In their short but insightful bestseller Rework the guys at 37signals (now Basecamp) offer some great advice on how to start and run a business. The best ideas, Fried says, are those that solve real problems you have.
“The easiest, most straightforward way to create a great product or service is to make something you want to use. That lets you design what you know- and you’ll figure out immediately whether or not what you’re making is any good”
Jason Fried calls this “scratching your own itch”.
I’ve noticed that this is something the local startup community totally misses. People come up with some all sorts of ideas and products – though most are just ideas of a website, app or something similar- which rarely translate into real money or businesses.
These ideas are not only not very good- you only need to attend one of the startup competitions to realise this – they are also usually focused on internet users and do not solve any real problem most Zimbabweans have.
Now there are two problems with this. Firstly there are not that many people using the internet in Zimbabwe so a service or product based entirely on the web and focused solely on internet users has to be unique and very good to succeed. Which is why the various social sites ambitiously touted as “Zimbabwe’s first social network”, “A new social network by Zimbabweans for Zimbabweans” etc will likely fail.
Secondly, and most importantly, these startups rarely solve any problems we have. Zimbabwean startups do not scratch our itches. They might make something easier for a few people but hardly go beyond that. Take for example the winners at Startup Weekend Harare: Food match and Getsi.co. Brilliant ideas no doubt but- with all due respect – I don’t think many people need an app to check if there’s ZESA at home. And I’m a techie guy.
I’m not saying an idea has to be new or life changing. Innovation, after all, is rarely new. The key point here is that to succeed you must offer solutions to problems and the best way to do that is by scratching your own itch.
Take, for instance, the “Selfie Stick” a rather narcissistic but brilliant invention whose sole purpose is to enable people to take better selfies. It was the Selfie Stick which inspired this post- it’s been on the news a lot lately because it has become so ubiquitous and is being banned in some stadiums and other public places.
There’s nothing new or very clever about the Selfie Stick but it was probably “invented” because someone, somewhere wanted to take selfies and realised that a simple extensible bar can hold the camera/phone and do the job. And the Selfie Stick business was born.
In Russia a smart guy tired of slipping on snow and ice came up with a ridiculously simple product that’s now a huge business: The Yaktrax. Yaktrax are just coils of lightweight wires strapped on the bottom of shoes which make walking on ice a great deal safer – and less embarrassing. They cost $20 and can be put on shoes in a minute. Simple, useful and brilliant.
My favourite example of scratching your own itch is the Nigerian dude who, after failing to find black dolls for his kid, started making black dolls. That’s very innovative. Not new in any way, but he saw a real problem faced by millions of people and came up with a solution.
This is what I think we should be trying to do in Zimbabwe. Come up with solutions to everyday challenges we face. Because there are thousands of people like you who likely face the same problem there’ll be a market for your solution. And you can test it on your own.
Novel solutions to imagined problems can be cool and exciting but they rarely go beyond the tipping point . We might all be excited about your app which tells us what time the sun sets every day and maybe you’ll even get 25 downloads but is anyone going to buy it?
Not me, I’d rather check my watch and then peep out of the window and see whether the sun is setting or not.