Is Your Startup a Toothbrush or Candy?

If you’re in the startup world, you’ve probably heard the question, “Is your startup a painkiller or a vitamin?”. This question implies that either your company solves a painful problem or a mild, problem that is not top-of-mind. The urgency of a pain pill is much greater than the urgency of a vitamin. In other words, you want to solve a painful problem.

Did you know that the US vitamin market is 4-5 times bigger than the US painkiller market? Given the context above, this may seem odd. Ultimately it comes down to the fact that vitamins are swallowed daily, and most of us don’t need painkillers daily. In other words, it is better to be in the daily business than the occasional business.

I ask a different question. “Is your startup a toothbrush or candy?”

Toothbrush Test:
Google tends to invest in technologies and businesses that most of the population will use on a regular basis – like a toothbrush. The oral care products market is about $8B. Toothbrushes and toothpaste account for about $3B of the $8B US oral care market. Google doesn’t want to change people’s behavior. Everyone uses toothbrushes. You don’t need to educate people about toothbrushes because dentists do that for you.

Toothbrushes are like broccoli and vitamins; they don’t solve a problem today, but they save you huge medical fees down the line. Toothbrushes, broccoli and vitamins are not top-of-mind, but the US spends over $40B on them annually. Yet I hear investors say, “I only invest in startups that solve a problem that is top-of-mind”. I personally don’t get it. Perhaps this is why only 10% of funded companies succeed.

Intuit and Gusto are perfect examples of toothbrush companies. Nobody wants to pay for accounting or payroll software, but it’s necessary to avoid hefty penalties when the IRS comes knocking.

Contrary to current dogma, you can sell a product without a pain point. Candy’s $8 Billion US Market is a perfect example of this. Some of the most successful startups aren’t painkillers at all. While people say, “Facebook solves loneliness and boredom,” it really elates the public. Facebook is entertainment and exhibitionism wrapped up in an addictive package. Airbnb’s customers are elated by a more human experience. Zulily provides a more entertaining way to shop. These aren’t problems, but tasty little morsels that create addictive behavior, just like sugar.

Plea to Investors:
Stop trying to tell founders that their startups aren’t painkillers. Most of the best companies aren’t. Find another way to say, “I’m not interested”. The net result of this painkiller business is a bunch of founders trying to convince me that they are solving a problem similar to cancer. They aren’t.

Plea to Founders:
Stop selling your company as the cure to cancer when you’re a sugar pill or a toothbrush. Own it. Be the best damn sugar pill or toothbrush you possibly can be. Tinder doesn’t solve a problem, it helps their clientele get sugar more regularly.

Focus on how many hours a day, week, or month clients have a given desire or need. Toothbrushes are used twice a day for 2 minutes a pop, or an hour per month. If your customers spend that much or more time with your solution, you might be Google-worthy. Recently I invested in a startup called Cubspot. On average, mothers spend over an hour a month just on scheduling their kid’s lives. Cubspot is creating the best possible solution for this immense time sink. If parents don’t schedule their kids early, they pay for it later. It isn’t a painkiller. Cubspot is a Google-worthy toothbrush.

Fun Bits:
Airbnb began as solving a small problem (i.e. a design conference needed a few rooms and Brian Chesky offered three air mattresses in their loft apartment to attendees) and later ended up solving a bigger problem (i.e. The Democratic National Convention with Barack Obama was moved to the 80,000 seat football stadium where the Denver Broncos play and needed to host 80,000 people and there weren’t enough hotel rooms to hold them all). Read the whole story here.

Branch Metrics A successful venture is like a ‘painkiller. “Just keep building,” she advises. “Make sure you don’t get too enamored to one idea. And don’t come up with ideas in a vacuum. There is this concept of painkillers and vitamins. Our first two ideas were vitamins, versus Branch, which is a painkiller. It was a need we faced. A lot of business school teams sit in a room — and we were no different — and come up with vitamin ideas.”

Another perspective… Is Your Product a ‘Vitamin’ or a ‘Painkiller’?

Jesse Lawrence

Author: Jesse Lawrence

Founder and CEO of Boulder Bits. Sci-fi lover, game theory strategist, and idea generator.

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