Start with the right questions

The key to building a successful product is to start asking the right questions as early as possible.

Simon Sinek thinks the successful people start with a simple question - why? His ted talk has over 50M views and is one of top trending ted videos of all time.

Elon musk has also talked about the importance of learning problems at a fundamental level before attempting any solution.

I think understanding a problem requires a special focus and it’s about asking the right questions. Like a baysian approach, your belief is constantly tested and realigned to what you currently know.

When I worked on my first startup, as an engineer the easiest thing to start with was building a MVP. I kept paying for the price of assumptions in that process.

After a few false starts, I have gotten better at directing my attention towards knowing the audience and learning the problem well enough before touching a code editor.

The questions below are not just helpful when you have a new startup idea but also when you are assigned an existing product at your company or when you are studying a competitor.


What problem are you solving?
The problems are often hard to describe at start.
Once I was working on a travel booking service. As a consultant, I had travelled a lot and thought the time lost booking through the UI is the problem worth solving. But as time went by and we talked to other consultant friends, we found out that the slowest part of that process is asking for recommendations. In business visits, you would often ask your colleagues who may travelled to the destination before or the ones who are already there. We were no longer solving a UI problem but a recommendation problem.

Who cares the most about the problem?
If you have access to data, it’s an easier question to answer. But very often you don’t. Research from review sites (G2, capterra), social media groups (facebook, reddit) or cold outreach might help you answer this question. Writing a blog post and seeking feedback from industry experts could also help uncover the audience.

What is the job that the user is trying to perform?
It’s a key question to answer before moving on to further research. If you don’t know what job a user is trying to achieve, you will never know what and who to look for.

What is the outcome of the job? Is there a clear ROI?
Same as above. Equally important. Find out the outcome of Job. Is it increased revenue, cost savings, or reduced risk?

If you are selling to B2B, knowing the audience helps in identifying the top leader in the company who might get interested in what you are doing.

How important is the problem for the user?
This is about finding the world view of the user. Not all problems are worth solving.

Is this something the users will always want? (e.g. Low shipping cost is something users will always want )
Some problems are seasonal, temporary. For example, due to the current social distancing norm enforced by covid, there are new solutions people are looking for. But its likely that people will seize to want them in the post-covid era (when we see it:) .

Why is the problem unsolved?
Sometimes, problems are not evident to the user. And hence, this is a tough question.

Why can you solve the problem better? Do you need new skills or training??
I was once researching about audio editing problem that I faced while recording training videos. After brief research, i realised there is a lot I needed to learn about sound engineering before I can achieve anything significant. I think keeping this at the back of your mind, helps you plan better. I decided to take a short course on audio editing on coursera.


How much are the users paying for the existing process today?
Even if an equivalent service doesn’t exist, users are paying for the problem in some form or manner.

For example, muse, a product for capturing thoughts, claims there is no equivalent to the service as they focus on visual representation of thoughts unlike Roam or other note taking or mind mapping softwares.

From a creator’s perspective you would always want to be unique, but even when you don’t like, the users are going to bracket you into a category. In this case, most people note down thoughts / ideas using a combination of tools - note taking, drawing or sketch tools. So I would look for the price for the combintation of these tools.

Solution (if you have one)

Is it a completely new category/method that the user will have to perform?
When you are taking on a problem that exists in the real world but has no technological solution yet or you have an innovation that world hasn’t heard of, you will spend most of your early years educating the audience about the problem. You must know if this is the case.

How many new steps will be added to user’s current processs? Are they easy?
I use a lot of apps every day to get my jobs done. And Inspite of being tech-savvy I don’t really like to learn new workflows or products unless they are very similar to my existing tools with a few exceptions. I think it’s true with most users. Nobody likes to spend time learning new tools and processes. To pick up a completely new tools, users need a really high level of motivation. You must know if you are going to need that.


Considering the channels or ways to reach your target audience is often left out by Product owners. After a few false starts, I realised the significance of paying attention to this.

Are they searching for a solution (e.g Google search trends, fb groups)?
Users looking out for a solution is the best sign that you are solving a right problem.

Who are underserved users?
Look for underserving users that existing tools or products are ignoring. This is really important if you are entering a red ocean, a crowded market.

Even if you solve the problem, how will users discover you?
Some products are inherently viral. Take communication tools like Slack or Video embeding powered by youtube for examples. Growth comes cheap when you can enable virality.

What is the wow factor for early adopters to join in?
When entering a crowded market, there is always a question of why you? Give them a good reason. Check out how a recent product mmhmm is challenging zoom with some really cool features.

What is the Market Size? How much can you achive through your top channel?
I think looking at just market size isn’t enough. Most companies reach their users through a single dominant channel. Beyond that, there are either practical or economic difficulties. So if possible, getting percentage of market you can reach through your chosen channels is good exercise to perform.

What is estimated (Life Time Value) LTV? Can you take on paid channels?
In a podcasting research, I observed that the creators drop out after an year if they can’t monetize or keep up the hobby. The average LTV in these cases would be around 12-18 months of your price.

If you are entering an existing market, the prices are already decided by the market. Also your user research can give you a ballpark they are willing to pay.

If your LTV is low, going through paid channels may not be practical. You may have to choose other modes of reaching prospects. Or You may want to change value prop to maximize LTV.

Lean Canvas

The questions in this post are informal and self-serving. If you are looking for a more concise format that you can share with others then take a look at Lean Canvas.

This blog is open-source on Github.