Don't Go Looking for Problems: Curing Your Own Pain Points Is a Good Way to Develop a New Product
Startups are companies in search of a problem to solve. At times, it seems that entrepreneurs, especially those in tech, are restless doers in need of a challenge. Like artists seeking an outlet for their creativity, some create fantastical schemes -- and products of dubious value. These duds range from an overpriced juicer (whose refill packets could be squeezed by hand) to computers for dogs.
Yet as strange as these products may be, it’s unfair to ridicule the people behind them. After all, the yearning to build solutions is part of an entrepreneur’s DNA. So instead of conjuring problems from the absurdities of modern life, why not resolve a recurring obstacle for yourself or some you know? And then use that as the basis of your next venture. Fixing your own pain points can be the basis of a solid, profitable business.
Find your pain and fix it.
To paraphrase a certain president, “Ask not what your customers can do for you, but what you can do for your customers.” Successful businesses understand this: Just look at the customer centricity of Amazon or the delightfully nerdy service of Netflix. Solve specific problems for your customers better, faster, and more efficiently than others. Bonus points for flair and personality.
This mission may be simple and profitable, but it’s not easy to pull off. Without the right mindset and questions, you won’t be able to expand in the most efficient, profitable way. And while your specific tactics will vary, there is a framework to help you find your way. The best part is I have proof it works: I used it to build my own company.
From pain to opportunity: A diagnostic.
Fresh out of law school, I was about to accept an offer at a large corporation -- though that was the last thing I wanted to do. Before I took the position, my sister Sayeh asked me to help her start a behavioral health clinic, and I jumped at the offer.
In the beginning, our facility had inefficiencies in many areas, from laboratory work to billing. We were losing revenue and struggling to make rent and payroll. We had a pain point. Our first step was to determine what was holding us back.
What seems to be the problem?
Believe it or not, identifying the issue is not as easy as one may think, if only because you have to account for known issues and unknown ones. We soon found that even the simplest procedures were incredibly time-consuming. Need to get service authorization? A two-hour phone call. Sending out samples for lab work? Good luck getting back the results within two weeks.
While we could vaguely see the general areas where we struggled, what we were less sure of was why. Therefore, our second step was to use data to paint a detailed picture of our inefficiencies.
We're going to have to run some tests.
Thanks to open source data-analytics tools, we could see exactly which competencies were causing the problems -- and found a few unexpected ones. Yet raw data is just white noise; in order to generate insights, aggregating the data is key.
We analyzed our revenue stream from insurance providers and found that incorrect payments caused by human error on both sides were a huge issue -- one requiring hours of phone tag to resolve. But incorrect payments were only a symptom.
When we switched from an outside company to in-house billers, more problems arose. Many of our employees would get burned out by the tedious work, make critical errors, give up on important details, or just quit outright.
The culprit for this frustration? Inadequate software and data analytics, which forced our billers to spend hours on the phone with insurers. Though we tried several programs, none were a perfect fit.
I'm sorry, there's no treatment for that.
For that reason, our next move was to build our own solution, automating the most mind-numbing parts of the process, and patching up any holes we found. Of course, our first iterations were far from perfect.
Initially, the software couldn’t aggregate and present data in a unified way, like rendering statistics into graphs and pie charts. Without this critical information, we couldn’t fully understand the financial health of our business. Luckily, the biggest advantage of building your own solution is customizability; we kept iterating out of necessity, incorporating feedback from billers and administrators into each new version.
Oddly enough, this openness helped us scale our product. We even spoke with billers at other clinics -- and found that their wish lists were just as long as ours. Existing solutions just didn’t have enough functions.
For one, billers had to regularly check the insurance statuses of their patients. This is especially important at long-term care clinics, where patients are laid up for months at a time, making it easy for them (or their loved ones) to miss payments and render their insurance inactive. For a biller working with twenty patients, that was a one-hour phone call per account, at minimum. So we added this function to our software. Billers could skip tedious calls, check statuses electronically, and move on to more important things.
For us, our road to being market-ready was a gradual realization rather than the result of any strategy, but we learned valuable lessons along the way. First, determine whether a company is doing your product better than you and whether there is space for your business model. The more niche your product or service may be, the better. Plenty of companies offered similar services, but none specifically addressed the pain points we were experiencing. Lastly, it never hurts to reach out to potential customers to better understand their problems.
No, I’m not calling out entrepreneurs on the practicality of their ideas; after all, many successful firms have executed pivots. Twitter debuted as a podcasting company before switching to a social media network. Nintendo began as a manufacturer of playing cards. And 3M was a failing sandpaper manufacturer before it broadened its portfolio.
But prevention is the best medicine: better to have a solid business model (as much as possible) than to bank on sweeping away all your struggles with a quick pivot. In a survey of 193 failed startups, the lack of a viable business model was the most commonly cited factor, accounting for 51 percent of failures. Another significant (and similar) cause was the lack of a market need (23 percent). On the other hand, the inability to pivot only played a role in approximately 9 percent of startup failures.
So a flawed business model may sink your company faster than you can say “pivot.” Though entrepreneurs can’t always prepare for the whims of the market, people will pay you a lot of money if you can make their lives less frustrating. There’s no need to invent a new problem to solve. Focus on the problems dragging you (or your customers) down, and monetize your solutions.
Who knows? Healing thyself might be just what your company needs to thrive.