At the heart of every good startup is an important problem

In every problem lies an opportunity.
In every problem lies an opportunity.
Image: George A. Grant/Wikimedia Commons
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It overcomes you. A sense of frustration so deep that it makes you cast aside whatever your goal was so you can find a solution. One so aggravating that it makes you go through the misery of creating your own flawed method to alleviate the root cause. Every so often in life, each of us encounters it. Most of us simply let those moments pass with a sigh of exasperation and a look to the heavens, but occasionally those moments are a spark of creativity.

Problems are everywhere. The really big ones aren’t easy to solve, nor are solutions obvious. In Startupland, most prefer to talk about the solution—the company, the startup, the process, raising capital, building a team, and whatnot—but let’s look a bit harder at what happens long before any of that.

What are problems? It’s easiest to think about problems by looking at a couple of the most obvious.

Communicating with other people has been a constant source of struggle for us. A number of issues are troublesome: you may not know where the other person is, or how to reach them, or when to reach them, or even who you want to reach. They may or may not be interested in your message. Your message may not reach them. We’ve invented lots of ideas to help with this, dating a long way back—paper and pen, the telegraph, the telephone, email. Our tools these days are so efficient that the problem has evolved—instead of not being able to send people messages, many people are now overwhelmed by the number of emails they receive.

Here’s another: even the speediest and toughest of us can’t move as quickly as we’d like to on our own. Since the invention of the wheel, we’ve worked hard to build tools that help us move ourselves and our things. As those tools became more powerful—railways, automobiles, planes—society has become more dispersed and yet more interconnected.

When we think about examples such as these, we can see a few patterns emerge. The first is that the biggest problems aren’t limited to a particular medium—their scale is simply at the level of humanity. Until we can read each other’s minds, we’ll always be working to improve our interpersonal communication. Email has made it simpler to send a note than snail mail, and the telephone made the messenger unnecessary, but we still have plenty of times when a message doesn’t get to its intended recipient. Whether the medium is a rock, paper, or a kilobyte, it still takes plenty of things to go exactly right for an effective transfer of ideas to occur.

Another pattern worth noting is that the nature of a problem evolves dramatically over time. If you were flying in the 1960s, you probably never saw another plane in the air. Yet today, flights in the crowded northeast fly well out into the Atlantic to alleviate air traffic. The idea that we’d be tight on airspace would probably be inconceivable to someone decades ago, yet today planes waste tons of fuel and plenty of their passengers’ time circling airports or taking wide diversions just to avoid other planes. Right now, we’re living through a fundamental shift in the way our automotive industry powers itself, and it’s very possible that kids growing up two decades from now might only see internal combustion engines in museums. What problems might this create? How will we generate all of the additional electricity required to power millions of vehicles? How do we recycle our huge volumes of batteries? Some of these could well become the problems our kids spend their careers solving.

The problem I love: I sat at a wooden table on the front porch of a comfortable house in Abilene, Texas. It was a warm spring night in April of 2010, and I’d just started a long road trip gathering perspectives on the energy industry. Around me were three oil guys—a landman, a rig operator, and a guy who owned a handful of drilling sites. We went through beers and stories, my recorder capturing tales of getting shot at after going through the wrong fence, of piles of money thrown at wells that never performed. Finally, we got to a deep conversation about the role of regulation in oil drilling. I heard over and over about the number of regulations they had to deal with—environmental reporting and safety precautions, processes around cleaning up the site and disposing of water. I asked why these were in place, how foolproof the process was these days, and what the chances might be for a big oil well blowout. Not possible, I was told.

Within a week, oil began gushing from the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico as the Deepwater Horizon blew up and sank.

The amount of information we have at our fingertips has never been greater in human history. Technology has dramatically changed how much of it there is and how quickly we can access it. Decisions these days are made on the basis of more research and data than ever before, and finger-in-the-wind intuition has been marginalized and proven false repeatedly. Yet those of us who should be best prepared and most knowledgeable on certain topics fall well short of making the right decision much of the time.

Here’s one where perfect will never be achievable—it’s very difficult (and often impossible) to even define what the perfect decision is in most situations. But we can work towards it by surrounding ourselves with the best possible information, by building tools that help us retain it as knowledge, and ultimately grow wiser as individuals, as leaders, and as a society. How can we do it? We need to create immensely more amounts of raw data, and then we need ridiculous amounts of computing power to make it usable.

We then need armies of researchers to find patterns in it and to extrapolate valuable conclusions from it. We need to make all of this information searchable and easy to discuss, and then we need a bunch of brilliant communicators to bring this information into our schools, our companies, our government, our societies—journalists and professors, teachers and bloggers. And then it’s up to the rest of us to soak it all in, to ingest it and remember it, and then to apply it to situations where it helps us pick the right path.

This is a fundamental struggle of humanity, and there are massive inefficiencies at every step. When I was a senior sociology major at Yale, I did a study on high school students around New Haven for my senior thesis. I surveyed students at a few different schools and gathered some data on how their professional ambitions evolved between their freshman and senior years. What I found wasn’t surprising, but it affected me deeply: freshmen at the schools I studied were similarly ambitious, but seniors at schools where they had more exposure to professionals, more mentorship, and better information about careers maintained their levels of ambition much more so than students at schools where there was less of it.

Knowledge empowers us. Yet we have large strides to make in identifying and distributing quality information and building knowledge. Technology has enabled a fleet of solutions to emerge— from free access anywhere to Wikipedia to Google’s ability to find a limitless amount of information to my Weather app—but there’s plenty of situations in which we have little or no data, and plenty where we can’t tell the difference between good and bad information, and plenty more where one of us knows the answer, but we can’t get that knowledge to someone who could have used it. I love being able to work on this problem every day.

The Missouri River runs along the east side of Omaha, Nebraska, where I grew up. Towards the northeast of the city lies Carter Lake, a horseshoe shaped body of water near Eppley Airfield, Omaha’s humble, charming airport. But this lake wasn’t always a lake—it used to be a bend in the Missouri. Over centuries, the river kept running into its walls as it rushed around a corner until it slowly carved a more direct route along the track it currently owns. Sediment piled up along the longer track until it was completely cut off from the Missouri (lakes like these are called oxbow lakes).

Somewhere along that process, there was a single molecule of water that was foolish enough to think there might be a better way towards the Gulf. And then came another, and another, and a whole bunch more until they carved a new path downstream. Creating better pathways, it seems, couldn’t be more natural.

The path that each of us is on will hardly ever be a straight one. There will be twists, turns, and a constant series of problems. Each of these is an opportunity for a new way to do something and potentially the foundation for a great company. Keep a close eye on every single one—it just may be your real way forward.

The following is excerpted from Insights: Reflections from 101 of Yale’s most successful entrepreneurs, a collection of essays compiled by Chris LoPresti.