The New Inventors: Exploring Problems

The New Inventors: Exploring Problems

This post is part of a blog series called “The New Inventors” written by the Hardware Accelerator team at Rev: Ithaca Startup Works. Each post will focus on a capability or concept that inventors can add to their toolbox. Future posts include “Design Principles,” “Internet of Things,” “Prototyping Platforms,” “Business Models” and more. Want to spend a summer in Ithaca turning your invention into a business? Apply to the Hardware Accelerator summer program here

Brad Treat, one of our Entrepreneurs-in-Residence, is known for this mantra: “A business is a solution to a problem that customers are willing to pay for.” We call on this advice early and often as we mentor our teams and members at Rev. The key agent in Brad’s mantra?

“Customers.” Customers are human beings; when inventors are working on solving a problem, they need to focus on human needs and behaviors.

PROBLEMS ARE HUMAN-CENTERED

Here’s a confession: in the Hardware Accelerator, we are a culture of techies. We love our Arduinos and CNC mills, 3D printers and soldering irons. We love hardware and the tools that help us make hardware. Hardware is elegant in that it is clear when it’s working: the LED turns on, the sensor reads, the data posts.

Humans, in contrast to hardware, are inelegant. They’re messy and unpredictable. It’s not so clear when solutions are true and lasting solutions for them. Engineers are known to express frustration with the unpredictability of customer behavior — which is, after all, human behavior. I’ve even heard engineers blame customers for not being smart enough to figure out how to use their technology. For a hardware entrepreneur, this mindset is not helpful.

Entrepreneurs must be willing engage with the customers who will pay for their solutions. And customers are really smart these days–they recognize a well-designed product, one that is intuitive and easy to use. They are coming to expect it, and they appreciate it. That means customers also appreciate companies that listen to and incorporate their feedback; they expect a seat at the table. If an entrepreneur can listen to and engage with customers, they will likely have a partnership for life.

PROBLEMS ARE HARDER THAN SOLUTIONS

Articulating problems is hard work, especially in a solutions-oriented culture where we tend to avoid articulating the problem completely before we start working on solutions. Ken Rother, Director of the Rev Hardware Accelerator, shares an Einstein quote in many of his workshops: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

The quote speaks to our tendency to rush to solutions. Inventors and hardware entrepreneurs get into trouble when they focus on solutions that include gadgets and features. They get wrapped up in what the technology is capable of and lose sight of what problem they are trying to solve and for whom.

To make this situation even more complex, problems evolve over time. It’s important for a startup to continue to revisit the problem, to do a reality check to see if what they are working on is actually solving the problem they set out to solve. If it’s not, one of two things should change: either the solution should change to fit the problem, or the problem should be edited and reformulated.

PROBLEMS EVOLVE

Tom Schryver, Executive Director for the Center for Regional Economic Advancement and founder of Rev, writes about the need for startups to be open to new information: ‘Effective entrepreneurs respond to new information.’ Inventors can get new information about their startup in all kinds of ways: they might discover a competitor they didn’t know about or they may discover a new material that’s more appropriate for their product. When inventors listen to their customers, they’re likely to hear new information often.

I had some students who were testing an idea last week. They recognized a problem and formulated a solution: “Paper waste is a problem. Let’s make and sell products made from discarded paper.”

The team made some beautiful products, but when they showed them to customers, the customers didn’t say “I want to buy those.” Instead they said “I want to learn how to make those.” However, the students were so set on selling their wares that it was hard for them to hear this new information — until I repeated it back to them. Then their ears perked up. The solution their customers were looking for wasn’t to buy stuff made from paper waste. It was to gain new skills and make new things from the paper waste. The students’ project pivoted from a goods-based business to a service-based business, in which they would build a system that teaches customers how to make their own goods.

DON’T GET STUCK IN ONE MINDSET

Ignoring customer feedback is indicative of a mentality that psychology scholar Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset leads us to believe that our capabilities are also fixed — we’re either good at something or not — whereas people with growth mindsets believe that their capabilities can grow if they work hard enough at it.

For an inventor, a fixed mindset would make it hard to pivot from an original problem statement or solution, because they are wedded to their original idea and view it as a given. People with growth mindsets, on the other hand, are open to new information, such as customer feedback. A growth mindset assumes that great ideas aren’t merely momentary products of talented minds, but that they emerge from hard work and a dedication to an evolving process, to trial and error, and calculated risks. Embracing a growth mindset means putting your ideas out there and being open to what customers have to say about the problems they want you to solve.

Keep an eye out for the next New Inventors blog post, and sign up for our newsletter for updates about upcoming Rev events.

Lean more about the Rev Hardware Accelerator here.

Is there a theme you’d like to learn more about in a future blog? Please get in touch with us at info@revithaca.com. We love hearing from local innovators!

Xanthe