The Problem With General Problem Statements

Written by Dave Bailey

Person reconnecting in the ocean

It's hard to stay focused on your goal, when there are so many ideas to pursue. Here's how to remember why you're building a company through reflection.

It’s crazy how often I hear founders say, ‘I think the problem we’re really solving is X’. Hang on a second . . . you ‘think’? The surprising thing is that if you’ve temporarily forgotten why you started your business, you’re not alone. 

It’s easy to forget the problem you’re solving

As early-stage founders, it’s beaten into us that we need to deliver our elevator pitch as quickly as possible. This is generally a good idea — we have one mouth and two ears for a reason. But there’s an unintended consequence: when we spend so much time summing up the details, it’s easy to forget them altogether.

We take all the problems and frustrations that originally motivated us to dedicate our lives to solving them, and we find a general theme. The result is a generalised problem statement that’s both technically true and sounds highly valuable. And this is when the issues start.

Generalised problems are toxic

As you talk about a general problem over and again, most people will nod in agreement. It’s hard to question a general-but-important-sounding problem statement. It appears impressive and big.

But compressing a set of specific problems into a summary is like shrinking a photo into a thumbnail. As soon as you try to go backwards, things get very blurry and confusing.

On the way to product-market fit, more specific problems appear within your general theme, and it’s easy to get confused about which problems need solving and which do not.

You can’t measure a problem statement by how it sounds, only by how it feels.

The generalised-problem paradox is this: it’s easier to pitch a general problem, but consumers purchase to solve a specific problem.

How to reconnect with the ‘real’ problem

To reconnect with the ‘real’ problem, you need to go back to a time before your startup. To get there, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What were you doing before you started your company?
  • Where were you working and living?
  • What were your goals?
  • What specific sequence of events happened to you that made you so frustrated?

We all start businesses because we’re frustrated with something. Once you’ve found that frustration, it’s time to dig deeper:

  • Why were you so frustrated?
  • How often did you feel frustrated?
  • Did you hack together a temporary solution?
  • Did you search online for a better solution?
  • What’s the nearest thing you found?
  • Why did that piss you off so much?

Yes, all founders are pissed off at something. Embrace the emotion that’s bubbling up.

Don’t generalise. Instead, stick to your specific situation (no matter how neurotic or crazy it makes you sound). Write down your answers.

I call this your ‘Genesis Story’.

The Genesis Story challenge

To help you break the generalised-problem paradox, I recommend sharing your Genesis Story with the world.

But doing this feels uncomfortable. It’s personal and specific. It exposes your innermost frustrations, your values, and a whole bunch of assumptions. It opens you up to embarrassment, correction, and confused looks . . . and it sounds a whole lot ‘smaller’ than the polished summary you’ve pitched for the last few months.

But it’s genuine. And that alone makes it powerful.

Back to basics

To own your story, you have to set it free. It takes courage but it’s worth it. Allow readers to give you their feedback, their solidarity, and their perspectives.

Be open to the idea that there may be other ways to solve the problem that you haven’t yet considered. And let that remind you that part of your mission as a founder is to eradicate this frustration from the world.

Continue reading about company vision:

Originally published Feb 24, 2019, last updated Aug 19, 2021

founders idea-stage product

About Dave Bailey

Hi, I’m Dave Bailey and I coach tech CEOs from Series A to pre-IPO. Join 20,000 entrepreneurs who receive my new essay every week. 

I will never sell your information, for any reason.

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