Pills, vitamins, and candy: the false choice of startup ideas

Startups start with ideas. Unfortunately, most ideas don’t make good startups: it takes time and skill to take an idea and craft it into something that could work as a product that appeals to a specific market, and as a business that can make money. Even if you’ve done this, the idea still doesn’t mean much. You still have to execute on it by building a team, creating a product, and finding users. And you’ll probably have to pivot along the way, as your idea and your execution face the shifting sands of the market.

Because some startup ideas are good and some aren’t so good, it takes some filtering to find the ones that may have “legs” and the ones that most likely won’t leave the ground. One of the more common filters is the idea of whether your startup is a “pill” or a “vitamin.” In this analogy, “pills” are pain relievers. Find a customer pain point and reduce or remove it. “Vitamins” or “candy” are happiness increasers: you don’t need them, but they make life better. Your mission is to concentrate on those startup ideas that are “pills” — those that reduce pain — rather than those that are “candy” or “vitamins.”

Who are you talking to?

When I give the elevator pitch of our startup’s product, Gatherball, I get two distinct reactions. The first is: “oh, that’s cool,” with a smile and nod. The second is: “Oh my God, that’s so awesome! I totally need that!”

A friend of mine makes a service to help share photos and videos to people who may be intimidated by technology, like grandparents or elderly relatives. Think that’s reducing pain? It probably depends on whether or not you have an elderly parent who is far away, or potentially in a retirement community. And a mobile app testing service probably doesn’t sound like it’s a solving a problem unless you done mobile app testing.

Which one of these is the vitamin and which is the pill?

Enter Paracelsus

Paracelsus was a true Renaissance man. No really, he actually lived during the Renaissance and studied everything from botany to medicine to the occult. He also had the best given name of any Renaissance man: Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim.

Paracelsus is also sometimes called the “father of toxicology” for this quote:

All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.

In other words, what is considered poisonous is only a matter of how much it takes to kill you. A tiny bit of cynanide is enough, but you can also die from drinking too much water.

This is why the “vitamin vs. pill” question is a false choice. All startup ideas are vitamins and all are pills: the only thing that matters is the user. 

What this means

This doesn’t mean that all startup ideas are equal. It means that deciding the value of the idea can’t necessarily be reduced to simple analogies. This is why it’s so important to get out of the building, talk to people who you think may like your idea, and measure the desire. Beware of responses like: “oh, yeah I’d use that.” This usually means they won’t. You are looking for an overwhelming reaction.

You should absolutely focus on pain points and solving problems for people. You also want to listen for signs of other problems and pain points that may be larger than what you initially thought. Perhaps people are telling you what product they actually want, not the one you think they want.

Products that solve problems can also benefit from some sugar. When you’re focusing on solving problems, you’ll probably also be working on UX and interaction design, making sure your app is easy to use. The easier it is to use, the more likely they are to use it, and talk to their friends, family or coworkers about it.

Getting this far takes a fair amount of listening, mistakes, learning, and luck. If you make it this far, hopefully you’ll have built something that it not a vitamin, a pill, or a candy: you’ll have built a successful product and business.


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