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How to Sell the Problem Before Selling

the Solution
Dave Bailey Follow
Jul 24, 2017 · 4 min read

They say that every great business addresses a real customer need. If expressing your
customer need has ever felt slippery, this is for you.

As Steve Jobs said: you have to start with the customer experience and work backwards
to the technology. Jobs understood that when you try to reverse-engineer the need
statement from the product, it’s too easy to lose touch with reality.

After six months of intense product development, this is exactly what happened to me.
My product was my baby and I wanted to talk about it with everybody.

But when I didn’t lead with the need, it was often greeted with confused looks. I was
giving people the ‘answer’ without asking them the ‘question’, like a weird game of
Jeopardy.
Even when I did start with the need, I only afforded it a sentence or two. I’d describe it to
perfectly frame my product. In other words, I did the exact opposite to Steve Jobs. And
when the confused looks continued, I’d get defensive.

‘Trust me,’ I’d say. ‘It’s a problem — okay?’

Customer needs deserve a paragraph


Dedicating one or two sentences to the problem statement is often a false economy. For
startups, the need is all that really matters. It’s the foundation of your entire business.
It’s how you position your product. It’s the ‘why’. And it can trigger powerful emotions,
like empathy, and disgust, on command.

Every need is contextual. It’s felt by a particular person, at a particular time, in pursuit of
a particular end-goal. It has a functional side — e.g., ‘I need to make this picture look
beautiful’ — and an emotional side — e.g., ‘I need attention from my friend’. And needs
find a way of getting themselves met . . . with your product or without it.

I wanted to find a way to express my customer need that:

builds empathy with an early-adopting niche

clarifies the functional and emotional aspects of the need

avoids the trap of working backwards from the product

That’s when I came up with the ‘need narrative’.

Writing a compelling need narrative


The need narrative outlines a thesis on how to make people’s lives better. A clear need
narrative helps you prioritise features, communicate the product effectively, and hone in
on the most important niche. Every field in your need narrative is testable from day one.

For ___[target audience], it’s a constant challenge to ___[general problem]. Every ___[time
period], these people ___[perform a key activity] in order to ___[achieve a primary goal].
This is especially true if you’re a [niche].

The main problem they face is ___[primary functional problem relating to activity] which
leads to ___[bad/worst case outcomes]. Today, their best option is ___[substitutes], but of
course, they ___[the most common complaints of each substitute]. With ___[key trend], the
problem will only get worse over time.

If only there was a easier/better/cheaper way to ___[perform a key activity], then


customers could ___[quantifiable impact on their primary goal] which would lead to
___[positive outcomes / emotions]. With ___[number of potential customers], there is a
clear opportunity to meaningfully impact a huge number of people.

Here are some questions to help you fill in the blanks for your company:

Target audience: Who are your target customers? For B2B startups, who actually
uses your product?

General problem: What’s a problem that every target customer can agree with
(e.g., not enough time or money)?

Key activity: What are customers doing while they use your product (e.g., booking
flights or collecting receipts)?

Primary goal: What’s the end-goal of performing this activity (e.g., travel abroad, or
prepare a VAT return)?

Niche: Which sub-group of potential customers is most likely to be an early-adopter?

Primary functional problem: What’s the hardest part about doing the activity
today?

Bad/worst case outcomes: What’s the worst case scenario if the activity goes
wrong? For B2B startups, what is the negative business impact?

Substitutes: What’s the next-best-option or workaround?

Most common complaints: Why do customers hate these substitutes?

Key trend: What will make this problem worse in the future?

Quantifiable impact: How can you measure the impact of solving the problem?

Positive outcomes and emotions: What good things happen as a result? For B2B
startups, what is the positive business impact?

Number of potential customers: How many people can you target?

Note on B2B startups: Ultimately, you want to show how helping certain employees perform
their roles better will have a positive outcome on the business as a whole.

Tips from the trenches


To bring the message to life, use specific language and vivid metaphors. Adjust the
formula to make it work for you. And try it out on both potential customers and lay
people, to check that it’s accurate and easy to understand. Your aim is that anyone who
hears it should be able to put themselves in your customer’s shoes.
When potential customers hear it, they should self-identify with every point. Once they
validate the need, try asking them to guess what your product does to address it. Not
only might they come up with good ideas, but they might also expect far less from you
than you originally thought.

. . .

About me:
I’m Dave and I coach CEOs of Series A+ tech companies. Over the last 10 years, I’ve co-
founded three VC-backed tech companies, invested in dozens of early-stage startups as a
VC and Angel investor, and mentored hundreds of startups as a mentor at Google and
Techstars. For more info, visit Dave-Bailey.com.

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