How to Answer the Question You're Struggling With

You might be asking the wrong question.

Welcome to One Thing Better. Each week, the editor in chief of Entrepreneur magazine (that's me) shares one way to level up — and build a career or company you love.

Today’s one thing: The question you’re struggling to answer.

That one thing, better: Ask the “earlier question.”

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You’re trying to solve a problem. But you’re stumped.

You know what you want. You just can’t seem to get there. So you keep asking the same question: How do I do this one thing?

But what if you’re asking the wrong question?

Today, I’ll show you how to back up and ask the “earlier question.” And I’ll start by showing you how I just used this trick… and helped a big company solve a big problem.

Let’s start with that big problem.

If you work from home, you’ve probably never heard of Stratus Building Solutions.

But if you run an office, you surely have. Stratus is a leading franchise in the commercial cleaning space — which is to say, they provide janitorial services.

And they had a marketing problem.

I recently met their VP of marketing, Mike Millett, at an Entrepreneur event I spoke at. He was trying to develop the brand’s next marketing campaign, but something wasn’t clicking.

Stratus describes itself as “leading the way in health and environmentally conscious commercial cleaning services.” Its website shows a lot of images like this:

So that was his starting point. He was asking: How can I market our eco-friendly cleaning solution?

We went around and around on it. Then we did something that unlocked the answer — because it totally reframed the problem.

We asked the “earlier question.”

What’s the earlier question?

If you’re stumped on a question, sometimes you need to challenge the fundamental premise of the question you’re asking.

Because here’s the thing: Every question is based on assumptions. And those assumptions may not be right.

For example, consider this question:

Say you were just passed up for a promotion. You’re asking: Why didn’t I get it? Good question! And try as you might, you cannot figure out the answer.

But what if you’re asking the wrong question?

Let’s back up and consider the earlier questions — which is to say, the questions that technically came before your question. You never even thought about them, because you assumed you knew the answers.

Maybe those questions look like this:

To get your original question (“Why did I not get a promotion?”), you’d have needed to ask those earlier questions. Do you deserve that promotion? Do you actually want to grow at this company? And you’d have needed to answer “yes.”

But let’s be honest — you didn’t ask those questions, because you assumed you knew the answers. So what if you’re wrong? What if the answer to those questions is actually no?

Well, in that case, things start to look different...

Now you’re seeing a much wider range of options.

Maybe you didn’t deserve a promotion. Or maybe, deep down, you don’t even want to be at this company — which is why you aren’t working hard enough to get the promotion. (And at that point, who cares about the promotion? Get out of there!)

Now start applying this approach to other questions, like…

“Why is this relationship not working?” Back up to ask these earlier questions: Do I want this relationship to work? Did I do something to damage the relationship? Etc.

“Why is my business not growing?” Back up to ask: Do people want what I’m selling? Have I really asked them? Am I communicating it properly? Have I explored every other option?

In other words: What are you simply assuming? And what happens when you challenge those assumptions?

Which brings us to...

How I answered Stratus’s question

To recap: Stratus is an eco-friendly cleaning company. Their marketing guy, Mike, was looking for a new marketing campaign.

Mike and I sat at a table with some other marketing execs, and we started peppering him with questions. What other marketing has Stratus done? What makes them successful?

Then someone asked: “Why does a customer leave their current cleaning company, and hire yours instead?”

Mike said the answer is clear: It’s when other cleaning companies slack off. Turns out that’s a big problem in the industry — janitors don’t show up, or they do a lazy job.

When I heard that, I thought: Whooooaaaaaa, we found the earlier question!!!

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Let’s break this down.

“Why does a customer leave their current cleaning company, and hire yours instead?” — that is a powerful question. If the answer involves eco-friendly cleaning supplies, then the next logical question would be the one Mike was asking: “How do I create a marketing campaign about eco-friendly cleaning supplies?”

But in fact, that was NOT the answer to the question! Instead, the answer was: People leave their cleaning companies when those cleaning companies don’t do any cleaning.

Which means the next logical question is NOT “How do I create a marketing campaign about eco-friendly cleaning supplies?”

The next logical question is: “How do I create a marketing campaign about being reliable?”

New question, new answer.

“I know what your campaign should be,” I told Mike:

“Cleaners who clean.”

It’s that simple, I said. That’s what you are. Before you talk about the products you use, just tell people that you’ll do the damn job. You are cleaners who clean — unlike all the cleaners who don’t clean.

That conversation happened a few months ago. Last week, Mike emailed me to say: They used my idea for their 2023 marketing campaign! Dozens of social images. Sales video. Ad creative. Like this:

It’s a simple, effective slogan that answers the most important question — and that was the earlier question.

So, the next time you’re stuck…

Step back and ask yourself something very basic:

What was the question before this question?

Like, what question led to the question you’re asking? What question did you simply assume the answer to? What is the earlier question?

Sometimes, we are on the right path. But sometimes we started one step in the wrong direction — and we’ll be stuck there until we back up, look around, and figure out what direction we’re actually supposed to go in.

That’s how to do one thing better.

P.S. Did you miss last week’s newsletter? It was about how to let something go and embrace something new.

P.P.S. In time for Father’s Day, I published a podcast episode where I talked to my dad about raising kids — and how we were both raised. I think you’d really like it. Listen here.

P.P.P.S. Last week, I changed urls for this newsletter — it is now That caused a few links to break. We’ve hopefully cleaned up the mess, but if you see anything funky around here, please do let me know! Just reply to this email.

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