Kevin Fong of Mayfield used to say

We divide business plans into three categories: candy, vitamins, and painkillers. We throw away the candy. We look at vitamins. We really like painkillers. We especially like addictive painkillers!

I’ve been thinking of this lately as I’ve been reviewing some business plans of companies looking for investment. They’re quick to explain what they are building, and why it’s so cool, and (for the better ones) why the competition can’t catch up. But they’re often weak on what problem it is they are solving, and why people would pay money for their solution.

It’s easy with medical companies. Sick people want to get better, and they’ll pay for products and services to make them well. (Or complain to their insurance company to pay for it, which is a whole other kettle of fish, but not the point here.)

Same for many technology product companies. Nobody ever went broke making a cellphone that was too thin, or with too big a screen, or with too much battery life. Solve those problems (like Jacket Micro Devices is working on) and you can make money.

Honestly, I think most of Web 2.0 is vitamins at best, candy at worst. (Which is perhaps why most of the Web 2.0 services are free. Here’s a tip: If no one wants to pay for what you’re providing, maybe that’s a hint that it isn’t worth much.)

I’ve seen a couple of Web 2.0 companies that might actually be painkillers. BigContacts is one. If I could have the hours back that I’ve spent cleaning up various contact databases… Try syncing from your Palm to your Mac to your Exchange server to Plaxo to a second Mac without getting a duplicate! I’ve experienced pain in this area, and I’m not the only one. Solve that problem, and you can make money as a painkiller. Structure it so the customer keeps coming back for more, and you have an addictive painkiller.

PBwiki is another (Disclaimer: I am an investor). It turns out that people really experience pain collaborating on documents. Once they understand that you don’t have to mail Microsoft Word files back and forth, tracking revisions in multiple colors, they begin to organize their documents with online tools like wikis. We’ve found that PBwiki is so compelling that thousands of K-12 teachers (who don’t have a school budget for it) are dipping into their own pockets to pay for the premium versions. Every month. Addictive painkiller.

But most Web 2.0 companies sound like candy. “My new Website is iTunes but with the social networking of MySpace! With Flash videos for every link!”

Candy. And licorice candy at that… you might like a bite or two, but you can’t keep eating it. (At least I can’t.)


  1. What about addictive candy. Like Altoids or according to Charles Ross Fritos BBQ Flavor twists. They solve no real pain. But they are addictive. Kinda like twitter. Or blogging. 😉

  2. Tim Abbott says

    Good Stuff, now I will keep reading. I agree with the premise of your Web 2.0 disdain and wrote about it here, However, I don’t necessarily agree with the statement,

    “Here’s a tip: If no one wants to pay for what you’re providing, maybe that’s a hint that it isn’t worth much.”

    Hence, you will get a blog post out of me :). By the way, I love the painkiller analogy, good stuff.


  1. […] else? What do you think of the candy, vitamins, or pain-killers analogy for startups? Read Stephen Flemming’s post on painkillers from four years ago. Share this:EmailTwitterFacebookRedditLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  2. […] If you’re in the mobile business like we are, you hear that phrase a lot. And oddly, when pressed, the person making that declaration hasn’t even done a Google search on their idea. They’ve done a cursory Search at the App Store (home to 700,000 apps) or maybe gotten some biased feedback from their friends. But most of the time, they haven’t even bothered with that much effort. They’ve just fallen in love with idea candy. […]