“Founders often hold too tightly onto solutions and too loosely onto problems.”
-Michael Seibel, CEO of Y Combinator
During these trying times, how can startups ensure they weather the storm? I recommend focusing intensely on solving customer problems, and I argue that your customers' pain-points are more important than ever.
Your Customers’ Problems Aren’t Going Anywhere
Though many forget, the whole reason startups exist is to solve problems for their customers. And problems? They’re not going anywhere. In fact, your customers likely have more problems now than they’ve ever had before.
Historically, startups often fail precisely because they lose focus on their customers’ problems. CB Insights quantified this phenomenon in their 2019 report The Top 20 Reasons Startups Fail. Reason number one: No market need. As reported, a whopping 42% of startups studied failed because they didn’t solve a real problem.
And if this figure was 42% when times were good, imagine what it will be when the going really gets tough. For startups to survive during uncertain times, they must focus intensely on the problems they can solve for their customers. The ones that do will not only survive this storm, but come out the other side stronger than ever, joining the list of amazing companies born out of recession and turmoil.
Same Problems, Different Solutions
The current global situation has created two types of issues when it comes to solving customer problems:
- Customer problems are the same, but business operations have shifted
- Customer problems have shifted, but business operations remain the same
Let’s start with the former. Take the fancy Italian restaurant down the street (we’ve all got one). On the surface, the problem they solved before the crisis was food for hungry customers. Thus, their current solution is to offer takeout and delivery, keeping their fingers crossed that things will go back to normal soon.
But what if they stepped back and really thought hard about the problems they solved for their customers? They’d certainly be able to add more to that list, such as:
- Meals for customers who don’t want to cook
- An experience for customers to look forward to during the week
- A means to relax and unwind
- A catalyst for romance
- A way to create new bonds and memories
You get the idea.
By offering takeout and delivery, they solve the first problem, sure. But what about the others? Those problems haven’t gone away. If anything, with the stress of life right now, those problems are more important than ever in the eyes of their customers. If they can find a way to solve these remaining problems, this restaurant could drive significant gains in both the number of orders and their average order value, making it easier to survive these troubled times.
Perhaps they could offer a White Glove Date Night Service - a special bundle that includes a full takeout meal, a bottle of wine, a white tablecloth, homemade candles from the shop down the street, an invite-only romantic Spotify playlist curated by the restaurant’s hostess, a list of staff favorite romance movies streaming on Netflix, etc.
All of a sudden, this restaurant’s takeout meal turns into an experience. Something to look forward to. Something to keep romance alive while physically distancing. And something that goes from a $35 takeout bill to a $99 package that local couples will happily pay in order to bring some happiness and excitement into their homes.
All of this, just by focusing on their customers’ problems.
Pivoting Towards Problems
Now, for some startups, the problems your customers face have changed overnight.
So, what can you do? What a startup does best. Adapt. Pivot. Survive. If the problem you solved before is no longer relevant, what new, tangential problem can you solve?
Take Airbnb for example. With people not traveling, their customers no longer have the problem of finding unique, comfortable lodging while away from home. But many of their customers have a new problem: a desperate need for a quiet space to work remotely.
Airbnb could temporarily adjust their platform so that hosts could offer reduced “daytime-only” rates to rent out their home office/bedroom with a desk (one that’s deep cleaned nightly, of course). Customers with a less than ideal work-from-home situation would now have the option to head down the street to an empty, quiet Airbnb listing to work for the day. And hosts would have an opportunity to bring in some much-needed revenue.
Same startup. Same platform. Different problems solved.
Everybody Has a Plan…
Mike Tyson once famously quipped that “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” This quote — a derivative of one originally shared by boxing legend Joe Louis — is a violent but truthful take on adaptation and survival.
The world has punched us in the mouth. For some startups, it may be a knockout punch. But it doesn’t have to be. Remember that you exist to solve problems for your customers. And just because their problems have changed doesn’t mean you can’t still solve them. You just need to think of new, innovative ways to do so.
And the sooner you figure that out, the sooner you can get up off the mat and start fighting back.