When is a problem not a problem?

Aug 03, 2016

In a recent post, Riva-Melissa Tez described Silicon Valley’s “problem problem” - that is, that many of the things that the startup community calls problems are not really problems at all.

Some 800 million people across the globe have limited access to food or water. That’s about one in nine people on the planet. Now, that’s a problem.

Not knowing if you can get sushi delivered at 10pm to your exact location is not a problem. Not knowing where the nearest dry cleaner is, exactly, is not a problem either.

The inability to get sushi delivered in under 30 minutes is not really a problem in any meaningful sense, and the failure to distinguish between this and the inability of millions of people worldwide to access food and water necessary for survival undermines the notion of startups as a force for good in the world. When every startup’s “world-changing” rhetoric is already amped up to 11, where do we go when we want to talk about the real stuff?

I think it’s an astute observation and a good reminder of the fact that being a problem-solver should require one to consider which problems are worth solving. To unpack this a bit, I’ll run through some counter-arguments and explain why I think they’re wrong.

A problem is a problem is a problem?

This is the argument that, in the abstract, there’s no meaningful difference between problems - solving math problems doesn’t help feed the hungry either, but we wouldn’t say that we should stop calling them problems. As a semantic argument, I’d accept this one. But problems in the common usage of the term refers to things with a moral dimension; it would be better for the world if that problem no longer existed. By most definitions, solving a problem should make the world a better place, having some real benefit for some people in the present or future.

In fact, I think this reveals the root of Silicon Valley’s attitude to problems - they’re regarded as interesting intellectual exercises akin to exams or video games. Devising a mechanism to move sushi at high speed and with low latency in an urban environment certainly could be a fun or interesting problem to tackle. I certainly don’t begrudge anyone the fun of solving it. I’m a bit more concerned if this occupies the minds of people who could solve bigger problems, or the capital of people who could invest in more important things.

All problems matter?

Subtly different from the above is the argument that we can’t really know which problems are worth working on, because problem-solving often has emergent effects. Maybe solving just-in-time sushi delivery in San Francisco turns out to have some application in solving rapid organ delivery for transplants?

Again, there’s a grain of truth here. The history of innovation gives plenty of examples of how solving one small problem led to solving a much bigger one, and there are startups that have pivoted from smaller problems to bigger ones as they have grown in size - 10 years ago Twitter was a tiny service for posting status updates via SMS, and now it’s a major channel for all kinds of news, political debate and (increasingly) advertising. Often these transitions were hard to predict at the time.

There’s nothing wrong with starting small and building up - this is exactly what Elon Musk has done with Tesla, solving the needs of the privileged few with his initial sports cars, before moving on to family cars and stationary batteries. The difference is that Musk made his trajectory clear, and by putting his wildly ambitious goals in the public domain he committed to solving some truly enormous problems in the long term. It’s not obvious that most ‘lifestyle enhancement’ startups are doing anything like this.

So, how to think bigger?

At high school I used to play a game with a friend - we had to think of the worst superhero powers we could, then explain how it was still possible to take over the world using even this near-useless superpower. The object of the game was to find the worst power that was still potentially world-dominant. Some of these were downright hilarious, but many were interesting lessons in how to turn small advantages into big ones. Similarly, the path from luxury sports cars to global decarbonisation is far from obvious, but it does exist if you look for it. Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk show that, whatever you’re doing, you can aim to turn it into something bigger.

It could be that current startup and venture capital culture discourages this kind of long-term high-risk enterprise. After all, Musk had to risk his own money to get where he is now, and whilst everyone likes to applaud his achievements there aren’t enough people trying to follow in his footsteps or fund the people who are. Riva explores this in more depth in another post, and I have some thoughts (and deeds) designed to address this, of which more shall be said in the near future.