Nowadays entrepreneurs are often described as problem solvers. Entrepreneurship can, therefore, be considered to be the process of identifying problems, solving those problems and getting rewarded for it. It can, therefore, be argued that any entrepreneurial venture which fails is a victim of either its failure to solve the problem which it set itself upon to solve or just merely picking the wrong problem to solve in the first place. This latter scenario is the one which will be discussed in detail here. No matter how novel or run of the mill your business idea is, the question you should always ask yourself is whether it solves a problem which is worth solving. Hopefully, by the time you finish going through this piece, you will have found out how to come up with an answer to this question.

Is the problem big enough?

Sometimes the problems which businesses tackle are not as big as we think they are. It is very easy to mistake a mere inconvenience for an actual problem. Problems are those issues which many customers recognise and are willing to pay for the solutions to. On the other hand, inconveniences are things which most of us can learn to live with. Solutions to inconveniences (i.e. conveniences) work best as additional features on products and services rather than as the bases of products or entire businesses.

I know that countless products and services are often lauded for how convenient they are, but you will realise that in many cases they solve actual pressing problems. For instance, describing a mobile phone as being merely more convenient than a landline is a gross understatement. At its worst extreme, entrepreneurs who neglect to consider the sizes of problems end up trying to solve imaginary ones. To use a very famous example, I feel like the people behind Kwese thought that lack of access to virtually unknown sports like handball on TV was a problem which needed solving in Zimbabwe. They were wrong; it turns out that we didn’t fall in love with soccer by accident.

To what extent does your solution address the problem?

So say you have identified a problem and it is indeed real and big enough for whoever solves it to be rewarded handsomely by the market. Unfortunately, it is now your proposed solution which must prove itself. Yes, you can identify a problem and still come up with a solution which falls short. For instance, consider renewable energy solutions versus deforestation in rural Zimbabwe. Various renewable energy solutions might be able to address the problem in theory but in fact, villagers cannot afford most of these. So while you may have addressed a real need, your solution has left a big part of it unaddressed i.e. your potential market’s average income which also happens to be part of the problem. This may sound bad, but as a business whose aim is to turn a profit, all that this means is that rural deforestation is not a (market) problem which is worth solving.

Why hasn’t anyone solved it yet?

One of the best tests you can apply to a problem which you think you can solve for profit is questioning why no one has done so yet. I know that it is very tempting to credit yourself with brilliance and foresight but give your ego time to settle before you jump to that particular and (strangely common) conclusion. Sometimes problems go unsolved because of many reasons such as they cannot be solved, they are costly to solve, the problem is not that big etc. Though this might go against your desire to be original, problems which more people have solved or are trying to are usually where the money is.

Chase market needs rather than markets

Before there was all this talk of innovation, it was accepted that all an entrepreneur had to do was identify and exploit a great opportunity. In most cases, all that this means is that when you see other businesses succeeding in a certain space or industry, you blindly jump onto that wagon. This is the reason why so many companies, both big technology giants and Zimbabwean ones are trying so hard to replicate Whatsapp’s popularity and success (with very little success). In so doing these people are just chasing the perceived large market instead of identifying and trying to address actual customer pain points.

Beware of the “modern” startup trap

If you have ever looked at the selection criteria of most of the startup pitch and business plan competitions these days you already know that merely having a business idea that makes sense is no longer enough. Buzzwords like “disruption”, “innovation” and more are now making rounds even in classic business setups. This trend has inspired some local entrepreneurs (many of whom have fallen in love with the startup cultures from more advanced countries) to come up with business ideas which while brilliant enough to have decent shots at winning the aforementioned startup competitions, fare very poorly in the real world—particularly that part of it called Zimbabwe.

So does all this mean that these so-called innovative business ideas have no place in Zimbabwe and we should instead focus only on the grounded ones? Perhaps just stick to farming while we are at it? The answer is a resounding no. Our entrepreneurs (and perhaps pitch competition judges too) just need to make some adjustments to the filters which they use to scrutinize business ideas.