‘Business refers to an occupation in which people regularly engage in activities related to purchase, production and/or sale of goods and services with a view to earning profits.’ This is how Business was defined as in my 11th grade Business Studies book and this is more or less the definition that every teacher and student seemed to use till I graduated from the university.
The reason I mention it is because there is a big problem with this definition. While it does give a shallow overview of business, it fails to provide the crux of what any business really is. It fails to define the raison d’être of a business.
How incredible it would be if the book said – Business is how you create wealth by fixing pain for your customers.
If you really think about it, that is what any business is. An engine to create wealth by solving a problem or a pain. Pain and problem are synonyms here. Any customer who ends up paying a business does so because they have been experiencing some sort of pain and the magnitude of that pain is directly proportional to how much they’d be willing to pay to get rid of it. You make the pain reliever (your product or service) too expensive and people won’t buy it or if the pain is not severe enough for how much you charge, they won’t buy it either.
Pain can be of different types. It can be literal, for which you buy medicines and pharma companies create wealth.
Or it could be made up and only experiential as it is with most beauty products. Marketing creates that pain by subtly implanting in our heads that we are not as beautiful as we could be. It becomes an itch and people buy the likes of L’Oreal to scratch that itch.
Pain could also be temporary as it is when you need to go to the airport and you need a taxi (come Uber) or persistent, such as the need to maintain oral hygiene (Hello, Sensodyne).
Certain pains might not be entirely evident today but will be in the future like climate change and some existed in the past but don’t exist anymore (diseases like Smallpox which have been completely eradicated).
The truth is that every human being, knowingly or unknowingly, is optimizing to reduce Pain and the Musks and Cheskys of the world understand this. They identified Pains that bugged a lot of people and built pain relievers that could scale.
So, the question: Can any pain be turned into pleasure?
I believe the experience of relieving most pains can be turned into pleasure or atleast pushed towards fun but pain itself cannot become fun. There are only three possible states of pain. It exists, it exists with relatively less intensity and it doesn’t exist.
The experience of going from ‘It exists’ to ‘It doesn’t exist’ or ‘exists with relatively less intensity’, is something that can be turned into pleasure. Hence, a pain cannot be turned into pleasure, its relieving experience can be.
By the same logic, this pain relieving experience can also become more painful if you move from right to left on the ‘Pain’ – ‘No Pain’ scale. Here’s what I mean: At the time of this writing, Canadians are struggling with extremely long waiting times to receive their new or updated passports. (The reason is irrelevant, but if you are too curious you can read about it here.)
The waiting times are so bad that people have actually been camping outside passport offices. Camping outside a store can be fun if you are too passionate about the product (say an iPhone launch in Job’s era) but I doubt anyone camps outside a passport office because they love the product.
Here, the pain is – not being able to cross national borders. The pain reliever is the Passport (considering it’s the only unmet requirement). The experience of relieving that pain (obtaining a passport) has become painful because of the crazy waiting times. The experience would have been close to Not Painful if the waiting times were not crazy and your new passport automatically arrived at your house. The pain relieving experience could be fun, if the passport arrived with a rucksack and a box full of chocolates.
Brian Chesky speaks about making experience fun in one of his interviews where he describes how Airbnb thinks about user experience. Here’s what he said in the interview:
“So what would a 10-star check in be? A 10-star check in would be The Beatles check in. In 1964. I’d get off the plane and there’d be 5,000 high school kids cheering my name with cars welcoming me to the country. I’d get to the front yard of your house and there’d be a press conference for me, and it would be just a mindf**k experience. So what would an 11-star experience be? I would show up at the airport and you’d be there with Elon Musk and you’re saying: ‘You’re going to space.”
While the pain (finding a roof during travels) is more or less relieved when Airbnb simply lets you book a place to stay on your vacations, when you start thinking about optimizing experiences like Brian mentioned, you actually make the experience of relieving that pain extremely fun.
Another important thing to understand is that Fun shifts over time. Something that is fun today might not be tomorrow as the standard changes.
Nokia 1100 was fun in the era of landline phones. Then comes the iPhone and for someone who could access an iPhone, Nokia 1100 wasn’t fun anymore. Same as Windows XP wasn’t fun anymore when its successors came out (Not considering Vista). It holds true for almost any product or service ever created.
In most cases, if a company tries to solve a unique problem then the experience that comes with the first solution that works is generally not fun. In the tech world, it’s called the MVP. But over time as the market develops and new companies enter, making the solution better is the only way to stay relevant and most of the time, a large part of making the solution better involves pushing the experience towards Fun.
So, if you’re someone who thinks of building businesses and is wondering how to find a business idea, one way to go about it would be to look for pre-existing solutions that just relieve pain and think of how you can push the experience of getting to those solutions towards fun and it’s highly likely you’d have discovered a business idea right there.
Thank you Pooja Vaswaney, Sudhanshu, and Ashvendra for reading drafts of this.