Aspirin Business vs Vitamin Business

A few years ago, I heard Rob Walling explain the difference between an aspirin business and a vitamin business: in an aspirin business, you don’t try to convince customers that they need your product. Instead your customers have a problem – a “headache” – and they know it. They go looking for a solution – your “aspirin” – to make their problem go away (or at least make it better).

On the other hand, if you have a vitamin business, you constantly have to convince your customers they need what you’re selling. Vitamins supplement our diet and supposedly make our lives better in some way – they promise to make us healthier, more vibrant, etc. In a vitamin business, your customers can survive without your product, so your job is to show them how much better their lives will be with it.

You can build a great company selling either aspirin products (like this one) or vitamin products (here’s one I use and one I don’t use), but it’s extremely important to know which kind you have and to be intentional about which selling approach you take. One of my favorite products, You Need a Budget, is so useful to me that I thought for a second that it was an aspirin company – but actually, they’re an extremely effective, high-quality vitamin company.

The company I work for, Moraware, is very much an aspirin company. Our customers reach out to us, typically as they’re growing, either with a scheduling problem or a quoting problem. We have a product for each, and our sales approach consists mostly of making sure that customers indeed have one of the problems we solve. Our ongoing product development approach attempts to solve those problems slightly better each day (an extremely slow process) and occasionally to solve a new problem (an even slower process).

Aspirin businesses like Moraware tend not to be sexy but instead try to be useful, consistent, and predictable. Our biggest responsibility is simply to make sure we don’t screw up our customers’ data, because our customers now depend on us to run their companies. Our biggest challenge is that our customers have many more problems that they’d like us to solve – most would prefer our regular-strength aspirin to morph into extra-strength (OK, I’m almost done torturing the metaphor, I promise). Unfortunately, even the tiniest improvement takes a long time to implement.

I often get frustrated that we don’t have every feature our customers ask for – and they get frustrated, too. What I’m ever-so-slowly learning is that we’ll never have every feature that customers ask for! Because of that, it’s better to focus on each customer’s problems that they’re trying to solve whenever they reach out to us. By focusing on their problems, then we’re in a better position to say “here’s how we can help” (whether it’s a great solution or a mediocre one) or simply “we don’t help with that problem, but maybe look in this other place.”

Over time, we’ve added significant capabilities to our products and will (slowly) continue to do so – but at any moment in time, we can only sell the product we have, which means we can only solve some kinds of problems well. It sounds so simple, but those end up being the problems we focus on – the ones where we actually can provide good solutions. That’s the essence of being an aspirin business.

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