Solution Zero – Don’t Overthink Your Startup

June 29, 2011

10:00 am

“Entrepreneurship is neither a science nor an art. It is a practice.”

– Peter Drucker

I get asked from time to time what I believe makes someone an entrepreneur, and invariably I respond by saying that an entrepreneur is someone who sees a problem and says, “I can fix that.”

Peoples' definitions will vary, and it obviously takes a whole lot more effort to be a successful founder. Yet it is safe to say that this same thought is rattling around in the overly active brains of ambitious entrepreneurs around the world as I type this. Without these people willing to put aside  security and chase a passion for solving problems, we would be without most of the things we take for granted in our lives today. I vehemently believe entrepreneurs should be cultivated, as it serves society at large, and I work towards the same goal in my own small way.

It is an interesting time to be involved in entrepreneurship. Not since the West was settled have so many people left behind the traditional methods of making a living to embark on the journey that is your own startup. There are any number of factors to claim as the catalyst for this transition. The two biggest factors seem to be the lack of good job opportunities and an ever lower cost of entry. No longer do you need hundreds or even tens of thousands of dollars in order to get a viable company off the ground. It can be done quickly and cost effectively, as long as you stay focused on the fundamentals over the fun stuff.

This brings us to the title of this article.  Solution Zero is a theory (if something you thought up over beers with a buddy can be a theory) about where most new ventures go wrong. Not why they go wrong, which is different for everyone and, as such, very much subjective. I am suggesting that the moment when an entrepreneur recognizes a problem and a solution pops into his or her head. That is solution zero and ultimately the product they should put forth to the public as a proposed fix.

In my opinion, most ventures are doomed from the outset as a result of being overthought and, for that matter, overworked by the founder(s) to the point where the solution has been obfuscated by trying to hard to add value or, more simply, “sell it.” It is no doubt human nature to get in there and work hard on something you care about. However, it is equally naive to think you have any idea what adds value to your solution. Anyone who suggests they could possibly know what their users are going to want and in what priority is fooling themselves or worse, blinded by ego.

It so happens that the same day this new buzz phrase of mine came up, I also found myself in a position to test the validity of the process I seek to promote with its use. A good friend had referred me to a coffee shop near his office. Spending a good deal of time in coffee shops writing and answering email, I am always up for some new scenery. On this day I ran into the referring friend at said coffee shop and in our brief conversation, he told me of all the headaches he was experiencing trying to rent the third bedroom in his downtown Philadelphia apartment.

It struck me that it wasn’t so much a shortage of applicants – it was the opposite. An abundance of people had expressed interest in being his new roommate. It was their relevance or, more specifically, lack thereof, that was the issue. My friend had been spending his time replying to emails and talking on the phone, where he repeated the same questions and answers.

We talked about the options he had available to him for renting his room in Craigslist, and alike. These are vast databases of available rooms, and they seem to measure relevance by the ability to match people with factors like who allows pets or has parking. This makes sense if you are searching the MLS for a new home, I suppose, but not so much when you consider the nuances of finding a suitable cohabitation arrangement. My friend was in the midst of expressing his frustration when it happened – solution zero:  I can fix that.

My friend had to run back to show his place to yet another prospect, so I opened a Google doc to outline what I was thinking. Within minutes I had sent him the basics and asked what he thought. He saw the same thing I did. A simple solution to a common problem. A startup is born.

This is typically where things start to go wrong. A perfectly good idea turns instead into a big idea that continuously needs to be fed with more and more smaller ideas just to keep everyone excited about it. In this case, we could have started down this path by suggesting things like adding search, making it embeddable, or discussing how many photos we should make available to be uploaded, or hypothesising about how people would use it and if they would be averse to using Facebook to log in or share the listing.

Instead, we did what every budding entrepreneur should do at this juncture. We asked ourselves if we would use this product. The answer was yes, and so it stands to reason there are millions of others just like us. People with rooms to rent that would find utility in a lightweight product to share the availability out to their friends, and thereby, to the extended network they have within their reach. We were onto something, and so I suggested we meet the same time the following day to sketch out our idea into rough wire frames. Being smack in the middle of Philly Beer Week, we did so over a couple of brews at a local pub. You may detect a pattern forming.

The next morning, I mocked up a slightly cleaner version of the wire frames in photoshop along with a sketch of what the process would be for the programmers' reference and used it to get  one professionally created to be part of the home page for the users' benefit. Fast forward about 72 hours, add some finishing touches, a few dozen lines of code and boom: Roomly is a reality.

It goes without saying that there is much work to be done, but we do not yet know where those efforts are best focused. Only the market – users, people like you reading this who sign up and use the platform – can show us through usage data and tell us in your own words what you need to make renting your rooms that much easier.

To be continued.

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Jason Lorimer is a strategist and fellow entrepreneur @Entrepreneurs (, where he works to advocate and execute on behalf of those with the ambition to do more than just entertain ideas. Jason and his team transform pre-internet business models into post-internet companies and prepare them to scale. Most recently Jason has set out to help cultivate industrial age cities into start up hubs. You can follow him @JasonLorimer