Startups are inundated with problems.

The “alarm bells” constantly ring.

Before product-market fit, you’re trying to survive. After product-market fit, you’re trying to scale. Both stages breed problems faster than you can fix them.

Some problems will put you out of business. Some will flatten your growth. Some will cost you customers. Some will cost you good employees. Others will remain a thorn in your side, but ultimately not affect the final outcome of the business.

But not every problem can (and should) be solved.

The trick is learning to triage.

“This one matters. This one doesn’t.”

Is this problem: danger or (just) discomfort?

I tend to think of problems in three categories:
1. Existential problems – if we don’t solve this, we’ll be out of business
2. Trajectory problems – if we don’t solve this, our growth stalls
3. Everything else

Existential Problems are the problems that (left unsolved) will put us out of business. Knowing whether something will put you out of business (or not) is extremely clarifying. But it’s not always apparent. Loud problems aren’t always existential problems. Often quiet problems, can be. Get clear on your existential problems and put all-out focus there.

Next are Trajectory Problems — problems that (left unsolved) cause growth to stall. Trajectory problems are dangerous. Strong growth carries so many advantages. Access to funding. Top talent. Freedom to invest in more strategic product initiatives.

However, when growth stalls, when customers churn, when quarters get missed, investors turn into skeptics. Employees start burning out. They get poached by someone growing faster.

Everything gets harder when growth plateaus.

It’s the equivalent of skidding off the road and into the mud. You can keep driving, but it’s hard and slow and sloppy–and eventually you may end up completely stuck.

Last, there’s everything else. These are the garden variety assortment of problems that show up every day, everywhere. These are often loud problems, but ultimately less important. Do your best to limit the time you spend here.

Time and attention is precious in a startup.

Keep it on the issues that truly matter.

Articles for Startup Product Leaders
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