Understanding the Roots of the Problem, not just the Symptoms

Having the opportunity to work with technology entrepreneurs in the Fit Startup Factory and now social entrepreneurs via Social Change Labs has afforded me a unique perspective into the startup journey of each segment, and the unique challenges that they face. Although we preach the same methodology and approach to both parties (Business Model Generation, Customer Development, Lean Startup, etc.), there are obvious differences. In the next few posts I want to take a moment to explore some of those differences and would love to hear your thoughts as well.

In my first post, I discussed the differences regarding the starting point of entrepreneurial ideas, technology vs. social, and how that impacts the development of the business model. In my second post, we explored the challenge faced by social startups in serving multiple customer segments. Now we’ll look at how social startups need to truly explore the depths of the problem.

What is Really the Problem?

For social startups, unlike for many technology startups, the problems are usually quite obvious. Social entrepreneurs are fighting to solve critical issues of human rights, environmental protection, social governance, etc. These problems are well-known, but because of their low or non-existent economic potential, are often ignored.

For example, consider Grameen Bank and the micro-finance model which provides the poor with access to financial services. The poor can’t go to a bank for a loan and are forced into the hands of unofficial moneylenders and loan sharks with outrageous interest rates and heavy-handed repayment methods. The problem is obvious; but until Mohammad Yunus, given the inherent belief that the poor were untrustworthy along with the high costs of dealing in small loans, no one bothered to try and solve it. On the other hand, think about Twitter: the problem or the need wasn’t as apparent at the beginning; it wasn’t only until people started using it, and shaping it to their own needs that its true function and value became apparent.

However, the preconceived clarity of the problem can often be misleading for the social entrepreneur. For while the social problem is quite obvious, the actual roots of the problem, along with external influences upon that problem are often undiscovered. And this can push social entrepreneurs too quickly beyond the stage of understanding the problem into crafting a solution, only to realize the error of their efforts later.

In Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo fascinating book on global poverty, Poor Economics, the authors delve into some of these roots and external influences on poverty, and why many current solutions have come up short. Without trying to paraphrase the entire book, I’ll illustrate just one example, hunger. One of the most basic human needs, and a clear sign of poverty is hunger.

Undernourishment leads to a variety of chronic health issues and impacts a person’s productivity, which lowers their overall earnings, thereby leading to less purchasing power for food, etc., i.e. a typical poverty cycle. So thus we should just distribute food to the poor, or at least make basic staples cheaper then, right? In their studies, Banerjee and Duflo show that such government food programs have not led to increased nourishment and thereby higher levels of productivity for the poor. Why not? With cheaper basic food, one would expect the poor to buy and consume more of the same, helping them emerge from this cycle of poverty, right?

In fact, with more disposable income, the poor have been shown to buy richer or more expensive food, rather than larger quantities of basic food. The core issue is not simply hunger; there is the need for simply joys in life, i.e. eating foods that you like or being able to spice up your day with different tastes. In a life bereft of much joys, it is the small things, like a nice meal, that makes all the difference. It is for this reason that in the slums of the developing world, the most common electronic purchase is often the television, often before a refrigerator, with families saving up for years to procure one. It is the small things to make life a little more bearable.

Without understanding actual behavior and getting to the root of the problem it would be impossible to make a dent in the issue of global hunger, not to mention a lot of wasted resources.

Exploring the Problem: an example

Ben1Gönüllüyüm (I am a Volunteer), a Social Change Labs semi-finalist, has taken the long road in the path of customer and problem discovery. The social problem they are dealing with is quite obvious: Turkey has one of the lowest rates of volunteerism in the world, estimated at only around 3-4% of the total population. But the question “why” and the correct solution to solve that question is a bit more elusive.

In the beginning, the assumed “why” for Ben1Gönüllüyüm was a disconnect between potential volunteers and non-profits; they just needed a platform to meet and exchange information. If potential volunteers could just learn about and explore different volunteering opportunities from non-profits themselves, they would jump right in and this problem would be solved, right?

Not so fast. It didn’t work. People were not interested.

Following, the team decided to step back from this idea and take time to learn and explore the volunteering culture in Turkey a bit more intimately. They got involved in different non-profit organizations and projects. They built a small-scale platform to encourage and enable volunteerism amongst students at their school, Özyeğin University. They spent time getting to know organizations and volunteers in order to better understand their motivations and challenges. They found that in volunteers were a niche market, i.e. dedicated, passionate people who were brave enough to step outside the norm, and it wasn’t until they get involved in non-profit organizations did they find people like themselves. They learned that most volunteering opportunities are spread through word-of-mouth, or specifically a committed friend convincing and dragging them along. Specifically, they began to understand the “pain” of the volunteer: outcast, uncool, involved in worthless efforts.

And it is based on those key insights that the team started to build a new model, a new solution. The crux of their project now centers on a crowdsourced map of volunteerism, getting volunteers to “check-in” as they volunteer and enabling them to connect with each other across a larger community. And thus, via this map, volunteers can show how they are part of a larger change happening across the country and help convince their friends and family to take part as well.

Lesson learned: before they could think about solutions, they needed to understand the problem better first.

Fundamentally, for social entrepreneurs, the key danger is assuming they understand the problem, because everyone knows the problem. People write about the problem all the time in the media, complain about while riding on the bus, and discuss them in political debates. But that is only the surface of the problem, the symptoms that everyone knows. However, it is the social entrepreneur’s ability to truly understand the problem, deeper than anyone else, which enables them to derive truly workable solutions that actually solve real “pains” and create sustainable, lasting change.


Summary: social entrepreneurs have to make sure they are not misled by the obviousness of the symptoms, but rather spend time delving into the roots and external influences on the social problem they want to solve.

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Understanding the Starting Point

Having the opportunity to work with technology entrepreneurs in the Fit Startup Factory and now social entrepreneurs via Social Change Labs has afforded me a unique perspective into the startup journey of each segment, and the unique challenges that they face. Although we preach the same methodology and approach to both parties (Business Model Generation, Customer Development, Lean Startup, etc.), there are obvious differences. In the next few posts I want to take a moment to explore some of those differences and would love to hear your thoughts as well.

The Starting Point

In the Lean Entrepreneur, Brant Cooper and Patrick Vlaskovits define the starting point for entrepreneurial ideas as usually one of the following: segment, problem, product, technology. For example, the entrepreneur first identifies a lucrative customer segment, then figures out what problems they are experiencing, before designing a product to solve that problem and figuring out the technology to deliver that solution. Each of the starting points are valid, and each carries its own challenges.

Starting With the Problem

For social entrepreneurs, the starting point seems to always starts at the problem:

  • Why don’t more people volunteer in Turkey? (ben1gönüllüyüm and Bir Elin Sesi Var)
  • How do we get people to consume less resources? (Eşya Kütüphanesi)
  • Why do small non-profits have trouble accessing individual donations? (Bağış Portalı and birayda)
  • How can we reduce our carbon footprint from plastic bags? (BagAway)

From there these social entrepreneurs try to delve into the extent of the problem, i.e. who is experiencing this problem, who actually cares enough to do something about it, and who holds the keys to actually initiating a solution.

An Example: Starting with the Problem

Eşya Kütüphanesi is an online platform to facilitate the sharing of household products amongst a larger community. The problem was simple: do people really have to “purchase” and “own” everything they use? Could some things be shared, borrowed, etc. to create higher levels of efficiency, and thereby reducing consumption and its effects on the environment?

Once they realized this was the problem they were passionate about and were excited to solve, the team started exploring different customer segments that recognized this problem, considered it significant and wanted to do something about it. this obviously involved lots of customer interviews, a plenty of revisions of their business model and initial assumptions. It’s not easy changing established habits, but within the larger population they discovered a group that was active sharers and borrowers within their own circle of friends, nicknamed Generation G.

Now they are in the process of figuring out the right product/service to effective facilitate these sharing transactions and the type of technology they will need to scale the solution outward.

Starting with the Segment

Then there are social entrepreneurs who start with the segment, a disadvantaged, marginalized portion of the population, i.e. the homeless or youth with mental disabilities (Mor Menekşem).

Usually they have some connection to the population – either they are personally themselves from that population, or have a family member or friend who has been marginalized. To develop effective solutions for the niche market requires an in-depth appreciation of their life, their day-to-day struggle, and the inherent problems that go along with it. Then the right solution and required technology can be determined.

An Example: Starting with the Segment

Mor Menekşem aims to create employment opportunities for the mentally disabled by running a greenhouse to raise purple violets and sell them as a brand for mental disability awareness. One of their team members serves as the Turkish Mental Disability Federation Chairman, and from the beginning the team was focused on developing a social enterprise to serve and aid the mentally disabled.

As they delved into the current conditions of the mentally disabled in Turkey, two big issues came up: employment opportunities catering to the mentally disabled were almost non-existent, and there was low awareness of mental disability in the general population. It is a problem that is oft hidden away from the public eye, and resources to support individuals and families are scarce.

Thus was born the idea of Mor Menekşem, transforming a simple flower into a socially-conscious consumer product that can serve as a symbol for the mentally disabled. Now the team is working to better understand the consumer segment of this equation, i.e. the type of people that would be excited to support such an effort through their purchase decisions.


Basically, unlike technology entrepreneurs, you rarely ever see social entrepreneurs enamored with a product or a technology first. It is the problem or it is the segment that drives them. It is solving that problem, or serving that segment that serves as the core of their business model.

There are definitely technology entrepreneurs who start with the segment or the problem, but unfortunately, more often that not, we come across entrepreneurs who are sold on their own product idea but are not actually solving a significant problem or meeting a significant need. Perhaps what we need to help technology entrepreneurs start thinking more like social entrepreneurs, actually embedding themselves with the population they want to serve and learning to empathize more with the people and the problems they face rather than simply developing and then trying to sell a product. The technology is only as good as its fit with the problem or need it is trying to solve (i.e. the Segway).

What do you think?

The Problem: interview approach

The Customer Development approach is built on a foundation of one-on-one customer interviews. It is trying to get to the bottom of the issue, something that can’t easily be achieved using surveys or website analytics or complaint forums or even focus groups. It is letting your potential customer talk you through the problem and how it affects their life, peeling it back one layer at a time.

The point of these interviews – to learn.

You don’t push anything, sell anything or even try to convince. You are there to learn, to let you eyes be opened to unexpected and unforeseen possibilities. Don’t even talk about your potential solution. Focus solely on discovering the problem. Giff Constable, in his post “12 Tips for Customer Development Interviews”, states that you should “get psyched to hear things you don’t want to hear”, i.e. be there to let your assumptions be dashed and hopefully take one more step to actually building something that people want.

And this is as applicable to social startups as they are to tech startups or any other startup. In fact, as a social startup, we need to evaluate the needs of all stakeholders: money-paying customers, clients we hope to serve, institutions we are hoping to partner with, etc. Can we actually build something that all these stakeholders want?

So How Do I Conduct these Interviews?

Ash Maurya, in his book Running Lean, does a great job in laying out the format for doing problem interviews. Without taking too much away from Ash, what we are trying to discover through these 15-20 interviews is as follows:

  • What is the “real” problem? Does it fit the problems we are assuming?
  • How are customers solving this problem currently? (i.e. what job are they trying to get done and how are they doing it?)
  • Why, why, why, why, why? Keep digging to understand the customer’s context.
  • Some basic demographic information if we need to further segment the market based on the feedback
  • Get permission to discuss more later, after you’ve figured out a solution, and ask for introductions to new people you can interview

The Approach to our Context

  • Set the Context: “Volunteerism rates are low in Turkey, 5% compared to 30% in Germany or 35% in the US; and this has adverse effects on the ability of NGOs to offer critical services, community integration in large cities as well as overall economic performance.”
  • Describe our Assumptions (see previous post) followed by: “Do you identify with any of these statements?”
  • Problem Ranking and/or Problem Discovery: ask the interviewee to state which reasons they identified with the most. Oftentimes, just setting the stage will have the interviewee start discussing a reason that is much more relevant; the point is just to let him/her talk and work together to get to the root of that problem.
  • Exploring the Customer’s Worldview of Volunteering: we try to make it as personal as possible, exploring previous experiences of volunteering if relevant, the reasons why they volunteered previously and why they don’t do so anymore, what are the barriers; moreover, we are trying to discover motivational reasons for why people do volunteer – what would propel them to volunteer now?

In the next post I’ll start describing some of the insights we are gaining through these customer development interviews. Then we’ll see where we end up… 🙂

The Problem: digging out the roots

How to raise the rate of volunteerism in Turkey? More specifically, why are people not volunteering now?

We wanted to look specifically at young people, college students and young professionals; maybe married but no kids yet. We realize that housewives are also a big “market” for volunteers, i.e. kids are out of the house and they have a lot of free time on their hands to contribute, but let’s focus on the first segment for now. Perhaps we’ll need to pivot to the 2nd soon enough.

Problem Assumptions

Our target market, they have some discretionary time but it’s limited by work, studies, hanging out with friends. They would generally be considered middle-class, as in they are not scrambling around for a 2nd job to make ends meet, but have a lot of responsibilities. Our assumptions for why they don’t volunteer (in no particular order):

  • Ignorance or Lack of Information: they don’t know where are they are opportunities to volunteer or how to volunteer or even what they can contribute.
  • Not Enough Time / Busy Schedules: they have too much going on as it is, often working overtime or craming for exams that they don’t have time to commit to another activity.
  • Lack of Trust in the 3rd Sector and NGOs: there is a general sense of distrust in the system, fueled by recent scandals regarding the inappropriate use of funds by an NGO as well as political or religious affiliations of NGOs

Understanding the roots of the problem will help us design a product that can effectively draw these people out, either by eliminating these barriers or providing significant incentive to overcome them. But before we move forward with a solution, we need to make sure these assumptions are actually true statements of our target market and not just in our own minds.

So… sure they sound reasonable, but are they true? Heeding the wise words of Steve Blank, it’s time to Get Out of the Building! Stay tuned as I describe our attempts to understand the problem through individual problem interviews, i.e. customer discovery.

The Problem: beginnings

So what’s the problem?

Every entrepreneurship adventure starts with a problem or a need, and this is all the more true for social ventures. In fact, usually the problem smacks you in the face, it’s just that no one has stepped up to the plate to tackle it. Large institutions, government, influential people in politics, business, media – I don’t think so; instead it falls into the hands of people like you and me, wondering why someone hasn’t done something about this before then rising up to meet the challenge.

The problem… we learn about it one day, then it starts gnawing at us, popping into our minds when we least expect it. What are people doing about this? It’s like a nasty crick in your neck, a bug bite you keep scratching at throughout the night. It keeps popping up all around you, waking you up at 4 AM, until you decide you are not going to ignore it anymore. Now that’s a good problem to solve.

What problem are we struggling with?

There’s plenty of problems to go around in Turkey, and we could fill a blog talking about them and complaining about them, but my dreams are in social entrepreneurship and I believe that any discussion of social entrepreneurship must first begin with volunteerism and giving.

Social entrepreneurs are generally dependent on the goodwill of their communities to translate their business models into widespread systematic change, through a large group of people volunteering their spare time, resources, money to bring those dreams to reality. These social enterprise business models require an innovative approach to cost structures, given revenue stream restrictions, of which volunteers and donations serve as the backbone. Without motivated volunteers, without consistent charitable giving (even small amounts) embedded into the culture, the road to sustainability becomes that much more difficult.

According to the 2011 World Giving Index by the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF):

  • Turkey ranks 136 out of 153 countries in terms of charitable giving (money, time, helping others)
  • Only 14% of the population provides monetary donations to charities
  • Only 7% of the population volunteer their time

What are the roots of this problem?

Well… that’s what we need to figure out. Stay tuned.