Solving a user problem vs a technical problem: the difference between creating value and wasting your time

What is the kind of problem you are working tirelessly to solve? Are you actually working to create value or simply wasting your time? The difference is in the end goal of what solving the problem accomplishes. Some very big user problems have fairly simple technical solutions. They are easy to use, solve an actual need and fairly simple to interact with. On the other hand, some very big technical problems really don’t end up doing much for the end user. The former gives you something that people want, while the latter gives you an extremely beautiful piece of crap.

Engineers are particularly susceptible to this. It is natural to fall into the trap of believing that just because something is challenging from a technical perspective, it must be a valuable problem to solve. From a user’s perspective, all that’s important is that the product does what it is meant to. “How” really doesn’t matter. If you are selling mousetraps, does it get rid of the mice better than everyone else? If yes, that’s great. Users aren’t going to care much of what happens within the product as long as it works. You can spend all your time trying to create a very advanced, state of the art, nuclear powered mousetrap that creates mini fission explosions to obliterate the mice, but at the end if it doesn’t get rid of the mice, is unwieldy or uneconomical, no one’s buying it. It’ll be an extremely cool project no doubt, but at the end of the day, a fairly useless one!

Every problem that you solve should tie back to the user and/or to enhance their end experience. Be careful of not getting stuck in your own technical world that is insulated from the user completely. Though it does vary by industry, for consumer facing products more specifically – it is the end user who is king. It is easy to get lost in day to day technical, legal, product, financial, investment problems, but if what you’re working on doesn’t help the end user – you’re not moving forward.

Expressed in slightly broader terms, whenever you look at a hard problem, you need to assess its value independently to determine whether it is truly worth your effort. Becoming the top restaurant in the city: Is it hard? Of course! But how valuable is it given that the next 10 best restaurants are almost always going to be head to head with you?

Passionate engineers, by nature, get excited by challenging technical problems. However, take care that you never lose sight of the user so you don’t end up spending all your effort on creating something which doesn’t end up doing anything.

On the flipside, thinking from a user’s perspective brings focus, where the complicated tasks that you were dreading, often no longer seem to be relevant or worth pursuing. It simplifies things! Not everything is wrong with the world… 🙂

The reality behind “We got 70k users in 2 days of launch”

For any startup, gaining traction depends on two things: 1) How many people are you bringing and 2) How many users getting engaged. The first one has a lot to do with marketing, while the second one has everything to do with the product.

How many people are you bringing?
Companies launch not over one day, but over a process that can last almost an entire month or maybe more. Phrases like “We got 70k users in 2 days of launch” often have a back-story behind them.

1) Instagram – For instagram, they had Jack Dorsey (founder of Twitter and about 2m followers) back them. So, when they launched, it was fairly easy for them to get their initial users since they needed to get people like Dorsey reach out to their network and the press picked it up pretty quickly.

2) LinkedIn – I was speaking to one of the co-founders of LinkedIn, who was VP of Marketing. He said that initially most of their users were PR based because in the early days, the product was not too viral. LinkedIn took its time to grow compared to other social networks.

3) SkyFire (funding: $41m to date) – Speaking to one of the founders, they launched when the iPhone had just launched and so were a very press friendly story. They also had closed their Series A which enabled them to invest aggressively in PR. So, a lot of their users were PR driven and then word of mouth referrals.

This is pretty interesting since mostly when you hear stories like “we had 70,000 users in 2 days of launch” – a lot of that is paid for or has significant help. It is very rarely viral just from the product.

The effectiveness of PR campaigns is often questioned since a lot of it depends on content, relevance and visibility. However, besides PR, there are other avenues like SEM, SEO, Social etc. which you can tap into for your initial influx of users.

How many people are getting engaged?
A key point is that after the initial influx of users is established, it is up to you to create a wonderful user experience with your product – create something that is useful and usable to have them stay and give referrals. Instagram grew virally after its initial influx because its users simply loved the product. Similarly, users gained significant value from having a LinkedIn profile, which enabled the network to grow further.

For this reason, before you invest in marketing, you need to keep gathering data, testing and failing in front of a smaller network, probably your own Facebook network till you figure out your product actually works. The product almost will never go viral if you only invite all your Facebook friends, though you will get some very solid data from them using it. Doing this will ensure that when you finally pay for the initial influx of users to come and “launch to the world”, you are better prepared.

Good Luck!