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Generating problem hypotheses for early-stage founders: a detailed guide

A guide for early-stage startup founders on generating and validating problem hypotheses.
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Verifying the existence and seriousness of the issue that early-stage startups are trying to tackle is critical. By following the course of action explained in today's article, you can make sure that your startup meets a legitimate need in your target market by creating and testing problem hypotheses in an organised manner.

What is a problem hypothesis?

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An assumption on a problem that affects a certain group of people (your potential clients) and how they are currently resolving it is known as a problem hypothesis. It's a claim that you think is true but that has to be supported by investigation and testing.

Why generate a problem hypothesis?

Be sure the problem you are trying to solve is big enough and prevalent enough before devoting time and resources to developing a solution. With an explicitly specified problem hypothesis, you can:

  • Focus your research: By identifying a specific customer segment and problem, you can more efficiently target your market research and customer interviews.
  • Validate market needs: Confirming that a significant portion of your target market experiences the problem justifies further investment in developing a solution.
  • Understand current solutions: Identifying how your potential customers are currently addressing the problem provides insights into your competitors and potential market gaps.

Steps to generate problem hypotheses

Identify your customer base

Establish who your product is intended for first. The more details you can provide about your ideal clientele, the better. This specificity aids in ensuring that your product development and research are tailored to the real needs of your target market. Rather than saying "parents," for instance, focus on "new moms" or "first-time dads."

Quantify the problem

Estimate what percentage of this group you believe is facing the problem you've identified. This doesn't have to be an exact number initially but should be based on some preliminary research or reasonable assumptions.

Describe the problem

Clearly state the issue. A clear problem statement assists in identifying the problems that your target market has and directs the creation of a solution that addresses these problems head-on.

Identify current solutions

Investigate how your target market is currently addressing the problem. This includes looking into direct competitors, alternative products, or even makeshift solutions. Understanding the current landscape helps in identifying opportunities for differentiation and innovation.

Expanding the problem hypothesis framework

Once you have established the foundation with the first stages, expand your strategy by adding other kinds of hypotheses to enhance your comprehension of the industry.

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Basic problem hypothesis

Format: "At least (% of users) of (customer base) are currently experiencing (problem) by using (competitors)."

Objective: This hypothesis aims to identify the problem and how widespread it is within the target customer base, offering a baseline understanding of the market's current state and existing solutions.

Problem severity hypothesis

Problem severity - Miro board by Appolica

Format: "At least (% of users) of (customer base) (problem) and consider the issue as (severity) problem."

Objective: Prioritize development efforts by assessing the problem's impact on the target market, focusing on problems that are considered severe or critical.

Solution satisfaction hypothesis

Format: "At least (% of users) of (customer base) are currently experiencing (problem) by using (competitors) and are (experience) with the solution."

Objective: Evaluate customer satisfaction with current solutions, identifying dissatisfaction and opportunities for differentiation.

The significance-effort matrix

Singnificance-effort matrix - Miro board by Appolica

To evaluate your problem hypotheses effectively, you can use a Significance-Effort Matrix, which helps categorize hypotheses into four quadrants:

  1. Significant / low effort: Problems that are important to your customers and require relatively little effort to validate. These hypotheses are typically high-priority as they promise a good return on investment and are easier to test.
  2. Significant / high effort: These are also critical problems, but they demand more resources to validate. They might require extensive research or the development of a more complex prototype.
  3. Insignificant / low effort: Problems that don't offer much value to the customer and are easy to validate. Even though they require minimal effort, they may not be worth pursuing due to their low impact.
  4. Insignificant / high effort: These hypotheses involve problems that are not only of little significance to your target market but also require a substantial effort to validate. These are typically the lowest priority.

Applying the matrix to your hypotheses

To use the matrix:

  1. List each hypothesis you've developed using the various formats outlined earlier.
  2. Rate the significance of each problem on a scale from 1 to 10, based on your market research and customer feedback.
  3. Estimate the effort required to test each hypothesis, considering the resources at your disposal and the complexity of the validation process.
  4. Plot each hypothesis on the matrix according to its significance and effort scores.
  5. Prioritize the hypotheses in the 'Significant / Low Effort' quadrant for immediate validation.

Validating your hypotheses

The next phase involves testing your hypotheses through:

  • Customer interviews
  • Surveys
  • Market research
  • Analysis of existing solutions

This validation process is important for refining your understanding and ensuring that your startup idea is aligned with real market needs.

Generating and validating problem hypotheses is a foundational step for early-stage founders. This process ensures that your startup efforts are focused on addressing significant and genuine customer problems. By following the step-by-step guide and expanding your analysis with additional hypothesis types, you can gain a comprehensive understanding of your target market and the opportunities within it.

Explore our dedicated Miro board/Notion template to put the tactics in the article to practical use and improve your startup's problem hypothesis creation process. Our interactive template offers a clear structure for identifying and evaluating the problems your firm intends to tackle. It is meant to walk you through every stage of the process. And don't forget to get in touch with us for additional information.


What is a problem hypothesis?

A problem hypothesis is an assumption regarding a challenge faced by a specific group of potential customers and how they currently address it. It is a testable statement that must be validated through research to confirm its accuracy.

Why is it important to generate a problem hypothesis?

Generating a problem hypothesis allows startups to:

  • Focus their market research and customer interviews more effectively.
  • Validate the existence and severity of a market need.
  • Understand the current solutions in the market, identifying gaps and opportunities for innovation.

How do I identify my customer base?

Start by defining who your product or service is specifically designed for. Detail characteristics such as demographics, behaviors, and preferences. For example, instead of broadly targeting "parents," narrow it down to "new moms" or "first-time dads."

How do I quantify the problem?

Estimate the percentage of your defined customer base that is experiencing the problem. Initial estimates can be based on preliminary research or reasonable assumptions, and refined through more detailed market analysis.

How do I describe the problem?

Clearly articulate the problem your target customer is facing. A well-defined problem statement helps in understanding the challenges in the market and guides the development of effective solutions.

How do I identify current solutions?

Research how your target market is currently addressing the issue. Investigate direct competitors, alternative products, and makeshift solutions to understand the competitive landscape and identify unique value propositions.

What is a significance-effort matrix?

The Significance-Effort Matrix is a tool used to categorise problem hypotheses based on their importance to customers (significance) and the resources required to validate them (effort). It helps prioritise hypotheses for validation.

How do I use the significance-effort matrix?

  • List your developed hypotheses.
  • Rate the significance of each problem on a scale from 1 to 10.
  • Estimate the effort required for testing.
  • Plot each hypothesis in the matrix and prioritise those in the 'Significant / Low Effort' quadrant.

What are the next steps after forming hypotheses?

Test your hypotheses through customer interviews, surveys, and market research. Analyse existing solutions to refine your understanding and align your startup idea with real market needs.

Where can I find templates or tools to assist with generating hypotheses?

Templates such as those provided on Miro boards or Notion can be extremely helpful. They offer structured approaches to identifying, categorising, and evaluating problem hypotheses.

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