Startup Model Success: Scratching Your Own Itch

There are benefits and pitfalls to the startup model of ‘scratching your own itch’. In this, I talk about why 6Q was born from scratching our own itch, and why we’re happy that we did take the risk it was only ours (and how we actually avoided that).

The startup model of ‘scratching your own itch’ is simple; find a problem you have internally at your current business or employer, and find a way to solve it. In my mind though, the difference between success and failure, is the ability to find others with the same itch.

If you don’t read any further, remember this takeaway: the pain you set to solve shouldn’t be yours, otherwise you risk building a product just for you.

Quick thoughts behind 6Q

Before 6Q appeared, I had 12 people working in the same physical office, which I had face to face meetings with for 5 minute apiece once a week. Doing the math that’s around an hour of my time.

The pain you set to solve shouldn’t be yours, otherwise you risk building a product just for you.
– Miles Burke, 6Q

The problem I had was I often found myself asking the same questions, and taking notes, but not measuring these responses week on week, to see if they were improving, staying the same or getting worse.

I would ask a question such as ‘Are you feeling productive this week?’, however I didn’t have the data be able to compare their responses to historical answers.

The idea of these face to face meetings was well received by other managers with far bigger teams that I spoke with. They thought it was a great idea, however at 100 people, the idea didn’t practically scale for a CEO or Managing Director to be sitting in these 5 minute meetings for hours on end.

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That works out to 100 x 5 minute meetings, or roughly 9 hours a week spent asking similar questions to their team members.

Then there were others who had remote teams; how do they do face to face meetings? They don’t; they use free for all text, voice or video to ask these questions. Same problems existed though; both how do you measure responses over time and reduce the time investment for managers (see our article, How to Grow a Positive Company Culture with a Remote Team).

So that’s a simple explanation why our solution, 6Q, was born.

Our product allows me as the Managing Director, to ask my team six questions every week, and then elaborate on their answers further in our five minute face to face sessions, which we still undertake. Using 6Q allows me to review the responses as visual trends over time, which is extremely valuable.


Employee pulse survey on cell phone

Pros of scratching your own itch

The startup model of solving a problem you have experienced yourself isn’t actually limited to startups. It has been something that entrepreneurs have done for centuries. The benefits of following the ‘scratch your own itch’ method are great;

You have a deep understanding of your target customers pain

Having the problem yourself means that  you have a very deep understanding of the pain and what it does to affect you or your business.

You know the benefits

You know that your solution actually works, because you inevitably use your own product. This means you have a great understanding and appreciation of the benefits that your solution provides.

You are a true believer in your product

Having the problem yourself, and working on what you consider the absolutely best solution means that you have a deep belief in your solution (or at least you should). This motivation and drive can be infectious to those around you.

You likely have a better understanding of the market

Being in the same market yourself, it is very likely you understand your market position, and those of your competitors, than an outsider.

The best startups generally come from somebody needing to scratch an itch.
– Michael Arrington, TechCrunch.

There are loads of examples of successful companies that started based on this startup model. For example, the very successful Airbnb started this way. In an interview with The Telegraph, titled Airbnb: The story behind the $1.3bn room-letting website they stated;

“Airbnb started in 2007 when Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky, then both 27, who had met five years earlier at Rhode Island School of Design, were struggling to pay their rent. 

There was a design conference coming to San Francisco and the city’s hotels were fully booked, so they came up with the idea of renting out three airbeds on their living-room floor and cooking their guests breakfast. 

The next day they created a website; six days later they had a 30-year-old Indian man, a 35-year-old woman from Boston and a 45-year-old father of four from Utah sleeping on their floor. They charged $80 each a night.”

Other examples of the scratch your own itch startup model, include the story of Zach Sims, Founder of the popular learning site, CodeAcademy.

“Sims got the idea for Codecademy when he tried to learn how to code from books and realised the knowledge never clicked with him. He knew the best way to learn was by working on real projects and building real things. As a result, he integrated this experience into Codecademy, so people could learn by doing.

Since Sims himself didn’t know how to program, he was patient zero for the product. He recalls, “If I could learn how to program well from Codecademy, that means a lot of other people could learn from it, too.” Although many of his previous ideas didn’t work out, what was different about Codecademy was that they were building it for Sims.

Sims says, “It’s much easier to build for yourself. You know what works and what doesn’t.”

Cons of scratching your own itch

As much as there are some very valid reasons to follow the startup model of uncovering your own issues and solving them, there are also a few reasons not to take this approach. These include

Being alone with your problem

You may just assume everyone in your position perceive your pain as an issue; it could be true that they don’t see it the same way as you. The goal of building a product is to sell it to somebody else, not to yourself – make sure there are others just as motivated to fix the same issue.

Thinking the pain is far larger than it is

It is very easy for most people to exaggerate the problems they face in their personal or professional lives. Some things can feel absolutely overwhelming until you stand back and assess the literal impacts.

Being too focussed on yourself

You could end up being too focussed on yourself; on your own experience and objectives. You could get a sense that you are the only one solving this pain and that your solution is the obvious fit. That doesn’t mean that others with the same issue may feel the same.

Ignoring the real competition

Perhaps you’ve seen others trying to solve your problem, yet you personally didn’t adopt them, because they weren’t the right fit for you – this doesn’t naturally mean they aren’t a great fit for others in your predicament.

I personally found other solutions to the pain we are out to solve (not understanding your team morale or getting enough feedback from employees) that I initially discounted as being inefficient (such as emailing a custom survey out to the team, which can be costly and time intensive, and without the great features we have, such as global benchmarking, etc).

It actually turns out that many people with the pain we are solving actually feel these solutions are fine by them. We just need to ensure we adequately explain why we are a better solution than these other methods.

In this article published by the Harvard Business Review, When “Scratch Your Own Itch” Is Dangerous Advice for Entrepreneurs, the writer states;

“But scratching your own itch will lead you astray if you are a high-performance consumer whose problem stems from existing products not performing well enough – in other words, if the itch results from a performance gap.

Building a company around a better-performing product means competing head-on with a powerful incumbent that has the information, resources, and motivation to kill your business.”

As stated, it is very important to understand what and who you will be up against before starting your new venture. If it’s just a better version of an existing product, you may find yourself in a very uphill battle, where the stakes can be huge for the incumbent, and they’ll do their best to outspend and outperform and keep their share.

Employee salary

Image: 401(K), Flickr

Five ways to validate in a short period of time

So you’ve found a problem that you or your organisation has, that you feel you can solve. Not only solve, but sell the solution to others in the same situation. The first step to success with this startup model is to understand if there are others with the same problem.

Weigh up this pain you have

Is the problem you are considering solving, actually worth solving? As humans, we can often perceive a pain point as being far larger than it actually is. If it is really not as significant as you first thought, ask yourself would you pay for a solution yourself?

For example, if you could create a $5 solution to the problem, would there be a large enough market to sell these solutions to, or is there a recurring purchase required, so you could sell this $5 solution many times over?

Maybe this big pain point actually isn’t as large as you first considered?

Research your potential competitors

Before you start planning your business out much further, you should spend plenty of time asking yourself ‘How is it currently solved?’ and discovering all the alternative solutions or potential competitors as you can.

I have found that competitors or alternatives to your solution aren’t naturally obvious either; one of our competitors, for example, could be the simple spreadsheet or email. Whilst we know that our solution is far more effective, it doesn’t mean your market will feel the same way.

Plan out your solution

I don’t suggest spending dozens of hours creating a business plan at this point, however I do suggest either completing a lean canvas or creating some form of wireframes/sales material to explain the solution.

When we began, we had a single page website that explained what we were setting out to do, which collected email addresses. I spoke to a number of those early registrations to flesh out exactly how they imagine solving their pain.

Speak to potential customers

Your next step is to demonstrate or explain your suggested solution to as many potential customers as you can find.

You need to be careful to approach this validation carefully – don’t just explain your solution, explain the problem and ask if they have this issue too. Then ask them if the problem is large enough for them to look at ways to solve it, and if so, what would they like to see in a solution.

Ask if they would pay for your solution

Once you’ve successfully validated that others share your pain, and would be open to a solution such as yours, the next step is to ask them if they are interested enough to consider purchasing your solution. This is the true test of validation – its easy to get people to say they would use your product or service, it can be entirely different to get them to agree to hand money over for it.

If you have managed to get through the above five steps of startup model validation unscathed and still positive, then there is a chance your idea may actually have a chance of success.

In Summary

So there you have it; some very valid reasons why you should, and why you shouldn’t, build your next business based on solving a problem that you have yourself (also known as ‘scratching your own itch’).

In creating 6Q, I found the startup model of scratching my own itch worked for me – every situation is vastly different though; your mileage may vary.

Ensure you do enough pre-planning, solution brainstorming and most importantly, customer validation, before spending much time or money on creating that next big business.

Miles Burke

Miles Burke

Miles is the founder of 6Q. He is passionate about peer-to-peer recognition, company culture, employee engagement and wants every workplace to be the happiest it can be. Miles is also MD of Bam Creative, an author and public speaker.