Startup Lesson 1: Vitamin vs. Painkiller

If you are anything like me, you probably have 5 tubs of vitamins hanging out in your cupboard, many of which expired years ago. No matter how often I am told that taking vitamins is good for my long term health, it is just too easy to forget to take them. Why? There are simply no immediate consequences for my not taking them.

On the other hand, if one is suffering from jetlag, the flu, a wild night… no one forgets to cure their splitting headache with an ibuprofen. Unlike vitamins, painkillers are more than “nice to have”, they are an urgent necessity.    

Software products (or any product or service, for that matter) are no different. Some act as vitamins: you can go months without some nice-to-have social analytics tool, and some act as painkillers: the headache of a frozen CRM system requires immediate relief.  

When starting a business, it’s necessary to ask: am I creating a vitamin or a painkiller?

In the four years since I co-founded StackAdapt, I have come to realize that everything in business is a function of the value that you create. One could argue that perceived value can work too, but I think to build a long lasting business, you can only ride the wave of hype or perception for so long.

Perhaps, vitamins are ultimately more valuable as they have the potential to extend lives, but humans are short-sighted by nature. “Fix me now” is a much stronger value proposition, than “you will feel great 40 years from now”.

That’s why it is my belief that you should aim to build a painkiller…something people will be lining up to get… rather than a vitamin… something easy to forget.

Easier said than done, right? Yes :), but here are some tips that may help:


Start with introspection

 Maybe this sounds like a bunch of spiritual mumbo-jumbo, but simply ask “Is my product a vitamin or a painkiller?”

Here is a first-hand example: When we started our company, we operated as a native advertising platform. The value was that you could get more relevant readers to your content. Our business grew but it was always an uphill battle because we had to convince people why content marketing matters and why they should pay dollars to get more readers to it.

We were always busy explaining how content marketing can build brand loyalty, increase referrals, etc. We were spending so much time convincing people why they should buy our product that eventually it became clear – we were building a vitamin.  

Obviously, you can build a vitamin company (many have done that), but I am convinced it’s easier to build a product or service that acts as a pain killer. So, we asked ourselves – what is the real pain that our customers experience?

After much research, we discovered that their greatest challenge is customer acquisition – every company in the world needs more customers. So, that’s exactly what we started focusing on – solving the real pain of any business: helping them get more customers.


Are people ready to pay for it?

“Would I pay money for this?” is a simple question that many entrepreneurs don’t ask. If they use the excuse that they aren’t the target demographic etc., it just begs the question – how do they have any idea of what their target audience wants?

Coming up with business ideas is easy. Hell, as a joke we come up with new business ideas every week. That’s the scary thought – it’s really easy to come up with plausible business ideas that can waste years of your time, all because a person wasn’t courageous enough to be go out to ask for money and determine the true value of what they have built.

Market validation is often approached incorrectly. Instead of asking “would you buy this product”, ask potential customers to “buy this product now”. If your product isn’t ready, offer discounts on the pre-order. Stack up cash. It’s the ultimate validation that you are building a painkiller and not a vitamin.

If you have an idea or an MVP, do not rush to get VC money. Customer money is worth ten times that of venture capital, so go out and get some customers.


How else can I tell a vitamin from a painkiller? 

Here are a few questions you can ask to determine if you are building a vitamin or a painkiller:

·      Is my sales cycle is short? As a rule of thumb, if you are solving a real pain, customers will be pushing really hard to onboard your product.

·      Are people looking for this problem to be solved? Dive into trends and keyword tools. Are you getting any inbound leads?

·      What does my churn look like? Do my existing customers stay and refer their friends? If yes, you are onto something big. Retention is arguably the number one metric you should be looking at in early days.


Of course, take my advice (as any business advice), with a grain of salt. There are plenty of examples where companies succeed with unexpected products or solutions. But those are exceptions. Outliers. Building businesses is very difficult and odds are against you big time. I hope internalizing this “vitamin vs. painkiller” framework can help shift the odds in your favour, even by a little.