example.

Buying things with local quotations might be good for the scenario.

This is usually the tip I give to people that want to learn programming. Find a problem you have and try to solve it or make a routine easier. It will make you more passionate about the topic and you will be your own audience making sure you understand more what is needed.

I'm enjoying programming because of this.

Though at some point, it become harder to convince someone else to help with your cause.This happens to me most of the times, I become too immersed in the problem as the problem keeps expanding bringing more problems along the way.

I had to master all aspects of the web development, from dev ops, backend to frontend so I wont be disappointed by spending hours convincing a frontend guy to contribute to a very complex backend( mind that it is not complicated ) where the guy lacks the back story on the original problem I had.

I'd argue that in finding a subject for a startup, you don't want to find a problem. I mean, why would anyone want problems?

What you want for a startup is fertile ground.


Go to the nearest upper-middle-class person you know (at the 10th percentile of revenues). Ask for their account statement. For each line, try to answer the following:

1) What are the margins? Is the price of the item driven by costs of production, or by what people accepted to pay? You want the latter. Prefer emotional over utility.

2) How did the person came to know the product? What were the drivers of acquiring the product? What did close the sale? What were the alternatives?

3) What is the cost of entering this market? Would you be able to do it?

- Then you have a list of fertile grounds, out of which you can try to work out:

4) What can be improved over this market? How would you sell differently?

5) What can be improved over this product? What would you modify in the product?

6) Are they buying it? Build only the store front: throw a landing page somewhere, stir some activity, see if you get emails. Interview the leads you got. It's ok to announce to people you won't be doing X.

7) And then, only then, you can work on a problem to exploit the scarcity of being the only one having solved it.

Great post. There is no reason to limit this process to the top 10%. Plenty of money over the years has been made focusing on the middle (think Wamart).

I assume you probably tried 'scratching your itch' and it isn't really going anywhere from there.

Not all itches are opportunities. All great, subtle opportunities lying out there may not necessarily happen to be your itches.

That said, if you are looking for problems i.e your problems that you want to solve, but just couldn't find something, then what's wrong is that you aren't doing a lot of things.

Go shopping. Watch out for things that you think could be made better. Accompany a friend to a hospital. See what solvable problems lie in the process of treating a patient in a hospital. Experience a lot of things. I'm sure you'll eventually hit on something that you can solve.

Another good exercise is to look for things that qualify as unsolved problems in different domains/industries. This isn't tough. HN's Who is hiring thread is a great place to start. These threads are a key knowledge base of people working on problems. Go ahead, just do a HN search and you'll realize there's a lot of things waiting to be made better!

"What are good ways to find startup problems to solve?" - is a deep question. If you do crack things out (and I'm sure you will), please make sure you share it with the community :)

Talk to people who you want to help. Try to figure out if you're good at something they're not.

If you start a startup, you're going to spend every waking hour for, like, 2 years thinking about the problems your customers have. (After that, you'll start thinking about building / structuring your company more.) You have to like them. You have to understand them. Your current ideas about what will sell and scale are, at best, poorly specified. Go ask people what their hopes and fears are.

On the other hand, you also have to actually provide something novel. Think about what you believe that's contrarian, or you learned in the last year or two about the current state of things. Write that down, but don't spend a ton of time on it. That's probably going to be at the root of the solution you come up with.

For me, this was marketing analytics. I was working in marketing, and I like marketers. I was a dev for a while, so I knew how to glue together the data sets marketers used. The specific problem/answer took a solid 6 months to really come together, because it took me 6 months to go have a couple dozen really solid conversations with VPs of Marketing. It turns out there's about 3 classes of tools that are vastly underutilized by modern B2B marketers because they're poorly integrated. If you put them together, a 4th tool naturally emerges. So we're building that. It's going to take a while, because it's a lot of functionality, but it certainly wasn't something that we knew we were going to build at the beginning of the journey.

Go talk to people. Empathize, be curious, apply your slant. Your start is going to have your fingerprints all over it, so don't be afraid to get really personal about finding a problem that gets you excited to solve.

Paul Graham wrote an essay on this topic which might help you. http://paulgraham.com/startupideas.html

I love this article. I'm very much inspired by what is written here, but for the most part can't find an 'itch' to scratch.

Right now I'm just building stuff I consider is cool / fun and see how it goes from there.

Just curious, what do you find cool / fun?

Unprecedented applications mostly enabled by new / disruptive technology. Things that do scratch my itch (even though most of them don't resonate with others)

Right now I'm working on Ethereum dApps as I have a strong feeling that the world will gravitate towards p2p / distributed tech and Ethereum is arguably one of the key technologies that will bring us there

I can't wait to see how the Ethereum ecosystem progresses from now up through sharding. Plus the drama is priceless entertainment.

"Scratch your own itch"

I've built two apps (MDB Viewer and Postico) because the tool I needed for my work didn't exist. It turns out, other people often have similar problems!

I was curious about your tools since it's really uncommon nowadays for one-man ventures to build desktop software. I'm assuming your Postico projecto is the postegres viewer. Not looking for exact numbers, but how is it selling? Are you able to make a living out of it, or it's mostly beer money?

My current revenue is around 10.000€ per month (mostly from Postico).

I'm not really a one-man venture anymore; I've recently hired a part time employee (I'd like to hire someone full time, but it's harder than I expected to find people)

There are lots of other one-man ventures making desktop apps. From the top of my head I can think of MarsEdit, Base from Menial, SQLPro manager, Acorn (image editor), Dash (documentation browser).... all Mac apps made by a single developer.

This startup was created to solve just this problem: https://nugget.one

One of the founders is the host of the Techzing podcast http://techzinglive.com. You can hear some of the background on Nugget if you listen to the more recent episodes.

Awesome! I was just thinking the problem with finding startup problems might be a good one to solve aha!

From your follow-on comments I'm not sure whether the challenge for you is finding problems or identifying that it's a problem that is worth working on. Providing a little more information on the sort of problems you have seen and then why you have decided to not work on them would help others be more specific with their guidance.

I think that problems will obviously need to resonate with enough people for a startup to even exist.

As a recent graduate, honestly I have not experienced many of the industry pain points, and am limited to the really general food delivery, dating apps, edtech tools.

I did work on certain problems before. A group of us worked on a few versions of an MVP for an in-class active learning backchannel that many students & professors thought they needed. It was a complete disaster that ended with both sides realizing it was not a pain enough problem for them.

I also worked on a dating app that tried to solve a problem in my high school days. It allowed someone to anonymously send 'smooches' to their crushes, who would ideally see the email and sign up to do the same to their own crushes, alerting them of a match if they sent one to a person who sent to them. It was fun but didn't really get a lot of attention and traction.

Right now in a bit of an idea drought and don't know what to work on concretely.

Thoughts on how to push through

1. Pick an industry that you are either interested in and/or you believe is going to be more profitable - i.e. financial services pay more than retail therefore more potential.

2. Take a friend from University who works in that industry and not in technology to dinner, beer, coffee and find out what aspects of their job they find are the biggest PITA.

3. Read up what the management consultants are talking about. Not they should be considered gospel on problem or solution but if they are trying to sell something they believe there is a) problem that exists in that industry, b) there is a market for a solution and c) the industry is buying that solution.

4. Read up what your potential competitors are doing about the problem

5. Go to your thinking space (mines the movies) and noodle.

6. Compare your idea to the knowledge you've acquired in 2,3 and 4.

You can bail out at any point, you can do 1 through 4 in any order but do them before 5 and 6. You can be running multiple problems in parallel and you'll probably end up with ideas that coalesce. Then when you've got to step 6 make a decision about whether you're still interested in the problem, because now comes the hard work.

Solve a problem for yourself! Ideas are in our everyday lives - look closely, those things/services/tools you 'wish' could exist, you just might spot a niche - then build it for 'you', and you'll realise how many people needs this product/tools/services!

That's good advice! But I've been trying to do this and I might be too content with my life cause I can't find these frustrating problems / 'itches'.

Too content with your life? Think bigger. eg... http://worrydream.com/ClimateChange/

...it doesn't have to be climate change per se. The point is that if you don't see things to improve on a given level, look at a higher level. Or a longer time horizon.

A lot of this is going to be hard to solve on the level of software. But not all! And maybe you can team up with people with other skills.

Check out the talk Startup Ideas and Validation [1]. The key insights are:

* Innovative ideas are rarely, if ever, eureka moments. They usually evolve after spending a huge amount of time thinking about a specific problem.

* Ideas do not form out of nothing. You are not creating new knowledge so much as finding new ways to connect knowledge that you already have. So the more you know, the more ideas you can have.

* The environment plays a huge role in helping you combine your existing knowledge in novel ways. There are a number of tweaks you can make to your environment that make it easier to come up with great ideas, including keeping an idea journal (write down not only ideas, but problems you encounter on a daily basis), regularly letting your mind wander and relax (fixation can prevent creativity), adding constraints to the problem (constraints breed creativity), playing the "Wayne Gretzky Game" (live in the future and build what's missing), and seeking out pain (where there is pain, there is opportunity).

[1] http://www.ybrikman.com/writing/2016/02/14/startup-ideas-and...

I solved a problem I had writing some simple scripts. I think it solves a problem for no less than 5k people in my country.

I spoke with a couple of friends with the same problem and they were really interested so I integrated all the scripts in a program with a easy to use gui...

The 2 friends never used the program... the website I created got almost no visits from organic search.

It solves a problem that is related to schools but you have to use the software since the start of the school year to be of help so I'm in the process to cold-email some people about the software...

Unfortunately there are no places where the potential users hang...

After all the time spent reading about mvp, startups, releases, growth hacking, I'm proud I could complete the software and release it... also if nobody will never use it.

I had a pain and solved it but it is not enough when it is impossible to reach the audience of possible users...

I think meeting new people is a great way to find startup ideas if you personally don't have any. I am collaborating with two different friends that were complete strangers prior to a couple a months for fun and both the ideas are not mine. I am working hard to make sure both gets good traction.

move to a developing nation. i spent 2 yrs on a service mission for mexico. really opened my eyes to how different life is for people outside the US. simple things like mobile phone banking are huge game changers in these countries. go and look around for awhile and you will find some big opportunities.

If you are looking for problems, it's very easy: Do stuff.

Not doing anything you don't know any real problems and can only think about the next photo sharing app.

Working with others on actual customer tasks lets you learn to know the customers situation and problems.

Have a kid. Everything is broken.

I am about to do this and am very interested in seeing this, I have a feeling you are very right. :)

Work for a Fortune 500 for a year - finding their pain points will be unavoidable.

Check out effectuation.org/learn

The idea is to start with who you know, what you know, and who you are. Then through conversations with people you know, ask them their problems that they are ready to pay to solve. Find common things that several of them are ready to pay for..

That's a great way to start, and will give you great problems that very few others might want to solve..

I think the only real way is to live in the world outside of only development. There you will find crazy niches that are still far behind and could really benefit from a tech infusion.

Most people who solved a major problem wanted to meet a need of a market, and that need is hard to see unless you're familiar with the market.

The satiated man and the hungry man do not see the same thing when they look at a loaf of bread - Rumi.

So be hungry or starve self of necessities. eg: Take public transport instead of a car. Walk few miles if u want to get somewhere instead of car during weekends.

1) think of frustrating situations that you encounter in your daily life 2) determine if that is a situation other people also find frustrating 3) if so, there is probably an underlying problem to the situation, just waiting to be solved.

Lots of people talk about this, but do they really occur that often? I don't seem to encounter many such situations that can be solved much better than current offerings. As a fresh graduate there is a lack of domain experience as well for me to understand (or know at all) the pain points in various industries.

Perhaps I'm just not thinking out of the box enough.

I tend to notice lots of inefficiencies at small businesses that I frequent. When the front desk person says they're having computer problems; that's a great time to strike up a conversation and see what they think about the software they use every day and how they think it could be better. If you think you could fix that problem, you're on the right track.

Google Trends

Bookmarking, some nice ideas here

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