A practical guide to finding problems to solve in less than 60 minutes
2 years ago

Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash

Ideation is a subtle art that most entrepreneurs struggle with.

If you’re just starting out, you either have way too many ideas to be able to focus on a single one. Or no ideas at all.

This article aims to help you find a worthwhile idea you can pour your heart into for the next few weeks, months or even years.

There are different approaches to generate new business ideas. However, based on my analysis of 50 products built by bootstrappers, one particular approach stands out from the crowd. And yes, you guessed it, it's about solving your own problems.

In this chapter, I've tried my best to turn the popular saying of solving your own problems into a practical system you can use to extract problems worth solving from your own life and experiences, in less than an hour.

At the end of the article, I'll quickly go over the other approaches to finding problems to solve, just in case this one doesn't work out ( Although, it should ).

Scratching your own itch

The basic premise of scratching your own itch is : If something is frustrating you, it's probably frustrating a bunch of other people too.

In my opinion, this is still the most efficient way to come up with good ideas and increase your chances of success.

And it makes sense too. By solving your own problems, you're making sure you have an intimate understanding of the pain points, you know you are solving a real problem and most importantly : you'll stick with it for way longer, compared to solving someone else's problem.

What the numbers say
Based on the analysis of 50 interviews of bootstrapped products from IndieHackers.com

  • 67.15% of bootstrappers used this method to come up with their product ideas
  • The average revenue of products using this approach is $3.1k/month
  • The median revenue of products using this approach is $25.7k/month
  • The highest revenue of products using this approach is $500k/month
  • The lowest revenue of products using this approach is $600/month

How to find your own problems
Because it's not that easy

If you ever tried to make a list of your own problems, you may have found that it's not as easy as it may seem. More often than not, you'll find that the problems you come up with are boring, trivial or not painful enough.

Below is a practical system you can use to deconstruct your life and uncover problems to fix in about an hour or so. You're going to need some kind of kanban board, I'm using trello but you can use any other similar tool.

Start by creating a new board and go through the steps below in order.

Step 1 : Define your sources of problems

From the list below, pick the sources of problems that you have or had in your life, and create a trello list for each one. The more sources of problems you have, the higher the chance of discovering a worthwhile problem to fix.

  • Past and current jobs : Create a list for each job you had as well as your current job, if any.
  • Own companies and startups : Create a list for every company or startup you started.
  • Current and past side projects : Create a list for every side project you've created.
  • Current and past hobbies : Create a list for every hobby you had in the past as well as the ones you have today.

By the end of this step, you should have at least half a dozen lists on your board.

Step 2 : Set problem categories for each source of problems

Next, it's time to categorize the potential problems you can discover.

To do so, create a card for each of the categories below and paste the description of the category inside the card. Then duplicate all the cards across all your existing lists.

Feel free to rephrase the category names or add other categories.

  • Time intensive tasks : Tasks you felt you spent way much more time on than you should.
  • Cumbersome processes : Processes or tasks where you had to use multiple tools, sites and hacks to get done.
  • Inefficient processes : Processes or tasks you thought were inefficient.
  • Dreadful tasks : Tasks you hate doing.
  • Unused tools : Tools you or your boss paid for but only used less than half of the features.
Step 3 : Dig deep and discover your problems

At this point, it's pretty straightforward, all you need to do is open each card, and ask yourself : What [category_of_problems] did I encounter at [source_of_problems].

I suggest allocating an hour or two and then just doing the exercise slowly for each card in each list.

Whenever you discover a new problem, add it inside the relevant card using the template below. Or make your own template.

  • Name of the problematic task or process
  • A more detailed description of your frustration
  • Would you pay for someone to do it for you ? [ No, Maybe, Definitely ]
  • Is this a problem you'd be proud of solving ? [ No, Maybe, Definitely ]
  • Without doing any research, do you think other people have the same problem ? [ I don't know, Probably, Definitely ]
  • Do you know any people who have expressed having the same problem ? [ No, Maybe, Definitely ]

During this process, you might discover problems that may instantly sound like a holy grail.

Your mind ( if it's anything like mine ) will instantly start thinking of ways to solve the problem and coming up with product ideas. You may want to ditch the trello board and start doing research, finding competitors and sketching UIs. I would advise against that until you have at least 3 to 5 clearly defined problems.

The point is to find a problem worth solving, not just the first problem that may have some potential. I suggest forcing yourself to not leave the trello board until you are finished and picked the one problem you'd like to solve.

For every card with interesting problems that you'd like to get back to when you finish, you can add a label for faster identification. On the screenshot above, I used a green label for problems that I think are very interesting, and purple for those which may be interesting but need more research.

Other approaches to find problems to solve
If you can't find or solve your own

There are cases where you may not be able to extract any problems from your life experiences. You might not have much life experience because of your age or some serious condition that forces you to stay home at all times.

In those cases, the approaches below may work for you. I'll go briefly over each one of them, and link to relevant documents where you can find more information.

Solving other people's problems
Friends, family and random people on the internet

This is the most popular approach after scratching your own itch.

You can uncover problems pro-actively by going to your friends, family and community and pestering them with questions about what frustrates them in their professional and personal lives until something stands out.

Or, you can be passive about it and look for what specific groups of people are asking for in forums, social networks, and online communities ( Reddit and Twitter are great for this use case ).

If you're going down this road, I suggest you start by making a list of groups of people you'd like to help, preferably groups you identify with or like hanging out with. This will give you a starting point instead of just looking for random people with problems. It could be artists, entrepreneurs, dentists ect.

Idea Extraction
For B2B markets

Idea extraction is also about identifying a specific market and asking people questions to figure out what they're struggling with. It is mostly used to determine the problems of other businesses and revolves around cold calling businesses, and hopefully get a few meetings, and maybe even some pre-sales before you start building your solution.

If you're okay with cold calling, this can be a very effective approach. Dane Maxwell from The Foundation has some excellent material on how to put it into practice, check out this video and this podcast.

Don't solve problems
just build something fun.

If you have some time on your hands, this approach is great!

Don't solve problems, just get creative and pick some crazy idea that you think would be very fun to play with. Most silly apps ( of which many are profitable ) have started this way.

No business model, no plans to monetize, and no expectations. Just build something you genuinely think would be cool to have. Even better, build something you and your friends would find very cool. You may find out later on that a lot of other people find it very cool as well.

Port existing and popular products to a new platform
And tap into an already existing audience.

There are popular apps on Android that are not available on iOS and vice versa, same goes for windows and macOS.

If you have the skills to build something for one of the platforms, go look for the most popular products on the other platform, and either create an alternative, or reach out to the owner of the product for permission to port it to a different platform. You can make some sort of deal where the owner gets a commission in exchange for help with marketing, win-win.

This indie hackers interview shares some good insights on how to achieve this.

Pick something and get started.

Whatever approach you decide to go with, remember that it is just the tip of the iceberg. No matter what problem you decide to solve at the beginning, you will probably reiterate and pivot a few times before settling down.

Don't spend months trying to come up with an idea for your next thing. Get started as soon as possible and use the feedback ( or lack thereof ) from your early adopters to advance in your journey.

I suggest setting a limited number of days ( 2 or 3 ) to pick your next problem to solve, and commit to it for a few weeks ( 2 or 3 ). You'll learn so much more by just shipping something in a few weeks compared to spending all those weeks "brainstorming".

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