A Problem Worth Solving

“I had a big late fee for ‘Apollo 13.’ It was six weeks late and I owed the video store $40. I had misplaced the cassette. It was all my fault. I didn’t want to tell my wife about it. And I said to myself, ‘I’m going to compromise the integrity of my marriage over a late fee?’ Later, on my way to the gym, I realized they had a much better business model. You could pay $30 or $40 a month and work out as little or as much as you wanted.”

If you were born before the 90's, you’ve probably experienced similar situations. I remember getting a $20 late fee for “Never Been Kissed” starring Drew Barrymore. The chances are that this movie could actually be — the worst movie — I’ve ever seen. And oddly enough, it seemed that the crappier movies I rented, the bigger the late fee I accrued. Fortunately, the problem of late fees, or going to a store to rent movies for that matter, is long gone.

Maybe you’ve already guessed who the earlier quote was by, right? It’s by Reed Hastings, the founder of Netflix. The story perfectly sums up how he, seemingly stumbled upon a business idea — by isolating a problem — and wanting to fix it.

“The way we set ourselves apart from the crowd was focusing on problems.”
- Kevin Systrom

Kevin Systrom, the CEO of Instagram said during an interview, that the way Instagram set itself apart from other photo sharing services, and the key to its success, was that Instagram solved problems. Before, similar services had problems of:

  • poor photo quality. Instagram improved low-quality photos by adding filters.
  • slow speed when uploading photos. Instagram solved this by essentially faking that something is uploaded.
  • and lastly, you couldn’t share photos to multiple social networks at once. Instagram lets users push their photos across networks.

Another similar story, this time for a physical product: Neil Blumenthal, and his soon-to-be partners at business school, loved glasses. But they didn’t love the process of buying glasses. They experienced that, as soon as you walked out of an optical shop, you felt ripped off. At an optician, there is a lack of price transparency. If you select a pair of frames, you get a price, and then if you want lenses, you have to pay extra. Another problem with this buying process is that glasses are shown behind a counter or in a glass display — out of reach. The idea for Warby Parker was born: an online store where you can browse glasses, ship them home to try on for free, and get a better deal than on main street.

Warby Parker  gives away a pair of glasses  for every pair sold

Warby Parker gives away a pair of glasses for every pair sold

These stories show the potential of isolating problems and fixing them. Aside from problems with renting movies, taking photos or buying glasses, you’ve most likely experienced similar problems of your own. It could be with a product, or a service or an issue in your work environment. However, in our fast-paced-deadline-oriented lives, we might push our problems under the rug, move forward, and forget about them until they face us again.

Instead, in your daily life, try to jot down the problems you encounter. The next day, or the next week, or the next month, when you have some time on your hands, think about how you can tackle them head-on. Maybe your scribbled-down notes could turn into a business idea, or even get you a promotion. Perhaps we shouldn’t see a problem as something negative, rather see it as an opportunity.

To quote Tina Roth Eisenberg:

“Don’t complain, make things better.”


Neil Blumenthal: 3 Lessons Learned From Building Warby Parker