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I break Startups down into their component parts and show you how to build for success.  


This is an excerpt from my ebook How To Find Product-Market Fit.

For the rest of my guide on how to find Product-Market Fit head to my shop to buy the full book, including all the worksheets to help you work through your own Problem Statement using 5W2H.

The 5W2H Framework

In the last two chapters we looked at what a Problem Statement is and is not, and why it’s really important that you start your business with a solid Problem Statement at hand if you want to find Product-Market Fit.

In this chapter, I'm going to go into detail on a model called 5W2H (because it asks 5 questions that start with the letter ‘w’ and 2 questions that start with the letter ‘h’). We’ll learn how to dig as deep as possible to find what’s truly impacting customers so that we can build a solid solution that will sell.

5W2H has roots that stretch as far back as 2,500 years ago, to the start of what we now know as Ethics or Moral Philosophy but it’s more recently associated with the system of continuous improvement known in the business world as Lean Six Sigma.

Lean Six Sigma is two business philosophies joined together - Lean Management and Six Sigma.

Six Sigma (the name is taken from the mathematical discipline of Statistics) is a system for improving tools and technologies that was formalised at Motorola in the mid 1980s (and is heavily-influenced by Japanese business culture).

It focuses on the belief that by standardising processes (i.e. building and following the same clear frameworks each time) and making data-driven decisions (i.e. doing your research, rather than focussing on gut-feel), companies can see significant and consistent financial improvements.

Lean Management is similar to Six Sigma, in that it is also influenced by Japanese business culture, it’s data-driven, and it and strives for consistent financial improvements, but with an added emphasis on removing inefficiencies - i.e. only doing the things that are driving you towards the goals you’ve set and not wasting any efforts (hence the name - it promotes the idea that you should ‘trim the fat’ from what you’re doing and focus only on the lean, quality parts).

Essentially, the two systems combine to promote a provable belief that by using data and working with focus, you can improve your results.

5W2H is a clear and consistent process that takes you step-by-step through the data that you need to collect to build your Problem Statement and thus point yourself towards Product-Market Fit with the best possible solution for your customers.

In the next 7 steps, I'll show you how to use the 5W2H Framework to find Product-Market Fit for your startup.

If you'd like some help with the process, why not book a free, no-commitment Discovery Call with a Pay As You Go COO to discuss?

5W2H Step 1: The ‘What’ of the problem


The first stage of the 5W2H model asks “What is the problem?”.

As I covered in the last few chapters, the 'problem' is the delta, or gap, between the Ideal state for the customer and the Reality state.

problem statement

In our workers example, this was:

“Ideal: The customers are workers who want to get into their offices each weekday morning before 9am. The offices are in the centre of town, and the workers want to get there without driving and without spending too much money.

Reality: The customers are currently at their homes, which are in the suburbs, and are without effective public transport or affordable taxis.”

The solvable problem is how to get customers who are currently in the Reality state (“Currently at their homes, which are in the suburbs, without effective public transport or affordable taxis”) to the Ideal state (“At their offices, in the centre of town, each weekday morning before 9am, without having driven themselves and without having spent too much money”).

It’s really worth emphasising here that both of these states may very well change as you go

through the next 6 questions of the framework.

Learning more about your customer in order to better solve their problems means

challenging the initial assumptions that you’ve made about them. This is harder the longer

you’ve spent thinking about a solution to the problem because you’ll have formed an

attachment to the product or service you’ve dreamed up.

If you’re struggling to distance yourself from the solution, I recommend re-reading

Chapter 3’s example of what happens when you build a company from a solution, rather

than from a problem.

5W2H Step 2: The ‘Why’ of the problem


The next stage of the 5W2H model asks “Why does the customer have the problem?”.

Here, you’ll start to do some further research into the context of the problem to uncover why it exists, why no-one else has solved it yet, and what the structural barriers are for the customer.

Approach this question like a toddler learning about the world - keep asking more and more things, over and over and over, until you get to where you need to be.

In the workers example, you’d first ask simple questions like:

  • Why don’t the workers want to drive?

  • What are the current public transport options that are available to them?

  • Why hasn’t the council improved the transport options?

These initial questions won’t be enough to ensure you’re solving problems, not symptoms, so keep digging. For example, take the first question “Why don’t the workers want to drive?” This itself could be a symptom - is this because parking is too expensive, or not accessible, or because petrol is too expensive?

Think about what goes into driving a car - what are the things that could make that more difficult for a customer. Ask follow-up questions like:

  • How much does parking cost? Why does it cost that much?

  • How much parking is available? Why is that the only parking available?

  • How much does petrol cost to travel that far? Why?

  • What are the maintenance implications for the car if it’s used for that distance five days per week?

  • Are the workers too old or young to want to drive regularly?

  • Do the jobs they’re heading to pay too little for them to afford a car?

Also take the time to consider why the customer needs to be in the town centre at 9am on every weekday morning. Is this something the customer can adjust?

If the customer has flexibility on when they need to be at their offices, a solution that’s built exclusively for a 9am weekday arrival won’t be the right option for them.

What are the other structural barriers, those things that are outside of the customer’s control, that are causing this problem?

All of these stages of the 5W2H framework are necessary for it to be a useful exercise, but, in particular, an understanding of what’s causing the problems is a solid foundation for a route towards a solution.

It helps you determine what’s a problem (needing to get to the office for 9am on weekdays without spending too much money), what’s a symptom (job anxiety), and what’s a structural blocker that you can’t solve and need to work around (companies insisting on workers being in the office for 9am every weekday).

Only by fully understanding why the problem exists can you build the most effective solution for the root cause and avoid trying to build something that has previously failed (i.e. if there’s a reason the council haven’t provided a public transport solution, is this a problem that could impact your capacity to operate too?

Understand that reasoning early and you can prevent yourself from building something that’s destined to fail.

5W2H Step 3: The ‘Where’ of the problem


The next stage of the 5W2H model asks “Where does the customer have the problem?”.

When you know where the customer has the problem, you can add additional specificity to the solution that shows the customer that you truly understand what they need and are the right business to help them solve their gap between the Reality and Ideal states.

For example, the customers in the workers example have this problem because they need to get from the suburbs to the centre of town.

People who are closer to the centre of town may also need to get into their offices for 9am, but they don’t have issues with driving or public transport because of where they are.

Similarly, if a worker who’s usually in the suburbs on a weekday morning is on a business trip one day, they will, at that specific moment, no longer have the problem because they’re not currently where the problem manifests.

The geographical context of the problem is particularly important if you’re looking to build something that’s physical, because of the impact it will have on distribution channels.

For example, if you problem is ‘customers want to buy local produce and there are no suppliers available at present’, you need to understand where the customers are located in order for your solution to be considered ‘local’ produce.

Even if you’re building something that seems relatively location-agnostic (i.e. customers can and will use it anywhere) like a piece of software or a social media channel, ask yourself where your starting market is.

Do customers need to be in the UK to have this specific issue, for example?

You can always plan to expand your business to be a global offering but understanding the specific needs of customers in different geographies first will help you tailor your product or solution to one that’s exactly right for each location.

5W2H Step 4: The ‘When’ of the problem


The next stage of the 5W2H model asks “When does the customer have the problem?”.

Understanding when the customer has the problem is key to both your company’s operations and your marketing. It can tell you a lot about what is triggering the issue and where the patterns are in the problem.

In the workers example, the customers only have the problem Monday to Friday. Knowing that in advance means you’re not wasting money building a solution that’s available Monday to Sunday when revenue will only be coming in for the first five days of the week.

Likewise, your marketing is made more efficient by understanding when the potential customers are most likely to be receptive to a solution and building a communications strategy that taps into that.

An interesting addition to this stage of the framework is the concept of a problem that a customer doesn’t even know they have. How can you know when the problem is arising if the customers don’t even know that they have it?

We’re adaptable creatures and your customers may be comfortable working around the problem because they’ve accepted what you see as a problem worth fixing as just ‘how life is’. They’re thinking of the problem as a structural barrier, not as something that can be solved.

Take Uber as an example.

Until customers were told that freelance drivers could give them a lift, from anywhere they wanted to be collected to anywhere they wanted to be dropped-off, for a comparatively low fee, the situation as it was was just accepted as a part of how transport in cities worked.

If you wanted to go somewhere specific, it was exclusive and expensive and if you wanted to spend less you’d need to travel with others and arrive at the general area rather than the exact location.

Or, for another example, look at AirBnB.

Until they told customers that they could have the option of staying in someone’s spare room for less than a hotel, customers just accepted that hotels were the only option.

Similarly for the suppliers of both companies - until they were told that they could make additional income from their spare rooms or cars with minimal marketing input or process-management, suppliers just accepted that that was how spare rooms and cars worked.

In both of these examples, the customers weren’t aware they had a problem, rather than a structural barrier, until a solution was suggested. They couldn’t know when the problem is occurring, because they didn’t know they had a problem in the first place.

This may well be the case for your business if you’re building something really unique.

However, the fact that the customer doesn’t know when the problem occurs and can’t communicate the details, doesn’t mean that you don’t need to know it either - quite the opposite, in fact.

The customer can’t tell you when they have the problem, so you’ll need to understand it deeply on their behalf if you want to be able to sell your solution to them at the right time.

Think about the customers’ days - from when they wake up to when they go to sleep, on work days and on rest days - when do you see them having the problem?

5W2H Step 5: The ‘Who’ of the problem


The next stage of the 5W2H (and the last of the ‘w’ questions) model asks “Who has the problem?”.

Recognising that not everyone has this problem is a solid starting point for building out your Target Market (the pool of people or businesses that you’re going to sell your product or service to) and for choosing the features that are most relevant for your customers, not people in general.

To get to the root of the ‘who’ you need to dig deeper than the surface to find out the characteristics of a customer - what is it about this customer that means that they have the problem?

As we’re using it for purely illustrative purposes, the workers example is deliberately broad but even with that simple example we can easily uncover details that would classify one person as ‘in market’ for this problem and another as ‘out of market’.

For example, the characteristics breakdown here for a customer would be

- People who need to get to the town centre

Excludes anyone who never needs to go there for whatever reason (as I covered in step 3, the ‘where’ of the problem, in the future, you might roll out the solution to other towns, but the key for your first product is to understand who needs to get to this town).

- People who need to get to the town centre by 9am

Excludes anyone who needs to get there at a different time (as you grow the business, you can look to expand your Target Market to include these people but you should start off with the smaller group so that you’re not stretching your operations too thin whilst you’re testing).

- People who need to get to the town centre by 9am on a weekday

Excludes anyone who needs to get there on a different day.

- People who don’t want to / can’t drive there

Excludes anyone who is happy to drive.

- People who don’t want to spend too much money on a solution

Excludes anyone without budget concerns.

By working through this question, you’re gathering two pieces of information: who you’re building a solution for and, just as importantly, who you’re not building a solution for.

This is a key step in preventing yourself from trying to keep too many types of customers happy at once and thus ending up pleasing no-one.

In order to best describe who your customers are, you'll need to acquaint yourself with the types of characteristics that you need to be conscious of - demographics/firmographics, geographics, psychographics, and behaviours.

If you’re unfamiliar with these terms, I have an ebook that can help. It’s called “How To Find Your Customers” and it breaks these types of characteristics down for you so you can fully understand them and get to the level of detail you’d need here in order to build the most impactful and marketable solution.

find customers

5W2H Step 6: The ‘How’ of the problem


The next stage of the 5W2H (and the first of the ‘h’ questions) model asks “How is the problem manifesting?”

In this 6th question, we want to understand how the problem is showing up in the lives of the customer.

Step to the side, problems, it’s finally time for the symptoms to shine.

This is the first part of the answer to what the ‘Consequences’ are in the third section of the Ideal → Reality → Consequences → Proposal framework.

ideal reality consequences proposal

This step and the next are the only stages in the 5W2H framework where you actually want to focus on symptoms over problems.

Whilst, if you really want to give lasting customer value, you don’t want to make the mistake of solving the symptoms instead of the problem, you still need to be aware of how the symptoms are playing out.

You’ve already spent the last 5 questions digging past the symptoms to understand the problem, so this step is where you can fully understand the impact of the problem on the customer and properly sell the value of the solution.

To illustrate, let’s go back to the Uber and AirBnB examples.

As a child you’re often told not to accept lifts from strangers so if, in early 2009, someone had said to you ‘Here, press this button on your phone and a stranger will show up and you’ll get in their car and they’ll drive off’ you would have probably assumed that that person was trying to get you kidnapped.

Similarly, if, in summer 2008, someone had said to you ‘Don’t stay in that nice hotel, just show up at this stranger’s house and go to sleep in their spare room’, you would have felt like you were at the start of a horror movie.

However, if asked “Isn’t is a shame that you can’t fulfil your desire to travel the world because transport options in the cities you want to visit are so expensive and so limited and

hotels are so far outside of your price range and make you feel disconnected from the real life experience of locals”, you could easily have agreed.

These would have been the symptoms of the problem showing up in your life.

If someone had asked you “Why aren’t you travelling more?” your answer would have been those symptoms, rather than “Because there’s no app-based transportation network that commercialises the wasted hours that an individual’s car is not being used and there is no network of local hosts who want to use a pre-vetted platform to unlock extra cash from their spare rooms and allow you to experience life as a local."

Knowing these symptoms is as important to the way you describe the solution to the customer as knowing the core root of the problem is to the way you build the best solution.

To properly describe a solution to a customer in a way that excites them enough to buy it, you need to explain it to them via the Value Proposition.

This means that you sell the customer the solution based on the value you propose it gives to them - and the value is the alleviation of the symptoms they’re experiencing.

Thus, the better you understand the symptoms of the problem, the better you can communicate how your product or service is going to make them feel better, and the more likely they are to buy it.

In the Supplementary Materials at the end of this book, head back to the 5W2H worksheet and make a list of all the ways that the problem could be impacting the customer.

Get into their heads. How are they feeling? What are they thinking?

5W2H Step 7: The ‘How much’ of the problem


The final stage of the 5W2H (and the second of the ‘h’ questions) model asks “How much is the problem impacting the customer?”.

So far, we’ve illustrated the importance of knowing what the problem is, why it’s a problem, where it happens, who has it, when they have it, and how it manifests. This final stage wraps all of that up by, essentially, asking “Does the customer actually care enough about the consequences of the problem to give you money to fix it?”.

Let’s dig in.

You may have identified a clear, actionable gap between the Reality state and the Ideal state. You may have discovered that lots of people have this problem a lot of the time all over the world. However, you may still not have identified a problem that you can sell a solution for because your potential customers just don’t care enough to solve it by spending money.

Even the best solution in the world can’t effectively beat apathy. It’s not a case of your marketing capabilities not being strong enough (though you will always need to work hard to excite the customer). It’s not a situation where you’re building a solution to a problem that customer isn’t yet aware of. They’re aware of it, the problem is widespread but the friction that the symptoms present in their lives just isn’t big enough for them to bother fixing it when there’s so much other stuff going on.

The question of how much the problem is impacting the customer is the second part of the answer to what the Consequences are in the Ideal → Reality → Consequences → Proposal framework, the first being the previous step - how the problem manifests.

ideal reality consequences proposal

It’s unfortunate that you need to dig through six stages of the 5W2H framework to potentially get to a point where you still don’t have a problem that you can sell a solution for, but you can’t know the answer to this final question without knowing what the problem is and how it manifests.

And it’s still better to spend six stages of a thought exercise developing something that doesn’t sell than to build an entire business on it and waste a lot of operations and marketing spend.

In this final stage, you need to put that potential disappointment aside and be really really honest with yourself when you’re looking for information on how much the customer cares.

Don’t fall into the trap of the sunk cost.

A sunk cost is a cost that’s gone, it’s money spent or time used that you can’t get back.

Founders frequently make the mistake of throwing more money at a problem because they’re already invested in it and it seems to make more sense to keep going than to start again.

It is very very unwise to adopt this approach in a lot of situations. It’s part of the reason why Blockbuster failed and Netflix succeeded - Blockbuster had invested so heavily in physical stores that they kept following that route when what the customer really wanted was to not have to travel to those physical stores at all.

Blockbuster couldn’t change the customer’s problem, no matter how much they doubled-down on investment into physical stores. The world had changed and customers had moved on to having different problems and thus the market opened up for Netflix.

In short, you could spend £100 figuring out that a problem isn’t enough of an issue for a customer and then spend another £400 trying to change their minds, or you could just spend the £100, gather your learnings, and move on to something else.

In option one, you lose £500. In option 2, just £100.

So, how do you know how much the customer cares? Essentially, by asking them.

You need to go out and do your research.

  • Head to Google and look at trends - what are people searching for?

  • Look on social media - what are people complaining about?

  • Look at your competitors - what are they building?

  • Look at Companies House - which industries are seeing new business births?

  • Look at investment announcements - what is getting the attention of the Venture Capitalists?

More activity in each of these areas will likely equal a more pressing problem.

Creating an objective, numerical measure of how much the customer cares is hard to do. Look for things like: how much does it cost them? How much time is wasted? How much money could they be making from that wasted time if it wasn’t spent on the problem?

In this article, I broke down the 5W2H model, the framework that asks 5 questions starting with the letter ‘w’ and 2 questions starting with the letter ‘h’ to dig into what the problem that you’re solving actually looks like.

We asked:

“What is the problem?”

“Why does the customer have the problem?”

“Where does the customer have the problem?”

“When does the customer have the problem?”

“Who has the problem?”

“How is the problem manifesting?” and

“How much is the problem impacting the customer?”

To get the full book, including a 5W2H framework worksheet so that you can build your own Problem Statement and get your business oriented towards Product-Market Fit, head to my shop via the link below.

product market fit

If you'd like some help writing your own Problem Statement using 5W2H, why not book a free, no-commitment Discovery Call with me to discuss?


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