The two questions behind every successful product and service


There is a subtle difference between a product or service that stems from an idea and one that is born from recognising an opportunity.

Ideas are solutions in search of problems.

Opportunities are problems begging for a solution.

The magic of solving problems for a specific customer is that the marketing is baked into the product.

Like many disruptive companies, success is about understanding their customer’s pain points.

We find opportunities when we look for problems to solve.

We find opportunities by asking the following two questions:

1. What is happening that should not be?
2. What is not happening, that should be?

Startups that disrupt the market address these unmet needs.

The utility, quality and success of our products and services improve when we pay attention to what is missing in our customers’ lives.

What gaps can you fill for your customers?

Sawubona: It’s about them


All successful businesses do two things:

They fulfill the unmet needs and unspoken desires of their ideal customer.

The businesses that find it challenging to sell their products and services are the ones that fail to begin with this end in mind.

Businesses that struggle are those that are inward looking, they usually say: this is what we sell, our job is to look for customers to buy what we sell.

They start with their needs, instead of a clear insight about what the customer wants.

This approach has led to a number of business fail.

Businesses that succeeds are those that are outward looking, and start with: what do our customers want, my job is to look for what our customers want.

So the furniture maker who loves working with wood fails to find enough customers to keep his dream alive, because he makes a product that not enough people want.

The business coach’s pitch falls flat, or the massage spa opens in the wrong part of town.

When we see our customers, it shows. When we understand them, they know.

To fulfill our customer’s needs, we need to know and understand their needs first, not our needs.

It’s about them, not us.

Sawubona: Many look, few see


At the King Shaka International airport, just at the entrance of the terminal, there is this musician, I think he is a guitarist, he plays amazing music.

At Rosebank mall at the parking pay machines, there is a man who plays a guitar, he is very good.

At the men’s rest rooms at the  OR Tambo domestic terminals, there is this gentleman who mans the men’s restrooms. He always greets his patrons with a smile saying “Welcome to my office.”

There are many great stories about genius musicians playing on street corners, unrecognised.

So what’s the point?

My takeaway from these stories is that many look, few see and fewer take notice.

There is a section of those who are walking who do not even realise their presence.

Many look in that direction but their eyes likely glaze over. A few see that something is going on, maybe they even realise it is something good. But, the choice few dig deeper and take notice.

Great talent scouts learn to notice talent.

Great entrepreneurs see opportunities where everyone else glazes over the same view.

Great innovators see ideas where everyone else sees struggle.

Great leaders notice leadership and remember to call it out.

Great teacher sees talent on a child when everyone else sees a hyperactive and problematic child.

Great curators notices great stories when everyone sees nothing to write home about.

Happy people learn to notice things they are grateful for.

We can, of course, be all these things. But, first, we must learn to see. And, once we learn to see, we must then learn to take notice.

Many look, few see.



Sawubona: What do you see?


The rows of business magazines in the airport scream the word ‘success’ from their covers.

Smiling entrepreneurs and founders who have ‘made it’ are profiled inside.

Their success reflected in the visible and the measurable.

When did being successful become about being seen to have achieved success?

According to our society, anonymous success is not success. For society to deem you successful, we must see you successful.

It is like the philosophical question: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” 

If you are successful and no one around knows about your success, are you successful?

We, the keepers of our culture, keep score.

We like to measure our progress. Come out on top. Be first. We like to win.

In our attempt to find a way to do that, we have learned to value and measure things in ways that are often disproportionate to their benefit to us collectively.

The thing is how we keep score changes the stories we tell, the businesses we build and the societies we shape.

The stories we tell about success change us.

We become what we measure.

We are who we take with us on the journey and who we leave behind.

Sawubona: Worthy of being seen and heard


The numbers vary, but the trend is unmistakable.

The average consumer is subjected to more advertising and marketing messages every day.

In a world where it is harder to get noticed, entrepreneurs have responded by trying to be more visible.

Being noticed is the goal of most advertising.

To be noticed, entrepreneurs make more adverts and bigger billboards.

The irony is five seconds advert in the spotlight does not make or break a career or a company. It is the five years of work that preceded those five seconds that make all the difference.

Sawubona is about seeing. Seeing people, their humanity, struggles and hopes.

Our goal is not simply to been seen and heard, it is to do work that is worthy of being seen and heard.

Sawubona: Discerning who to see


Picture the scene.

You are at a networking event or a party. The room is buzzing, it is packed full of people who you could strike up a conversation with and the so-called important people.

Of course, you will never get around to speaking to everyone that evening.

So you have to choose who to walk up to and introduce yourself.

You don’t want to meet just anyone.

You want to spend your time speaking to the people you can really connect with.

Who do you choose?

Now, picture that packed room as potential customers for your business.

You can’t have a conversation with every one of those people.

Who would you choose to speak to, and how will you know that person when you see them?

The better we are at discerning our right people the more shared value we can create.

If only we had more…


“If only we had more time/money/resources” is a natural go-to from time to time.

Of course, it turns out that the better thing to do is to replace it with the following question:

“But, what am I doing with the time/money/resources I have at hand?”

It is a better and more important question for two reasons.

Creativity shows up in the presence of constraints.

And, more importantly, if we cannot get the best out of the resources we have, why should we be trusted with more?

StartUp Tip #5: Simplify your life


Simplify your life.

Reduce clutter in your daily activities.

A lot of clutter in your life, leads to a cluttered mind.

The thing with clutter is that it distracts you from focusing on what is important.

You get lost in the maze of all thing that you are focusing on.

When you simplify your life, you will simplify your business, your products, your presentation, your report, travel bag.

It is important to note that simple does not mean easy.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

“It takes a lot of hard work,” Steve jobs said, “to make something simple, to truly understand the underlying challenges and come up with elegant solutions.”

Here are some tips on how to simplify your life:

  1. Watch less TV;
  2. Pay off your debt to simplify your life;
  3. Don’t waste time being negative;
  4. Be organised. Use your diary;
  5. Start saying no more often;
  6. Spend less time on social media, on email and on your phone unnecessarily;
  7. Declutter your life, less stuff, less clothing options, less gadgets, just less stuff;
  8. Slow down your life, pace yourself, less rushing and hurrying;
  9. Less multitasking; and
  10. Spend time meditating, or find alone time for 5 minutes each day

Entrepreneurship is more than about business models, pricing strategies, competition, it is also about your mental well-being, sanity, strength, and resilience.


StartUp Tip #4: This is how we do things around here


As owners of startups, the vision of the business and how it operates is a reflection of who we are.

If we are disorganised as individuals, the business will be disorganised.

If we struggle to manage our personal finances, chances are we will struggle to manage business finances.

Our startups are a reflection of us.

Our culture and how we do things becomes the culture and how our business operates.

In order to build an excellent business, we need to be excellent in our lives.

Every person, team, and organisation has a culture, a set of norms that governs how decisions are made.

Since the quality of our execution is a by-product of our decisions, our culture becomes our strategy in the long run.

“This is how we do things here” becomes “this is what people like us do.”

There are two ways we shape the culture of our own self, of our teams, and organizations every day:

  1. People: The people we decide to hire, fire, or promote [whether via titles or via praise] are the single biggest lever we have to shape culture. While this appears to apply only to organizations and teams, the same holds true in our life. The people we choose to spend time with and, more importantly, the people we choose not to spend time with shape our personal culture. We are who we hang around with.
  2. Systems/Processes: The systems/processes we create do two things at once. First, they guide and incentivice certain kinds of behavior. And, second, when done well, they provide transparency into how decisions are made. A great resource planning process, for example, clearly lays out the decision criteria. In our personal life, habits are examples of the systems we create to guide behavior and help us make better decisions consistently.

One of the rare questions asked when people join organisations/startup is: What is the culture of that organisation/startup that I’m joining?

Another question that is rarely asked by founders of startups is: What culture do I want to set in the business?

A culture of starting meetings on time, of excellence, of doing the right things in the face of temptation to cut corners, of going the extra mile, of doing work that matters.

While this is a very important question, I think it is also important to remember that cultures are not set in stone. Instead, like wet clay, they can be shaped.

And, as we make daily decisions [whether consciously or unconsciously] on people and processes, we play our part in shaping it everyday.

You want build an excellent organisation? Build a culture that encourages excellence.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch and supper.

You set the culture and the rest follow.

When the dust settles, the excitement wears off, and sanity prevails, what is left visible is: How we do things around here.

StartUp Tip #3: Making noise is not a strategy


The first advice you will get when you start your business is to get your word, your brand out there.

By implication meaning make noise.

Marketing is not making a lot of noise.

Making noise is not a strategy.

We equate getting your product out there as the same as making a lot of noise.

‘Out there’ is a place most companies, entrepreneurs and artists want to get to.

Getting the word out becomes a preoccupation, and the noise begins.

Everyone knowing about your thing becomes the goal.

There is a lot of noise out there, getting noisier is not going to get you through.

It might have been easier thirty ears ago to rise above the noise, but no matter how far we have come or who you are the strategy for being successful is still the same:

  • Make something great, which by definition will not be something for everyone; and
  • Speak directly to the people who want to hear from you, which means you have to know who your right customers are and tell stories that resonates with them.

What is more effective than getting your message out to everyone is drawing your right customers in and giving them a story to tell.

There is no shortcut to mattering more.


StartUp Tip #2: Product before Profit, Profit before Scale


Build a great product first.

A product that adds value, solve a customer pain and is accessible and affordable.

Focus on making it simple to use.

Don’t compromise on your product.

When Jobs returned from Pixar, he shifted Apple’s focus back to making innovative products: the iMac, and then the iPod, the iPhone, the iTunes, and the iPad.

As he explained:

“My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. Everything else was secondary. Sure, it was great to make a profit, because that was what allowed you to make great products. But the products, not the profits, were the motivation. Sculley flipped these priorities to where the goal was to make money. It’s a subtle difference, but it ends up meaning everything—the people you hire, who gets promoted, what you discuss in meetings.”

Once you have a great product, then you can focus on how profitable the product should be.

You are not going to be in business long if you products are not profitable.

Know your numbers. If you don’t know your numbers, you don’t know your business.

Calculate your variable and fixed costs and workout your break even point.

Once you have a break-even point, then scale your sales volume towards exceeding your break-even target.

That way you will be profitable.

Like Steve Jobs says, profits will enable you to continue marking great products. No profits, no business, no great products.

Closely linked to profit is cash flow.

Keep a hawkish eye on your cash flow. Cash flow is the lifeblood of your business.

Revenue is vanity, profit is sanity, cash is king. 

Don’t obsess too much about how much millions you made in turnover, the important question is how much cash you have after paying all your obligations.

Cash flow keeps you in the game.

Businesses get bankrupted not because they don’t have enough revenue, but because they don’t have enough cash to cover all their obligations as and when they become due.

Don’t be afraid of your business numbers. Numbers are your friends.

So build a great product, ensure it is profitable, and then scale, tightly manage cash flow, work towards break-even point and then build another great product and repeat the process.


StartUp Tip #1: Focus


When he return to Apple and after he righted the company, Jobs began taking his “top 100” people on a retreat each year.

On the last day, he would stand in front of a whiteboard [he loved whiteboards, because they gave him complete control of a situation and they engendered focus] and ask, “What are the 10 things we should be doing next?”

People would fight to get their suggestions on the list.

Jobs would write them down, and then cross off the ones he decreed dumb.

After much jockeying, the group would come up with a list of 10.

Then Jobs would slash the bottom seven and announce, “We can only do three.”

Getting rid of many products and ideas and focusing on top 3 or 4 is the best thing you can do to your startup.

Focus means doing one thing and going deep on it.

It means the ability to ignore and eliminate distractions and noise and have laser attention to that one thing that matters.

Focus is the continuous, iterative process of keeping the main thing the main thing.

We are not going to be everything to everyone.

When we try to be everything for everybody, we run the risk of being nothing for nobody.

We end up watering down our business proposition and our brand promise in an attempt to be as broad as possible.

We become so vague that no one knows what we are offering and our potential customers turn to other, more specific options.

We end up accomplishing far less than we had hoped, which is exhausting.

As entrepreneurs, we end up running around trying to get it all done with limited resources. It makes us feel busy and productive, but again it’s actually quite the opposite.

We are doing busy work that isn’t generating the kind of results we were ultimately aiming for.

We are better off appealing to a niche group of loyal customers than trying to attract everyone.

The ability to focus on few important things in a world full of distractions is the new super power.

Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.

That is true for companies, and it is true for products.