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Entrepreneurship and important problems

A transcript of a lecture by the late Bell Labs scientist Dr. Richard W. Hamming has been making rounds on the internet for a while. The talk titled `You and Your Research' was given to an audience of some 200 Bellcore staff members and visitors on March 7, 1986. While it covers a wide range of topics, the talk primarily focuses on Hamming's observations and research on the question ``Why do so few scientists make significant contributions and so many are forgotten in the long run?'' 

The entire lecture is a fascinating read. Highly recommended.

Going through the lecture, I couldn’t help but think how equally relevant all the questions Hamming asks are for entrepreneurs. It makes sense because scientists are the best entrepreneurs.  

In this piece, I want to reflect on one particular passage from the talk where Hamming talks about the critical importance of working on important problems. 

Startups are about solving problems. The success of any startup depends on the type of problem it solves. If you are solving an important problem that resonates with a large number of people, you’ll build something important that will lead to an excellent outcome. If you don’t work on an important problem, you’ll build a redundant venture that will struggle to survive. 

But how do you know which problem is important and which is not? Or what is the most effective approach to finding important problems? I borrow from Hamming and a few other people to offer insight into the matter. 

Hamming extensively talks about the importance of working on important problems and also offers insight into how to get to them. From ‘You and Your Research’: 

“Over on the other side of the dining hall was a chemistry table. I had worked with one of the fellows, Dave McCall; furthermore he was courting our secretary at the time. I went over and said, ``Do you mind if I join you?'' They can't say no, so I started eating with them for a while. And I started asking, ``What are the important problems of your field?'' 

And after a week or so, ``What important problems are you working on?'' And after some more time I came in one day and said, ``If what you are doing is not important, and if you don't think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?'' I wasn't welcomed after that; I had to find somebody else to eat with! That was in the spring.”

II. 

That’s the key takeaway: if you are not working on an important problem you will not create anything important either. We are tempted to follow the path of least resistance. We are tempted to follow the trend. But often those are the dead ends where nothing good happens. Good things happen in the realm of difficulty. 

There are several proxies to get to the important problems in your field. One effective strategy is to ask yourself uncomfortable questions as Hamming did. Asking difficult questions is not easy. First of all, it is a skill. More importantly, it takes courage. We fear uncomfortable questions in case they unclothe our secrets. The majority of failures come from our unwillingness to see reality as it is. If we want to do important work, we must overcome our tendency to rely on motivated reasoning. Hamming goes on to explain how asking uncomfortable questions can lead to excellent results and career success and vice versa. 

“In the fall, Dave McCall stopped me in the hall and said, ``Hamming, that remark of yours got underneath my skin. I thought about it all summer, i.e. what were the important problems in my field. I haven't changed my research,'' he says, ``but I think it was well worthwhile.'' And I said, ``Thank you Dave,'' and went on. I noticed a couple of months later he was made the head of the department. I noticed the other day he was a Member of the National Academy of Engineering. I noticed he has succeeded. I have never heard the names of any of the other fellows at that table mentioned in science and scientific circles. They were unable to ask themselves, ``What are the important problems in my field?''

If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely you'll do important work. It's perfectly obvious. Great scientists have thought through, in a careful way, a number of important problems in their field, and they keep an eye on wondering how to attack them.” 

III.

Now can we design a framework to find important problems? One approach as we discussed is asking uncomfortable questions. We have to ask ourselves questions that we don’t want to face. What else can we do? In the same lecture Hamming offers: 

“The average scientist, so far as I can make out, spends almost all his time working on problems which he believes will not be important and he also doesn't believe that they will lead to important problems.

I spoke earlier about planting acorns so that oaks will grow. You can't always know exactly where to be, but you can keep active in places where something might happen. And even if you believe that great science is a matter of luck, you can stand on a mountain top where lightning strikes; you don't have to hide in the valley where you're safe. But the average scientist does routine safe work almost all the time and so he (or she) doesn't produce much. It's that simple. If you want to do great work, you clearly must work on important problems, and you should have an idea.

Along those lines at some urging from John Tukey and others, I finally adopted what I called ``Great Thoughts Time.'' When I went to lunch Friday noon, I would only discuss great thoughts after that. By great thoughts I mean ones like: ``What will be the role of computers in all of AT&T?'', ``How will computers change science?''

[....]

Most great scientists know many important problems. They have something between 10 and 20 important problems for which they are looking for an attack. And when they see a new idea come up, one hears them say ``Well that bears on this problem.'' They drop all the other things and get after it.”

These are some of the parts of Hamming’s lecture that I want to pay attention to. I’ll repeat the entire lecture is brilliant. I highly recommend you read it. 

IV. 

Coming to the question of founders and entrepreneurship. Why do so many startups fail and so many of us build mediocre companies? I think primarily we don’t ask uncomfortable questions.

— I think a lot of the time founders tend to follow the trend. Adopt ideas that worked in other markets and look for similar shortcuts. Startups are not scientific discoveries, of course. And it is perfectly okay to take some ideas that have worked in some other parts of the world and contextualize them and launch them in your own market. But when we become over-reliant on trends and success formulas, we lose our ability to see clearly what’s in front of us and thus miss important problems that could bring outsized results. 

— Most people avoid looking for important problems because it is difficult to do so. Since it is not easy and it takes additional effort, most people choose the path of least resistance. While this is a bad thing in itself, it is a good thing for people who want to work hard and work on important problems. You have less competition. 

— As Hamming said it is a good practice to ask yourself why and what questions. If you’re building a startup or planning to start one, ask this question often: what are the important problems in my vertical? And truthfully answer yourself whether you are working on one of the most important problems. This is important if you want to build a successful startup at scale. If you look at the majority of successful companies, this logic is apparent. 

— It is obvious why you should try to solve the most difficult problems. First, if you don’t work on an important problem, you will not build anything important. Second, important problems are difficult problems where there is less competition. Finally, important problems attract more resources. Smart people prefer to work in organizations that are dealing with important problems. 

— Now important problems don't mean unsolvable problems. Hamming mentions several problems in physics that are important but apparently people don’t have a concrete idea about how to attack them. From ‘You and Your Research’: “Let me warn you, `important problem' must be phrased carefully. The three outstanding problems in physics, in a certain sense, were never worked on while I was at Bell Labs. By important I mean guaranteed a Nobel Prize and any sum of money you want to mention. We didn't work on (1) time travel, (2) teleportation, and (3) antigravity. They are not important problems because we do not have an attack. It's not the consequence that makes a problem important, it is that you have a reasonable attack. That is what makes a problem important. When I say that most scientists don't work on important problems, I mean it in that sense. The average scientist, so far as I can make out, spends almost all his time working on problems which he believes will not be important and he also doesn't believe that they will lead to important problems.”

So you should not try to solve an outlandish problem that has no apparent path to market. 

— Paul Graham calls this approach schlep blindness. In a now-famous essay called Schlep blindness, Paul Graham writes: “There are great startup ideas lying around unexploited right under our noses. One reason we don't see them is a phenomenon I call schlep blindness. Schlep was originally a Yiddish word but has passed into general use in the US. It means a tedious, unpleasant task. No one likes schleps, but hackers especially dislike them. Most hackers who start startups wish they could do it by just writing some clever software, putting it on a server somewhere, and watching the money roll in—without ever having to talk to users, or negotiate with other companies, or deal with other people's broken code. Maybe that's possible, but I haven't seen it.”

— Graham blends two aspects of startups. First, you better work on ideas that nobody wants to work on because they are difficult problems. And second, in order to build a company, you have to do the dirty work. You’ll not build a company by merely creating a good product, you have to talk to users, sell, and do other apparently less interesting works. 

— Charlie Songhurst calls this the ‘boring and complex framework’. In an episode of Invest Like the Best episode, Songhurst said: 

“I'll go for, if you pick two axes, one co-axis is boredom and the other is complexity. You want highly boring and highly complex. Because everything in the universe is a supply and demand curve, and you just get insufficient supply of entrepreneurs in the highly boring but highly complex space. And therefore you get an elevated return. So if you go to the quadrants, you've sort of got the whole simple side, boring and simple, and complex and simple. It's just too hard to get differentiation without enough complexity. That's when you get commoditization. If you go for interesting and complex, you get brilliant entrepreneurs. This is the problem with Space Tech as an area of innovation. Every single person involved with space is basically a brilliant genius who's passionate about their work and loves it. On the other hand, if you hang out in audit software, accounting software, just sitting in an area that's complex, but no one wants to boast they do it at a dinner party. And what might call the sort of spiritual reward of the industry are lower, and therefore you just get less entrepreneurs. Therefore, the chance of having entrepreneurs succeeding is significantly higher.” 

— I’ve written about this elsewhere. It is an excellent framework. The aim of any healthy business should be to avoid the trap of commoditization. You want to establish strong moats. Working on boring and complex problems makes getting to these goals relatively easier. As Songhurst explains: it is a basic supply and demand condition. When you operate on the lucrative and simple axis, it is a highly competitive space. You have to work extra hard for everything. Contrarily, if you are dealing with something complex, as long as you find it interesting, it is a playground where you can innovate, access resources easily, and build a monopoly.

Most people avoid boring and tedious. Most people avoid difficult questions. Most people don’t want to do difficult and dirty work. Our default tendencies are well-known. We like to do things that attract attention and that are fun. Trends are what we follow. We avoid hard questions. But real opportunities are in solving important problems. And solving important problems can be boring. But if you are building a company, you are already defying the norm. Go a little further in that and defy your tendencies and choose tedious work. 

To that end, if you’re building a company listen to Hamming and often ask yourself the difficult questions: what are the most important problems in my field? Are we working on important problems in our field? Take regular thinking time and make yourself uncomfortable and reflect. 

Ruhul Kader is a Dhaka-based writer, researcher, and entrepreneur. He is also the co-founder and CEO of Future Startup and the author of Rethinking Failure: A short guide to living an entrepreneurial life. He writes about entrepreneurship, business, strategy, technology, and culture. He can be reached at [email protected]

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