I have received pitch decks, mentored founders, and spoken with entrepreneurs who claim that no one is solving the problem they are. This fact always comes with great enthusiasm. If I don’t share their enthusiasm, they either think that I am being negative, or that I just don’t get it. Both of these might be true, but it is more nuanced than that.
When I hear that no one doing, or attempting to do, something — it creates concern for several reasons:
- How do you know? There truly is no way to know if someone else is working on a solution to the same problem. It’s impossible to have visibility into every nook and cranny to see if someone else has identified the same problem and is working to solve it. Many companies have started out of garages, basements, and attics and are prime examples of people creating solutions for problems in almost complete obscurity. Anyone that believes, convinces themselves, and touts that they are the only one working on a particular problem and product is being naive. This naïveté usually equates to a rude awakening when the realization hits that not only are there others working on the problem, but others are further along, because they worked with greater focus and urgency. This is because they didn’t assume they were the only ones aware of the problem.
- Apathy. If you believe you are the only one working to solve a problem, you will not approach the work to solve it with the same intensity and rigor as you otherwise would inside of a competitive environment. Competition makes the consequences real. Without true competition, motivating ourselves to perform at our highest level is much harder, and we are more apt to be apathetic about the process, our progress, and the outcomes. A corollary is like a professional sports team practicing against itself. Eventually a team needs an opponent to play because the consequences of winning or losing a real game brings a dynamic that can’t be replicated in practice, no matter how hard the coaching staff and players try.
- Maybe the problem isn’t worth solving? When I hear that no one else is working on a problem, one of my first thoughts is maybe this problem isn’t worth solving. It could be that no one is working on it, or others have tried and gave up, because the problem isn’t high-value enough to solve. I had a founder ask me once, “Isn’t every problem worth solving?” The answer is yes, and no. Problems come in all shapes, sizes, and types. Just because a problem exists for a small number of people/companies, or even a single person/company, doesn’t mean it warrants being solved by anyone outside of that group. It might make sense for them to solve the problem for their own purposes but not beyond that. Attempting to commercialize the solution to a problem requires at least an adequate level of people or companies who recognize they have the same problem and are willing to do something about it. This willingness is the determiner of problem and solution value. If a person or company is unwilling to do something about a problem after acknowledging it, then the problem isn’t of high enough value to warrant them solving it. No one doing anything about a problem doesn’t mean people haven’t tried. It could simply mean that the problem won’t provide a large and consistent enough of a reason to solve it.
- Maybe the timing is wrong? A significant aspect of creating something to solve a problem is the timing. In my book, The Founder’s Manual, one of the chapters focuses on the importance of timing. Getting the timing right or wrong can be the difference between success or failure for a new product. When someone says that no one is working on the problem except them — it could be a timing issue. They might be too early, and the factors needed to solve the problem might be working against them, or just not available. We’re solving problems for clients at AWH with technologies in ways that we couldn’t have done a few years ago. The problems, and ability to solve the problems, in a meaningful manner are just now aligning. If we had tried to solve the same problems with clients 10 years ago it would have been impossible. If you identify a problem but can’t find a solution or can’t identify someone working on the same problem, it could be that the timing and circumstances don’t support solving it at that point in time.
- Maybe a solution isn’t yet viable? There are many problems that don’t have solutions yet because the solution just isn’t yet viable. We’ve only recently begun to tap into the potential of autonomous cars and the underlying technologies. Attempting to do an autonomous car twenty years ago wouldn’t have been possible because the underlying technology wasn’t mature enough and may not have existed at all. Just because no one is currently solving a problem doesn’t mean that someone hasn’t thought about it, or even tried. Lots of potential solutions to problems end up on the floors of research labs, offices, and garages because the people working on the solutions realized they didn’t have the ingredients to make it work. Something may not exist yet because the technology and capability to make it aren’t yet possible.
These are a few reasons why “no one is doing it” can be a bad sign. My advice to entrepreneurs who believe they have identified a problem that no one has solved, and that no one is working on solving, is to take a step back and examine the situation with a critical eye. Why is this the case? How can it be that I am the only that sees the problem and the potential solution? Do I have more exposure and experience with the problem and a potential solution that gives me a different, more informed perspective? Even with that, could my perspective be wrong? As you can tell, there are a whole host of questions to assess the true validity of a problem and potential solution that it appears no one else is working on.
New, innovative solutions get created daily to problems previously believed be to be unsolvable. New technologies and methods are also being created to facilitate these new, innovative solutions. An entrepreneur should not shy away from daunting problems that may require complex and yet to be tried solutions, but entrepreneurs should also not over estimate problem and over value their solution just because they assume they are the only ones working on it.