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We hear about problems every day, and most people rather not have any. For an entrepreneur, however, this could be the beginning of a business idea. Unfortunately, we can’t go after all the problems we hear about, right? How do you then identify the ones that are worth solving? In an interview given to StartupLeap, Martine de Ridder sheds some light on this question. 

How do you recognize when someone is working on a great problem?


Martine mentions two elements: ‘When they have experienced the problem themselves’ but also ‘when they don’t talk about the solution but the number of customers they’ve spoken to’. Early on, startups tend to spend too little time talking to their target customers, and too much on building the solution. This causes them to develop products or services nobody wants. But when these two conditions are combined ‘I get goosebumps when they talk about it’, our guest says. 


Do you think having a good understanding of your market upfront is a plus?


As an entrepreneur and consultant, De Ridder has met lots of startup founders (over 500). She says that most of them had a good understanding of their market, maybe not prior to working on their company but over time they’ve become experts. Martine also mentions that even though it is important to know about your market, it is equally key to ‘keep a fresh eye’ to spot opportunities. 


Is it better to focus on one specific problem and one specific solution, or should you try out different things? 


De Ridder’s reaction to this question is quite clear: ‘Never focus on one problem or one solution!’ she insists. In the beginning, if you’re a startup you need to be flexible, you need to have options. As mentioned earlier, solutions differ over time. Regarding the problem, you naturally start with a major problem but if it is such an obvious issue ‘then you’d have a bunch of competitors’. Now having competitors is a great thing ‘but if they’re better at understanding the problem than you are, you’re doing a shitty job!’. 


What’s the next step after discovering a problem worth solving, understanding your market, and coming up with a solution?


Using a personal example, Martine explains that when she was working on her first startup, she ‘knocked on the door of programmers’. They were very enthusiastic about her idea, and even proposed additional features that she gladly accepted. The excitement suddenly vanished when she received the bill ‘it was a hundred thousand euros’. Without the funding, De Ridder decided to build the MVP (minimum viable product) herself on Pinterest ‘it was hideous, but it got the job done. I found out so much by asking this pilot group we had to use our product’. 


What are the most common pitfalls for first-time founders? 


Our speaker first mentions the fear of founders of being alone and how hard it is to find a suitable co-founder ‘don’t settle for less, you have an idea and you may have experienced the problem. To find somebody that has the same vision, drive, mentality and different skills […] is super hard’. 


Martine then mentions another common pitfall: Founders falling in love with their product. The problem is that you tend to see it as your ‘baby’ because you’ve put so many hours and energy into it that it becomes really hard to give it to customers and hear what they think ‘but you cannot do this soon enough. Don’t say anything and see their response’ De Ridder adds. ‘Don’t take it personally, be open to criticism and try to understand where they come from, and pivot when necessary’. She insists on the importance of getting qualitative feedback as much as possible and shares a tip on what worked for her. When talking to her potential customers, she created a group that was experiencing the problem so intensely that they wanted to help no matter what. When the solution fell apart, they did not care because what they truly cared about was the fact that Martine was putting effort into solving their problem. 


However, as she puts it herself, ‘you can’t really do that with B2B, so find your launching customer and make sure you get something in return for the time and energy you’re spending on developing the solution’.


What are other signals that tell you that you’re on the right track? 


One of the key aspects of a successful entrepreneurial journey is to experiment a lot. In order to do so, it’s important to set goals that you want to achieve in the beginning. ‘If you don’t do that, you won’t know what’s a good outcome for your test’ Martine says, ‘experiment all the time because you are not the expert of the problem, you are the expert of the solution so keep listening to your customers, even call them if you have to’. Customers tell you what to build and how you can make it better, not you. It is very important to use the right combination of quantitative and qualitative feedback to truly understand them. 


She finishes off ‘the most important thing startup should be doing is learning, always learning’.


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