Pain Camp: finding real problems to solve

As I’ve written before, too many of the entrepreneurs I meet are smart and motivated but working on weak ideas. I also meet many people who claim that the only thing standing between them and launching a new venture is coming up with a good idea. It surprises me that any entrepreneur should have difficulty finding a good  problem  to tackle because I can’t think of any major industry where people believe everything is just peachy. Everyone has daily irritants: too little data or time to make informed decisions, inefficiencies in supply chains or production lines that bite into the bottom line and cause delays, information asymmetry that leaves you feeling like you are getting ripped off, etc. So how do we make entrepreneurs aware of these very real problems that people will pay to have solved? I think I might have an idea for an event that could help. The idea is still rough but I thought I’d share it in the hope of getting some constructive feedback.

The event would focus on a vertical and get four or five people from that industry to do a short presentation on their role in the industry and what their three biggest problems are. For example, let’s say we decided to focus on the hospitality industry. We get a hotelier, a restaurateur, someone from an airline’s customer care department, a leading vendor of hospitality IT systems and a product manager from one of the big online travel sites like Expedia. Each person gets 20 minutes to explain how they fit into the bigger picture of travel and tourism and talk about their biggest pain points. Obviously, no one is going to give away competitive information, so they’ll probably stick to problems common to all airlines, hotels, etc., which is fine for our purposes because solving an industry wide pain is better than building custom software for a single company. The result is that anyone in the audience is going to get (a) a crash course on the hospitality industry, (b) a decent understanding of the major problems in it and (c) some contacts in the industry they can follow-up with to dig deeper if their interest is piqued.

The audience of course, is composed of the usual start-up suspects: software developers, entrepreneurs, students and the odd investor; people looking for big  problems to fix in big markets. Worse case, the audience spent an evening learning something new. Best case, sparks fly, connections are made and new ventures are launched. Hold an event like this once a quarter, each time focusing on a different industry and “lack of a good idea” will no longer be an excuse not to start a company. Follow up the event a few months later with a sector focused accelerator program, like the FinTech Innovation Lab, for a double whammy.

Thought? Comments? I’m especially interested in whether people would be interested in participating and which verticals they think are ripe for some disruptive innovation.

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8 Responses to Pain Camp: finding real problems to solve

  1. Daniel Haran says:

    I love it. It’s like doing customer development with a crowd.

  2. Conceptually, I love it. But there are some challenges you’d need to work around — primarily, that no one wants to sound stupid.

    Customer development interviews work great one-on-one, because there’s no audience. People tell me “I can’t do X/I don’t know X/it takes forever to do X” — but they sound sheepish and embarrassed. They say, “I hate to admit this” or “it makes me feel guilty just saying that.”

    It’s also (sadly) pretty common for employees of larger companies to be discouraged or even officially prohibited from speaking about their company, even if it seems utterly devoid of competitive/privileged information.

    • daniel says:

      Thanks for the comments Cindy. While I agree that no one wants to sound stupid, when you are referring to industry wide problems that isn’t going to be a problem. In the example given in the post, a hotelier complaining that none of the IT systems common in the hospitality industry are able to speak to one another doesn’t make him sound stupid; its the IT vendors’ failure, not his. I am a big fan of Customer Development but you need to decide which sector you are going after first. That decision, which must occur before Customer Development can begin, is what the post is really about. Your last point about employees not being able to discuss frankly the challenges faced by their employers is bang on, and probably the biggest obstacle to holding the event.

  3. Benoit Grégoire says:

    Attracting the type of entrepreneurs who think they have the skills to make it happen (whether or not they actually do) instead of those who think they have a good idea (whether or not it actually is) would certainly lead to some original outcomes.

    You seem to define success as: “lack of a good idea” will no longer be an excuse not to start a company. The pain camp could certainly go a long way towards making entrepreneurs unaware of the problems consider entering the market, but may not solve your initial frustration. But maybe it would be better to formulate the goal as “lack of a good problem to solve” will no longer be an excuse not to start a company .

    While there may be no major industry where everything is just peachy, a good problem to solve is just ONE component of a good startup idea. As you well know, there are countless reasons why one couldn’t monetize a good solution to a problem in a specific vertical, nor apply the classic solution: sell it to someone who can. In other words, a good problem to solve does not a good business model make.

    I’m also wondering if once well established, such an event wouldn’t also attract another type of attendee:
    The type that says “Hey, our company has a product that can solve your exact problem!” (whether or not they actually do).

    Business being business, it seems quite likely… It may even be a good thing for the industry representatives, but I presume you’ll want to prevent your event from to slowly turning into a trade show.

    In any event, it’s an excellent idea! I’d be happy to attend should it materialize.

  4. Sylvain Carle says:

    The problem I see is that this approach is great for consulting, but to create a truly useful product you have to have lots of experience in a specific industry to nail it (ie. been working with Seb Provencher on local/social search for 4 years, starting to truly get it now)…

    • daniel says:

      Totally agree that to nail it, you need to really understand the problem space. I’ve previously said as much here. The question that stumps many fresh out of school aspiring entrepreneurs is what problem space to tackle. Once you pick a sector, you obviously still need to develop expertise in it.

  5. I think this idea could be fantastic. Sign me up. I’ve heard so many people say, “I have a business idea. It’s in X (insert large industry here).” And yet, they lack knowledge of the space, lack contacts, and are too far from the problem they’re hoping to solve. When will the first Pain Camp be held?

  6. Pain Camp is a really good idea! This is the kind of event we *really* need…We know the lean startup principles and all the theory but nothing is more valuable then knowing the real paint points!

    We (entrepreneurs) need to realize that we’re always the employee of someone, not rebellious crazy thinkers (soupir). I’m an entrepreneur and I’ve thought that after being a consultant, I could finally do what I want and just give life to my ideas…I was totally wrong! It’s the same as before, I need to study the problem, not fantasize about my ideas! I’m serving them, their needs, not mine! Then, only when I get this can my creativity be useful for the execution.

    It’s ironic but here is an idea: How about we do a website on which companies/people can publish problems and things they hate about their job/life? Comme une lampe magique on which people can do wishes for their life to become dreamy and perfect! In exchange, they get “karma points” (like Usability Hub), can get free access to the resulting products, etc. You can then show a sample of the testimonials on the site, entrepreneurs/investors pay when they want to access the whole piece. Game dynamics could be integrated, portraying entrepreneurs as the heroes saving them!

    Good luck!

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