5,079 words ~ 16 min read
On ideas: How to make problems your solution
Don’t waste your time with passion
“You’re missing the point.”
This was not the first dinner with a hopeful startup founder seeking my advice that would come to a point like this. Nor the last.
I knew I would have to explain it another way. This time avoiding the phrase ‘passion is irrelevant’.
So I began again,
“Passion is a powerful tool, but it won’t guarantee that customers will love your product.”
I often have a hard time explaining this concept because no one wants to hear that passion isn’t the secret ingredient that makes a business a success.
Our startup media has idealized the way we talk about passion. And it leads entrepreneurs to believe that success is the product of following a passion and hustling their way to the top.
But this idea can be misleading and takes away from why you started the business in the first place: to solve a problem.
Let’s take, for example, the progression of my startup, Jotform.
“I can make this easier for myself. And if I can scratch my own itch, I can help many other people solve their same problem, too.”
That’s what I kept thinking as I worked on building yet another web questionnaire form. The problem was a request I kept receiving from the media company I was working for at the time.
Building these forms was a necessary part of my job, and I had no problem with doing it.
But a part of me couldn’t shake the idea that there had to be a more efficient way: a streamlined process that would convert the tedious hours of building online forms into time better spent on company productivity.
And 15 years later, Jotform has +10 million users who were all looking for this solution.
Problem: building questionnaires, surveys, and online forms from scratch take way too long for something so simple.
Solution: a company that now has +300 employees without having taken a dime of outside money.
Was I passionate about the online forms I was building at work?
But I am passionate about saving myself — and others — time that could be better spent elsewhere.
So when it comes to building your business, what’s the problem?
If there isn’t one, then you probably have one.
Start with problems you have with the world.
We all understand it on some level. If my product doesn’t bring something useful to the table, then how can it succeed?
Sadly, this leads us down the trap of ‘being innovative’, as if it’s some personal trait we can possess.
Don’t fall into the everything is innovative trap which “results from the word ‘innovation’ becoming so overused and under-defined that we can call almost anything innovative.”
Innovation can be a fancy word for finding newer, more superior solutions. And better than focusing your attention on being innovative or passionate — idealist adjectives with no clear intent backing them — is thinking about problems.
What problems have you found with the world, with your products, with yourself?
Drew Houston developed Dropbox when he kept forgetting his USB stick at home.
Problem: USB sticks are small and forgettable.
Solution: a billion dollar company that is currently in the process of going public.
In the words of start-up master Paul Graham:
“Live in the future, then build what’s missing.”
Don’t think of yourself as being passionate, think of yourself as being a problem-solver.
As Neil Blumenthal of Warby Parker once said:
“A startup is a company working to solve a problem where the solution is not obvious and success is not guaranteed.”
Success is never a given. There are too many factors to predict what will affect your growing business. But there are more secure ways to ensure that your product fits into your market than just caring about it.
Jason Fried sees his company, Basecamp, as “a product we make for ourselves that we sell to other people.”
“Luckily, there are a lot of people out there with the same kinds of problems we have,” he adds.
Problem: people are inherently scatterbrained and that affects productivity in the workplace.
Solution: a company on its way to 5 million users.
Obviously there will always be those external determinants like how you build the product, how well you present the product, and, of course, how much passion you bring to developing and selling it.
But sometimes it’s your own mentality that’s holding you back from making something useful.
It’s not about how much passion you bring to the project — though it may come in handy when you need to stand out of the crowd — but in the necessity of what you’re making.
Problems need solutions. Passion is just the cherry on top.
Paul Graham takes this mentality to the next level:
“If you want to find startup ideas, don’t merely turn on the filter ‘What’s missing?’ Also turn off every other filter, particularly ‘Could this be a big company?’ There’s plenty of time to apply that test later. But if you’re thinking about that initially, it may not only filter out lots of good ideas, but also cause you to focus on bad ones.”
If all you’re looking for is success then go join a successful company.
If you’re looking for a solution to a problem that you know you can fix, then start a business.
Develop a company because you’ve found a way to do something. Not because you want to be successful. The craving to succeed can, and should, be there, but only as a support system to your great solution.
Philip Kaplan, founder of Disco Kid, has said:
“But we hear that entrepreneurs need to be passionate. My justification was that I’d always been passionate about building things, getting users, and seeing people use my stuff. But by that definition, any entrepreneur can be passionate about anything.”
Daniel Ek is passionate about music. And of course he was aware of how easy it is to get music for free online. But did he think that musicians should be ripped off from earning on their hard-work?
No. So he created a platform that provides free music to users with royalties still paid to the musicians.
Problem: music should be free, but musicians should be paid.
Solution: a company worth more than the entire US music industry.
Even Houston originally started with an SAT prep company that had no chance of making it the way that Dropbox has.
As much as we want to believe that the driving force behind innovation is being a passionate person, it, unfortunately, can’t be that ideal.
Passion can get you a lot.
It can get you up two hours before work to put the extra time into your side-project/potential start-up business.
It can get you to follow your gut and make bold choices in the name of your product.
It can even get you to quit your job and funnel all of your time into your own work.
But it can’t get you a successful start-up business.
For that, you need a problem.
Scratch your own itch and success will follow
The best business ideas usually come from a personal need.
Take Peter Rahal, the CEO and co-founder of RXBar, which he started in his parents’ basement with his best friend, Jared Smith.
An avid gym-goer, Rahal wanted a protein bar that didn’t taste like chalk or contain mysterious ingredients (hence the now-iconic product label).
As the RXBar website explains:
“It’s 2013, and we called B.S. on protein bars. CrossFit’s taking off. People are going paleo. We couldn’t believe there wasn’t a more nutritious protein bar out there. Maybe we were a little naïve, but we decided to stop talking and try to make it ourselves.”
That’s a perfect summary of scratching your own itch: noticing a problem and solving it — first for yourself, and then for like-minded customers.
Despite some serious competition from established brands, Rahal knew there was room for his protein bar. He couldn’t find what he wanted.
He tested his theory by selling the first bars door to door from Tupperware containers.
Five years later, the Kellogg Company bought RXBar for $600 million.
Part 1 — Build for yourself and satisfy an eager niche
I’m one of many, many founders who started by scratching their own itch. It’s one of the main criteria for building a successful business.
Back in 2006, I wanted to simplify the process of customizing web forms — both for myself (it was tedious work) and for people who didn’t know HTML or have any coding skills.
Eventually, I built the prototype, attracted an organic user base, and slowly grew it into what it is today.
In fact, programmer, investor and Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham says the best startup ideas have three things in common:
They’re something the founders themselves want, that they can build with their own skills, and that few others realize are worth doing. As Graham writes:
“The verb you want to be using with respect to startup ideas is not ‘think up’ but ‘notice.’ At YC we call ideas that grow naturally out of the founders’ own experiences ‘organic’ startup ideas. The most successful startups almost all begin this way.”
Once you’ve drawn on your own experiences (and met the need), the next step is ensuring that other people are hungry for your product or service.
According to Graham, “when a startup launches, there have to be at least some users who really need what they’re making — not just people who could see themselves using it one day, but who want it urgently.”
Who wants this right now?
That’s the question you need to answer — and clearly, the product can be anything from protein bars to web forms.
Basecamp founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson agree. In their bestselling book, Rework, they say “the easiest, most straightforward way to create a great product or service is to make something you want to use.”
You’ll create something you need (or at least understand the need for) and you’ll also know immediately if your product is any good.
Peter Rahal, for example, kept iterating until his simple bar recipes tasted great.
That personal testing phase might seem obvious, but it’s infinitely more productive when you’re not only the creator, but also the customer.
As Fried and Heinemeier Hansson explain:
“When you build a product or service, you make the call on hundreds of tiny decisions each day. If you’re solving someone else’s problem, you’re constantly stabbing in the dark. When you solve your own problem, the light comes on. You know exactly what the right answer is.”
Once that light switches on and you’re gaining traction, it’s time to meet the second criteria for success: continuing to use and experience your own product.
Part II — Using your own product is a game-changer
Startups have so many details and moving parts (hiring, accounting, marketing, growth strategies, data, PR and more) that it’s easy for founders to become detached from their own products.
But, staying close to the core of your business is so important, because:
1. You experience the problems firsthand
Every time I use Jotform, I find snags. It seems crazy, given that we have over 300 employees on three continents. How are the bugs slipping through?
Knowing that there will always be problems to solve just demonstrates the complexity of digital products — and modern businesses of every kind.
2. It keeps everyone on their toes
Once a product is up and running, it can feel like it has its own life. It’s out there working and thriving in the world, and apparently, doing just fine.
But if you don’t function as a customer, and if you don’t use your product or service, it’s easy to let things slip.
For example, I ask our teams to email me whenever a new feature goes live. I want to see the change in action. I also know that they’ll be extra motivated to polish and refine their work when they know I’m testing it out.
The same logic applies to me. I’m acutely aware that our teams are always in the product, refining and upgrading, so I have to understand the nuances if I’m going to lead them effectively or provide useful feedback.
3. It can enhance your own work and life
If you scratch your own itch, that product should continue to make your life easier, more enjoyable, or more interesting — even in small ways.
I wanted to empower people (including me) to make their forms in a snap. Fifteen years later, I still use the product almost every day. It enhances my productivity and automates tasks that could drain my time and energy.
How else could your product serve you, personally, and your team?
Are you missing opportunities to expand the functionality?
Clearly, there are only so many protein bars you can eat in a given week, but other products and services could have possibilities that you might overlook in your day-to-day work.
Below are 9 ways that we use Jotform to work smarter, not harder. I’m sharing these in case they apply to your own workflows, but also to hopefully inspire you. You can also skip and jump straight to the conclusion below.
- We survey users. When we need to get honest opinions from our customers, we create a list of people who use a specific feature and then we send them an email survey (including a Jotform form, of course).
- When we beta release a new feature, we put a Jotform feedback button on the page and ask users to send us their comments and questions.
- When we release a new feature version (even to a small user group), we also add a button that reads “Go back to the older version.” If users click on it, they’re asked to fill in a form about why they want to switch back, before they’re redirected to the old version.
- When someone cancels their subscription, we ask for feedback with a custom form.
- When I need to get project status updates, I ask our teams (or an individual) to fill in a daily form which they send back to me. An automated email also reminds that person to complete the form.
- We recently tested new logo options. So, we created an online form and asked our employees and some users to vote for their favorite version (spoiler: the existing logo won).
- When we take office bike trips, we stop for lunch at a scenic restaurant. Before we go, we put the menu on a form with checkboxes and ask everyone to choose what they want to eat. Then we print out the form and give it to the restaurant as soon as we arrive. It saves time and we can focus on having a great lunch.
- At university and college career days, the students who are interested in working with us can apply for jobs and internships on one of our forms. They see how the product works and complete the task at the same time.
- I also use the product for my own goal tracking. Whether I’m trying to lose weight or write 1,000 words a day, I send an automated email form to myself and log the numbers. Each email has a new date in the subject line, so they’re easily searchable and they don’t turn into an endless thread.
These principles might sound simple, but they can truly set you up for success. Creating a product or service from a solid foundation will serve you well during good times and choppy waters.
It might be helpful to remember:
- Scratch your own itch. Build something you want and need
- Make sure other people want to use or consume it — right now
- Stay close to your product. Use it, try it, and rely on it to make your life better, and you’ll naturally make your business better in the process.
Stop trying to invent the next Facebook or Amazon
The story of Zoom founder Eric S. Yuan is an entrepreneurial fable that proves even the most crowded markets are never truly full.
Before launching his online conferencing and collaboration product, Zoom’s Yuan ran engineering for Cisco’s WebEx. He expanded the WebEx team from 10 engineers to 800 and grew revenues from $0 to over $800 million annually.
Yuan was the heart of WebEx from 1997 to 2011, but he wasn’t happy. The product wasn’t good enough. Yuan (and many customers) thought it was slow, multimedia streams were often shaky, and it lacked modern features for mobile.
For years, Yuan campaigned Cisco execs to let him rework WebEx and build video conferencing on the cloud, but the existing product was still earning serious cash.
His bosses saw no reason to risk a reboot. So, Yuan left in 2011 to build Zoom.
“Cisco made a mistake,” he recently told Forbes magazine. “Three years after I left, they realized what I said was right.”
Was he ever.
Zoom’s annual revenues currently hover around $331 million.
The product has over 50,000 corporate customers, including Uber, Walmart, Slack, Ticketmaster, and Nasdaq, plus countless individuals and small businesses.
And Zoom stock rose nearly 30% in the month after its mid-April IPO.
Yuan knew his new product would go head-to-head with Google (Hangouts), Microsoft (Skype), and Cisco, of course, but he was unfazed.
He knew that innovation and excellence can knock out even the biggest competitors.
I’m consistently inspired by Yuan’s story.
I launched Jotform in 2006, based on the idea that everyone should be able to create simple forms that boost their productivity.
Just like Yuan, I thought there was a better way to work. And as we built a product, some serious competition began to emerge.
In 2008, even Google stepped into the ring. Many of my friends and colleagues said we were done. After all, who could compete against Silicon Valley’s ultimate Goliath?
Honestly, I was devastated. I had quit my stable job to pursue this idea, and I wasn’t sure what I would do next.
But we kept plugging away, and a strange thing happened. We continued to grow. We kept innovating and improving the product, and our customers stuck with us. They even helped us to get better.
We stayed focused on one thing — forms — while many of the competitors chased each new shiny object that popped up on the horizon.
Eventually, I learned an important lesson:
You don’t have to kill yourself trying to invent the next Facebook. You don’t have to disrupt an industry to succeed. You can still create significant value in categories most write off as finished.
I’ve learned that finding yourself in a well-defined market where tech giants step into the ring isn’t an excuse to quit the battle — I’m glad we never gave up.
Focusing on the customer, not the competition, brought us 1 million new users last year alone and we continue to grow +150K users every month.
Here are my key learnings from growing Jotform next to Google and other competitors who announce one investment round after another:
1. Technology doesn’t care if you’re comfortable
Every time a new technology moves beyond the fringes, you have an opportunity to improve your product — and if you don’t leverage the moment, someone else will.
Think about how Kodak failed to embrace digital photography (and filed for bankruptcy in 2012), or how Xerox remained fixated on copy machines, even as digital files were becoming commonplace. By the time these companies tried to play along, it was too late to catch up. Making something great is just the start. You have to keep making it better if you want to stay relevant.
A product company that doesn’t continually reinvent itself will kill the product.
At Jotform, we’re constantly probing into our weaknesses and reinventing our product. We don’t switch lanes, but we do believe in stretching ourselves as much as possible.
Innovation is essential for success — technology really doesn’t care if you’re comfortable.
2. New products have low visibility
Creating a new product is like driving at night. You can only see as far as your headlights.
But once more users come on board and the product begins to grow, the horizon opens up. You begin to discover what’s missing and you can reroute as necessary.
We started working on our mobile app after a user mentioned that she needed to fill in forms offline, then sync the data when she returned to the office.
As we started building and testing the app, we realized that we were missing some key form fields. We added functions that allow users to take a photo, draw on an image, use geolocation, record a voice, and scan QR and barcodes. We also added a kiosk mode that locks down all device functions other than the form, gave users the ability to assign and share forms, and more.
Users and customers will tell you what they want, what they like, and what they don’t want, but it takes time to implement this feedback.
Pushing for innovation gives you the lead time you need to stay ahead of the curve.
3. Complacency kills momentum
A team that keeps moving will not only achieve its goals, it will also discover fresh opportunities.
If your product is static and you’re simply fixing bugs as they pop up, you can’t imagine what’s possible. You’re not exploring. You’re not stretching the limits.
In 1983, James Dyson created the first bagless vacuum cleaner. The invention was a game-changer, so Dyson could have sat back, counted his money, and gradually updated the external parts to match color and design trends.
But he built a multi-billion-dollar company that has innovation in its DNA. Today, Dyson makes everything from hair dryers to lighting, and the organization is constantly setting new environmental and social targets.
4. Building a product also means building a team
A team that doesn’t reinvent its products can’t lead an industry. Employees won’t understand what’s happening across your market, and they won’t be challenged or engaged. Eventually, good people will leave your organization.
The best product teams are hungry to solve problems. It’s the fuel that drives their work and stirs their creativity.
Yet, even the biggest companies don’t have unlimited resources. That’s why it’s essential to keep your star players focused on just a few key products — and ideally, just one.
At Jotform, we can compete with big dogs like Google because we have a singular focus. All +300 of our employees are dedicated to one thing, while Google Forms is just a tiny drop in a massive corporate ocean.
How to bake innovation into your organization
Innovation demands intention. It’s so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day cycles of growing a business and keeping even a strong product running.
In many ways, I can see how the WebEx leaders were afraid to rock the boat. Hesitating to mess with a good thing is simply human nature.
Change, however, is inevitable. It’s essential to keep moving forward, or you’ll struggle to catch up.
Here are four ways to ensure you’re building a culture of innovation.
1. Establish long-term strategies
A strategy is a lighthouse that guides your decisions and priorities. Every year, I set a new strategy for the company. Sure, we still handle the day-to-day tasks of supporting customers and making small product improvements, but we also focus on a specific challenge. For example, in 2017 we reinvented our form builder. In 2018, we reinvented the forms themselves. And in 2019, we reinvented mobile forms with our new app.
2. Assign open-ended projects
While strategies offer guidance, they can also feel overwhelming. That’s where it helps to begin with a question. For example, we asked our teams, “how can we create a better mobile product?” That’s it.
We knew that it would work offline and include some existing desktop features, but that’s where the constraints ended.
As our teams tackled this one question, they gathered customer feedback, conducted user interviews, and most importantly, kept their minds open.
Tackling a major strategy means learning — and admitting when you’re lost. That’s when it helps to look at other markets and parallel industries. Examine unfamiliar products. Eventually, you’ll find your way again.
3. Don’t set deadlines
Our cultural obsession with productivity often creates unnecessary panic and stress. We worry that if we don’t set a release date, nothing will happen. In my experience, however, that’s just not true.
Once we assign product teams to tackle a big, open-ended project, we still have check-ins.
Our weekly Demo Days are a chance to see work-in-progress features and gather feedback from other teams. These sessions maintain our momentum. Yet, the teams still have time to go deep and innovate. They even have time to get bored, which is when the brain really starts to generate new possibilities.
We ensure the product has time to evolve without rushing it. Only when it looks beautiful, tests well, and operates seamlessly do we set a release date.
4. Provide real freedom
Innovation means allowing people to hack their way through the forest. Ultimately, you have to be in there, building and struggling, in order to make valuable discoveries.
And while objectives and optimizations have their place, no one creates the first iPhone or a bagless vacuum or a better conferencing product by nudging the needle just a little.
Freedom also nurtures creativity, so trust your teams. Give them the space, the tools, and the responsibility to collaborate and think provocatively.
Remember that success comes from constant, relentless innovation — even in a well-defined market.
Four places to find your next big idea
Many entrepreneurs think innovating requires new knowledge, but sometimes it's a matter of looking in unexpected places.
Consider Peloton, the at-home exercise company whose sales grew 232% as of November, far beyond the company’s (or anyone’s) expectations. Intense cycling workouts are nothing new (see, e.g., Soul Cycle), and neither is breaking a sweat in the comfort of home. But combining the two during a pandemic, when millions were newly homebound and desperate for endorphins, and you get an exercise phenomenon—and that’s despite the bad press Peloton got at the end of 2019. In the wake of what some called a “tone-deaf” holiday promo, their stock instantly dropped 9%. Ouch. But it’s safe to say they’ve bounced back.
Of course, there was some streaming technology involved, but the real kicker was timing and a massive demographic change. According to Harvard Business Review author Peter F. Drucker, a demographic change is one of several surprising places where entrepreneurs can look for their next big idea.
Here, a closer look at some of those areas, including one that led to my company Jotform’s latest product release.
1. Demographic changes
A population experiencing a notable change — for example, suddenly WFH — can be a quick win for generating innovative ideas. Writes Drucker, “Indeed, the innovation opportunities made possible by changes in the numbers of people—and in their age distribution, education, occupations, and geographic location — are among the most rewarding and least risky of entrepreneurial pursuits.”
Because along with those changes come new desires and needs and, of course, opportunities to meet them, without investing a ton in developing new technology. Take the urban flight we’ve seen since the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the New York Times, New York City residents were fleeing to the country and the suburbs in 2020. One Hudson Valley house had 14 showings on its first day and received four all-cash bids that same day. Other properties even got offers, site-unseen.
Now consider the potential for opportunities: services or products that these former urbanites might need on their journey — to find a new rental or purchase property, or to adjust to their new rural lifestyle. I’ll let you do the brainstorming but the opportunities are abounding.
Demographic changes always create moments for innovation.
2. Changes in perception
If you notice an area in which people’s perceptions have shifted, then you’re likely looking at another place for innovation. Continuing with the previous example, young professionals used to flock to cities, seeing their proximity to industry hubs and financial centers as key to advancing in their careers. But if the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that for many people, an urban zip code is no longer essential to a thriving career. Many, in fact, have started focusing on the downsides of living in expensive, more densely populated cities.
Companies like Slack, Zoom and Trello have been able to capitalize on these shifting perceptions by enabling people to work from anywhere. (A new favorite of mine for working remotely, especially when my two young children are home, is Brain.fm — a music tool that uses scientific data to create “strong neural phase-locking” — music that essentially helps you do whatever you need to do.)
Or, consider the healthcare industry. Today, we’re living longer than ever, but the quest for health and wellness seems to be just beginning. As Drucker observes, “Rather than rejoicing in great improvements in health, Americans seem to be emphasizing how far away they still are from immortality.” Every day, it seems like there’s a new innovation claiming to help us live better: from plant-based meat alternatives and gut-friendly elixirs to CBD snacks and infrared light therapy. Living longer is no longer enough.
Be on the lookout for perception shifts from a glass half empty to full, or vice versa, and you might find a new way to innovate.
3. Seeming incongruities
Sometimes, we get so used to the old way of doing things that we fail to notice pain points, like when something is harder or slower than it has to be.
For example, originally, online shoe shopping seemed to give customers an easier buying option: they could skip the drive to the mall, the lines at the store, etc. But the concept was slow to gain momentum. As GQ explains:
“At the time, Amazon was successfully hawking books—but moving a one-size-fits-all product is a lot different than trying to persuade customers to buy something much more subjective, like shoes.”
But the late Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh came up with a simple yet innovative idea that took the industry (and his company) to the next level: offering free shipping and free returns. Hseih eliminated the online shopping drawbacks that other shoe and apparel companies had taken for granted.
Or, take spreadsheets — almost every entrepreneur uses them daily. They might make business easier, but for a long time, they were more cumbersome than they had to be—especially when it came to sharing non-numerical information, like names, dates, file attachments, and more. You had to use another software to share the kind of data that doesn’t fit into neat columns. That’s why my team spent three years developing Jotform Tables — to collect all different types of info collected from online forms and organize them in one workspace.
The old way may work fine, but there might be a better way yet. Search for pain points that your company or the industry may be avoiding or overlooking.
4. Unexpected failures and successes
By now, you may have heard the origin story of Wrigley’s: initially, the Chicago-based company sold soap and baking soda, only to discover that the free packs of chewing gum that came with were even more popular than their actual products. They pivoted their entire business in response to this unexpected success.
As Drucker writes: “Unexpected successes and failures are such productive sources of innovation opportunities because most businesses dismiss them, disregard them, and even resent them.”
If, instead of dismissing unanticipated events, we dig deeper to figure out the underlying causes, we might discover a way to innovate that differs from our original vision — but is exactly what our users need, and that, I’d argue, is an entrepreneur’s number one concern.