Painkillers, Vitamins and Misunderstood Startup Lessons
If you’re a startup founder, you may be short of many things : funding, sleep, the will to live.
One thing you have in abundance though, are tips about how to run your startup.
The most successful of those tips have been encapsulated in sticky idioms such as “do things that don’t scale” or “get out of the building”.
Those sayings, being very easy to swallow, get repeated over and over again, but we rarely stop to ask what they actually mean. Today I want to do just that.
We’ll start with one you must have heard before —
“Sell painkillers, not vitamins”.
I actually remember the first time I heard this saying and how impressed I was by its wisdom. Since then, I’ve encountered this saying endless times (1
, I can go on..), and when I ask people how they interpret I’ll usually see two different ways (and, confusingly, both are sometimes used at the same time).
What does the saying "Sell painkillers, not vitamins" mean?
The first interpretation talks about potency.
Unlike vitamins, painkillers are more potent than vitamins, and taking them gives an immediate relief.
The potency interpretation advises founders to build products that radically change the current state of their users.
The reason is quite simple — founders tend to underestimate transition costs their users will need to “pay” by switching to their product.
These costs can vary from simple inconveniences like typing a different url to complex and expensive changes like retraining hundreds of employees — but there will always be a cost. To make that cost worthwhile, the product needs to create a new reality that is not just better, but WAY better.
The more potent your product is, the better chance you have of transitioning people to use it, so definitely try and build products that are as potent as painkillers.
The second interpretation of “Painkillers, not vitamins” talks about the difference between pain and gain.
While the previous interpretation talked about the potency of the product, this interpretation talks about the potency of the user’s motivation.
Meaning, people want the pain to go away much more than they want to generally improve their health status. Because people value the removal of the pain more than the obtainment of the gain, they will agree to pay more for a “painkiller” product.
While this interpretation is commonly used, I don’t think its basic argument accurately reflects reality.
First, not all pains are born equal. When we think about painkillers we tend to think about a really strong pain (otherwise we wouldn’t be able to get a prescription), but not all pains are so extreme. We have lots of small pains in our daily lives that we’re not willing to invest the time & effort to solve. Think about it like this — would you rather have a more convenient way of picking up after your dog (pain) or speak two more languages (gain)?
Additionally, some gains take time to become more valuable than certain painkillers. When I was first introduced to the internet many winters ago, it didn’t solve any specific problem for me — it was pure gain. At that point in time, I would have preferred solving one of my problems (I guess back then it was my math homework) than gaining the internet. Today, however, very few pains would be worth solving if it meant losing internet access .
To summarise, I do think the popular saying “sell painkillers, not vitamins” contains some important wisdom in that it implores founders to build potent products that have a 10X change on reality.
However, the saying is also interpreted, mistakenly I believe, as the advantage of relieving pains over obtaining gains.
So if you’re aiming to build a great company, it doesn’t really matter if you're offering relief from pain or something to gain, make sure whatever it is you’re offering will have a great impact.
I would like to thank Dr. Ori Cohen & Shani Keynan for reviewing this post.
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