Solve the boring problems, and win
Friday, November 10, 2023
Build something nice to have, and people will drop it when the budget's tight. Build something people have to have, and they'll keep using it as long as it fits their needs.
A month before WeWork declared bankruptcy, I signed a lease on a Regus office.
Not the most inspiring workplace, by any means, nor the absolute best location. It didn’t even include coffee, much less happy hours and game rooms.
But for this business in Bangkok, I needed a physical address with a real office. Regus provided that, with a tiny office (smaller than my wingspan in all dimensions but height, almost too small to change your mind in) and the required paperwork that met regulations. We would have paid for that, since we needed the address and it still made more sense than leasing a traditional office.
But Regus also included “lounge access” (essentially 2-6 IKEA-style tables and chairs in an open coworking area) and printing, at any location worldwide—which has already come in handy, enough I’d have considered paying for it sooner if I had known it was an option.
Now, WeWork supports business addresses in some cities; perhaps rolling that out further would have solved their financial troubles, perhaps not.
And WeWork is not alone in struggling to figure out how to make coworking work. Few independent operators are still running, many of them disappearing during the pandemic. Today’s coworking market feels split between coworking as branding (large corporations adding a coworking space in malls and towers to attract a younger crowd), cafes as coworking (increasingly large, centrally-located Starbucks and other chains that become defacto coworking spots for the price of a coffee), and large corporate coworking like Regus, Servcorp, and more. Real estate requires deep pockets—but you would have thought WeWork and Softbank’s were deep enough.
It struck me, though, in renting a Regus office that could have been a film location for Severance, that Regus solved the boring problem of office space.
It’s practical. Fits the requirements a business needed to operate as a remote team with a physical presence. Upsold small things, like a company sign for the office door, that were regulation-required.
And once you’ve filed all your paperwork, odds are your business keep using them for the long haul.
WeWork (and so many other smaller, indie coworking places alike) were nice to have. When a team is flush with cash and wants a Google-esque campus without a Google-esque outlay, it fits.
But when the budget’s tight and you need to focus on the essentials and your team’s quasi-remote already, it’s just another expense to cut. Selling vibes is a tough business in a downturn. Better to drop WeWork for the team than to layoff an engineer.
The winners made themselves essential by solving a required problem. They made themselves boring enough that only enterprises would consider them, while remembering that enterprises were the ones that’d keep paying no matter what. Their extra features just help sweeten the pot. It’s like health insurance including a flu shot and a physical; it wouldn’t make much sense to pay a monthly subscription for the latter two, but you have to have health insurance, and the extras might keep you from switching providers.
Which reminds me of something from the software world, where the most creative, innovative software often seem to struggle to find a lasting audience, while the boring tools that solve something every business faces become quiet successes.
A new approach social networking (hi, Clubhouse) might get all this energy and excitement then struggle to stay relevant, while a better way to record podcasts (hey Descript) might not be as fun but I’d bet it’ll have more staying power. Seemingly a million form apps have found a unique niche, because every business needs to build forms, and you only have to be a percent better in a few areas to be the best form builder for someone.
You have to have a phone (at somewhere between safety needs and love/belonging on a modern Maslow’s pyramid, anyhow). So you might as well buy the best one you can afford—thus the iPhone’s incredible success. You don’t have to have a standalone camera, not as much anyhow when your phone already solves it, so you have to really want a great camera and shooting experience to want to buy a Sony, Fuji, or Leica. Thus the struggle of standalone cameras—and so many other gadgets and software that are merely nice to have, no matter how uniquely creative they are.
Paul Graham cautioned against working on what he called fashionable problems, advising instead to focus on unfashionable problems in “fields that people think have already been fully explored.”
“If you can find a new approach into a big but apparently played out field, the value of whatever you discover will be multiplied by its enormous surface area,” wrote Graham.
That new approach should solve a real need, be something people must have. Write articles that are interesting, yes, but also where solve problems people are already searching for solutions. Build new products, but in existing categories where the core concepts are already understood, where you can solve a unique pain point a bit better. Focus on the features that’d make or break your customers’ work, more than the ones that’ll get them to say “ohhh wow.”
“A critical test of any product,” wrote Ryan Holiday in Perennial Seller: “Does it have a purpose? Does it add value to the world? How will it improve the lives of the people who buy it?” It’s easy to feel like your product covers the first point; that’s why you fell in love with the idea and brought it to life. But the latter two questions are what make or break a successful business—especially if it improves their lives enough they cannot live without it.
And then you’ll be irreplaceable, too big to fail even in the tiniest of niches.