Why we chop onions with knives and why it matters to startup founders

Consider the problem of common onions. Most people face these bulbs daily because common onions are part of most dishes. The problem is that they are tricky to cut into the neat small squares made by chefs. It requires multiple difficult cuts on several dimensions of the onion. And the risk of getting hurt is significant. But perhaps the worst part of cutting onions is the gas they release. It hurts and makes you cry.

For most people, cutting a single onion requires between 2 – 5 minutes and causes physical pain. Not to mention the embarrassment of crying in front of children.

But there is a better way. Imagine a machine that can cut an onion in 10 seconds with absolutely zero physical irritation. That would be a game-changer. And it is called a blender.

The blender was invented in 1922. While the blender chops onions remarkably faster than the knife skills of most people allow, few people use a blender for chopping onions. And the reason is obvious. Rarely do one just chop onions.

The efficiency of processes
Onions are an essential part of most dishes. But they are a part, only. The thing is that cooking is a process. Put differently, cooking requires multiple steps. And the efficiency of a process is a function of the smoothness of the transitions between the various steps in the process. Some say that a good process flow.

Many aspiring startup founders are equipped with some technology and on the lookout for problems to solve. Sometimes, these founders identify some inefficiency that seems ripe for fixing. Something that their technology could solve. But if the founders are outsiders, they risk identifying a problem that only exists in isolation. Like someone with little experience in cooking looking at people chopping onions

These founders build a product to solve the problem. But they build the equivalent of an onion chopping machine. VCs call it: a feature not a product.
The problem is that the product does not solve the problem. Because the problem is to cook the dish. And the onion is just a part of this process. Even though a blender improves the step of chopping onions, it introduces friction in between the steps.

Instead of smoothly going from cutting meat and smashing garlic into onion chopping, one must open the cupboard, remove the toaster that is in the way, take out the blender, find the blender lid, plug it into the power socket, chop the onions, clean the blender, put it back into the cupboard behind the toaster. The friction is simply too great to justify the saved tears and extra knife movements.

A great example of such a product came from Accelerace alumni startup Pixelz. Initially, the company was called ‘Remove the Background’. As the name abundantly indicated, the company offered background removal from product photos.

But the founders soon realized that webshops do much more than just remove the background. Surely, that was one of the more unpleasant tasks. But it was only a part of a process of general photo editing. The process also includes retouching, color matching, depth correction, and collage creation.

Sending the photos to Pixelz for just background removal and then waiting for them to come back to continue the editing was like sending onions to chopping mid cooking and waiting for them to come back before one can resume the dish making.

Luckily, the founders were quick at realizing their lacking product-market-fit and adjusted their product to solve the entire problem. That of photo editing. Consequently, they renamed to Pixelz and currently serves the world’s biggest apparel brands.

But how do founders avoid making an onion chopper?
Founders must understand how their customers do their work today. And not just on a conceptual basis. They must understand the minutest detail of their workflow. That includes what tools they use, how long time they spend at the various steps, and who else is involved. Furthermore, they must understand how the customer perceives each step. Which parts do they enjoy and what parts do they dislike. Only by understanding the details of the workflow, can founders define the endpoints of the process and design a product that offers a radically more enjoyable process.

Conclusions made
• Onion chopping is unformattable.
• Onion chopping is only part of the process of creating a dish.
• The efficiency of a process is a function of the smoothness of the transitions between each step.
• The use of a blender to chop onions introduces friction and delay in the process.
• Successful founders understand the processes of their customers and design products that improve the process and not just a step in the process.

If you want to learn more about how to do startups right, then join Accelerace or Overkill Ventures where I serve as General Partner .

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