"Talk to business owners and find their problems"

For reasons I won’t get deep into right now, I’ve decided that my latest business attempt, Angular on Rails doesn’t have enough potential and I want to start a new endeavor. Angular on Rails was my 7th product business attempt over the course of 9 years, so I’ve been at this for a while.

I’m having trouble thinking of an idea for my next product business. The common advice I hear is to “talk to business owners and find their problems”. That’s probably good advice except which business owners do I talk to? Business owners are hard to meet. And if I can go meet a business owner, it’s kinda weird to start asking them about their businesses problems. They’ll probably wonder what I’m trying to sell them.

It seems to me that what really works in most cases is that a) a person is lucky enough to have a client with a need that can be replicated for many businesses or b) a person has developed an audience over time that trusts them and so they can sell them a product relevant to the reason they’re being followed (e.g. Joel Spolsky with Fogbugz or 37signals with Basecamp).

As far as “A” above goes, I can’t force that to happen. None of the client engagements I’ve had in the past have lent themselves to a repeatable solution.

As far as “B” goes, I actually have developed a small audience around my book, and audience-building seems like a good way to go. But what I don’t want to do is just come up with some random audience-building topic and then spend months or years of effort building that audience without knowing how I’m ultimately going to monetize that audience.

Or maybe a “C” option works sometimes where somebody just brainstorms up a product idea and then it works. I don’t think I’ve really seen this happen, though.

Can anybody offer any advice?


Great question.

Could you go to a Chamber of Commerce meeting and give a talk on how to leverage technology?

You could talk about what KINDS of things they can automate, email marketing, etc. And then open it up to what frustrates them. Problem discovery is surprisingly difficult.

I think this is the kind of advice that sounds great but is followed by successful businesses much less frequently than it might seem.

I’ve collected 51 stories of solo-founder, profitable businesses (https://blog.kowalczyk.info/article/wjRD/solo-founders-with-profitable-businesses-collected-stories.html).

If you analyze their stories, I don’t think there’s a single one that followed “talked to random business owners” path.

Some people just do a small thing for themselves, make it available and it becomes successful.

Some people are guided by work they do for clients (“if one client paid me to implement X then maybe I can turn X into a product”).

But the reality of software business is that it’s speculative. You come up with something, you implement it and it either works out or doesn’t.

It’s risky but the search process isn’t completely blind. There are clues that something is desirable.

For example, one of my ideas is to write a GUI version (for Mac or Windows) of https://github.com/jonas/tig. The clue there is that:

  • the project has 4559 stars, so people seem to be interested
  • there are other GUI git clients that are making money on Windows and Mac

So it stands to reason that if I did a unique GUI client that more-or-less replicates tig, people would be interested.

You can scour github for other things that exist, are popular but could be improved upon (here the improvement would be console => GUI) or where you could create a unique twist on similar idea.

You can also look for clues on forums or stack overflow: if people ask how to do X and there isn’t software to help doing X, then it’s a clue.

Many clues are obvious in hindsight and fall into “lots of people doing X and preferably making money with it”.

For example, some people made really good money writing software to automate eBay listings. It’s too late for that particular business but it was pretty clear that eBay was blowing up and people who sell many items would benefit from software to make their life easier, more efficient. You just needed to have presence of mind to connect the things you know are happening in the world and notice there’s a way to insert software there.

Similarly, git was clearly blowing up, people like GUI clients for source control so it was a no-brainer (few years back) to write a GUI client. Some people did.

So what is blowing up now?

Everything related to cloud (AWS, Google Cloud, Azure). Make tools that make some aspects of dealing with them easier.

Flutter will be big. If you’re in educational business, that would be a good project to do a book or course.

Same with webassembly.


Excellent points. Whatever problem u try to solve, u should get deep knowledge of it. Thags obviously easiest if youve worked with the problem.

Patrick Mckenzie scratched his own itch with product 1, Bingo Cards, the did research on product 2, AppointmentsReminder

Given that you know about rails and angular, and that you don’t know random business owners: start with your existing audience.

I’d ask them: Hey, it is … month ago that you bought angular on rails. Can I call you (or email) and ask what kind of (business) problem you needed to solve with this book?

See if there is a common theme you are interested in ,and which has overlap with your knowledge. This might be a starting point.

Thanks for all the responses.

@Clay_Nichols It’s interesting that you mention giving talks at Chamber meetings. I spent a couple years attending Chamber meetings just as a regular guest and got nothing out of it (I was looking for consulting leads) but I suspect that attending as a speaker is different and I actually have plans to go give talks at places like Chamber meetings. And thanks for saying problem discovery is difficult. A lot of people talk about it like it’s easy and it’s not.

@kjk Cool site! Thanks for sharing that. I think your idea of watching for approaching waves and attempting to ride them is a good one. I think Angular + Rails was/is a wave although a relatively small one, and almost any JavaScript-related wave is probably going to be short-lived. It would probably be a good idea to try to find an area that’s growing and is here to stay (to the extent that anything in technology is here to stay). I think AWS, like you mentioned, is one of them. Also anything to do with AI, machine learning, etc.

@unboot I’m skeptical that any of my subscribers would have anything very interesting to share but maybe I’ll try it. Most of my subscribers’ projects are side projects, and in my experience side projects tend (almost by definition) not to address a real business need.

I actually ended up settling on an idea last night which I’m calling Landing Page Breakdowns. My thinking is that I can first build traffic by writing breakdowns of a bunch of different landing pages, collecting subscribers the whole time. Then, after I have a good number of subscribers, I expect I can build an info product for them. Also, since I see that the UserOnboard guy does training, maybe I can do that as well. Maybe consulting gigs, too.

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I’m currently reading Startup Opportunities: Know When to Quit Your Day Job by Sean Wise and Brad Feld. It talks about what happens before you choose an idea and go all “lean startup” on it (currently $0.99 on kindle).

I’m really interested in this topic and find that most startup stories you hear conveniently skip the “we spent months thinking, researching and trying out different things” phase. I always like to press and ask about it.

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I’m really interested in this topic and find that most startup stories you hear conveniently skip the “we spent months thinking, researching and trying out different things” phase. I always like to press and ask about it.

A casual stroll through Indiehackers suggests that that phase is nonexistent in most indie software businesses (at least the researching part). Some of them solved their own problems, some got lucky. I am not implying research isn’t important but it doesn’t seem to be as bullet-proof solution as it’s said to be.

I think instead of searching for business problems, you have to place yourself in a way that problems come out on their own. One of these ways is consulting and there are plenty of great examples where someone build a product because it was a recurring demand from clients.