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Extracting ideas from pains people can't articulate


We’re currently doing what Amy calls Sales Safari and which is also called idea extraction in The Foundation. This brings me to the question of finding pains and problems that would be huge but that people don’t necessarily realize they have (or think they would pay for being solved). Kind of in the sense of people wanting faster horses instead of automobiles.

Have any of you found powerful techniques to

  1. extract these out of potential audiences, and/or
  2. market/probe the audiences so that you can get a good picture of their viability without sinking too deep in the confirmation bias swamp (i.e. putting ideas in their heads)?

I fully realize this is way harder than solving problems that are clear in the front of people’s minds, but also the potential rewards could be larger. Do you feel this is something a bootstrapper shouldn’t even try (at least first) because of the risks involved?


It’s definitely easier to sell to people when the pain is in the front of their mind, though you might have more competition.

We don’t have any special tricks for getting ideas from our customers. We just talk to them a lot. And to prospects as well. Once you build something and get people to pay you money, they’ll be very happy to tell you what they want. :slight_smile:

Personally, I wouldn’t worry about breaking completely new ground as a bootstrapper. I’d worry more about finding a market that I can approach in a cost-efficient manner.


After watching the video on Sales Safari, and reading Rob Walling’s Start Small Stay Small, I took the common advice and started asking people in my life (family, friends, neighbors) what their greatest pain point was with their daily lives or jobs. I stopped asking them that question with “…that software could solve”, because they didn’t always know what software can solve, and getting a thoughtful answer was easier.

That being said, nothing stood out from their answers. However, a few weeks later, my brother-in-law, who works as a lead engineer for a large company called me up with a problem that he just came across, that if solved, would free up approximately 6 hours of his week. This particular problem could fortunately be solved with software, and is likely a common issue for engineers at other large companies.

The point is, they may not know right when you ask them what their pain points are…but you are planting the seed for them to think of you when that next frustrating moment comes up. So keep talking to as many people as you can about what their problems are, it gets pretty natural and can be an interesting part of the conversation if you weave it in appropriately, and you will never know what seeds you might be planting for future harvest.


I’ve been asking and listening out for problems that friends and family have for a few years now, and have a policy of giving any friends/family a good four hours of development time on any problem they have which has resulted in a good few projects and has formed the basis of my first business even.

The problem of people not knowing that their problem can be solved by software is a bit of a big one I think; it’s great to delight people by making them something that solves their problem when they didn’t even know that software could be that useful, but it would certainly be easier if that barrier wasn’t there to overcome in the first place.

A case in point recently is with my accountant; I asked him some months back about the problems he faces in his work and he drew a blank but said he’d jot down anything that came up during the coming week. This raised a few potential tools he could do with having but nothing I felt was actionable for me. Fast forward to the present day though and over the course of several weeks we’ve revisited the topic and have actually discovered a problem to solve and I’m waiting on his feedback on the prototype.

That actually only came about when he was reading a grant proposal I had written that he’s helping us with; in it I described the systems we’d built and from that he could see some parallels with his own needs. With those systems as reference points we could then have a much more productive discussion; what I learned from this is that initial attempts at finding pain points might not provide immediate results but might be planting seeds for more fruitful discussions later on.


I’ve been struggling with the same problem a lot myself.

Being a financial data fiddler, I see problems/errors that people make when calculating their metrics all the time. But the problem with these “hidden pains” is that as people don’t know that they have them, they are not actively searching for solutions online.

They are also not discussing about the pain online since they are not aware of it, so you can’t safari them. And if you would catch people having the pain, you’d first have to educate them to make them aware of their pain before you could sell to them. That’s a long process with a lot that can go wrong.

Search your 30x500 mailbox for “stealth pain” and you should find a thread where I struggle with the same thing. I ended up discarding that “stealth pain” pitch about SaaS Killer Metrics (https://hackpad.com/Pitch-SaaS-Killer-Metrics-Are-You-Steering-Your-Business-To-A-Wrong-Direction-GQxoCMhHAw2) but working on such an abstract topic I struggle with this all the time.

If you have options/pitches for pains that people know they have, you’ll have it a lot easier. Other option is try to to dig deeper and find some higher-level pain that people do recognize.

Or just take the extra risk, if you know that your SaaS will be the next automobile.


My favorite anecdote was from way back…

There was an operating system in the 90s whose top 10 list of complaints had slow boot times at the very top by a wide margin.

The companies next version version of the operating system came out and boot times did not improve, but slow booting wasn’t even in the top 20 list of complaints anymore. What actually happened was that the new version crashed much less. If the vendor had actually spent time improving boot speed it wouldn’t have actually mattered.

Try to treat pain points like manufacturing defects and go a few levels deep (5 whys style) until you find the root issue:

What is your pain point?
My computer boots to slow…
Why is that your pain point?
Because I can’t get back to work…
Why did you stop working?
Because it crashed…
Why did it crash?

If you can identify the root issue, then you are on your way to generating an idea to solve it.


Thanks for the insight, @starr, @ryanbattles, @stefan, @kulmala and @amattn! Much appreciated!

We don’t have any special tricks for getting ideas from our customers. We just talk to them a lot.

I guess that’s a trick in and of itself hiding in plain sight :slight_smile:

There clearly isn’t a cut and fast rule to this. Like Jaana wrote, it’s hard to extract pains that people don’t realize they have from watering holes. On the other hand, when doing in-person pain extraction it’s a bit easier since – like @amattn noted, you can drill down to the pain to find root causes. Of course for this you’ll either have to have some hypothesis (and not fall into the confirmation bias trap when interviewing) to start from or be able to detect the pain from between the lines when talking to the people you’re interviewing.

Anyway, great replies so far. I guess this is another question where there are not straight answers but the discussion itself is worth a lot – kind of a meta pain extraction if I may.


Oh, I don’t think finding/processing the pain is the main problem. Selling your product is, when people aren’t actively looking for your product. Much more work needed in marketing.


@kulmala Correct, with the slight caveat that when you use your existing network for in-person pain extraction, you already have a bunch of people waiting with their wallets open if you do the pain extraction successfully. The issue you describe is looming in the future, for sure. However, depending on the price point of your product, you might already have a small nest egg or recurring revenue from your initial circle. On top of that, if you solve their problem well, you can probably count on some word-of-mouth marketing, which might help other potential customers realize they, too, have similar pains. They just never realized that before.


@jarkko If you can get nicely started with that initial customer base, so that they help you fund the marketing, then that sounds solid enough to run with :slight_smile:

Especially if that pain is not too complex so that people really can have those “Oh, but I have that problem too”-moments.