Do Your Customers Know They Have a Problem?


I recently read a memo by Stewart Butterfield, founder of the project management platform Slack, which he shared with his team before launching their product. In it he covers his startup philosophy, marketing approach, and some thoughts on product design. It’s an incredible memo and I highly recommend you read it:

We Don’t Sell Saddles

The basic message is this: You’re not selling an app, you’re selling a solution to a problem your users have. So don’t think about your app as a product, but as an experience your customers want to have.

What stood out for me was the distinction he made between products that solve a problem the target market knows about, and products solving a problem potential customers don’t know they have. Many people grow numb to their own pain and assume “this is how it is”. Therefore, they aren’t looking for a solution in the first place. How can you market to such people?

Do you remember the time before email, where communicating with people far away involved writing on paper, folding the paper inside an envelope, writing the address, putting a stamp on it and dropping it in a mail box (or taking it to the post office). People didn’t think there was anything wrong with this arrangement. After all, how else would you communicate with distant relatives?

Email made us realize how painful and time-consuming “snail” mail is, given the alternative.

But when your customers haven’t yet realized they have a problem and are suffering as a result, then you need to educate them first by highlighting the benefits your product offers. We complain about having bloated email inboxes, but we accept it as part of modern life. Slack came to challenge this assumption, and offered a solution to help reduce the noise in modern communication channels, and encourage more productive collaboration.

What does your product do to your users? How can it make them feel better? How can it make them feel better about themselves? Does it make them more productive? More confident? More attractive? More intelligent?

If your customers aren’t already complaining about the problems your app or business solves, then you might need to educate them. Once they recognize their pain, they’d be inclined to do something about it.

I discussed the memo with Prem, the co-founder of BoxIt Storage. Many of his potential customers don’t realize the relief they can experience by using his service, because they’ve already grown numb to the pain clutter causes them. But once they clear out their living space from all the extra “stuff” that has no place in their current home, they’ll realize how much pain they were tolerating.

I experienced this myself when I used BoxIt to store books I wanted to read but don’t have time for now. I made better use of my bookshelves and no longer felt overwhelmed by the obligation towards the books constantly staring at me in my office and judging me for not reading them.

Do your customers know they have a problem? If not, how will you educate them?