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How to explore the problem for a winning startup idea

Post it notes on white board, startup ideas problems to solve, startup business problems, Marketing Plan, Nova, Tech Startups

Megan Kearns

Marketing Lead

Updated 12 February 20



Startup ideas should solve problems. But, too many founders start their business by focusing on what

they believe needs to be built. Solution bias takes over and they end up spending days, months, sometimes years, perfecting a product they ‘think’ people want without validating it with their users. So why are they then surprised that customer's don't want the product? It's because it's not solving their problem.


During the early stages of your startup, you want to be sure you’re on the right track to building a product your customers will love. At Nova, we insist that founders start their product development journey by gaining a deep understanding of the problem that their solution will solve. Taking the time to work with users, gathering primary research will give clarity into what the problem actually is and how you can fix it for users.


In this article, we want to share some of the advice about the value of primary research and how you can conduct your own primary research. So first things first;


What is an Insight and why is it important?


When gathering primary research, the objective is to determine something called an ‘Insight’ or a ‘breakthrough’ that proves our initial assumption to be either True or false. Quite simply, an insight is a new piece of learning that you previously did not have and have gained through conducting an experiment. There are two types of experiments you can run: 


  1. Discovery experiments: These experiments help you uncover new possible insights at an early stage. Interviewing & surveying customers to understand their problems is an example of a learning experiment. Your goal here is gathering hypotheses you want to test when you move into the product development stage.
  2. Throughput experiments: These experiments validate or invalidate your insights by measuring changes in customer behaviour or traction. We focus on these experiments when we begin to find solutions for the problem we are trying to solve. Measuring changes in customer behaviour towards a new feature is an example of a throughput experiment.

Here’s an example of an experiment... 


Guess (Hypothesis): Pet owners rush to a vet consultation whenever anything happens to their furry friends such as illness or injury.


Consequences (The result): This causes longer wait times because of more appointments which creates a problem for vets that do not have the extra capacity.

Conclusion: We surveyed 200 Pet Owners & 80 Vets - 80% immediately call a Vet to book an appointment and 77% of Vets thing their consults were a waste of time and not necessary.


As you can see, we discovered that our hypothesis was true and gained an insight into the problems of pet owners and Vets and their behaviours. From here, we understand that there is a problem - the next step is to figure out why this is happening.


So what do you do next?


Build a User Panel

So what is a user panel? A user panel is a group of people representative of your target market (the people you’ll eventually be selling to) who you work with to understand what your customers biggest pain points are.


Recruiting a user panel is simple… put yourself where the user is. Whether that’s at trade shows, universities, social media, your place of work or even speaking to the people within your network, pitch the problem you are trying to solve and ask if they would like to be involved within the user panel.


Hold Problem Interviews 

A problem interview is a set of questions you ask to your user panel about your product. Its purpose is to figure out who your early adopters are going to be, what problems your startup aims to help solve and how it will help to solve them.


Avoid asking yes-no questions as you won’t gain any value from their answer. Instead, ask open-ended questions with a focus on learning, not selling. You should make every effort to drill deeper whenever your customer says something that piques your interest… just ask “Why?”.


Example questions:

- What does this problem mean to you?

- How do you rate this problem?

- How are you solving this problem today? 


What to avoid in your questions:

- Pitching a solution not the problem

- Problem described as a lack of a solution

- Inadequate customer description

- Not mentioning why am I the one to solve this problem - No good explanation of your motivation for the specific problem


We’ve picked out some examples of problem interviews that will help you to form your questions:

1. The Mom Test: is a set of simple rules used to craft your questions that even your mum can’t lie to you about!


2. Customer Discovery: What Do You Ask?: Justin Wilcox runs through ‘What to ask’ in this quick 6 min video.


3. Problem Interview Script: proposed by Ash Maurya (author of Running Lean, which we really recommend you read if you haven’t already), use this template to structure conversations with your early adopter.


Use Surveys

A survey is a great tool to further validate a concept with data before spending any money. We use surveys to quickly validate more about our early adopters and simply whether a product/service is in demand (is there a problem which needs to be solved). 


The best thing about surveys is they’re quick to make and can be widely shared offline and online using social media, forums and email. 


Your survey can be split into 4 types (these are just examples):

1. Demographic questions: Age, gender, income etc. to help determine the respondent type.

2. Understanding user motivations that need to be fulfilled and associated behaviours (actions to fulfil the need).

3. What are the main problems with the current process?

4. Interest in a solution e.g. If interested please leave your email address (indicates how important the need fulfilment is to an individual). 


We suggest using Survey Monkey or Google Forms to create your survey, then get it out there on the channels you think are relevant to your target market. Encourage your network to share your survey on their own channels in the hope that they can refer other people they know who share the same problem.


After you have completed your initial primary research, you should know the field at this stage inside and out and have a good indication of where you need to go next with your idea. But it doesn’t stop there! You should continue to conduct research throughout your journey, continually gaining better insights that will improve your MVP to meet your customer’s needs and ultimately build a better startup.




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