Product Is The Way: Falling, and Staying, in Love With the Problem

As a precursor to his Masterclass Series dubbed “Product is The Way”, Room member, battle-tested Product Scientist and Creative Entrepreneur Chidi Afulezi shares a candid diagnosis of the cause of his startup’s undoing, revealing a passion for the wicked problems that drive the most exciting businesses and products in the market today.

In 2020, months before the pandemic hit and right after my partner Zain Verjee and I made the decision to shutter our company aKoma, I took some time to reflect on why my third startup in a row had to shut down. We had put our heart and soul into aKoma, a platform for Africa’s creative economy, and after about five years, the engines just gave out.

As an experienced product guy and entrepreneurship teacher, I subscribe to the notion that for a product or startup to find traction or product-market fit, you have to have all three pieces of the problem-market-solution equation working. If any is missing, you’re done.

At the core of it, we wanted to tackle the problem of the “dark continent” narrative. Our mission was to give African creatives the weapons to address this narrative and dissolve the severe structural and financial limitations they face in crafting the stories and platforms to counter and rewrite the narrative. The problem was a wicked one, and quite an attractive one to tackle at that.

We had a great market of content creators of all stripes from across the continent who were hungry for the funding and spaces to create and collaborate. They were eager for relief and excited at the potential for aKoma to fuel their creative exploits. We were good there.

We pivoted from our first solution, which was an online platform similar to Medium but crafted through an African lens, and went offline. We built WeWork-type creative spaces for the entire value chain to support the creative process. However, we couldn’t make the pivot work out, as we just couldn’t fund it. So yes, it was the solution; it just was not feasible or viable.

We had two out of three. We were done. Finished. Over.

We are still dedicated to attacking this problem, as Zain and I are hunkered down in the kitchen working up some new ideas on how to power the creative economy in Africa.

Entrepreneurs and makers, like Zain and I, love wicked problems — intractable, complex, big, wicked problems; wicked problems that keep us up at night. They are the problems that churn in our minds like a virus, fueling that frenetic energy that drives some of the most exciting businesses and products in the market today. We see the evidence all around us — how magical it is when wicked problems meet the headwinds of persistent, creative entrepreneurs and problem solvers. Innovation is not about coming up with jaw-dropping solutions; it is about immersing in those stubborn problems that are ambiguous and nuanced, making sense of them, and designing antidotes to them.

Remember the equation I mentioned earlier? A great problem + a great market + a great solution = product-market fit (traction). It also explains how you could have an incumbent doing extremely well, and yet an upstart or competitor can come in and suck the air out of the incumbent’s business. This happens as the competitor innovates around one or more of the three — the problem, the market or the solution.

Once upon a time, Blackberry was the market leader in smartphones, but Apple came in and innovated with a better solution (and a better translation of the problem and market). At one point, Apple’s iTunes was the market driver for music, until Spotify took over by tackling the wicked problem of instant access and mobility via streaming. Similarly, when the banking industry in Kenya neglected the wicked market of the unbanked, M-Pesa showed up to revolutionize digital payments. Apple, Spotify and M-Pesa exemplify how a ruthless focus on the problem leads to innovative solutions that create value for delighted customers and for the business.

I look forward to talking more about wicked problems, innovation, and the product mindset through my Masterclass Series for The Room. Any career, be it a leap of faith into entrepreneurship or as a lead for a corporate product, should be infused with that problem-solving dynamite that shatters the illusion of solution-first mindsets and allows for more creative product building. As I like to say:

“The problem mindset serves as the nerve center of curiosity for teams and organizations, keeping the whole ever curious about the market, the problem, and whether the solution is even the right one.”

Join Chidi’s Masterclass on Thursday 17th June for an interactive exploration of the problem-solving frameworks and fundamentals at the core of the most innovative business cultures and successful careers.

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