Brian Rhea Brian Rhea

Are You Building a Vitamin or a Painkiller? Why Painkillers Always Win

Last week, I was recording an episode with Jane Portman for my podcast (stay tuned for links and release dates) and as we were talking about moving on from a previous early-stage startup she’d built and sold, she said something that jumped out at me:

“I realized that the product was a vitamin, not a painkiller.”

- Jane Portman

What a perfect analogy to keep in mind as you’re working on your startup.

Most people know they should be taking vitamins. They’d probably even tell you, “Yes! I would love that!” during customer discovery.

For example, the One-A-Day multivitamin that you and I both ought to be taking sounds incredible!

MedTech Startup: “Imagine that I could help you improve heart health, maintain healthy blood pressure, support your immune system, strengthen your bones, and increase your energy. And here’s the best part! It’s all contained within a single pill that you take once in the morning!”


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Everyone two weeks later:

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The thing is, people set reminders to take their vitamins, but they keep painkillers close at hand.

You don’t have to be reminded to take an Excedrin. You reach for it when you’ve got a headache.

With a vitamin, you have to introduce the customer to some non-urgent problem in the future (important as it may be) and convince them that your pill is the solution.

It’s not impossible. There are plenty of successful vitamin companies.

But which would you rather try to sell? A vitamin that people turn to when they remember they should be taking it? Or an Excedrin they keep in their purse, bag, nightstand, glove box, and overnight kit?

Telltale Signs Your Startup is a Vitamin

Earlier this year I was working with a founder who’d already built about 85% of a fairly complicated product. We were doing a batch of customer interviews and every now and then the participant would say something that tangentially related to the software the founder had already built. The founder’s ears would perk up and she’d point to the phone and nod emphatically to those of us in the room. “Yes. That right there! That’s it!” she was trying to say.

“Ohhhh dear,” I thought.

If you’re doingcustomer researchNeed a Stellar Jobs to Be Done Survey? Here’s How to Create One!Learn to design a JTBD survey, download a JTBD survey template, and prioritize your product roadmap effectively. Discover how to utilize the Jobs to Be Done approach for understanding customer needs with our step-by-step guide. and you find yourself convincing the prospect that they’ve got a problem you can solve, chances are you created your solution too early and you probably created a vitamin.

Yes, the problem might exist. Yes, you may have found a way to address it. But, if you’re getting excited every time you catch just a glimpse of the problem in your customer’s workflow, that could be a bad sign.

Look for Signs of a Headache

Customer-centric research goes in search of a problem first. I won’t belabor the metaphor, but it’s a lot more like seeing someone pinching their forehead and groaning rather than pleasantly going about their day with a slight Vitamin C deficiency.

To discover the pain and then design a way to solve it, you need to run some high-impact customer interviews and listen to the customer without searching for validation of what you’ve already built.

Claire and Gia over at have a killer webinar to help you know which tools to use, which questions to ask, and which questions to avoid.

And if you’re still uncomfortable running these interviews after watching that video, shoot me an email let me know where you’re stuck.

What Do You Think?

Are some vitamins worth building? What are other distinctions between SaaS products that are vitamins vs painkillers?

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