guest column

Why founders need to be prioritizing problem-solution fit, according to this Houston innovator

Founders with a laser focus on a problem, showed remarkable advantage, says this Houston expert. Photo via Getty Images

Over the past 10 years I have been so incredibly fortunate to work for and with dozens of startup ecosystems, startup development organizations, competitions and accelerators.

Through these interactions I have mentored, advised and coached over 500 startups and as I've reflected back on these interactions and relationships I have observed some crucial insights that I am humbled to be able to share here with you — starting with the importance of problem-solution fit.

My top observation is that the success of founders often hinges on their focus on a specific problem, from the perspective of the problem holder (which is not always their customer) and particularly a problem set they care deeply about. This focus is far more impactful than merely having a great idea. Founders with a laser focus on a problem, showed remarkable advantages. These founders were:

  • Quicker in Validating Assumptions: Their problem-centric approach allowed them to more rapidly test and validate their hypotheses about market needs and solutions.
  • Focused on Data-Driven Decision Making: They were more receptive to letting data guide their strategic decisions, leading to more grounded and effective strategies.
  • Agile in Pivoting: When confronted with challenges or new information, these founders could pivot more efficiently, as their commitment was to solving the problem, not just to their solution.

This problem-focused mindset proved to be a significant differentiator in their journey from ideation to success.

For these reasons, the philosophy that problem-solution fit leads development, has become a cornerstone in my approach to fostering innovation. It underscores the need for startups and organizations alike to delve deeper into understanding the real challenges they face, the first order problems, which in turn opens doors to more impactful and sustainable solutions.

Most recently, In my time at MassChallenge, my approach to problem identification diverged significantly from industry norms. The crux of my strategy was to shift the founders' focus from their innate bias towards their innovation or the allure of monetary gain to a deeper connection with the underlying problem — transforming the innovator's bias into the innovator's gift.

In my interactions, I often met two predominant types of founders:

  • Technical Founders: These individuals were deeply enamored with the technology or product they created. Often coming from the research world or a technical / engineering background within one industry. Their passion was more about the innovation itself rather than its impact or the problem it aimed to solve.
  • Profit-Oriented Founders: These founders were driven primarily by the potential for financial success. Often coming out of Business school, consulting firms or investment / banking background. Their focus was often on the market opportunity, timing, size and scale rather than the problem needing a solution.

I am not a believer that anyone fits into a box but these were broad commonalities I observed over time. While neither mindset is inherently flawed, it became evident that a third type of founder, those who developed a passion for solving a specific problem — often tied to a personal or emotional connection — tended to achieve greater success.

The challenge lay in transforming the mindset of founders who initially did not have this problem-centric focus. To do this, I employed a series of exercises and mental experiments that anyone can do aimed at uncovering the true purpose behind their ventures. Two pivotal tools in this process was Simon Sinek's Golden Circle, which helped delve into the why behind their companies and Ash Maurya’s Problem Discovery process that he details in Lean Mastery.

These exercises were transformative. Founders typically developed a stronger attachment to these newly framed problem statements than to their initial motivations. It aligned their endeavors with a purpose that was emotionally significant to them, thereby enhancing their commitment and effectiveness in addressing the problem.

This approach to problem identification was not just about finding a market fit; it was about aligning the founders' core values and motivations with the problems they aimed to solve, thereby unleashing the true potential of their innovations.

One of the most significant challenges was persuading founders to shift their mindset from their initial focus to a problem-oriented approach. This transition was often difficult, as change is inherently challenging, especially when founders have invested months or years in developing something they feel deeply connected to. The key was to reframe and redirect their passion towards understanding and solving the core problem for the problem holders that were most affected. This shift in focus wasn't always successful, but when it did take effect, it markedly increased the founders' likelihood of success.

Part of the difficulty in effecting this founder mindset shift stemmed from the overwhelming amount of content directed at startup founders, emphasizing the immediate need for customer feedback and early creation of MVP’s. While these aspects are crucial (at the right time), there is a noticeable gap in guiding founders towards the critical step of identifying problem-solution fit earlier in the process. As a result, many founders fell into the trap of building upon untested assumptions, believing that once they've created a product or identified a revenue model, the journey was set on the right path.

This challenge wasn't confined to startup founders alone, it is prolific across the innovation economy. Corporates, governments, and universities also displayed resistance in identifying their core, underlying problems. They often focused on surface-level issues or immediate technological needs without recognizing the structural problems causing these more visible issues.

As a founder, an innovator, or anyone passionate about bringing new solutions to the masses, this shift in perspective is crucial. It allows founders and organizations to understand their challenges more deeply, leading to more effective and sustainable solutions. It isn’t just about solving the problems they could articulate, but about uncovering the first principles issues that needed addressing.


Jon Nordby is managing partner at Anthropy Partners, a Houston-based investment firm, and professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Houston.

Trending News