You've Got a Problem — Can You Sell the Solution?

Updated: July 4, 2012

Thursday Bram

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This is a guest post by Thursday Bram of

The greatest businesses have been founded on someone recognizing a problem, becoming an expert on that issue and then selling a solution to the masses. Apple — or, rather, Steve Jobs —recognized that there weren’t user-friendly computers for individuals.

He went on to recognize that consumers wanted convenient ways to listen to music and that a certain percentage of the population wants even the technology that we have to have to be elegant and simple to use.

He didn’t just concentrate on what we generally consider problems: aesthetics were just as much a problem to solve in Jobs’ world as efficiency for business users. We’re using a fairly loose definition of the word ‘problem’ here and I want to make that clear before we dive in.

A problem, in this sense, can be a dilemma, a situation in need of optimization or even a question of translating a concept for a new audience. We’re just looking for ways to make other people’s lives a little better.

Selling is Just as Crucial a Part of Expertise

But what set Jobs apart, along with entrepreneurs from Sam Walton to Mark Zuckerberg, is that the expertise to solve a problem isn’t enough.

You’ve got to know how to sell the solution. You’ve got to be able to get people to adopt the tool or process or service that you know they need.

This is a bigger issue than you might think: health workers have little doubt that condoms would slow the spread of AIDS in Africa, but even though they give condoms away for free, they haven’t been able to sell many people on the idea of using condoms. Men in South Africa have told health workers that they know that condoms cause HIV —there there was no HIV in Africa before American aid workers started telling people to use condoms.

The health workers have science to back up the value of condoms, but they haven’t been able to ‘sell’ condoms as a solution to the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Until they can do just that, they’ll face a problem that seems unsolvable.

Your Expertise Needs to Go Deeper

I use the word ‘sell’ because I come from a marketing background. I want to convince people that my solution is best because I want them to make a purchase. But no matter how your audience may adopt the solutions you present to them, they have to be convinced that you’ve got the right answers.

They have to be willing to pay for your solution, whether or not money ever changes hands —because they’ll probably have to invest time or energy or something else of value into whatever you’re putting in front of them.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to be an expert in making sales. Rather, you need to be an expert in your main area of focus, as well as in what people believe about your field. You need to be able to frame the solution you want to sell in such a way that your audience sees the value right off the bat.

Jobs had a pretty easy sell in front of him: he was obsessed with design himself so creating a product for someone else equally preoccupied wasn’t nearly as hard as it could have been. Apple did have to find new ways of reaching the right audiences —the company’s competitors had perfected selling directly to businesses, but Apple pioneered selling computer hardware to individuals.

From Apple’s early marketing on, the company targeted buyers who didn’t want to be part of those big companies —the Big Brother ad, anyone?

Condom use in Africa is a much harder sell than incredibly well-designed technology. There are a few obvious reasons, but the most important factor is because no one has ‘sold’ the people who most need to use condoms on their value. At risk populations in South Africa don’t believe that condoms are a solution. A straight up education campaign isn’t going to defeat urban myths like ‘condoms cause HIV’ a conspiracy theory is almost always more likely to stick in someone’s mind than a long list of statistics and instructions.

To make this particular sale, health workers are going to have to work a lot harder to make the sale. They need an equally pervasive word of mouth campaign that says that condom use is the only way to stop transmission of HIV, preferably backed up by those individuals that Africans already see as experts on health.

Your Expertise Can’t Conflict with the Established Experts (To an Extent)

When you’re up against an accepted expert, you’ll wind up fighting a much harder battle than if you can bring what you’re selling in line with what they say. In South Africa, more than 60 percent of the population rely on traditional healers, rather than medical doctors. Health care workers have fought a losing battle, trying to convince the general population to ignore the advice of traditional healers — who may be the only medical experts that a person have ever consulted.

The real first step for an expert in HIV transmission in South Africa should have been to bring the solution he was trying to sell in line with the advice that traditional healers dispensed (in terms of style and approach), followed closely by selling those traditional healers on those solutions.

It isn’t enough to be an expert on the medical problem —to actually get people to take advantage of the solution, health workers need to be experts on how South Africans access medical care and learn about new treatments.

Jobs understood this concept well. When pushing for truly great design — technology that would resonate with top designers around the world —he co-opted some of those great designers. There are only a few industrial designers who I can name off the top of my head, but Jonathan Ive is one of them.

Apple’s head of industrial design was already well-respected in his field in 1992. He was asked to consult for Apple on the basis of his work and in 1997, after Jobs returned to Apple, Ive got the job of senior vice president of industrial design. Ive’s design pedigree reinforced Jobs’ own commitment to design and positioned Apple as a company seriously concerned with aesthetics.


You don’t have to agree with accepted wisdom, but you need to know who the players are and how to work with them.

Expertise will never just be a question of knowing how to solve problems. You need the surrounding information of how to sell the solution, both to other experts and to your audience, in order to truly know your topic in and out.


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