The best founders have lived the problem they're trying to solve
It’s received wisdom that successful startups solve real world problems. But there’s a commonly overlooked footnote to this mantra: you can’t try to solve a problem unless you’ve lived it first. Because without gaining the authentic understanding of lived experience, you’ll never find a solution that works in practice as well as in theory.
By lived experience of a problem, I mean a boots-on-the-ground interaction which delivers an understanding of the messiest and most visceral realities. Experience is not a one-off encounter with an issue - it’s not a hard-hat toting, hi-vis wearing political tour of a factory. It’s prolonged exposure to shadowed corners and internal complexities. It demands time, energy and emotion.
Take the winners of a 2019 IBM global coding challenge, Spanish tech startup, Prometeo. Their smartphone-sized device keeps firefighters safe by monitoring temperature, smoke and humidity. The success of the project can be traced to the founder - a firefighter with 33 years of experience - motivated to deliver a tech solution after witnessing the preventable, tragic deaths of too many colleagues.
Why did Prometeo succeed in delivering this life saving tool when no other tech company had? Because the product was literally born from the flames of frontline fire fighting. All the business school education in the world couldn’t compare to the founders’ innate knowledge of the dangers his colleagues encountered and what would and wouldn’t work in practice. Spectators rarely land on the exact right solution, but those in the field often do.
A shortage of authentic involvement may well be a contributing factor to the high failure rate of startups. Whether you’re a bright graduate or veteran entrepreneur, trying to launch a solution to problems you don’t authentically understand will more often than not fall flat. Fail to account for one critical nuance or another and solutions can quickly prove unworkable or be disliked on the ground.
My own startup was born directly out of years of experience working as an Accident & Emergency doctor in the NHS. I spent many exhausting nights rushing between critically ill patients on understaffed wards, fraught early mornings covering for burnt-out colleagues, and joyful minutes sharing good news with patients. It was during this time that my eyes were opened to the deep-seated inefficiencies of internal staffing systems. This experience set me on a path to create a solution, one which has been embraced by NHS teams across the UK.
If you are working to solve an issue which is close to your heart and which impacts the lives of people you know, passion and motivation is likely to stick around when times get tough. However stressed I got during those early days, a moment’s reflection on the stress experienced every hour by doctors and nurses helped me to remember why I started in the first place. Prospective users weren’t hazily constructed questionnaire respondents or focus group participants. They were colleagues, friends and a health system I care deeply about.
When you’re emotionally invested in the problem, there’s no temptation to cut a corner, or take an easy option to gain a quick win.
Of course, there are notable exceptions to the rule and some founders work incredibly hard to develop the emotional investment, contextual intelligence and meaningful relationships needed to get to grips with a new sector or problem. Such cases should inspire founders looking to venture beyond their own spheres that you must truly understand a space before you attempt to fix it.
Start with the people who daily encounter the problems you are trying to solve. Shadow them, ask them questions, let them talk. And, most importantly, really listen. You’ll then be equipped to employ your creativity and skills to craft a solution couched in reality.
The best ideas often come from the mundanity of the everyday. Allow your lived experience to inspire and inform how your startup might change the world, because it’s with roots firmly anchored in reality that your ambitions will flourish and bear fruit.