You want more than product/market fit

For many founders, getting to product/market fit is the holy grail. They're looking for a good market and a product that the market will buy.

Often, founders are desperate to build something people want. So desperate, that we don't stop and consider whether what we're making is a good fit for us, personally.

I've come around to the idea that I just need to work on something that truly matters to me. I bought into all the talk about "product market fit" without really thinking hard about where I fit.

- Josh Smith, Talking Code

Yes, product/market fit is essential, but it doesn't paint a complete picture. There are other factors you need to consider:

  1. Is this market a good fit for me?

  2. Is this product a good fit for me?

  3. Is the company structure a good fit for me?

Get founder/market fit first

Before rushing to create a product, stop and ask: "do I even want to serve this market?"

Here's Marc Andreeson's definition of product/market fit:

"It's a good market with a product that can satisfy that market."

When he says "good market," he means a defined group that can pay for products.

By Marc's definition, dentists are a good market. They run profitable businesses. They're willing to pay to save time, save money, or make money. But just because they have problems to solve, doesn't mean you're the person to solve them.

Patrick McKenzie used to run a SaaS called Appointment Reminder. Before launching, our mutual friend Peldi asked him a question:

"Is optimizing the schedule of dentists' offices your passion?"

When Patrick answered "no," Peldi was exasperated:

"Then why are you committing to working on that for the next several years?!"

Serving an audience, you don't like is one of the worst feelings in the world. You have to show up every day and answer their emails, fix their bugs, reset their passwords. To do customer research, you need to hang out with them a lot. Want to get sales? You'll need to go to tradeshows, make contacts, call them on the phone.

Put another way: if you don't like cats, don't start a feline rescue center.

"We generally look for “founder-market fit” – founders who personify their product, business and ultimately their company." – David Lee, at TechCrunch Disrupt 2011

(You can read more about founder/market fit on Chris Dixon's blog)

Why product/founder fit matters

In September 2015 Marco Arment woke up to discover he had the #1 paid app in the App Store. The app was Peace: an ad blocker for iOS. Despite earlier successes, like Instapaper and Overcast, Mark had never achieved this level of notoriety before.

He should have been ecstatic; but instead, he was miserable. He described his inner conflict on his blog:

Achieving this much success with Peace just doesn't feel good, which I didn't anticipate, but probably should have.

I still believe that ad blockers are necessary today, but I've learned over the last few crazy days that I don't feel good making one.

Even though I'm "winning", I've enjoyed none of it. That's why I'm withdrawing from the market. I'm just not built for this business.

Here's another example of why product/founder fit matters:

I was at a conference when I met Chris. He'd spent his whole life in the lottery business. He noticed a considerable opportunity: China and India were just getting into legal gambling. He'd just inked deals worth millions of dollars. He asked me if I wanted to join him.

I thought about it. I could see the potential: Chris had a product that governments overseas needed and wanted. Getting to that market first has enormous advantages.

I declined the offer.

For me, gambling just doesn't fit. Working on a lottery product doesn't match my values. I don't gamble. The money was attractive, but I couldn't see myself working on it every day. It's just not right for me.

I'm not saying we should only build products that are "exciting." A lot of products are boring and unsexy. That's OK. The key is to solve problems for a group of people you're passionate about. If you can make money doing that, without undermining your values, you're winning.

Company/founder fit

I've been watching two of my friends, Rob Walling, and Nathan Barry, build 7 figure SaaS companies. For many of us, getting to $1 million in product revenue is the dream.

But how do you get there?

For Nathan and Rob, they had to move past being solo-founders. They had to hire a team of people.

In his interview with WPCurve, Rob spells it out:

I wanted to build something bigger, and I could not have built Drip alone.

Having full-time employees makes running a business much more complex. You have to pay the salaries, you have healthcare to cover, etc. But if you want to build a 7-figure SaaS business, you need people who are committed to your company and focused on making your product succeed…and the best way to get that is to hire a full-time team.

If you want to get to $1 million in sales, you're going to need to build a company. Does being a boss fit into your dream?

Managing a team requires a lot of sacrifices. You're responsible for making payroll, hiring, and firing. There will be months where cash is tight: in addition to stressing about your family, you'll be stressed about making payroll.

What are you running away from?

Often, when we "build our own thing," we're escaping from something else. We're running away from that soul-sucking job. We're tired of working on projects that don't mean anything to us personally. We're looking to do significant work.

Don't fall into the trap of looking for product/market fit to the exclusion of everything else.

  • Don't like the audience you're serving? That's like working with people you don't get along with.

  • Building a product you don't believe in? It's similar to working on a bad client project.

  • Not excited to be a boss, with employees? You might embody the very things you dislike about your current manager.

You could do the hard work to build "your own thing" but find yourself right back where you started.

This is why product discovery is so important. Not only do you look for a problem to solve and a business opportunity along with it. You should also consider your (or your team's) core competencies. And that should not only include asking "can we do this?", but also "do we want to?"

- Chris Bowler

If you're running away from a job you hate, don't run into a business you despise.

Justin Jackson

Photo by Hernán Piñera

Published on June 29th, 2016
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