If you’re a founder, you’ve probably heard of Product-Market Fit. It’s the buzzword that everyone wants to apply to their product. Product-market fit essentially means building a product that customers will line the corner for.
My problem with this approach is one of emphasis: product comes first, market comes second.
When it comes to developing a new product, I believe that the focus should be on finding the right market, rather than building the perfect product. That’s why within our Product team, we opt for a market-product fit approach, rather than conventional product-market fit.
Essentially, we’re shifting the focus away from the product, and towards the market. The mistake a lot of founders make is to first build a product or come up with a product idea and then look for a market, which, very often, they don't find. Instead, the approach should be to identify and understand the market and tailor the product around it.
As startup coach and investor Marc Andreessen puts it, you should aim to be "in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market." In other words, you achieve market-product fit when you've identified a need in the market and built a solution that customers want to buy. It might seem like a simple concept, but it's incredibly important for startups.
Why market-product fit is essential
Founders and product managers are creative problem solvers by nature. It’s our job to find the next innovative solution. Most of the founders and product teams that I speak to reference a massive backlog of features that they want to build. Often there is little to no focus on the core problems that the users need solutions for.
Our team actually spoke about this common conundrum in a recent webinar, ‘Avoiding The Trap of Building Too Much’, that you can watch here.
It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in the hype of the solution that we’ve come up with, that we forget about the people we’re actually building the solution for. We want our solution to succeed so we keep on pushing and trying to make it work, even forcing it on our users. This leads to either slow or no traction resulting in frustration for product builders and users alike. This phenomenon is not only true for building new products, but for adding features to your existing product as well.
How to avoid the product-market fit pitfall and embrace market-product fit instead
1. Be obsessed with your users
As product builders, we have to be obsessed with our users and the problems that they experience. We have to know that we are solving the problems that they value the most. We also have to remind ourselves that there are many things in this world that we all want, but that we may not be willing to pay for.
Being obsessed with our users means that we have to understand their job-to-be-done (JTBD) really, really well. When we truly understand the challenges that they experience, we need to continually test possible solutions to see if it works well enough before we build out a new product or feature.
I encourage our product team to speak to users as often as possible. You have to line up sessions with users at least two to three times a week. We use these sessions to:
- Observe users in their day-to-day environment to understand what they deal with.
- Iteratively prototype and test possible new solutions to the challenges they experience.
- Get feedback on recent new releases.
These sessions help us build empathy with the end user and keeps our focus on them while we brainstorm possible solutions. Essential to our success and our ability to move fast is ensuring that the whole team is fully aligned around the problem before we try and solve it. We share our learnings with the whole team and refer back to users and their specific problems while we brainstorm solutions.
2. Sometimes it’s the boring solutions that need our attention
We tend to look for the next big innovative solution. Quite often, the solution does not have to be revolutionary. You don’t need blockchain, NFTs, AI, and machine learning to build a product that wows your users. Sometimes it’s the really small things that can change the entire experience for them. Sometimes it can be so small that we didn’t give it a moment’s notice before.
Don’t try to be revolutionary - balance basic, performance, and innovative features during the various lifecycles of your product.
3. Don’t build for scale too soon
Something I often hear founders say is that they want to build the product right and that it should be scalable from the start.
Reality check: your product will change a lot, no matter how well you’ve validated your idea before you start building. When power users start to use your product – pushing it to the next level while doing so – you will learn a lot about the usability of your product. The more people start using your product, the more you will learn about other problems that they experience, and the closer you will get to market-product fit.
My advice for startups that are looking to achieve market fit is this:
Don’t worry too much about the scalability of your solution at first. The best thing that you can spend your time on is understanding your users as much as possible. Concern yourself with how you can ensure that they are getting the most out of your product, and worry about scaling at a later stage.
I always ask my team the question, “What is the best way for us to add more value for our users?”
In the early stages, this can translate to solving the biggest user problems in order to appeal to more users. At a later stage, the best way to add more value to a bigger cohort of users is to make your product more scalable.
But focusing on scaling too soon might be a distraction, and it could prevent you from getting to the biggest problems that your users experience. An old mentor of mine used to say, “For every thing that we decide to do, we effectively decide not to do something else. We always need to be sure that we focus on the things that will help us add the most value to our users.”
How do you know if you've achieved market-product fit?
That's the big question.
Well, there are many opinions out there on how to define market fit. I like to keep things simple and not get caught up in all the details. Every product and every market is different so I try not to treat them all the same.
In short, I would say that you can be pleased with yourself if you can put a product in the market that users return to regularly while generating enough revenue to keep your startup growing at a healthy pace. Keep an eye on your retention metrics – these will be a good indicator of whether your product is generating real value for users.
Hopefully these tips have given you a lightbulb moment or two that’ll help you align your build priorities. In my time heading up the Product Management team at The Delta, I’ve worked with many founding teams who’ve put a lot of effort into developing and refining their products, but who have struggled to achieve market-product fit nonetheless. Through our time working with these startups, we’ve mapped out simple processes that can systematically improve a venture’s understanding of its users and market. If you’re looking for some assistance with your product strategy, get in touch with our team, or reach out to me directly on LinkedIn.
Thijan is the Head of Product Management at The Delta where he leads a team of 10+ product managers. During his decade-long career in the Product space, he’s built, launched, and scaled numerous products. As an engineer and prior developer, he comes with a strong technical background, as well as with exposure to sales, customer success and support strategies for products in the early and scaling stages across international markets.