What’s the Real Problem with Your Startup?

After I wrote my post Talk About the Problem, Not Just the Solution, I’ve had a series of pitches all characterized by the same thing: a singular focus on how wonderful the product is.
Unfortunately, I’ve got news for you all you MIT/Stanford/super-genius engineers and hot shot designers:
Product development is a commodity.
In today’s day and age, you can build just about anything. There are very few things out there being worked on that really require rocket scientists. But most of them don’t. Most products and services have plenty of models to copy from. Or if you don’t have something to copy, we have all these well defined processes to find solutions such as customer development by Steve Blank, as documented in his classes and in his book The Four Steps to the Epiphany, or Eric Ries’s Lean Startup principles.
So if that’s true, building product is not the problem. In fact, anything that is under your direct control is not a problem for your startup. And that’s why I’m not interested in seeing your product just yet; I want to hear about how you’re going to solve all those problems that you have no control over.
Every startup has approximately 1-3 things that will make or break their business at early stage and very, very rarely is one of them the ability to build the product (by the way, if it is and if it’s something that doesn’t require rocket scientists, you’ve got bigger problems than you can imagine, if you can’t even get your product built).
For example, I’ve recently met some local startups. They all showed nice product design but the real problem lay in how the heck where they going to scale customer acquisition, if there customer was every local merchant down the block, in every city, in every state in the US?
Now that’s worth talking about! Because if you can give me a convincing scenario where you may have a novel solution to this problem where so many have failed, your startup actually has a chance. But if you don’t have a great answer to that problem, your beautiful product is not going to magically leap into the hands of local merchants, and certainly not fast enough to get you enough revenue to survive as a company.
Usually it’s pretty straightforward to figure out what those 1-3 key problems are. If we can get past those, then we should take a look at what you’re building. Assuming you’re doing all the right things, I’m guessing that whatever you build is probably going to be good enough to start, or to get there after you launch.
But until we get past those 1-3 key problems, I’m probably going to keep interrupting you, derailing your pitch, until we do. Or if we can’t get past those key problems, I think you need to go back and figure those out or else it is unlikely that I will invest.