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“Are you solving a real problem?”

That’s a question I frequently ask entrepreneurs I meet with. Too often, companies focus on a technology instead of the customer’s problem. Here’s an example to illustrate the difference:

A new trend in hotel design is to use RFID-enabled key cards. I’ve seen this in three hotels in the last 18 months. Instead of the standard magnetic-stripe key card, guests use a key with a chip in it. Instead of swiping or dipping a key, you simply hold it against the reader.

That solves two problems:

  • Orientation. With a magnetic stripe key card, you need to ensure that the card is aligned with the reader. If it’s not, you can’t get into your room and you have to re-orient the card.
  • Speed of swipe. Swipe it too fast and you won’t get in. Swipe it too slow and you won’t get in. This can take a few swipes if the lock is particularly finicky.

The RFID technology solves these two problems. But so what? At best, it fixes a minor inconvenience.

Starwood Hotels is testing a variant of the RFID technology at some of its Aloft properties. Smart Check-In goes beyond simply fixing small inconveniences into solving real problems. As a Starwood loyalty program member, you get a permanent card. On the day of your reservation, you get a text message with your assigned room number. When you get to the hotel, you can go straight to your room.

In addition to the two problems above, this solves several real problems:

  • No waiting in line at the front desk. I often get to a hotel at 11 p.m. Inevitably, there’s someone in line in front of me and all I want to do is go to sleep. This eliminates that wait.
  • Forgotten room numbers. As a frequent traveler, I often forget what room I’m assigned to because I might be in 4 different hotels in a week. (When I can remember to, I’ll take a picture of the room number.) The current process is that I have to stop by the front desk, wait in line, show ID and have a key re-issued. With a room number in my text messages, I could just look it up and go straight to the room.
  • Bad room assignments. Sometimes I’ll get to my room and find that I don’t like the room I’m in. This means I have to schlep my stuff down to the front desk, wait in line, show ID, get a new room assignment and then schlep my stuff back up to the new room. With the new system, I could just call the front desk and have someone assign a new room and go straight there.
  • Environmental impact and cost of key cards. Although the RFID key card is more expensive, guests won’t have stacks of them piling up.

A system like this not only benefits the most frequent travelers who use it; it benefits everyone else by taking those people out of the lines. It can also be implemented in phases: there’s no reason the entire hotel has to be converted at once. A select number of rooms could be set aside for the most frequent guests. This could also be positioned as a benefit to loyal guests: use our new system and you’re guaranteed one of our nicest rooms.

All of a sudden, something that addressed a minor inconvenience is turned into something that solves problems and drives loyalty.

This is also a much more compelling sales pitch. Instead of saying, “We can make your guest’s entry marginally more convenient,” you can say “We can reduce your staffing costs and deliver a much better experience for guests.”

At this point, you may be thinking, “There’s nothing specific to RFID in those problems. You could do exactly the same thing with magnetic-stripe readers that were networked.”

That’s exactly my point. That’s why it’s important to focus on the consumer problems and not the technology.

Rocky Agrawal is an analyst focused on the intersection of local, social, and mobile. He is a principal analyst at reDesign mobile. Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He blogs at and tweets at @rakeshlobster.

[Rubik’s cube image c/o]

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