Opinions & Insights

5 Reasons why your startup should focus on your habits

Max Tiong, DBS Innovation Group Startup and Ecosystems Lead


Oct 2014

Much of entrepreneurship literature encourages us to focus on finding actual problems worth solving, but, how do we know which problems are worth solving? A good rule of thumb would be to focus on your customers' habits and here's five reasons why.



We read a lot about User Experience Design and Human-centric Design being the new focus when developing solutions, but what many startups sometimes forget to do is understanding how the solution is functioning within the user's life (not as a functional solution but a part of the user's life routine and flow of actions). I refer to this as User Habit Design. Take the solution and its functionalities out of the way, and focus on the user's journey around the problem you are trying to solve, their habits and, most importantly, their emotions while facing it.


Here are some examples of how solutions might not be "accepted". If your solution is not a habit the user is looking to improve/change, even if you're solving an actual problem, it is highly unlikely that it will last in the long run as the novelty of your solution will eventually dry out. In short, you've got a cool idea but it's not that big a problem. Or if your solution requires an entirely new habit to be formed and which only works with your solution, it is highly unlikely it will organically sustain.


The "new" behaviours "created" by successful startups (e.g. Uber, Facebook, Twitter, AirBnB) that we are familiar with today were incremental evolutions from existing behaviours. They were not created from scratch nor did they require a huge change in our existing behaviours. If your solution can relate with an existing behaviour and requires only incremental change in behaviour, there will be a higher chance for your startup to succeed.


If you have large coffers of investment and time allowance, you may be able to create new behaviours over 5 to 7 years before getting customers to truly appreciate your solution (e.g. Square, Tesla) - but if you're like most startups, this is a luxury you probably do not have.




When your solution clings onto your users' existing behaviours, it is more likely that you'll see users coming back to you more often. This significantly reduces your retention costs, and the need to run promotional campaigns just to get your users to come back to your solution. Nir Eyal's book "Nir & Far" explains how to tap on existing user behaviours, create incremental behaviours and "hook" them back to reinforce such behaviours. To get higher retention rates, focus on your user's journey and build solutions for habitual problems.




Most lean startups would be running a new experiment every other day. If your solution is only used once a year (e.g. when going for that annual holiday trip) or even once a lifetime (e.g. when getting married), it is very difficult to get measurable feedback. Efficient measurable feedback means being able to efficiently contrast your users' behaviours from before the experiment was conducted and after. By working with a core group of users as they grow with your platform, you are able to focus on serving an identifiable group of core customers.




With so many new product ideas and startups out there, you do not want to spend too much time explaining the core benefits of your product to your customers. It has to be apparent to them. If the problem is a habitual recurrence, it is likely that they will buy into the product just by listening to your elevator pitch. However, if its not a habitual recurrence, you'll face a lot of resistance from users with a "I can deal with the problem" or "I'm not the core customer but I believe others will use it" mindset.


Many startup founders I speak with tend to gravitate towards the belief that when this happens, it's because the benefit is not explained clearly enough. They think, "once the user experiences the solution, they will fully appreciate its benefits." I believe this to be a fallacy. If the customer doesn't appreciate the benefits your solution can offer, it is most likely on the wrong track.




Most of the startup community evangelise being agile and lean, but much of this is explained in context of building an Minimum Viable Product. Startup founders and team members have to understand that your product doesn't drive your startup. You're looking to solve a problem for a customer – if your product doesn't work, scrap it and start again. By being open to building several MVPs to test against a customer group instead of focusing on improving that one (possibly failed) product, a startup is more likely to discover the right solution that customers are looking for.


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