Imagined Problems and Why We Have Them

A not-so-random sampling of imagined problems mistaken for actual problems and solved by real startups:

#1 - Every month I have to remember to go to the grocery store and buy a new toothbrush. If only I could get a single toothbrush delivered to my home once a month, but not from the place I already get my groceries delivered from!

#2 - Man, I wish my toothbrush came with an app that recorded data about my teeth. Data about my teeth sounds like something I really need.

#3 - My kids don’t like to brush their teeth. I wish their toothbrushes linked to a gaming app—that would surely make life so much better.

#4 - My toothbrush looks like something created by industrialization, and I don’t trust it. I want a paleo-toothbrush.

When I was in school, we called such imagined problems “first world problems.” Later, we called them “#firstworldproblems.” It was a joke, as if to say, “Oh, wow! I’m being so dramatic! I both recognize and check my privilege.” Where has this turn of phrase gone? And why do these toothbrush startups keep getting funded?

Let’s consider some real problems: 

#1 - A lot of the global population doesn’t use any kind of toothbrush.

#2 - Even in the U.S., a lot of people can’t afford a new toothbrush every month, or can’t afford a toothbrush for each of their children.

#3 - A lot of the global population doesn’t have any way of receiving dental or medical care, despite suffering from painful orthodontic abnormalities.

A lot of startups, Talos included, strive to make the world a better place, to make the future better than what we’re settling for right now. We have racial, economic, regional inequality and more. Every morning this month I’ve watched the news, there’s been a new overnight tragedy to report; something has gone very wrong somewhere else in the world while I’ve been resting comfortably in Brooklyn.

I love working in technology because I’m part of building that better future. I can see the problems we have today and not be discouraged and overwhelmed because, every day, I keep the faith. I work on developing solutions for problems through imagination and innovation.

And, yet, here we are making 1,001 different types of toothbrushes.

What’s a startup to do?

If a product markets only to the top 1 percent of the U.S. population, it’s safe to say that product is a toy. Toys certainly can be innovation in a cute, consumer-friendly package. Venture capitalist Chris Dixon is widely quoted as saying, “The next big thing will look like a toy.” Dare I say, PokémonGo is a toy, as well as a huge leap forward for augmented reality, (though it’s marketed to more than 1 percent of the population.) 

Not all toys, however, are innovative. Some toys are just toys, products meant to be used by a very thin slice of the population.

And in New York City, we like a thin slice.

Urban technology centers like New York are in some ways like darkened casinos. No windows in, no windows out. It looks a bit smoky. The air is a bit dank. It’s probably for the best that we keep the lights dimmed. And every once in while, someone hits a jackpot.

Working from inside these urban centers, tech innovators all too easily succumb to tunnel vision. We forget that challenges of urban living don’t look like challenges of suburban living, or third-world living. We forget in a city of 24-hour convenience that challenges aren’t inherently problems. They could be just temporary inconveniences, nothing more.

Let’s accept the fact that we don’t have as many problems as we think we do—certainly not as many as a certain presidential candidate would like us to believe. I believe there’s a better future for humankind. I, however, don’t think there’s an appreciably better toothbrush than my standard Oral-B.

These are brilliant innovators using valuable resources to present solutions that only the very smallest slices of the wealthiest people in this world can access. In a world of many problems and limited resources, we have to choose what deserves our attention. 

I can only imagine what business these individuals who focus on improving toothbrush technologies could create if they worked together to create an affordable toothbrush that is accessible for the third world. How many more startups would be successful if they focused on providing $1 toothbrushes to the billions of people without access than providing $100 toothbrushes to people who can’t muster the will to practice basic oral hygiene?

Don’t mistake this as an argument against progress. Quite the opposite, it is an argument for rethinking progress from the bottom up, for making sure every kid in this world has a toothbrush before we have the audacity to complain about having to stop into the dental hygiene section of the grocery store.

TL;DR: We’ve already invented oral hygiene. If you have a toothbrush, you don’t have a toothbrush problem. Brush your teeth twice a day, and use your entrepreneurial talents in pursuit of true innovation that will change the way humans live—and not just on your block of W 36th.