Inevitably, startups get some things wrong. Products don’t always work out as planned. Processes that seem solid on paper may prove dysfunctional in practice. Sometimes, entrepreneurs learn they’re trying to solve the wrong problem entirely.
Going back to the drawing board is never fun. It does, however, have a serious silver lining: Frustration drives innovation. When things aren’t working like they should, it’s easy to see opportunities for improvement.
While identifying frustration may be easy, turning it into something productive is more difficult. The key is spotting where your skills can make a difference. If you want to turn your frustration into innovation, you need to focus it on a problem you’re actually equipped to solve.
Picking the Right Problem
Whatever gets you fired up, use that frustration to create positive change. The following are prime places to look:
1. Issues you’re passionate about
He may not have started in education, but Shahzad Bhatti saw that plenty of modern schools weren’t preparing people for the working world. During his time as the investment director at an Asian private equity fund, Bhatti heard the same stories wherever he went: Companies were struggling to find qualified employees, and employees were struggling to find work. There was simply a disconnect between what was needed and what was available.
What did Bhatti do? He left the finance industry. Having previously founded Prism Learning Group, Bhatti saw that he had the skills needed to do something about it: He started Axiom Learning, which offers one-on-one tutoring, test preparation, and treatment for learning challenges. Axiom’s latest initiative is LEAP 3.0, which offers ADHD treatment options that go beyond medication.
2. Your side hustle
There can be a lot standing between where your side project is at and where you’d like it to be; that’s the situation Tracey Grace faced right before she founded IBEX IT Business Experts. While working as a vice president at a Dutch consulting company, Grace was asked to completely eliminate her health IT staffing division.
In addition to managing IT and other services core to the company’s operations, Grace’s division helped major hospitals recruit and incorporate technical talent. Despite the division’s profits, the company cut it for being too distant from its overall mission.
Rather than let her division be shut down, Grace left to found IBEX, which provides on-site experts and training in IT frameworks like COBIT and ITIL. Since then, Grace has translated her passion for inclusivity into programs like Certifiably Diverse, which helps companies increase the diversity of their suppliers. As a minority woman founder, Grace felt she’d accomplished too much to let her work be taken from her.
3. Your daily routine
You could sum up Dollar Shave Club founder Michael Dubin’s frustrations in a single phrase: razor fortress. Razors had become so complicated and expensive that they’d gotten away from what they were supposed to do: shave. So he and other men didn’t have to spend half an hour sorting through different razor types in stores, Dubin founded his direct-to-consumer grooming company. Since then, his direct-to-consumer approach has become the name of the game in the personal care market.
Your days are comprised almost entirely of the same activities. Do you ever stop to think about how your conference calls, for example, could be stronger? Could some simple soundproofing reduce background noise? As Dollar Shave Club’s Michael Dubin showed, innovations don’t have to revolve around a cutting-edge app; they just need to be better than what’s already out there.
4. Your own limits
As an entrepreneur, your job probably isn’t all that physical. But if your product’s packaging or controls are frustrating to you, imagine what they’re like for people living with disabilities. Channel that into better, more accessible design.
Microsoft tapped that same frustration to create its Xbox Adaptive Controller, developed for gamers with physical disabilities. To develop disability-friendly models and packaging, designers Mark Weiser and Scott Wang asked gamers with disabilities what they wanted. Together, they created a cardboard shell free of twist ties, thick plastic, tape, zip ties, and any other unnecessary components that can make unpacking more difficult than it needs to be. Their collaboration produced the market’s first gaming devices specifically designed with and for disabled gamers.
5. Negative feedback
You may be your company’s leader, but you know how it feels to have someone shut down your idea. As much as it can hurt, you should turn those experiences into motivators. If you’ve seen a similar idea work elsewhere, put a spin on the idea and try again; if you haven’t, be the first.
After focus group testers rejected beer served on ice, Anheuser-Busch VP of Innovation Pat McGauley struggled to find what could possibly work for American beer drinkers if ice was too wild. Not wanting to let his CEO down, McGauley’s team developed a refreshing alternative to iced beer: the Lime-a-Rita.
McGauley’s innovation wasn’t just successful: The Lime-a-Rita spurred a revival of the malt beverage market. The Lime-a-Rita has since branched out into numerous different fruit flavors and attracted attention from other major brewing competitors like Miller-Coors and Labatt Breweries.
Starting a company may not require discomfort, but innovation surely does. Whether you’re trying to change the world or simply improve your existing product, pay attention to what’s bothering you. More often than not, it’s the right place to start.