Want to make more money? Solve a bigger problem.

Updated to Business on May 5, 2023.

When Arthur Fry walked into the seminar it was a day like any other. At the front of the room, a development researcher launched into his presentation. “Part of my job is to develop bigger, stronger, tougher adhesives. This,” Spencer Silver admitted pointing to a gooey blob centered on the table in front of him, “is none of those.”

What Silver had discovered was something called microspheres which retain their stickiness but also allowed them to peel off surfaces easily.

Intrigued by the new product Fry experimented with smearing it on one side of a sheet of paper. To his surprise he discovered it could stick to pages in a book and be removed without leaving a sticky residue. Later that week, Fry used his new sticky-sheets to mark pages in his hymn book at church. 

Further experimentation led to making the sheets smaller and applying the adhesive, to only half of the sticky side making it easier to peel the note off a page.

Soon Fry and Silver were using the sheets around their office to make notes “What we have here isn’t just a bookmark,” said Fry. “It’s a whole new way to communicate.” That insight led to the “Press ‘n Peel” note pads being circulated throughout 3M and eventually a wide market launch that would elevate the rebranded Post-it Notes to massive success in the US, Canada, and internationally. 

Arthur Fry didn’t just invent a new product, he solved a big problem.

If you want to make more money, solve a bigger problem.

Finding a big problem

When I joined three partners to build a business in Antarctica the goal was to get climbers to the highest peak on the continent. As climbers, we saw access to an extremely remote mountain as the most obvious problem to solve.

We were wrong.

The international climbing community is relatively small. And when you try marketing the world’s most expensive climbing expedition it quickly becomes microscopic.

Meanwhile, bringing inexperienced (but wealthy) tourists to the South Pole was a much bigger and more lucrative opportunity. After just one year, revenue from South Pole flights eclipsed the mountain climbing operation and there was a waiting list of enthusiastic travelers wanting to stand at 90 degrees South.

But wait, there was an even bigger problem to solve.

Our ability to provide air and ground support in Antarctica provided long hoped-for fuel to the fires of international expeditions with dreams to conquer the seventh continent. Within only three years we graduated from $25,000 tickets to climb Mt. Vinson or $50,000 to visit the South Pole to $1M plus contracts to provide logistic support to expeditions.

The bigger the problem the bigger the reward.

The pivot

As someone who has worked with many want-to-be authors, I know few people have the discipline to get their book to the finish line. 

When my friend Steve Donahue transitioned from best-selling author to helping others write their books he quickly realized the best coaching in the world can’t compete with the inevitable distractions in a client’s life or procrastination. Three-month book coaching contracts were taking a year to complete. Many never finished.

Sometimes the original problem you set out to solve has a bigger cousin even more valuable. After a few years of trying to cajole clients to put words on paper, Steve pivoted to solving the bigger problem of procrastination. 

He switched from providing writing coaches to providing ghostwriters. Instead of book projects stretching on for up to a year, clients are getting their completed book in a quarter of the time and Steve gets paid.

Your experience

Sometimes you own the problem that needs solving. 

When my partner, Donna, wrapped up her corporate career and marriage she set off to explore the world and herself. Two years of rock climbing, wildland fire fighting, and travel opened her eyes and appetite for helping other women explore their lives.

With only a small email list and a basic website, she launched a women’s gathering called Women, Wisdom, and Wine (the end of every gathering is celebrated with a glass of wine.). The word got out, the women started to arrive and she now hosts four gathering a month with a digital version opening soon.

How to find a big problem

Starting any new business venture is like stepping into a cloud of competing opportunities—it’s impossible to have perfect visibility. With our Antarctic business, we needed to choose one direction, get started, and learn by doing.

Pivoting from book coaching to ghostwriting solved the same problem but in a better, more effective way.

Launching a women’s mastermind was an unexpected outcome of personal exploration and reflection.

Whatever road takes you to the problem you are called to solve, at some point you need to start walking.

Image of Fry and Spencer.