Product before problem

Product before problem

You might imagine all great startups started from a clear mission. Sometimes they were, but usually, that story is woven in hindsight to cover up the gnarly pivots of the early days.

In PR-optimised founding stories, the narrative usually goes like this. Our visionary founders found an apparent $PROBLEM in the world; through hard work and over many different tries, they came up with $PRODUCT that solves this problem. Problem first, product second.

Real founding stories tend to be less inspiring: the founders believed $PRODUCT is needed in the world and started building the best possible version of it. They didn't know the best use case, though. Through lots of trial and error, they found solving $PROBLEM is a pretty good way to scale $PRODUCT without losing much money upfront. Product first, problem second.

I was going to use Amazon as an example of a problem-first company, but then I realized they, too, were product-first. As far as I can tell, from the early days, Bezos pursued "the everything store" -- a product, not a problem. And solving the problem of buying non-mainstream books was just Bezos' first step towards that vision.

Paypal was also product-first: Levchin and Thiel got started by making cryptographic libraries. They were good at it. Over several iterations of applying cryptography to different problems, they realized it enabled sending money online securely for the first time – the problem they ended up solving. I was surprised to learn about this: you rarely hear candid recollections of early stories with genuine uncertainty over what the startup will do.

I'd love to be a problem-driven founder: have a well-defined customer and problem in mind from day 1. But the past 12 months of trying to start a startup has made me realize I might not be one. When I think of or work on an idea, I often get excited about the engineering problems, product strategy, or details about how to measure the product's value – as opposed to what the long-term change in the world will be. My natural motivation seems to come from the product, not the problem.

I've doubted my ability to succeed as a founder because of this – for some reason, it feels shameful to admit that the problem is not my only source of motivation! However, it seems wrong to discard naturally product-first founders, especially when several great companies started that way.

Problem-first and product-first companies converge at product-market fit: making something (product) needed in the world (problem).

But the paths couldn't be more different in the early days.

When going problem-first, you:

  • Notice problems in the world that you care about intrinsically. Your vision is that of a world where that particular problem is solved.
  • Start solving the problem through whatever means.
  • As you progress, keep the customer & problem constant while finding the best way to solve it.

When going product-first, you:

  • Formulate what product enables the world you want. Your vision is built around that product and future.
  • As you progress, get better at providing this product while always looking for new potential applications.
  • Briefly, keep improving your product while finding the best customers & problems for it.

Here's another example. Starship grew out of a hobby project: participating in a robot football competition. The next step was still noncommercial – participating in a NASA moon rover challenge – though Ahti, the leader of the team and later Starship founder, might have had some commercial intentions then already. Only after that did the group start to consider where to apply their robotics expertise and chose last-mile delivery robots. Now they're building food and grocery delivery on top. Very much a product-first story.

It's difficult to tell which path the company took after the convergence point and rewriting the story. I don't blame the founders for doing this, by the way. Without the smooth narrative, it sounds like you stumbled into this business and are there to make a good buck.

But the stories told in hindsight hide all the ugly uncertainty of the early days. And worst of all, portraying every startup as problem-driven discourages product-driven founders. That's why I appreciate founders' stories about what happened before the convergence. Jessica Livingston's book "Founders at Work" is a rare source of them.

I might be reading it wrong, but it feels as though most startup advice strongly recommends a problem-first approach. Maybe for a good reason. Many a founder failed when nobody wanted the product they'd so fervently pursued. But product-first can work for some founders. And for some, it can work best: the product might be the best source of long-term vision and motivation.

Thanks to Taavi Pungas, Joonatan Samuel, Heiki Riesenkampf, Johannes Tammekänd and Laur Läänemets for reading drafts of this.