How To Do Hard Things


Wednesday, 9.57pm

Sheffield, U.K.

A brand for a company is like a reputation for a person. You earn reputation by trying to do hard things well. – Jeff Bezos

If you’re trying to come up with an idea for an application that will make you rich how should you go about thinking about the problem? What kind of strategy will help you select an approach that has a good chance of working?

The simple answer is to try and give people what they need or want. To make it simpler for them to get what they want done.

When you think in this way you come up with ideas to make life easy – better todo lists, easier document creation, simpler interfaces, and so on.

But when you really think about it when was the last time you used anything other than Word to create a document? How much simpler can you get than the interface on an iPhone?

When you think of some of the applications out there – Google for search, YouTube for video, LinkedIn for business networking – is there really a choice other than the ones we can all think of? Is there any competition in these spaces or are these companies effective monopolies, even though they probably aren’t trying to be?

I think there are two things here and the underlying logic is summed up in a quote from an old newsgroup that says that graphical user interfaces (GUIs) make simple things simple and complex things impossible.

Let me explain.

If you want to go anywhere these days you’ll probably go onto airbnb and have a look. We used this for the first time recently and it was good – we got a room where we needed and life was fine.

Now, the simple thing, from my point of view, was looking for a place to stay. It might have been a hotel in the past, or I might have run an agent. The user interface, in this case, whether a human agent, a hotel website or a rooms aggregator all solve the same problem – which is to find a space for me to stay the night. The interface helped me solve my simple problem.

You may counter that the problem airbnb solves is not simple – it essentially uses clever software to match supply with demand. To which I say that problem was solved a long time back and it’s called a market. Airbnb simply implements a market in its own way. It’s successful because it’s well known like the other big players in this space.

Some years back we wanted to take a trip to Slovakia and decided to go by train. That was a difficult problem. It required taking six trains and booking on a number of websites in different countries and arranging hotel stays in multiple cities on the way back.

This problem is not something that airbnb appears to solve. At the time there was a website that set out the steps to follow and the websites of the train companies with booking instructions. We followed that and it all went fine.

If you can solve really hard problems that the simple solutions people are currently using can’t address then you may have a market for your offering.

The point I’m trying to make is that an application that is designed to make it simple for you to do one thing usually makes it hard for you to do anything else.

If you do make it simple and you are the best known application then you are onto a winner. But everyone else trails far behind – the winner-take-all network economy means that all the simple stuff gets dominated by the company that happens to get the most attention.

But there are still hard problems out there that need to be solved. The Internet addresses a hard problem – the ability to create, curate and share knowledge.

What’s the takeaway here?

You can solve a simple problem with your application – but if you want to win you are going to have to be the best known product in the world.

Or you can solve a hard problem and be useful.


Karthik Suresh

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