The Bard Press Essays
Week 5 – March 3, 2021
From Bloomburg TV, June 16, 2011…
Reporter Emily Chang: Given how fast innovation seems to be happening across the country, what do startups these days need to do to have a successful exit, whether it’s an IPO or building a great business?
Y Combinator founder Paul Graham: They have to make something that actually makes people’s lives better. It’s funny how straightforward it is.
This quote is more than just about startups. It’s about anything entrepreneurial.
Books are entrepreneurial. We are making a new product that starts with no customers and we work to find customers.
Business author Jim Collins tells a story about a dinner where one of his readers leans over to say, “You know, Jim, we love Built to Last around here. You and your co-author did a very fine job on the research and writing. Unfortunately, it’s useless.”
The reader goes on to explain that he has a different problem than the one Collins describes in the book: “What about the vast majority of companies that wake up part way through life and realize that they’re good, not great?”
This story of customer discovery opens Good to Great, the next book that Jim Collins wrote. Collins spent the next five years researching his reader’s question, trying to find out if companies can go from good to great. Collins took a throwaway comment over cocktails and turned that question into one of the best selling business books of the last decade by just listening to the problems from his customers.
Why Does This Matter?
In last week’s essay, I mentioned, almost in passing, the book’s problem wasn’t clear enough to build a lane for the solution. Let me explain further. You have probably heard the adage “Ask better questions.” When you ask a better question, you are really defining the problem better and that opens up the opportunity for a interesting, effective solution. If you don’t get the problem right, you can’t get the solution right.
“Even the most careful and expensive marketing plans cannot sell people a book they don’t want to read.”— Michael Korda #feltneed
Faster, better, cheaper doesn’t work for someone who doesn’t feel the underlying pain of the problem. They also won’t have interest in the solution you are selling.
“Authors chase publishers, but your best investor is the first person who buys your book. And your readers are also your best salespeople.” —Todd Sattersten (with a hat tip to Saras Sarasvathy)
You need readers who will invest their financial capital and their social connections to help make your book a success. They are not going to do that if they are not invested in the problem and wanting to help more people solve it.
How Do I Find A Good Problem?
Here’s what Geoffrey Moore, the author of Crossing The Chasm and six other books, says about his work:
“The common theme is they start with a client problem. I never researched any of my books as a book. What I did is I would staple myself to a problem that I thought was serious, not solved, and not getting the right kind of attention. People were somehow misreading the situation because people were trying to solve it, but they weren’t succeeding.” (Listen to a longer audio clip here.)
Here is a partial list of big problems people have:
- Not enough time
- Not enough help
- Need a way to kill time
- Too few friends
- Too many bills
- Can’t get where they want to go • Don’t know which way to go
- Don’t know how to do it
- Don’t feel safe
- Don’t feel well
- Lack of recognition
- Lack of conviction
- Lack of love
- Lack of meaning
If your problem can be mapped to one of these, you are probably on the right track.
Fall in love with the problem.
That’s what Jim Collins did.
When you fall in love with the problem, your approach changes.
You get out of your office and start talking to people.
And when you talk to them, you don’t say, “What do you think of my idea?”
Instead, you ask questions like:
- Talk me through the last time you had this problem.
- What are the implications of that?
- How are you dealing with it now?
- What else have you tried?
- Who else should I talk to?
The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick and Talking to Humans by Giff Constable are two great books to help when you get out of your own way when you are talking to customers.
Leaders take a stand.
Leaders have a vision for the way things might be.
They offer a new way of thinking about the solution.
That doesn’t mean a book about leadership. It means showing people how to cook healthier meals. It means showing them a way out of addiction. It means helping them learn a new language, literally and figuratively.
Start with a good problem. It makes all the difference.