Startups: Do You Make Me Money, or Save Me Money?

Something jumped out at me from a recent podcast by Y-Combinator with Des Traynor, Founder of Intercom. Asked about the problem he solves, he described how over time, their approach to sales has changed:

“. When you’re trying to pitch them something, they just say “Hey, here’s my two numbers, which one of these are you changing?” And I think when we show up and we’re like, well if you love your users you’re going to stick around, and they’re like sh-sh. Don’t care about any of that. Are you going to make me money or save me money? And we need to get better at answering that question. And we need to have better evidence to answer that question.”

In Startup culture, there is always a lot of talk about “solving problems.” Every product and service has to solve some problem. That’s true as far as it goes, but “solving a problem” for your users is not, in itself, enough to build a business on. You have to also answer some version of this question: how do you make me money, or save me money?

As we accept applications for StartupYard Batch 9, this question will be forefront on our minds when making initial selections.

Lots of problems exist, but not all of them are promising new businesses. How do you know when you’ve nailed down that problem that people are willing to pay money to solve?

You can check out the video podcast here:

A Problem That Isn’t a Problem

The reason we always begin our acceleration program with the classic Positioning Statement, is that expressing the problem you solve is one of the hardest things an early stage startup has to manage.

Often times the “problem” founders pick to talk about is just another way of saying that their customers want their product. Maybe they do, but why?

Over the course of in-depth positioning discussions with dozens of startups, I’ve developed a sort of framework for determining whether a problem is in fact a real problem, and not a “startup problem.” While not universal, this framework is extremely helpful in determining whether you’ve really nailed down the problem you’re solving.

I apply this mental checklist:

  • Does the problem have clear financial implications?
  • Is the customer aware that this is a problem?
  • Does the customer actively search for other solutions?
  • Is this problem something your customer would list among their most important concerns?

One of the most typical early positioning problems is that founders will identify things like “a better interface,” or “more efficiency,” or “saves time,” as the key benefits of their solution to a problem.

But by applying this checklist, we can see that benefits like “saving time,” are not always as urgent as they might appear. Does the time have a clear financial cost? Is the customer aware that they can do something faster? Would they actually seek a faster solution on their own? Is this time that they are wasting a concern for them?

You can sell me a way to shower in half the time every morning, but I wouldn’t buy it. It’s only a problem if the time I spend showering is a frustration to me.

Sometimes I ask founders: “Have you ever sat down and googled: “how to do x faster?” Most of the time, they haven’t, because that’s not typically how people behave. Only when something is taking so long, and is so arduous that it has become a clear problem, do people act to find solutions.

A Case Study: Steel Mountain

Steel Mountain

Getting your positioning, and particularly your problem statement to answer those questions can mean changing deeply how you talk about what you do, and how you see your customers, and who they are.

I’m going to use the case of one of our most recent startups Steel Mountain, the home-network security company that will soon be offering a single device to monitor and protect homes from digital intruders, viruses, and other threats.

Steel Mountain, it must be said, were already in a more than usually advanced stage of development when they joined our program, but I would say this exact roadblock was among their toughest questions early on. They had a compelling product, but they needed to really be able to express the problem that it solves.

The “You Need Us” Problem

After about a month in the program, their positioning looked something like this:

“The privacy and security of homes and small businesses are increasingly at risk from digital threats. Steel Mountain’s Secaura device plugs into your router, providing enterprise grade security across your entire home network. Unlike typical security software, Secaura covers all connected devices instantly, requires no active maintenance, and employs advanced artificial intelligence against known and unknown security threats.”

That is a very straightforward positioning statement, quite typical of a security company. Just one problem: it doesn’t quite pass the checklist I mentioned earlier. Let’s see:

  • Does the problem have clear financial implications?

Not really. We are told first of all that there is a threat lurking out there somewhere online. But that threat has no exact proportion, and the target customer (the head of a household or small business), is at pains to estimate how much exactly a digital threat means in terms of lost income, lost business, theft, or other mischief.

  • Is the customer aware that this is a problem?

Maybe… although given that this is such a simple solution to a complex problem, it’s rather doubtful that anyone who truly understands the problem doesn’t already have a solution in place. Perhaps there is market awareness of the problem, but we aren’t yet clear from this statement that the target market knows they’re in real danger.

  • Does the customer active search for other solutions?

Again, it’s not yet clear whether the target customer actively engages with this problem at all. Some probably do, but the alternatives mentioned, such as security software, serve only a minority of households. Most do not have a sophisticated solution in place. Is the product only for security minded people, or is it for people who can’t deal with complex solutions?

  • Is this problem something your customer would list among their most important concerns?

Again, we can speculate that the typical household or small business does not list security among its top concerns. Those that do are probably using more complex solutions. For those who are using no solution, it is seen more as a low-level, constant issue that many people would rather ignore than understand, and most people believe will never have an effect on them either way.

As we can see clearly from this checklist, we haven’t identified an urgent, well-understood need from a well-defined target customer. 

Making the Problem a Real Problem

How did Steel Mountain come down to a positioning statement that did involve a clear problem and urgent need for the solution?

First, they took the painful but necessary step of considering that while their expertise and the value of the product as they see it is in security technology, the typical customer in their target market has no way of evaluating such products.

Instead, they went back to these 4 checklist questions and identified a problem that satisfies all of them at once.

The problem they identified was this:


“Parents of families feel great pressure to provide a safe digital environment for their children, and are prone to wasting money and effort on partial security solutions that never completely protect their homes and families.”


For starters, we have narrowed the customer set in this positioning statement to parents. In doing so, we’ve been able to identify a more universal emotional and social problem that the target customer can easily identify with.

So the problem is no longer: “my home is not secure,” but instead: “I am afraid of feeling like a bad parent who can’t protect their family.”

How does it do with the checklist?

  • The problem has clear financial implications. Every parent has wasted money on safety equipment that wasn’t really needed. This solution promises to end that guess-and-check approach to digital security.
  • The customer is very aware of the problem. Any parent who gives their child a smartphone or a tablet knows the dangers, and tries to consider them.
  • Nearly every parent in the target market has or will in the future investigate digital security to protect their children. The solutions are in fact much broader than merely software, as in the earlier positioning statement. Education products, specialty devices, operating systems, and many other solutions are available to address the same concerns. This solution can now be compared to those as a cost effective and complete alternative
  • Child safety is a top concern for most families with children. Again, by shifting the problem to one of “parents with children” rather than “owners of homes,” we have also shifted the conversation towards top concerns that parents have, for their children. Now, rather than comparing Secaura to an anti-virus software, we can compare it to other home security essentials: baby monitors, door locks, or fuse-plugs.

This process also helped the founders identify more features of the product that were very attractive for customers. Parental content locks, and “bedtime” settings for individual devices, though the founders had included them as an afterthought, were of prime interest to this new target market.

The reactions the founders got began to change because of this new positioning.

When Steel Mountain’s CEO Will Butler began pitching the company with this strategy, the change in enthusiasm was remarkable. People in his target market started asking: “Can I have one?” And “I’ve always wanted that!” It went from a geek product to something the customer had to have, and should have already owned.

Steel Mountain CEO Will Butler pitches about the stress of living up to your role as a parent.

It’s often said that “people don’t buy security.” What’s really meant by that is that people have a hard time seeing the value of something that protects us against a problem we don’t understand. If the product solves a problem we do understand, and even better, one we already have right now, then the customer is much more likely to consider buying it.

Some security companies only manage to sell to customers who have already been victimized by attacks and theft. But others find a way to sell “peace of mind,” instead.

When solutions really find a clear and understood problem and customer, they begin to feel not just strong, but practically inevitable. Why hasn’t someone done this before?

Applying it Yourself

Of course, not every problem has to do with security, or money, or peace of mind. Your customer might not be concerned with saving or making money. The logic of the framework is about the relevance of the problem to a particular customer. Have you picked a customer and a problem that match?

If not, how can you change your thinking about who the customer really is, or what their problem really might be?

Squaring that circle is never easy. As a founder, you’re naturally absorbed in what you’re building, and driven by your own reasons for building it. Opening up and applying that work to problems you haven’t considered is part of a continuous creative process. It involves talking to your target customer and others about what their real feelings and concerns are.

You have to talk to a lot of people. Not just customers, but the people who sell to those customers, and understand them best.

Getting the problem right is a life or death challenge for an early stage company. That’s one of the reasons an accelerator can be such a great choice for a team like Steel Mountain, or many other companies we’ve worked with. The opportunity to shift your thinking and test it with so many mentors and potential customers in such a short time is a rare opportunity for a startup.


StartupYard is currently accepting applications for Batch 9. We’re looking for startup founders in Crypto, AI, IoT, and AR/VR!

Get started applying to StartupYard Batch 9. Applications close January 31st, 2018.