Unwittingly, my job has given me a fair amount of exposure to, and interaction with, entrepreneurs building the next big thing. Whether it’s a gadget, software platform, online service or earth-shattering productivity whatchamadigger, I meet and talk with up-starts and start-ups from several walks of life. Many are trying to pitch me to write about their stuff. Some are trying to hire me to help them market it. Others are just like-minded folks sharing stories over a drink at a conference.
Mind you, I am not an entrepreneur in the traditional sense. I own my own consultancy, but it’s me, a fertile mind and a laptop. My overhead is lunch money. I’m also not a venture capitalist or angel investor, so trusting my opinion of what makes a good startup should come with a bit of a grain of salt.
What I bring to the table, however, is the perspective of the average guy. I can look at an idea and say, “Yeah, people will get excited about that.” I can also say, “Here’s what’s wrong with it.” Some people like the brutal honesty. Others don’t. I can’t help it. As a friend says when introducing me, “Be warned: He was born without an edit button.”
While there are varying levels of everything and no hard-fast rules for what makes or breaks a start-up idea, here’s the main difference I’ve found between really good ideas and all the rest:
The key to startup success is having an idea that solves a problem, not just a symptom.
Instant messenger solved a symptom: Real-time electronic communication with friends. Twitter solved a problem: Real-time electronic communication with anyone, anywhere.
This is not the only, or most important, litmus test for a start-up’s success. It’s just one that can tell you whether or not the idea has true legs, sustainability or large profit potential. Unfortunately, most start-up ideas solve symptoms. It doesn’t mean they aren’t profitable or good ideas. Many make a lot of money and are acquired by huge companies. Symptoms are good to solve. But when you’ve solved a problem … that’s impressive.
I’ve been talking on- and off- with Gabe Lozano for a couple of years now. He’s the founder and CEO of Lockerdome.com, which is trying to solve a big problem in a very fractured and niche industry. In fact, it has been my conversations with Gabe that brought clarity to the notion of symptom versus problem outlined above. Gabe uses that spiel (said much more matter-of-factly than my attempt at prose) in his pitches and presentations.
Lockerdome is trying to make sense out of amateur sports in an online platform that is part social network, part information aggregator and part media platform. The symptoms around what’s wrong with amateur sports from an information standpoint are daunting to consider. Baseball alone has a few dozen governing bodies, leagues, organizations, rules and such. One kid can play on 3-4 teams per year, not including the official, school-sponsored teams. Consider similar fracturing among basketball, soccer, volleyball, football and more and you start to see how keeping up with both team and individual information would make even Google say, “Screw that!”
But Gabe sees the problem, not just the symptoms. The problem is the lack of a uniform system of recording and sharing information. He hopes to have every coach, team and league record or input their schedules, stats and news in a uniform matter to his tool, which then connects the dots of individual players for you. Your son or daughter’s player profile (once dependent upon you entering his or her stats from a singular sport) can now become a dynamic, ever-growing information resource with statistics, results, recaps and vitals from multiple games, teams, leagues and even sports.
College recruiters for the major universities alone ought to be funding Lockerdome. Or at least sports information directors (college athletics’ version of PR folks) should. If Lockerdome reaches its full potential, information will be a commodity, not a premium for these folks. And that’s just the statistical information standpoint. Lockerdome hopes to become the amateur sports resource for news and information for local newspapers, media outlets and more.
Lockerdome is just a couple of years old and has only recently begun to fully bring to life the problem-solving vision Gabe talks about. Their growth will likely be slow until some parents, coaches or leagues with some influence have some proof points to sing its praises. Only time can make those proof points emerge.
And therein lies the biggest challenge Lockerdome faces: time. How quickly can it scale with its current limits of resources, human and otherwise, to grow its user base? Will the proof points emerge fast enough for Lockerdome to become the online home for amateur sports information and news or will the proof points start to pop shortly after Gabe gives up? (Gabe is far from giving up, I assure you!)
That, I’m not qualified to answer. But I do know this: Lockerdome solves a problem, not just a symptom. There’s something really impressive there. I hope they grow fast.
What start-ups do you know of that solve problems, not symptoms? Tell us their story in the comments. Who knows? We may just help someone grow fast.