5 Tech Founders who Scratched their own Itch6 min read
Silicon Valley has long been home turf for tech startup founders eager to bring their game-changing ideas to the world. Many of these innovators identified specific pain points that motivated them to create solutions. Creating ideas by solving a personal pain point is commonly referred to as "scratching your own itch" - Read on for five companies founded to scratch an itch!
Joel Gascoigne @ Buffer
Founded in 2010, Joel created Buffer to solve a very specific issue he had run into when trying to schedule out his social media strategy. When discussing the conception of his idea, Joel often touches on the how no other existing service offered the essential feature he was looking for: the simplicity of tweeting X times per day. In an interview with Lifehacker, Joel discusses how his idea for Buffer was spurred by a desire to engage more with his followers through an automated dispersal of content. After trying a few available Twitter clients, Joel started identifying a workflow issue with his current option, noting "The key pain I ran into here was that I would have to choose the exact date and time for the tweet."
"In reality all I wanted to do was to tweet 'five times per day."
This desire eventually manifested itself in Buffer as Joel solved the problem he had initially identified. Buffer allows you to schedule tweets on a per day basis, with built-in time variances to create a more natural content-sharing pattern. Having a content management system built specifically for social content also greatly helps the organization and sharing process, especially for individuals and smaller brands.
Joe Gebbia + Brian Chesky @ AirBnB
The origin story of AirBnB is an essential component of the Silicon Valley Mythos: Two broke students creating a billion dollar idea in a tiny apartment. In 2007, Joe Gebbia + Brian Chesky needed to make rent. When a design conference came to SF and hotels were completely booked, they realized they could rent out their floor and a few airbeds - thus the concept of AirBnB was born. Within a week, they had 3 strangers from different parts of the U.S. crashing on their floor. After that initial success (and rent money through the money), reports vary on how long it took for the duo to recognize the potential of the idea. In an interview with the Telegraph Chesky claims "As we were waving these people goodbye Joe and I looked at each other and thought, there’s got to be a bigger idea here". This conflicts with the account he gave to an Atlantic reporter where he didn't seem to initially grasp the magnitude of their idea, where Chesky states, "The moment when we thought this idea wasn't going to work was the moment we came up with it."
"We thought, "This'll work for one weekend to pay the bills while we come up with The Big Idea."
Regardless of their initial reaction, the pair quickly latched on to conferences as a suitable pain point trigger - not enough hotel space. After seizing on a Denver visit by Barack Obama, they had over 800 listings. A second key breakthrough came when they realized the key differentiator they had, and why customers had started choosing AirBnB over traditional hotels; Chesky shares, "People love homes. That's why they live in them. If we wanted to live in hotels, more homes would be designed like hotels." AirBnB had tapped into selling an experience.
AirBnB is currently raising an $850 million round of funding at a valuation of $30 billion.
Zach Sims + Ryan Bubinski @ CodeAcademy
While working on a platform to match fresh college grads with employers, Zach ran into a problem: he couldn't get through his programming tutorials. Ryan had the opposite problem; as a former instructor at Columbia, he preferred educating and encouraging students to program. The turning point came when they pivoted to scratch their own itch:
"We wanted to solve our own problem. We wanted to build something that I would like learning from, and that Ryan would like teaching through"
With that simple premise in mind, they devoted themselves to creating an incredibly simple site that would feature lessons on the basics of programming. Their approach proved so effective that "with no marketing, [they] gained 200,000 users over the course of that weekend at the end of August 2011." Now known as CodeAcademy, the company has formed partnerships with the U.S. government to increase STEM education initiatives. By scratching their own itch, Zach and Ryan applied gamification principles to induce positive behavior change in people who wanted to learn.
Tony Fadell + Matt Rogers @ Nest
The concept of Nest was born out of Tony Fadell's new house. When constructing an energy-efficient home using the latest technology, Fadell realized there had been no innovation in thermostats beyond the standard beige box. Seeking to bring the quintessential traits of his employer Apple to the thermostat space, he recruited engineer Matt Rogers and formed Nest. Tony's pain point was not only the antiquated style of thermostats but the clunky and confusing interface that accompanied the drab design.
“It started as our frustration and the more we talked to other people, the more we heard their frustration. That was the tipping point.”
With no prior experience in the thermostat space, Fadell + Rogers went into the project question the function and utility of every aspect of thermostat design from the ground up. In this instance, having a fresh perspective helped them identify with their customers, who also did not have in-depth knowledge about thermostats.
Nest has since been acquired by Apple nemesis and competitor Google.
Jason Fried @ Basecamp
Jason Fried has written about the idea behind Basecamp in his book Getting Real: he explains his belief in building software that solves your own problems, simply because chances are someone else has run into a similar issue. Basecamp itself came from a problem: "As a design firm we needed a simple way to communicate with our clients about projects." Realizing the inherent problems with creating a new communication site for every client, Fried turned to commercial solutions but couldn't find anything that fit his needs, stating, "every tool we found either 1) didn't do what we needed or 2) was bloated with features we didn't need." After looking around, Fried was impassioned to create his own solution, a critical element he touches on.
"When you solve your own problem, you create a tool that you're passionate about."
Fried has always connected his pain points to simplicity, and this connection fuels his design mindset. In an interview with Printmag, Fried cautions against a detail-oriented approach: "I’ve learned that designers design better when they don’t overthink things. It’s so easy to get caught up in all these details that simply do not matter." He goes on to qualify that statement by saying that details do matter, but oftentimes it takes an entire career worth of experience to differentiate. In the end, his design philosophy boils down to delivering the simplicity he craves to his clients: "I try to focus on the [details] that matter to the people who have to live with whatever I design."
- Solve your problems first: chances are someone else struggles with the same pain points you're experiencing
- Create the experience, then figure out how to scale.
- KISS - Keep It Simple, Stupid
- Inexperience provides unique perspective for solving problems
- Passion is key