Venturing starts with Discovery, not fixation

Stumbled upon a quote by Peter Thiel about the motivation to start a company (or a new business within an established company, for that matter).

“…You don’t start a company for the sake of starting a company. The good reason to start a company is because it’s the best way to solve some important problem that would otherwise not get solved. Problems can get solved at big companies, small companies, government or nonprofit institutions. I have a bias that the best way to solve a lot of problems is to start companies. But the best reason is always that there’s an important problem you want to solve.”

A colleague asked me if I had any philosophical disagreements with what seems to be an unshakable truth (work on a problem YOU want to solve).

Well, who am I to argue with Peter’s opinions, but I do have some philosophical disagreements and process disagreements on the best way to start innovating.

An important problem we perceive may be a good start, but not necessarily a good finish

First, in the quote referenced above, Peter Thiel is talking about a motivation to start a company or internal venture (and his opinion that a well articulated problem that one wants to personally solve is the best motivation, aka start point).

I won’t argue with what the best motivation is or is not, but will state that there are other valid motivations, namely putting one’s skills and energy to work (means) and trusting that there will be a useful (end) at some point in the journey ..I’ll note that Peter Thiel’s Paypal pivoted on the problem they actually solved more so than the tech… Then the other company he started, Palantir, was tech driven.. use fraud activity detection know-how from Paypal to start another venture.

But even if one begins by saying that wanting to solve a problem is the BEST way or reason to start something, etc.

The problem is, we often don’t know what the real problem is FOR CUSTOMERS (and/or end users in dual-sided markets). Aware of it or not, we thus begin a discovery process on both the problem, the technical solution, and the business model that will make for a successful venture.

Being open to what problem the customer wants solved vs. simply what one personally wants to solve is a critical lesson of the Lean Startup movement started by Steve Blank (and yes, Lean Startups is criticized by other entrepreneurship thinkers that prefer entrepreneurship to be less scientific and more artistic.. meaning, maybe we should encourage entrepreneurs to just do what they’re passionate to do (inflexible from start to successful or unsuccessful finish), and that’s ultimately a better system than avoiding failure through flexibility).   For the record, I prefer ‘sell-out’ founders than ‘artistic’ founders that won’t listen to anyone – not when it comes to art, food, architecture or music.. but certainly for technology ventures where ‘passion’ is the worst money waster.

A question, not problem definition is sufficient to start
The scientific method begins with a question.. I think ventures should begin with a question ….the ‘problem’ that can be easily seen (that begs the question), is usually a symptom of a hidden, or at least more complex problem …  ultimately, entrepreneurs should stay flexible to what problem they eventually commit to solving, since the ‘how/solution’ and the ‘business model’ have to fit into the complete picture ..solve what the market needs to be solved, IF you can solve and IF  you can make money (and return a fair portion to your investors).

It’s not (just) about the technology
Furthermore, if we’re really anchored on first and foremost solving a problem for customers, the technology novelty isn’t important for the sake of it.. maybe existing technology can be reconfigured to solve the problem in a way no one has ..or maybe it’s novel in one’s field, but existed elsewhere.. or yes, maybe the technology is indeed novel altogether and it’s that combination of uncovering a hidden customer problem (usually a non-customer, btw) with an emerging technology that allows one to produce something truly unique and game-changing.

So go on, ignore what I just said and start your venture with a crisp vision statement that includes a well defined problem YOU want to solve (after all, why shouldn’t you aspire to be the next JFK or MLK – with your ideas falling into inalienable rights for mankind?)  … but until you figure out what customers want, what you can deliver and how you can make money (and return some to investors), you aren’t or shouldn’t be ready to execute on your dreamy vision … The point of this blog is:  The price of Innovation is Discovery – start there, not your fixation, as it’s delusion’s close cousin. 


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