To Start an Ecommerce Business, Solve Problems

There is a mantra of sorts in entrepreneurial circles that says “don’t simply start a business, solve a problem.” If you solve someone’s problem and create a must-have product or service that does something more easily, better, less expensively, or just faster than existing solutions — the thinking goes — you should be a success.

This approach is not perfect, but it can be a good place to start when you’re considering launching a new business. Unfortunately, the approach may also be harder to execute than it seems.

There is a mantra of sorts in entrepreneurial circles that says “don’t simply start a business, solve a problem.”

Recently, a would-be entrepreneur complained because he’d read a 2013 Practical Ecommerce article, “4 Tips for Finding Your Ecommerce Niche,” but had not really been able to make the tips work, particularly the second one, “Solve Your Own Problems.”

Just how does one go about identifying problems and coming up with good, sellable solutions?

Although it sounds a bit cliché, the answer might simply be, “It depends.” Circumstances, finances, technical capabilities, and even one’s view, if you will, of the market can impact an entrepreneur’s ability to identify problem-solving market opportunities.

Nonetheless, in an effort to help folks who are having trouble finding problems to solve with an ecommerce business, here are three suggestions to help get folks thinking in the proper direction.

You Don’t Have to Have a New Idea, Just a Better One

Sometimes solving a problem is not a matter of creating something completely new, but rather just doing something a little bit better.

One often cited example is Google. Google is really a multinational Internet services business now, but in January of 1996, it was a research project built not to invent Internet search, but improve Internet search.

The very first Internet search engine was probably a program called Archie, which a trio of postgraduate students at McGill University and Concordia University in Montreal wrote in 1990 to index PDF files. Archie and its early successors looked at keyword density to rank web pages and determine what results to show to users. But Google’s founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, thought there was a better way to solve the website ranking problem, and considered the relationship between pages, rather than just how many times a keyword was stuffed into the page’s copy.

Google was a huge success, of course, but, interestingly, it might not even have been unique in its solution to the search engine problem. Robin Li, also working in 1996, developed a similar approach to ranking and scoring web pages. His algorithm, called RankDex, helped Li found Baidu, China’s most popular search engine.

Ecommerce entrepreneurs in search of problems to solve don’t necessarily need to be revolutionary, they simply need to be a little bit better. As an example, think about how sites like Manpacks or Trunk Club have solved shopping problems for men.

Truck Club simplifies shopping for men, making it easier for them to be fashionable.

Truck Club simplifies shopping for men, making it easier for them to be fashionable.

Look for Opportunities Close to Home

It may be easier to find market opportunities or problems in need of a solution close to home, if you will.

Here the idea is not to try to solve problems that you don’t really know anything about, but rather try to solve problems that you yourself have.

Some consumers pay almost all of their bills online and might not have the need to mail something — via the postal service — very often. When they do need to mail something, they have to find an envelope, locate a stamp, and get the resulting letter to the postman. Is there an opportunity for an ecommerce service that could print and mail letters for a small fee? Maybe. If finding a stamp is a problem that you have, you might try to find your own solution and market it.

Look first at the problems or challenges that annoy you, and see if you can solve them.

Look for Opportunities Far Way

Another way to fill gaps and find problem-solving solutions is to look overseas.

Make a list of your interests and look for ecommerce businesses in Europe, Asia, India, or wherever that have come up with a creative solution to some problem. Ask yourself if you could adapt their solution to your region?

As an example, FirstCry, one of Asia’s largest online retailers of baby-related clothes and items, sells brick-and-mortar franchises. Could FirstCry’s franchise program be a solution for the ecommerce shipping problem?

Imagine a similar American ecommerce business that sells physical store franchises.

Local franchised stores could fulfill online orders in their area. The franchise owner would make money from its share of the online sale, and might attract nearby shoppers into the store with a coupon or special offer in the box. The online store, because of its many franchised locations, would be able to offer free two-day or free next-day shipping, since orders would be sent from local stores not warehouses or hubs. The ecommerce business might even offer free in-store pickup — click-and-collect, if you will.

Look at what foreign ecommerce businesses are doing to discover problem-solving solutions.

Armando Roggio
Armando Roggio
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