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What if the problem you are solving is not that urgent?
How to position, brand, and market a product that is solving a significant but not urgent problem.
Hello, I’m Hema, and welcome to my newsletter First Impression. Each month, I write an in-depth post on positioning, brand, or GTM strategy for early-stage startups. Join startup founders, investors, and practitioners and subscribe to get the newsletter in your inbox.
Founder advice 101 is to build solutions that solve urgent, painful, hair-on-fire problems that cannot be solved easily with existing solutions. Paypal, Okta, TurboTax, and Zoom (especially during the pandemic) fall into this category.
But there are plenty of problems that are meaningful, even significant, but just not very painful.
Figma, Asana, Loom, Intercom, Typeform, and Zapier are all products that solve very meaningful, but not incredibly painful, hair-on-fire problems. They all fall in the middle to far right of this urgency spectrum.
For some users, these problems can go from annoying or tedious to severe and painful, but this usually happens over time.
Many startups I work with have this challenge. They are solving meaningful, significant problems that aren’t (yet) painful enough. Humans are highly adaptable, and we adapt surprisingly well to pain. We may not see the hoops we jump through to get something done as painful at all. We proudly say, “I have a process for that.”
For a business to choose a startup over an established solution, it must feel enough pain to take the risk. So what should a startup solving a significant problem that isn’t terribly urgent, do?
Talk about the problem.
Most founders went down the entrepreneurial path because they saw a problem in their workflow or job function that no one had solved well. But once they build a solution, they only want to talk about what they have built!
As a founder, you might be deeply familiar with the problem. After all, you’ve made it your life’s mission to solve it. But not everyone is as familiar with it. In fact, many might not even see the problem.
Let’s take Figma, for example. Before Figma, people still collaborated on the design process. Their process looked something like this:
Design in Sketch → Save files to Dropbox or Drive → Share files via. Email or Slack. → Download file → Edit or comment → Upload file → Designer sorts through files with v1, v2, v3, etc. → Consolidates comments → Revises design → Repeat.
Now, post Figma, when we look at this process, it looks completely asinine. What were we thinking?! 🤯 But pre-Figma, we would have thought this was totally normal 🧘🏽♀️.
In retrospect, it always feels that way. But we resist change until we get used to a better way of doing things. We prefer to jump through our crazy hoops because they are familiar. We take great comfort in them. Ask any customer success person trying to get a customer to adopt a new product that replaces their exquisitely constructed and carefully mastered process!
Most startup websites I see talk about the solution, not the problem. Below are a few good examples of products that do an excellent job of talking about the problem.
Figma’s message inspires and encourages us to work together and speak to the problem: nothing great can be created in isolation.
Loom is solving a simple but pernicious problem: too many meetings.
Here, Front puts a positive spin on the problem they are solving, making every customer feel like they matter.
Hotjar’s message tells us that they provide something their alternatives cannot.
Why now and why you?
I’m sure, by now, everyone is familiar with Simon Sinek’s Start With The Why. Take that a step further and ask why now? What about this moment in time makes your product meaningful? Why should someone seriously think about buying your solution now?
Often, something is going on in the broader landscape that has made your product possible. Although generally positive, this advancement in the broader landscape has now created a whole set of new problems.
Let’s take the same Figma example: What changed in the broader landscape for Figma to exist? Work was becoming browser-based, and everything was stored and shared in the cloud. This has many benefits, of course, but also challenges: ballooning file versions, lots of folders and subfolders to sort through, and no easy place to capture and consolidate feedback.
Once you’ve answered why now, take it a step further and ask, why you? What does your product or solution provide that other solutions do not? How are you different, and why does your difference matter?
Making this why, why now, and why you the crux of your storytelling will, over time, shift your problem from the far right of the urgency spectrum to the far left.
Read this post by Scott Schwarzhoff on how Okta defined their why now.
Internalize your ICP’s workflow.
Your product may not be super urgent to your ICP, but it is replacing something that your ICP is doing.
Your ICP is either using a competitive product to solve her problem that, hopefully, your product solves better and faster (if not, ask why not?). Or your ICP has created “her process,” which is simply a series of manual steps or cobbled-together tools like spreadsheets and documents she’s using to complete her task, like the above example with Figma.
Either way, she has a workflow. She is jumping through a series of hoops or using a product that does part of her workflow but not all of it. Internalizing your ICP’s workflow is crucial. I am often surprised by how many startups build beautiful products without fully understanding their ICP’s current workflow.
When solving a non-urgent but significant problem, your value lies in making things faster, easier, cheaper, and better.
You cannot do that without knowing your ICPs workflow backward and forwards.
Be a megaphone
Don’t take this too literally. I am not suggesting you throw money at billboards on 101 or plaster the subway with ads. However, if you are building a product that is solving a significant, highly-useful, and essential problem that is not yet a hair-on-fire problem, you have the responsibility to educate, inform, and build awareness.
Building awareness can start small. As small as personalized customer support, having one-to-one customer conversations via chatbots, a thoughtful, opinionated, and editorialized blog. Boots on the ground community building on social media. Finding and empowering evangelists to authentically talk about their experience working with your product. Be an authoritative voice of your industry by starting a podcast like Gong did on revenue intelligence.
Read this great post from First Round Review on how Figma built its community.
Ignore building a brand at your own risk.
Unless the founders have a design or marketing background, I often get blank stares when I suggest investing in your brand. Branding is often an afterthought for B2B startups, but I’m glad to see that this is changing.
Communicating with some personality and voice to your customers helps them connect with you and remember the experience. A positive experience leads to word-of-mouth referrals. It’s priceless!
Like my earlier point on being your megaphone, branding doesn’t have to start big. Here are two examples of startups that invested in branding by starting small.
Mailchimp started small but added smart, funny brand visual elements into their product. Like this sweating hand gif when you are about to send an email and the high-five once you’ve hit the sent button. Over time their brand evolved to a more whimsical expression. This might change with Intuit acquiring them, but I hope not. Read more about this in this article, Mailchimp’s wild growth
My second example is Gong. Right from the beginning, Gong invested in a brand. They had a particular point of view, a unique voice, and a personality. They embraced a uniquely differentiated look and feel that appealed to their target persona: sales teams. Gong looked quite different from others in their space, like Outreach, Salesloft, or Clari, which made them stand out.
Their voice translated to their revenue intelligence podcast. They were obsessed with customer service from the beginning, which translated to praise from users whose comments and posts they feature on raving fans. They invested in content from the start and continue to do so.
Over time, Gong’s brand personality has evolved to appeal to enterprise customers, and I hope they don’t lose their unique voice because of it.
“When a great team meets a lousy market, market wins. When a lousy team meets a great market, market wins. When a great team meets a great market, something special happens.” Andy Rachleff, Benchmark Capital and Wealthfront
Like Andy says, timing matters. But plenty of startups have succeeded despite being early to the market.
Datadog, Webflow, Hubspot, Airbnb.
There were both direct and indirect competitive alternatives for all these products.
Splunk, WordPress, Marketo, Hotels.
Did these products become urgent over time? Some, maybe. I think their success has more to do with taking on the challenge of educating the market, building a great product experience, and investing in a long-term marketing foundation.