Edited excerpt from Does your startup solve a problem? Vitamin or painkiller? by Don Dodge:
One of the questions I ask entrepreneurs when evaluating start-ups is “Is your product a vitamin (nice to have) or a painkiller (got to have it)? Of course everyone wants to think their product is a “must have” painkiller, but very few are.
Many products fall into the vitamin category. Things like productivity tools, content aggregators, mashups, utilities, collaboration applications, measurement and monitoring tools, in fact anything that is a tool, development or otherwise, is by definition a vitamin.
Painkiller products are products that solve for a specific pain point. Sometimes the pain is measurable in terms of ROI, winning sales that could not be won before, or satisfying a regulatory requirement.
There is another set of products that are vitamins (nice to have) until you feel the pain. Then they become painkillers (got to have it). There are actually lots of products that fall into this category.
(1) On vitamins versus painkillers, see also Building a valuable product — a checklist of questions to answer and How to sell your product if it’s a “nice to have”, not a “must have”.
(2) My personal viewpoint: the categorization of products into vitamins and painkillers is flawed and unhelpful. Note that (i) great businesses have been built from “vitamins” (think media and entertainment), (ii) helping a company to increase its revenues is, absurdly, a vitamin, and (iii) the categories are unstable — products can transition from vitamin to painkiller depending on the context and user.
(3) For me, the Job To Be Done framework is far more helpful. The right questions to ask are: What “job” is the user / customer looking to get done (user need)? How valuable is getting that job done for the person (willingness to pay)? How many people have that job (market size)? How well does your product help the person get the job done relative to the alternatives (competitive advantage)?
(4) See: A brief summary of Job To Be Done, with 3 takeaways for product managers.