Opinion
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The Problem List

Are we putting too much effort into solving the wrong problems?

The Problem List

The winner of the 2019 MN Cup, Abilitech Medical, was overwhelmingly obvious, likely due to the magnitude of the problem it was solving: assistive devices to aid people with upper-limb neuromuscular conditions or injuries. While the other finalists, in fields as varied as weight loss and travel, did a great job and certainly deserve the accolades, I wonder if the scope of the problems they were solving was worthy of the talent and effort.

It’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed in entrepreneurial circles: There’s an abundance of solutions to irrelevant problems—and, conversely, too many problems left unsolved. This seems like a gap we can close.

There’s an abundance of solutions to irrelevant problems—and, conversely, too many problems left unsolved. This seems like a gap we can close.

I am always inspired by my annual fall trip to the MN Cup awards show at the University of Minnesota’s McNamara Alumni Center. MN Cup is the largest statewide competition for emerging entrepreneurs in the world, and anyone can attend the awards show, where finalists in a variety of categories present their business plans.

This competition is a haven for problem solvers. The winner, selected by a panel of industry experts, has the most compelling problem paired with the most precisely articulated plan to capitalize on their solution.

My question: Where do the problems come from? And can someone start a public list of substantive problems worth solving?

Here’s the idea: Let’s cap off the MN Cup with a list of our top problems, as voted on by the audience. Yes, I am talking to you John Stavig, Scott Litman, and Dan Mallin; let’s start an annual review of problems and give our startup business community a spark to go after the most compelling ones.

These problems would have to be properly crafted and precise enough to make sense. For instance, “deforestation in Brazil” is too big for one solution. However, “people with upper-limb disabilities needing a way to be more independent and move their own arms” is a great setup for this year’s winner, Abilitech Medical.

The list can be crowd-sourced and then refined by a team of entrepreneurs. Future participants in the MN Cup would get extra credit for going after a problem on a past list. Each year, we’d have a fresh list to work from, vote on it as a crowd, and then go after the ones that seem most interesting. I’ll commit our team at Capsule to get the list started and clearly outline what a properly crafted problem statement looks like. Here are my first three:

  1. We don’t trust the media, yet it’s a foundational element of society that the public has trusted and objective sources. How can we improve the trustworthiness of the media we consume?
  2. The waste and recycling streams are confusing, frustrating, and not delivering real results for the effort. How can we improve these systems to be more efficient and consumer-friendly?
  3. Older people feel increasingly lonely and isolated, while our kids are increasingly consumed by screen time (also isolating). How can these two populations help each other be happier members of society?

This is just a start. If we get the MN Cup crowd behind this idea, I’m certain an abundance of problems will surface. It will then be essential to articulate them in a way that sets up a team to get to work. It will also be important to avoid implying a solution within a problem statement, while providing enough inspiration for a team to be motivated. This can be done by a small committee of thoughtful editors who cull through the suggestions to craft open-ended problems. Then, we put these problem statements in front of our business community.

Business is a bountiful source of solutions to the challenges ailing our society. While there are plenty of problem solvers who end up strapped to the quarterly-returns business model, other options exist. Amazon, Tesla, and other modern ventures have taken a long view (decades vs. quarters) to solving the challenges they address. Business, as a culture, has opened itself up to solving problems typically left to religions and governments. This is an invitation to entrepreneurs, startup enthusiasts, and students of economics to achieve financial and social returns by solving our big problems.

Now, we need this list of properly crafted problems to fuel and give direction to those in our community with a passion for entrepreneurship. Let’s get started. Who’s with me?

Aaron Keller (aaronkeller@capsule.us) is co-founder and managing principal of Capsule (capsule.us), a Minneapolis branding agency. He co-authored The Physics of Brand, physicsofbrand.com.