EP24: Painkiller vs. Vitamin: Which one is Your Startup?

by | Apr 4, 2023 | Marketing, Podcast, SaaS

Painkillers vs. vitamins is a marketing concept. As a SaaS startup, you can use these terms to categorize the products and services your business offers and more effectively position your business on the market and across your marketing efforts.

Just like reaching for a vitamin instead of a painkiller can derail your afternoon walk, categorizing your business as a vitamin when you’re a painkiller can completely derail your marketing efforts and stunt your growth.

So in this blog post, we’ll define painkillers and vitamins (of the marketing variety), share some examples of each, and explain exactly why you need to know where your startup falls. Let’s dig in.

What is a Painkiller?

A painkiller is a solution for a specific pain point or set of pain points. The goal of a painkiller is to resolve an existing issue. From a SaaS perspective, these types of offerings are about relieving tension or solving an existing problem within a business.

For example, say you struggle with sharing asynchronous feedback with your remote teams. You may find that Loom, a video communication software for work, is positioned as a solution to your asynchronous communication pains.

While “painkiller” may be a bit dramatic, it doesn’t have to be. In some instances, a specific pain point can completely stall progress in your business. In other cases, it might just slow things down.

Using the Loom example, your business may not grind to a halt without smooth asynchronous communication. It could be that simply finding meeting times for the team is a huge inconvenience and slows production down. In this scenario, Loom could help speed up productivity. But if your company needs meetings to complete projects, a communication tool like Loom could quite literally help keep your business running.

What is a Vitamin?

A vitamin is an offering that aims to improve a current situation or a future scenario that hasn’t yet happened. You can think of SaaS vitamins as a “nice-to-have” rather than a must-have, but it plays on being a better version of yourself after having used the “vitamin.”

An excellent example of a SaaS vitamin is Duolingo. Duolingo positions itself as a fun, free way to learn a new language. By using the software, eager learners can improve their language skills by using Duolingo fun games, activities, and science-approved learning path. Duolingo could easily position itself as a painkiller by comparing itself to the less-than-ideal ways to learn new languages, but instead, it focuses on how easy it is as a beginner to get started and how cool you’ll be once you learn a few phrases in another language. It’s a vitamin — not a must-have, but a nice-to-have if you’re a casual language learner who wants to feel awesome while learning.

Key Differences

There are 2 key differences between painkillers and vitamins. They are:

  • Necessity
  • Timing

Necessity vs. Luxury

Painkillers are almost always needed (budget-permitting, of course). In contrast, vitamins are always a luxury (with one exception, which we’ll discuss in the next section). Painkillers often increase the bottom line, which means losing an effective painkiller or switching to a less effective alternative can cost companies money, time, or both. Vitamins may increase efficiency or quality, but in most cases, a company (or person) can get by without them.

The urgency driving customers to purchase a painkiller is different than the urgency leading to a vitamin purchase. That perceived urgency can directly impact how much customers are willing to pay and how quickly they are to make a purchasing decision.

Now vs. Later

The second key difference between painkillers and vitamins is the difference in their appeal to timing. Painkillers often act as solutions for existing problems. That means customers need to purchase them right now, and the solution needs to work right now. On the flip side, vitamins are, by definition, never “needed” but are “desired.” In many SaaS cases, vitamin products or services are positioned as a solution for a future or potential problem, not one that’s happening right now. Vitamins are also always marketed and sold as the “better version you or your company will be once you purchase.”

Examples of Painkillers and Vitamins in SaaS

All this talk about vitamins and painkillers can get a little confusing. So let’s look at two more examples.

Asana vs. Notion

DemandMaven used to use Asana, which is a popular project management tool. However, we found that it wasn’t quite meeting all of our needs, which led to several pain points, but mainly, it wasn’t easy to store and retrieve valuable data. With a little bit of research, we found Notion. Notion allowed us to customize our project management experience to our business, alleviating the pain points we had with Asana.

In this example, Asana started as a painkiller. It would be incredibly difficult to function without a project manager, if not impossible altogether. However, because it wasn’t the best choice for our business, Notion could come in and act as a painkiller to our new issues and resolve our existing problems.


Cybersecurity software companies are an excellent example of what we consider to be vitamin services that flip into a painkiller once an incident occurs. If your company experiences a data breach or some other security risk, cybersecurity software acts as a painkiller. But in most cases, cybersecurity services appeal to the potential for threats. In other words, they’re helping prevent future disasters, but they aren’t necessarily solving existing issues.

This example also shows how context matters. Contexts change, and vitamins may often be a “nice-to-have” until they become essential, after which they act as a painkiller for that specific customer in that specific context.

Why Does This Matter?

A company offering painkillers will market itself with urgency in mind, target a specific audience, and create an online presence that communicates its type of offering accordingly. Miscategorizing your company can lead you to poorly position your products, target the wrong market, and incorrectly communicate your identity online. All of these things can have a major impact on your marketing efforts, so knowing exactly what type of products or services you offer is critical, especially for startups.

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