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People who go around trying to invent something fall on their tails. The best inventions come from people who are deeply involved in trying to solve a problem.

– Howard Head

In the world today there is this idea going around, popularized by books like The Secret, that people should never talk about problems and the pain they cause. Instead, they should be positive and only talk about opportunities. The promise is that by focusing on the positive, only good things will happen. Conversely, we are warned that by focusing on –- or even thinking about –- problems, pain, and other “negative” things, only bad things will come to pass. While that idea is of dubious merit in general, it is simply wrong when it comes to entrepreneurship and innovation.

There is no better way to make people happy than by solving a problem that is causing them significant physical or psychic pain.

If you study the lives and stories of successful entrepreneurs, intrapraneurs, and innovators, you will find that most are unabashed –- and often serial –- problem-solvers. They make their fortunes by finding, and then solving, good problems.

This principle is understood by experienced venture capitalists, angel investors, executives, and salespeople. As a result, they are constantly on the lookout for people who understand the importance of finding, and then solving, good problems.


Why is solving a problem so important?

Solving a problem is important because of the well-established fact that most people do not like to change.[4]

They live in the same houses. They go to the same restaurants. They listen to the same music.

Even when things get bad, they still resist changing.

They remain in dysfunctional personal relationships. They stay friends with people who drive them crazy. They linger on in jobs they hate.

As a result, change is ultimately the thing that makes or breaks innovations.

If the customer changes and adopts your Solution, then you will be successful and If they don’t, then you won’t.

It’s that simple.

The reason that solving a problem is so important to the success of your Solution is that the existence of a problem can increase the likelihood that the customer will change. It can provide the customer with the incentive to change and try something new.

But not always.


Unfortunately, as many entrepreneurs have learned, solving a problem is not enough to guarantee that people will change and adopt your Solution.

Thomas Jefferson discussed this phenomenon back in 1776 in The Declaration Of Independence…

All experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

In other words, as long as things aren’t too bad, people are generally more inclined to just put up with them than they are to change and do something about them. Only the presence of significant amounts of physical or psy­chic pain will consistently drive people to change and adopt your Solution.[5]

When, at the beginning of this chapter, I said that experienced venture capitalists, angel investors, executives, and salespeople are constantly on the lookout for good problems, I was talking about pain. A good problem is a problem that is causing the customer significant amounts of physical or psychic pain and is giving them plenty of incentive to change as a result. In contrast, an ordinary problem is a problem that results in things being less than ideal, but generally not bad enough to give the customer enough incentive to change.

If you are going to improve your odds of being successful, it is critically important that you understand the difference between good problems and ordinary problems.


While they don’t always talk about problems and pain, experienced venture capitalists clearly understand the relationship between pain, change, and innovation. For example, many venture capitalists talk about the 10X rule, which says that a Solution has to be 10 times better than the state of the art for it to have a reasonable chance of being successful. That means that it has to be 10 times faster, 1/10th the cost, or 1/10th the size. The logic behind the 10X rule is that only if your Solution represents an order of magnitude, or 10X, improvement over the state of the art will the customer be able to make a business case for, and justify, abandoning the state of the art and switching to your Solution.


One way to explain the problem you are trying to solve, and establish that it is causing the customer significant amounts of pain, is to answer the question, “What’s wrong with the state of the art?” In the case of SalesLogix, the thing that was wrong with the state of the art -– and that turned a mere problem into a real opportunity -– was something called data­base synchronization. Existing CRM systems couldn’t ensure that the database of every person in a large organization contained the same informa­tion as everyone else’s. This caused numerous headaches for organizations and gave them a reason to consider purchasing SalesLogix. In fact, this problem was causing some organizations so much pain that they commit­ted to buying SalesLogix long before it was finished.

In the SalesLogix elevator pitch, we spent a significant amount of time talking about both the problem and why we were qualified to solve it (e.g. our credentials). One way we did this was by naming our chief competitors and then explaining their limitations...

On the one hand, you have contact managers like Act that sales­people love but that do not allow people to share information across a large organization. On the other hand, you have high-end CRM systems like Siebel that scale to support the needs of hundreds or thousands of users but that salespeople refuse to use.

This was an extremely successful approach because it helped to establish not just who we were, but did so using products with which the audience was already familiar.


Sometimes, explaining what’s wrong with the state of the art doesn’t work because there is no state of the art; there is no existing solution to the problem you are trying to solve. In that case, one way to structure an elevator pitch is around a short scenario. This is the approach I took when developing an elevator pitch for this book, which is really the first of its kind. In the elevator pitch for Elevator Pitch Essentials, I first lay out a common, and rel­evant situation...

When you are selling an idea for a new product, service, project, or other Solution, you frequently meet people who can help you achieve your goal, but do not have the time to give them a com­plete, detailed presentation. That includes situations like…

• Running into an executive in an elevator.
• Meeting an influential person in a bar line.
• Being introduced to a potential investor.
• Introducing yourself to a group of people.

I then explain the challenge that such a situation presents...

Unless you want to come across as boorish and self-centered, you only have a few seconds –- or in the best case a couple of minutes –- to get your point across. As a result, you have to be prepared to give someone a quick overview of your Solution and leave the details to later.

I then explain the problem that people are faced with...

The problem is that too few people are prepared to handle those kinds of situations. As a result, they let opportunity walk out the door.

I then set up Elevator Pitch Essentials as the solution to that problem...

Elevator Pitch Essentials teaches people how to handle those kinds of situations.

While it is usually better to name the state of the art if it exists, in many cases that simply isn’t possible. In that case, the best approach to structuring your elevator pitch is to do what I did in the Elevator Pitch Essentials elevator pitch and use a short scenario that people can relate to and that clearly explains the nature of the problem.

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This document is copyright © 2009 Chris O'Leary and the LIMB Press LLC. It is licensed for personal use only. Any organizational or institutional use must be approved by Chris O'Leary.

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