You Can’t Solve This

When I identify a problem that I’d like to solve, I try to remind myself to be self-aware. Am I suited to solve this problem? I ask myself. As much as I want to, I may or may not be the right person. I have to be honest about my abilities; otherwise I could fail to capitalize on a great opportunity.

I’ve addressed (notice I didn’t say solved) problems I had no business addressing. With hindsight, I can see that I usually lacked one or both of the following:

  • Sufficient understanding of a problem based on experience or deep knowledge of the space.
  • Relationships in the space that could open closed doors or lead to potential customers.

At CCAW, we moved into a new product category that we weren’t qualified to enter. I saw an opportunity to solve a customer’s problem with acquiring certain parts. The result: a slog. We spent years trying to understand and solve the problem. We later learned that no one had solved the problem because of the extreme degree of complexity and dependencies involved. In the end our attempt was marginally successful and took way too long. One of our main competitors lapped us (a few times, actually).

In retrospect, no one on our team had any knowledge or relationships in the space. We were clueless outsiders trying to solve something we didn’t understand. We eventually figured something out (kinda), but it was painful and prolonged.

I now approach problems differently. If I know I’m not qualified, I identify where my gaps are and try to fill them. Working with partners who complement me—my strengths are their weaknesses and vice versa—has worked well.  I’ve also had success working to fill my gap. For example, when I lack experience, I look for opportunities to gain experience and learn (even if it’s unpaid).

Entrepreneurship is all about solving problems for paying customers. If you aren’t qualified to solve the problem, you probably won’t do it very well. (Not good for customer satisfaction!) Ask yourself if you should be solving this problem. If the answer is no, try to better position yourself.