What problem are you solving?

Every successful product solves a problem. This is one of the few truths in marketing. If your product doesn’t solve a problem, it will never take off. If you’re resistant to this idea, please read on.

As one of the leading mentors for startups in the virtual reality market, I hear from dozens of companies each month launching products. Sometimes these are from companies so excited about the technology, that they’ve missed this point.  When I ask them what problem it solves, they invariably claim that not every product needs to solve a problem.

When I ask them to name a successful product that didn’t solve a problem, the most common answer I get is the iPhone. Because we are so far removed from the problem the iPhone solved, people have forgotten what it was like before.

Before the iPhone, the only way we could access the web was on a personal computer, mostly at our desk. The web brought us a plethora of content and information to our fingertips, as long as they were rested on a keyboard and mouse.  Once we stepped away from that tethered device, we were stranded in the dark, lonely world of the disconnected dark ages.

Steve Jobs knew that was a problem, even if most consumers didn’t. Innovative companies know how to observe their customers to determine what problems they could solve. Most companies just ask the question.  Great companies watch and learn.

When Jobs launched the iPhone, he positioned it as three products in one.

  • A widescreen iPod with touch controls,
  • a revolutionary mobile phone, and
  • a breakthrough internet communicator.
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So what problems was the iPhone solving? What the world wanted was a video iPod, and a better mobile phone.  But what Steve knew the NEEDED was a new way of staying connected to the internet while people were away from their computers.

I recently went back and watched the original iPhone launch presentation.  When Steve announced the iPod with touch controls, the crowd cheered enthusiastically.  When he announced the mobile phone, they erupted. But when he announced the internet communication device, there was polite applause. Because nobody knew this was the problem they needed solving.

But Apple knew it, and once people got their hands on it, the world changed.  Access to the web in a way that was truly enjoyable changed consumer behavior forever.

Another range of answers I get when I challenge people to name a product that doesn’t solve a problem is around entertainment: movies, television, Netflix, etc.  I classify all these products in the realm of distractions. I also put alcohol and drugs in this classification.  For some people (like me) you can add certain foods, like ice cream and chocolate.

The problems these products solve are more psychologically complex.  We all seek distractions occasionally. Most often it’s subconscious.  We don’t sit around with our loved one and say “Hey, I am feeling a bit shit about myself and our life together, so let’s go to a movie this weekend so I can forget about how miserable I am.”  But often that’s the problem entertainment is solving. Even the greatest literature talks to the heart of human suffering so we can relate.

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Even the dumbest product ever solved a problem and the inventor knew it.  Gary Dahl invented the Pet Rock in 1975.  In an article about his recent passing in the New York Times, Margalit Fox writes “the concept of a “pet” that required no actual work and no real commitment resonated with the self-indulgent ’70s”

“People are so damn bored, tired of all their problems,” Gary told People magazine in 1975. “This takes them on a fantasy trip — you might say we’ve packaged a sense of humor.”

What’s this have to do with Virtual Reality? VR still has not figured out what problem it’s solving for consumers. It solves problems in other verticals, like therapy, education, and training.  And it’s finding a place in location-based entertainment, because it creates a better experience than what’s currently available.

VR has the possibility of being a powerful distraction, as I wrote about in the last several blog posts.  But the friction of that value exchange needs to be lower than the enhancement the product brings.  Until now, the low quality of the experiences, combined with the hassle of setup and the awkwardness of wearing a device that cuts people off from the world, have been too steep a price to pay.

As a gaming console, even the Quest is still too expensive. Oculus has been focusing on the $400 price point, because that’s where most successful gaming consoles have launched. But for an extra $50 I could add another controller to my Xbox or PS4.  If I want to play with a friend on Quest, I need to spend another $400.  I wonder if anyone from Oculus has observed how people play games?

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Until virtual reality solves a problem in a way that’s better and easier than what’s on the market, VR will continue to be a novelty in the home. That’s good for the location-based entertainment market, which is forecast to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 32.2% from 2019 to 2023.