Commercialization 101: Start with the Problem

Thirty years ago, research by Professor Roger Calantone of Michigan State University suggested that new products fail because too little attention has been paid to real needs. In addition, he opined that the most common failures are with products driven by technology rather than what the customer needs.

Sounds like the classic dilemma: technology push vs. market pull. Which camp are you in? Does your elevator pitch begin with a description of your technology? In how much detail can you talk about your customer’s problems?

For most technology entrepreneurs it’s difficult not to analyze a problem through the lens of their own solution. Therefore, they can’t see the problem the way the customer does.

To avoid biased assumptions about what your customer needs you must ask some tough questions:

  • Is the problem significant? If not, you’ll soon discover that solutions to trivial problems are a tough sell!
  • Is the need real? Is the customer even seeking a solution?
  • Is the customer aware of the problem?

Remember it’s not your answers that are important … but the customers’. What’s the secret to discovering the answers? Ask as many customers as you can find, and listen carefully.

Scientists and engineers can be driven by innovation, but entrepreneurs (at least successful entrepreneurs) must be driven by real customer needs.

Commercialization 101: The solution? Your product.

Business plans and commercialization plans are different.

A business plan is the story of a company … past, present and future. Because a company is commonly built around a unique capability, expertise or technology, it’s natural that its story begins with a description of that capability.

A commercialization plan is the story of a solution, or more specifically, a product or service. However, because a solution cannot exist without a problem, the natural beginning for a commercialization plan is a description of the problem.

Confusing their technology with their product can certainly lead entrepreneurs astray. At the most basic level it sometimes makes the very definition of the product incomprehensible. As a reviewer I’m often frustrated when a commercialization plan describes the solution as a “platform,” a “system,” or a “methodology.” Two pages later I might finally figure out we’re talking about software, or a medical device, or a web-based service, but the confusion lingers. [Remember, readers appreciate labels that allow them to visualize. Familiar product categories provide just that.]

However, a more valuable context for understanding your product is provided by the problem being solved. If I first understand the problem I can more easily grasp not only what your product is but how it solves the problem and why it’s valuable.

So take your cue from stand-up comics. Make the customer’s problem be the set up, and let your product be the punch line.

About the Author

Michael Kurek, PhD, MBA, is a partner with BBC Entrepreneurial Training & Consulting (BBCetc). Over his career, Dr. Kurek has demonstrated success on an international scale in defining new product opportunities, developing sales and marketing strategies, and recruiting and managing teams to deliver growth. He advises BBCetc clients in evaluating commercialization alternatives for their technology, product, or service. For more information about BBCetc, visit

MIchael Kurek, Ph.D.
BBC Entrepreneurial Training & Consulting

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