Solving problem

A Computer Science student wrote to me: “I need your advice on starting a company. I have taken several start-up classes and learned a lot, I also had many good ideas, but I still need a second opinion before starting my company. I want to be successful. Please advise.”

Answer: If you learn a lot in start-up classes, why do you need to ask for advice? You can start your company based on what you have learned. Your start-up teacher should be able to help you since you paid a lot of money for it. However, since you have asked, I would give my opinion about “Your new ideas.”

As I have written in previous blogs, to start a company, students should NOT focus on an idea, but on PROBLEMs to solve. Customers PAY for solutions, NOT ideas. In my startup class, many students come up with new ideas that they think are good, but I always tell them: “Nobody pays for an idea. But they will pay for a solution to their problems.” It is easy to think of a new idea, especially in a classroom, but I do not want you to stay in the classroom to talk among yourself about wonderful ideas. I want you to go OUT OF THE CLASSROOM to talk to people and find out about their problems that you can solve. Start-up is a BUSINESS, and you need customers to make money. The best way to make money is to make something that customers need and willing to pay a lot of money for it.”

Sometimes, students would argue that “Steve Jobs did not talk to customers, he always had ideas to change the market.” I explained: “You are NOT Steve Jobs so stop dreaming. Do NOT confuse by what people tell you about him. He knows more about customers problems than you know. That is why he succeeds.”

Today, start-up training is still conducted in a “Safe environment” such as classroom and seminar where students talk about their great ideas to change the market. But in reality, most of these ideas did not work, and many start-ups failed. I believe people could save time, money, and disappointment if they focus on identifying the problems instead of just having ideas. A good startup should be about finding solutions for a lot of people to make money, NOT dreaming about wonderful idea that changes the world. With the technical knowledge, startup students should focus on automating something that they see in their environment as there are many manual processes that can be automated.

A hundred year ago, Henry Ford looked at the way companies built cars. He wondered: “Why build one car at a time? Can we put many cars on an assembly line and build them faster?” He invented the assembly lines and became one of the richest people at that time. Henry Ford did not sit in a classroom but observed things happened around him and try to find a better solution.

Seventy years ago, an engineer named Luther Simjian, stand in a long line in a bank to withdraw money. The bank teller was very slow, and it took haft an hour for him to get his money. He asked himself: “Why can I create a “”hole-in-the-wall machine” to let people withdraw money faster than a bank teller?” The idea of having an automated machine instead of people helped him to invented the Automated Teller Machine (ATM.)

Steve Jobs did not invent the mobile phone, but when he saw people carry a mobile phone, a laptop, a camera, an MP3 device, he asked: “Why not integrate all of them into one? He asked his engineers to added many functions such as MP3, cameras and internet access to create the iPhone. Today the iPhone is the best-selling phone all over the world.

If you begin to look around, you may find there are many opportunities to use technology to automate manual processes to improve efficiency and bring in higher profits. Do not focus too much on creating new idea but try to find a solution to the common problem; you will have better chance to succeed. My advice: “Start solving a problem, then you can develop your startup with better chance to succeed.”


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University
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