Posts / November 6, 2011

Building Technology vs Solving Problems

Yesterday I gave a talk at Saskatoon Barcamp on Building Technology vs Solving Problems. I started my presentation by asking, who here is building technology? Who here is solving problems? Those are two very different questions, and definitely not synonyms.

I believe innovation occurs following four basic steps:

  1. Identify Real Problem – real challenge that a group is facing
  2. Define Practical Solution – simple way to fill that need
  3. Find Appropriate Technology – appropriate technology based on users needs
  4. Leads To Profit – since you are filling a real need you will find ways to profit
In practise, what order do you think most companies follow?
  1. No Real Problem – most companies haven’t asked what problem they are solving
  2. No Practical Solution – you can’t have a solution unless you have a problem
  3. Build New Technology – building technology without knowing what they are trying to solve
  4. Struggle To Profit – invent a market and try to find users that don’t exist
If you are providing a practical solution to a real problem, users will come to you and be eager to pay. Instead most companies are focussed on building another social network, creating another photo sharing app, making another groupon clone but none of those are solving a problem.
Innovation happens at the intersect of disciplines. Software by itself isn’t very interesting, but applying that technology is where real innovation happens.
Unfortunately, most software companies are not intersecting with other disciplines, and instead building software for an elusive consumer market. And as a result of not having a clearly defined problem, most of these companies are lacking in innovation and struggling to generate revenue.
Back in July The Next Web had a fantastic article on The Problem With Silicon Valley Is Itself that highlighted this problem.

“One of the reasons for lack of innovation in the Valley is that entrepreneurs are not exposed to enough real-world problems.” – TNW

“Not putting their brains to good use by solving real-world problems. Instead they’re building technology to solve trivial issues.” – TNW

“Many entrepreneurs are in it for the wrong reasons, they should be more focussed on doing something big and good for the world and figuring where the money comes after that.” – TNW

I spent four months this summer living in Nairobi and working from the iHub. Africa is experiencing a mobile revolution, Kenya is leading the charge in east Africa, Nairobi is at the center and the iHub at the very heart, so I was excited to experience it first hand.
It began clear that one of the main driving forces behind this mobile innovation was developers using appropriate technologies to solve real problems. At Pivot25 a mobile development competition in Nairobi, every single startup in commerce, entertainmentbusiness, agriculture and health that pitched was trying to solve a real problem. One good example was EasyParking by Kenya Methodist University Students.

Works with car park operators to assist city motorists in locating the nearest parking slot, view remaining slots, book a slot, and pay the parking fee. Product is intended to reduce the inconveniences motorists go through to locate free parking slots in Nairobi City.

Although EasyParking didn’t win Pivot25, it still highlights a practical solution to a real problem.

  1. Identify Real Problem – difficult to find parking downtown
  2. Define Practical Solution – give motorists easy way to reserve parking on route
  3. Find Appropriate Technology – request and receive confirmation via mobile
  4. Leads To Profit – drivers save time and willing to pay for a guaranteed spot
Do you think this idea could work in other cities? You bet, and that’s why venture capitalists at the event were interested on investing in the idea because its a solution to a global problem. This raises an interesting point, practical solutions often scale because they can solve the same problem elsewhere.
So my questions is, why isn’t Saskatchewan developing world class agriculture software?Saskatchewan’s economy is based on agriculture, we have the top agriculture college in the country, and a strong computer science department. So why aren’t we world leaders in ag-software?
The reason I believe is that software developers are not having conversations with farmers, haven’t identified the problems they are facing in the province. If we had a shared conversation, I believe there is huge potential to become a world leader.
Here’s one agriculture example that tries to solve a real problem with an appropriate technology.
  1. Identify Real Problem – costly and timely to take sick animal to the vet
  2. Define Practical Solution – allow ranchers to communicate with a network of veterinarians to get answers to their questions saving trip to the clinic
  3. Find Appropriate Technology – rancher sends SMS with question which is forwarded to a network of veterinarians, available vets reply back with their answer
  4. Leads To Profit – you can charge rancher per SMS giving part back to the veterinarian for there answer
It’s a simple idea, but eliminating one trip to the vet clinic would save approx $50 in gas plus $100 for the visit. And saving the life of one calf would save the rancher around $750. If you paid veterinarians per answer, they could make money in their off hours. This saves the rancher money and time, makes vet’s money on the side and you profit. It’s a win, win, win. Also, if this solution works locally, there is a good chance it will work outside the province.
The three key ideas for innovation:
  1. Revolutionary idea, is just practical solution to a real problem
  2. Innovation happens at the intersect of disciplines
  3. Identify real problem, define practical solution, find appropriate technology, and it leads to profit

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them 🙂