Entrepreneurship: A new enterprise should never be a solution in search of a problem

Innovation for its own sake is not necessarily innovative. If you want to start a successful business, says Jag Gill, SF’13, solve a problem. Gill, founder and CEO of Sundar, a global apparel startup, created her business because no efficient platform existed to connect the apparel industry to suppliers and manufacturers. “A clever idea is neither practical nor executable if it doesn’t solve an existing problem or fill a gap.”

Gill says that when she mentors budding entrepreneurs, she asks them to drill down on their motivations. “What’s your secret sauce? What’s unique in what you bring to the table? And what societal need are you meeting? A new business should never be a solution in search of a problem.”

Nadia Shalaby, SF ’10, a serial entrepreneur and CEO of ITE Fund, agrees. “Understand the market for your product before you ever begin. Who needs what you are planning to provide? How will you reach them? Are there enough consumers to make your product or service viable?”

Are you starting your business for the right reasons?

Shalaby believes that being honest with yourself about your motivations is as important as knowing your marketplace. “Why are you starting a business? Because it’s fashionable? Because you’re tired of working for others? Because you want to get rich quick?” Shalaby encourages first-time entrepreneurs in particular to make sure they are not just reacting against a situation. She notes that having a higher purpose is often a more sustaining goal. “The entrepreneur who focuses on presenting a new and better solution to an existing problem feels a responsibility over and above his or her own gain. The passion and conviction that you are solving a problem can get you through the many peaks and troughs of entrepreneurship, but it’s also smart business strategy and can lead to success in marketplace metrics.”

Another reality check. You will probably not be a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates on day one. Alan Yan, SF ’07, founder of several successful enterprises, including AdChina, which was acquired by Alibaba in 2015, notes that new entrepreneurs often look to success stories like Apple or Facebook and believe that their biggest challenge will be to manage that success. “They don’t have any idea about the complexity of the challenges that happen behind the scenes. The trouble is, if you’re not emotionally invested in what you’re doing, those challenges will be difficult and your decision-making may be skewed because you find yourself looking for the path of least resistance. Just following the money is rarely a prescription for success.”

Read more perspectives on successful entrepreneurship in the MIT Sloan Fellows Newsletter.