How Elon Musk And Successful Entrepreneurs Solve Problems (Warning: You May Not Like It)
Problems. Yuck! Who wants to deal with the drama? You, that’s who. Why?
Because your job as an entrepreneur is to solve problems for a living.
No matter your marketing chops, product genius, financial savvy, at the end of the day, your value as an entrepreneur is predicated on how well you can solve problems. Big problems. Little problems. Global problems. First world problems.
When Elon Musk wakes up in the morning, what do you think is on his mind? What am I going to wear to the Martian Ball in 2027?
I highly doubt it. He’s asking himself, “What problems are waiting for me at the office, in my inbox, and in the next quarter?
What about you? When you are faced with problems, do you roll your eyes in frustration or embrace them as an opportunity to rise above them? If you’re getting started as an entrepreneur, or hope to one day, I would strongly encourage you to embrace the latter as your attitude.
Like it or not, you need problems. Your ability to solve them is what gives you value as an entrepreneur. This is why your customers buy your products, hire you for your services, and come to you to make their lives just a bit easier.
And here’s the kicker—the bigger your problems, the higher the stakes, the greater the rewards.
When Musk sends a rocket into space and it crashes and burns, that’s a serious problem. Not only because it costs him hundreds of millions of dollars, but his whole reputation and credibility as an entrepreneur is questioned.
Getting that rocket to launch and land properly is a puzzle he needs to solve. He knows if he does, it’ll be a huge win. A high-stakes accomplishment that will not go unnoticed and will practically erase his failures of the past. He’s parking rockets here, people!
I’d like to make the case for why you should not shy away from problems as an entrepreneur—you should run toward them and tackle them head on, and the bigger the problem, the better.
Solving Problems Is The Precursor To Starting Successful Businesses
Dealing with a bug in the software you are using? Having issues managing your time? Whether large or small, these annoying, pesky interferences lead to viable business solutions.
Maybe you are trying to figure out your next business idea. If so, you will most likely be asking yourself these questions:
What problem am I solving in my market?
How does my product or service offer a solution to that problem in a compelling way?
What solution am I offering others that changes their world? Not the whole world, but your customers’ world. That’s your business.
Before you can solve it, you need to discover what the problem is. So, how do you discover your problem, the problem you will be solving for others? Here are a few tips:
1. Take note when you are frustrated. No, seriously. Jot it down. Ask yourself three questions:
A. Why am I so frustrated with this product/service/procedure?
B. If I had a magic wand, how would how would I improve this product/ service/ procedure?
C. Would I enjoy being a part of this solution or would I rather someone else solve this problem?
I cannot stress enough that these are NOT rhetorical questions you ask yourself in your head. This is a physical exercise you must do if you want to own the solution to this problem. Great business ideas are often a result of the founder scratching their own itch. Here were my answers to the questions above when I first discovered the problem I wanted to solve.
A. It’s more trouble than it’s worth to run a webinar. There are too many isolated moving parts that drive me insane to set up. The solutions out there are not built for me, a small online business. They are built for enterprise companies.
B. I would make it dead easy to create a webinar. I want to create all aspects of my webinar in seconds, not hours. I want no clutter with multiple windows open for my screen, camera, and slides. I want the tech to disappear in the background so I can just focus on the content of my webinars.
C. Hell yes! I’ve been an educator for all my life. Webinars are the best tool for teaching and building trust with an audience. Teaching is the new selling and I want to be a part of the solution that makes it easier for everyone to run webinars.
If, after answering those three questions, you feel inspired to take on that problem, you then need to answer the ultimate question. Is this a viable business? And the only way to answer this question is to put it out in the world.
But don’t worry, you don’t need funding to do this, and you don’t need any special skills. Seriously.
Over three years ago, when we first introduced our solution to the world, WebinarNinja, we pre-sold it. We created a clean sales page detailing what we were creating with WebinarNinja Beta. We focused on the problem and the pain it caused and offered our solution.
To nail this step, you have to get comfortable with your problem. Cozy up to it more than ever. The better you understand the problem you’re solving, the better your solution will be.
Given you’ve experienced the pain your problem causes, you’ll be able to describe it with great detail. The better you can describe the problem, the more likely your customers will be convinced you are their savior. Empathy is a powerful part of sales, especially when it is authentic.
After we crafted our sales page for pre-orders, we opened up pre-sales to only 150 members. We decided if we can convince 150 people to buy our proposed solution without even experiencing the product, then we might just have a business on our hands. It would mean enough people were frustrated with the current solutions, that they would be willing to try anything to alleviate their pain.
We sold out all 150 spots in 48 hours. And so it began.
We now have over 11,000 users and just released the fifth version of our product.
Successful Entrepreneurs Solve Problems Along The Way
Launching your problem-solving product is just the beginning. Buckle up because things are about to get real meta.
In business, like in life, you’re either growing or you’re dying. The day you rest on your laurels, is the day your business begins to fail. You must keep refining and innovating.
But growth is not cheap. Its cost…is more problems.
With growth comes change, and with change there is challenge. Along your business journey, you will have problems everywhere testing your commitment to excellence.
A bad hire. Financial struggles. Customers that blog about you in a less than flattering way. Your job as an entrepreneur, again, is to embrace these daily challenges with open arms as you strangle them into submission.
At first, you’ll wish you took that job as assistant manager at the new Starbucks instead of building this business of yours. But hang in there—it gets better. The more problems you squash along your entrepreneurial journey, the quicker you get at analyzing a problem, executing a solution, and moving on.
Every time a problem arises in your business, remember:
Take control of your problems and they won’t control you.
Take ownership of every problem that arises. That will remind you that you’re the boss of your problems, not the other way around.
I like to look at business like a game of football. It’s a high-impact battle until the end of the game. But football is also a game of incremental progress.
When the players on offense get in a huddle before the start of a play, they all say the same thing, “Get the first down!”
If you happen to be from outside the States and unfamiliar with American football, the field is 100 yards long, and you score by getting the ball to the end. A first down means advancing just 10 yards up the field.
The take-away here is, the players are not fixating on the touchdown. They are saying, “Get the first down.” Meaning, let’s get a little closer to the touchdown.
Solving each problem in business is your first down. Every time you solve a problem, you advance up the field of business. Don’t worry about every big picture goal all the time (the touchdown). Often, you need to just focus on the problem you have right in front of you, so you can keep moving forward.
So when problems arise, just think about the solution.
It doesn’t always need to be the perfect remedy to the issue at hand. Most of the time, good enough is good enough. You need to free yourself up for the next problem that shows up in your inbox. Get that first down.
I ❤️ Problems
Here’s another sports metaphor. I’m a huge fan of Kobe Bryant, the legendary basketball star. Not for his achievements on the hardwood, but for his outlook on the challenges he faces.
For Kobe, problems are not the causes of his stress, they are the fuel to his fire.
Problems are opportunities to see what you’re made of, and to reinvent yourself. Problems are a companion that will frequent your business, so get to know them intimately. When problems arise, get excited to take them on. Because hey, that’s what you do.
That’s what makes you the entrepreneur you are.
When problems were hitting me left and right as I was building WebinarNinja, I realized I needed help. I needed a system for solving problems that I could refer to every time I was feeling challenged. That’s when I discovered the First Principles theory.
The First Principles theory is a concept in physics that is used to solve problems. It’s actually how our man Elon Musk solves his problems everyday. First Principles is the practice of starting with what you know as fact with your problem. Too many of us don’t ask ourselves, “What do I know for sure in this situation?” and then work from there. Instead, we wonder how others before us have solved this problem.
So how do you actually put First Principles in action when solving a problem? It’s best to allow Musk himself explain. Here is an excerpt from an interview with Kevin Rose. Warning: the contents of this excerpt may literally blow your mind.
I think it is important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. [When reasoning by analogy] we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done or it is like what other people are doing — slight iterations on a theme.
First principles is kind of a physics way of looking at the world. You boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, “What are we sure is true?” … and then reason up from there.
Somebody could say, “Battery packs are really expensive and that’s just the way they will always be. … Historically, it has cost $600 per kilowatt hour. It’s not going to be much better than that in the future.”
With first principles, you say, “What are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the stock market value of the material constituents?”
It’s got cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, some polymers for separation and a seal can. Break that down on a material basis and say, “If we bought that on the London Metal Exchange what would each of those things cost?”
It’s like $80 per kilowatt hour. So clearly you just need to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell and you can have batteries that are much, much cheaper than anyone realizes.
You can watch the whole conversation with Elon Musk here.
Let me tie this up in a bow for you with some simple steps. To illustrate this in action I will give you an example of how I used this in my company.
Problem: Webinar hosts HATE using multiple applications and windows on their computer when running a webinar. They have to juggle their webinar software and PowerPoint slides, going back and forth to chat with the crowd. That’s just how it is. There are two separate applications and people just have to juggle.
Step 1: Ask yourself, “What do I know for sure to be true about this situation?”
-PowerPoint slides are a file that open in a presentation software.
-WebinarNinja is a cloud based software.
Step 2: Identify your goal: What would you like to accomplish?
-I want to combine the 2 applications. Use only one application, the webinar software.
Step 3: Break down what you know into smaller facts
-A PowerPoint slide deck is a file just like any other file. Users currently use a presentation software to run this file.
– WebinarNinja already saves other files like images and webinar info for users in their own cloud storage.
Step 4: How can I use what I know from my smaller facts to get to my goal?
-I can display images with WebinarNinja already, so why not convert the PowerPoint slides to be displayed on the Webinar?
– We can give each user their own cloud storage for presentations. They can directly upload their slides to WebinarNinja so they control and display them directly in WebinarNinja, rather than using separate presentation software.
So as you can see, I had to identify and use what I know as fact to solve the problem.
Problems, like failures, are a rite of passage, as Jonathan Chan illustrates in a previous Foundr post. It’s a natural part of the process, and without it, you cannot possibly succeed.
More Problems, More Money
If you’re not being faced with challenges in your business, you’re not doing it right. If you are being faced with roadblocks, you’re onto something good—plow through. When challenges arise, they are an indicator you’re you’ve hit a nerve. That’s a good thing.
Challenges mean growth and growth means more business. The more problems you can solve, the more value you can add, the more money you can make. The bigger the problems, the more valuable you and your business are.
As I write this post, there are a list of Goliath problems that I need to take on in my business WebinarNinja. Tight deadlines, recruitment challenges, technology needing to be tamed. But there’s no time to feel sorry for myself, the stakes are too high. I have only one state of mind.
I become David in the moment he zeros in on the beast, and say, “I can take him. I got this.”
Photo credit to me. Taken on a recent trip to Florence, Italy.
And if I were to be completely honest with myself, I became an entrepreneur because of the problems, so how can I possibly complain? I get to wake up every morning and be a part of the solution. That’s a powerful force that gives me meaning. That keeps me going.
So do yourself a favor and the next time you’re hit with a challenge, a rough spot, or problem in your business—celebrate. You are on the path of masters. The path that leads to greatness. A path everyone you admire in the business world has been on for sometime. You’re in good company, you are one of them now.
What’s your biggest problem right now? How do you pump yourself up to take on and solve problems? Let us know in the comments.