The Intersection of "Helpful to Others" and "Interesting to You"


Fred Perrotta

Solving for the Wrong Problem

When responding to tweets about my post, If Your Business is a Secret, It's Probably Bullshit, I realized a core problem of these businesses: founders start them to solve their own problems. Problems like hating their jobs or needing money or not being an entrepreneur yet.

You can't start a business by trying to solve these problems. Solving them will be a consequence of solving other people's problems.

I understand how it happens. The ideas of passive income, freedom, and autonomy are tempting. So you start a business to achieve those goals for yourself. Or maybe you heard that dropshipping is an easy, low risk way to make money. These approaches are wrong.

The right approach is to find problems and to solve them. Not your problems. Other people's problems. They will pay you to do this. That's how you create a business.

I should clarify that it's okay to solve problems that you've experienced firsthand as long as other people have the same problems. This is called "scratching your own itch." Jeremy and I started Tortuga because we couldn't find the perfect backpack for city travel. We asked around, but no one else had a bag they would recommend. We identified a problem that other people had, not just one that we were experiencing.

Wanting to start a business is helpful but secondary. Most people don't have that desire so they complain about problems without ever trying to solve them.

Founders can also go wrong in the other direction.

You can start a business that's successful but about which you feel apathetic. This can be a category or customers that you don't care about or a matter of your day-to-day tasks not being engaging for you.

This problem is the easier one to solve. First, hire someone into your role who both wants it and will be good at it. Then find a role in the business that's a better fit for you, step back into a purely ownership role, or sell the company.

The Sweet Spot

I like to use Venn diagrams to describe ideas. The sweet spot for starting a business is the intersection of two circles on the Venn diagram:

  1. Helpful to Others: Other people will pay you to solve their problems. If you do it well, they will be grateful and will tell their friends.
  2. Interesting To You: If you want to be successful, you will need to last through the hard times. Working on something that you are interested in will keep you going when times are tough. Ideally, you are always working on at the edge of your skills and expertise so that you are learning and feel motivated to improve.

Solving other people's problems is the difference between "following your passion" and starting a business. If you're only pursuing something for yourself, you may be creating art, but you are unlikely to create a business.

Think of #1 as the demand and #2 as the supply. You can make all the stuff you want, but, if no one wants to buy it, you don't have a business.