Step #1 - Cooking up a recipe in the startup kitchen

How I find problems worth solving, and how I chose the one I'll be building in public for this newsletter.

I’m building a startup in public! This is part 1 of my “MVP Sprint”, inspired by GV’s Design Sprint. Read more about me and why I’m doing this on the About page.

Today I explain how I discover problems worth solving. Then, I dive into the specific problem I’ve chosen to work on.

A startup idea is just a recipe

Ideas like Facebook, Airbnb, and Stripe have changed the world. In the startup world, ideas are currency.

But where do these ideas come from? It might seem like all of this “idea gold” gets mined by elite Silicon Valley prodigies, leaving us mere mortals to shine their shoes and sell them shovels. 

People often say things like I just don’t have any good ideas or All the good ideas are taken! I’m not buying it.

A startup idea is just a recipe. Maybe not quite as straightforward as that quarantine bread you mastered during lockdown, but a recipe nonetheless:

  1. 1 part problem

  2. 1 part solution

  3. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 years.

A successful startup involves at least 2 parts execution, but we’ll get to that later.


Let’s revisit the recipes from those world-changing ideas:

Problem

As a Harvard student, I want to find out who’s in my classes (and let’s be honest - see who’s single or in a relationship...)

Solution (2004)

An online directory for Harvard students.


Problem

I can’t pay my rent.

Solution(2007)

A bed and breakfast in the founders’ San Francisco apartment. They rented air mattresses in their living room to designers in town for a conference.


Problem

As an internet entrepreneur, it’s hard to collect money.

Solution (2008)

Seven lines of code that anyone can use to add payments to their website.


You could certainly claim that the founders of these companies are geniuses. But it doesn’t take a genius to discover the problems they were solving.

Problems are all around you

It’s 2020 and the world is burning. Problems are as prevalent as masks and hand sanitizer.

Here’s how I spot them:

Day-to-day personal life

  1. What’s tedious, expensive, or takes more time than it should?

  2. What do I struggle with?

  3. Look at my credit card statement - where does my money go every month?

Examples
  1. I recently built a personal website. I’ve wanted to do this for a while, but never got around to it.

  2. I’ve reduced Facebook and Instagram usage, and find it’s harder to remember birthdays and keep in touch with friends.

Work Life

  1. What do I hate doing?

  2. What feels like it should be automated?

  3. What problems do our users have? Are there users in other verticals with similar problems?

Examples
  1. Whenever we see that a key metric dropped recently, it’s my job as a Product Manager to dig into experiments, releases, and metrics to figure out why.

  2. I always get interrupted on Slack when I’m trying to focus on my work.

Articles and Social Media

  1. Twitter - Buried amongst the politics, memes, and gurus is a window into the lives and minds of people around the world. I see what people are working on, what products and features they’re using, and what’s important in their day-to-day lives.

  2. Reddit- I join subreddits for topics I care about.

  3. ProductHunt- I see what products are getting built and upvoted. I learn about the problems they solve.

  4. Hacker News - People upvote what they care about and share their unfiltered opinions.

When you train your brain to recognize problems, you’ll see opportunities everywhere.


The problem I’m choosing

Every week it seems like yet another company makes headlines for announcing a permanent move to remote work. Remote work has its obvious advantages, but it’s also contributing to employees feeling socially isolated.

An open culture with strong interpersonal relationships increases employee satisfaction, improves collaboration, and is ultimately great for business. But how does a company foster these connections with a distributed workforce?

This is the problem I’ll be exploring:

As a remote worker, it’s hard to develop personal connections with coworkers distributed across time zones.

Inspired by Twitter

I stumbled upon this tweet from Sam Parr, founder of The Hustle, a couple weeks ago:

The thread contained a slew of responses. All of the recommended products prioritized synchronous communication - co-workers talking to each other in real-time.

These days more and more companies are distributed globally and operate primarily asynchronously - so how do they stay connected?

Founder/problem fit

Finding any old problem isn’t enough. It has to be the right problem for me. Here’s some questions I’m asking myself:

Have I experienced the problem myself?

Yes and no. As a former founder and a Product Manager, it was my job to build happy and productive teams. But I’ve never done this in a remote work setting, and certainly not in an asynchronous remote work setting.

Do I care about the problem space?

Yes! Making people happier and more fulfilled at work is intrinsically motivating for me.I think this is why I enjoyed leading teams and founding a company in the past.

Would I like talking to the types of people who experience this problem?

Yes! They’re just normal people, trying to earn a living while working on interesting and fulfilling problems in tech. This is the profile of tons of personal friends.

Could I solve this problem as a solo, bootstrapped founder?

I think so! Slack apps, working with photos and videos, and building simple dashboards are all pretty easy these days with open-source tools and examples. I’m confident I’d be able to build a scoped-down MVP in a month or less that will validate some core hypotheses.

Commit to a second date, not a marriage

I’ve found a problem, I’ve evaluated it, and think I’d like to work on it. Now it’s time to head to a dark basement for 6 months to slap away at my keyboard; surfacing only for Instacart and Uber Eats.

Not quite…

I’m committing to dig a bit deeper on this problem, but I’m not sure I want to spend the rest of my life with this idea.

I’ve started digging, but I have a bit more work before I know if I’ve struck idea gold - and whether I’ll use that gold to “put a ring on it”.


So what’s next?

I’m creating something brand new from nothing. There’s a ton of uncertainty ahead of me.

My goal with an MVP Sprint is to reduce as much uncertainty as possible as quickly as possible.

Right now, my uncertainty level is off the charts:

I think this is a good problem to focus on, but I’m not sure yet. Before I start thinking about solutions, I want to validate it a bit further.

The next two steps look like this:

  1. Think about my primary user - Is it all remote companies? Only remote companies distributed across x time zones? Only remote companies within a specific vertical?

  2. Validate a (user, problem) pair - Outside of basic needs like hunger and shelter, most problems are only problems in the context of specific users. I’ll attempt to validate the problem with research and customer discovery.

Are you a remote worker? I’d love to hear your thoughts! Tweet @anothertimjones or shoot me a message at hey@timjones.me.

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I’ll be documenting my startup journey from idea to paying users over the coming weeks and months. I’d love to have you along for the ride.


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