Problem Spaces

A common thread of startup advice is to avoid thinking about ideas and to instead think about problems that need to be solved. Switching to a problem-seeking mindset feels a little unnatural at first, but is ultimately a more productive way to approach the ideation process. Time spent thinking through a specific solution can quickly spiral into day-dreaming (“Wouldn’t it be cool if?…” or “Also we could do…”) which is at best a waste of time, and at worst can distract you from the finding the core essence of a product.

Lately I’ve been making more of an effort to focus on problems that need solving, instead of ideas. I’ve noticed some common threads between loosely-related problems, which have crystallized into problem spaces that I find myself thinking about repeatedly. These problem spaces encompass a few related problems that could be solved in a variety of totally unrelated ways. Here are a few that have been on my mind recently.

Preserving friendships

100 years ago, people had to make a conscious effort to stay in touch with friends, especially over long distances. Today, the decision of who we interact with on a daily basis is largely decided by social media algorithms. An unintended consequence of this switch is that it is remarkably easy to fall out of touch with certain friends, especially after moving to a new city, a new country, or a new stage of life. If we allow Facebook to curate our social interactions, we risk falling out of touch with those who slip between the cracks of the news feed algorithm. How can I mitigate this, to ensure that 5 or 10 years from now I am still closely in touch with important people in my life?

Individualized travel advice

There is no shortage of services that aggregate travel advice and recommendations, such as TripAdvisor, WikiTravel, or Yelp. These solutions are definitely more responsive and granular than published travel guides, but they still fall short of providing individually tailored or curated advice. I have had a couple disappointing experiences with these, specifically when visiting a destination where I am far from the target demographic, and where the popular recommendations do not appeal to me. Similar to how curated email newsletters are replacing aggregated news—at least for myself—I think there is room to apply a more curated approach to travel recommendations. The tricky part seems to be finding and picking a trusted curator for a “disposable” source of information. I can subscribe to 10 newsletters and then pick the best one in a month, and this is still worthwhile if I come out of it with a a trusted source that I will read for years. But I can’t justify this same level of trial and investment to find a good source of information on a city I will be in for a single weekend.

Semi-social photo sharing

There is a cliche about the amount of effort entrepreneurs spend on photo-sharing apps, which proposes that there are much more important and worthy problems to be solved. Nevertheless, I think the experience of sharing photos is still ripe for innovation. Up until a couple years ago, the entire space was focused on social, ignoring the entire spectrum of situations where I may want to share a photo but not to my entire social network. Snapchat changed this, introducing ephemeral messaging that addresses the more personal and/or frivolous end of the spectrum. But there is still a big space in between—where I want to share some photos with some people but it may not be a conscious effort, and it doesn’t need to be ephemeral. Instagram Direct is interesting in this regard, because it allows you to address the some people/some photos part, albeit in a very conscious fashion. But ultimately I still find myself with an offline library of my photos that simply don’t end up being shared, but that friends love to flip through on my phone. I wonder if this space could benefit from machine learning – if an app could figure out who I was at the bar with last night, and then suggest sharing with a selective list of people who may care about my slightly blurry, definitely not Instagram-worthy pictures.

I may expand on these problem spaces here in more detail in the future, as I continue to think about them. If you are thinking about similar areas, drop me a line and let’s talk.