Joshua Eichler-Summers
Blog of Josh Summers


Venture capitalist & founder. Lots to learn, but happy to help.
Investment Team at DN Capital
Founder of Taaalk

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The ‘Solve a Problem’ Growth Mechanic

15 Feb 2015

TL;DR: The more public and frequent the problem your product solves, the faster your product will spread through word-of-mouth growth.

Today I met a friend of mine and she was experiencing a problem. She was trying to work out what busses to take to get from where we were then (The Emirates Stadium), to where she had to get to next (Bethnal Green). She had her reasonably old-school Android phone out and was fumbling her way through the Transport For London website - trying to use their ‘journey planner’ service.

I noticed the desire arise in myself - I wanted to tell her about Citymapper. [For those of you that don’t know, Citymapper is a wonderful app which makes finding a route from A to B easy as pie.] I wanted to help solve her problem. I think we as humans love to help each other, especially those we have relationships with. There is some evidence that we, and all other mammals, are in fact hard-wired to be empathetic.

I think for the right kind of product, your users’ empathy is a wonderful tool for growth. I think it’s so good that it’s perhaps worth thinking about a use case for your product that solves some sort of public and frequent problem.

Citymapper and Songkick; two different types of problems

Citymapper has experienced explosive growth in London and in other cities that it enters. I think the problem of not being able to easily find out how to get to where you want to go is one of the best ‘growth problems’ to solve.

When you break (particularly viral) growth down you end up with results which depend on a funnel with conversion points along it and the frequency that users enter the top of your funnel. Looking at it from this perspective, ‘not knowing how to get to where you want to go’ hits all the right notes.

  • It’s a very public problem: Frequently you will be out with friends when you don’t know the route to get to the next stop on your journey. This means the problem is very exposed to outsiders butting in with problem solving knowledge.

  • It’s a very frequent problem: Most days we go somewhere, and very often we go somewhere new. This means the chance that the problem will pop-up, in order to be solved, is fairly high.

These two things combine to make a product which can experience explosive growth.

Songkick is another company that I think solves a problem particularly well. You follow your favourite music artists and get told when they’re going to be playing live near you - so you can snap up tickets nice and early.

If we break this problem down based on how public it is and how frequent it is, we can see that it doesn’t come close to the problem that Citymapper solves.

  • It’s a so-so public problem: It might come up every now and then at the pub, but it’s not an issue that you’re forced to face in a public space every day. There’s probably a 50-50* chance that the problem comes up when you’re bored, alone, and exploring the internet. No one’s there to help.

  • It’s not a very frequent problem: Unless you’re very fortunate, going to see live music is a relatively infrequent event in the Average Joe’s life (at least much less frequent that working out how to get to a friends birthday drinks in Walthamstow).

Because of this Songkick hasn’t had the explosive growth that Citymapper has. (Or if it has, it hasn’t reached my circle of friends / colleagues yet.)

It’s worth stating the obvious here, that the bigger your initial user base is, the bigger your numbers will grow. So if you are lucky enough to be solving any kind of frequent-public problem, work doubly hard to get the word out that you exist. It will pay dividends.

*I made this 50-50 number up totally. I have no idea.

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