I’m often asked when I know that I’ve found “product-market fit”. The answer is simple – I don’t. If anyone says, “We have product-market fit because …” the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I get an involuntary gag reflex. There is no point in any company where they’ve found the holy grail of a product sufficiently awesome that they won’t have to change what their doing for tomorrow, next week, next month or next year. Anyone that think’s they’ve found “product-market fit” may not understand the constant vigilance that honing a product takes. It is a never-ending process. Economic history tells us that giants fall because they are looking at the present or past, not steering for the future.

 

Problem-Solution Fit

I, like Wise and Feld’s view of product-market fit, believe it is really a problem-solution fit. A market is simply a set of customers who want to pay for some set of problems to go away. They have a need. They want it satisfied. They want to pay for that need to be satisfied. The product is just a packaged set of solutions that solve the customer’s problems. If you have the right solution to your customer’s problem, you may win. The solution has to be a complete solution, not just a partial solution. Otherwise someone else will find the complete solution and knock you down.

 

Alignment, Not Fit

I also prefer the term “alignment” to “fit”. The word “alignment” seems temporary, whereas “fit” seems permanent. You never reach “product-market fit” you only achieve temporary “problem-solution alignment”. The following analogy may help illuminate my viewpoint. Products are like cars and markets are like roads. The tires are constantly realigning to stay on course. The road conditions are constantly changing, which makes it even more challenging for the driver to steer the course. As a driver, you’re in a constant battle to look ahead and keep the car on the road, no matter what may impede your progress.

 

A Changing Perspective

When you accept the view of “problem-solution alignment”, the insurmountable challenge of achieving product-market fit boils down to two fundamental goals. The first goal is to assess the problem-solution alignment at present. Does the solution currently solve problems for your client? If not, you don’t have a solution. The next goal is to assess the future. How will you solve your client’s problems better next time?

 

Early Stages

At the beginning of a new product’s cycle, the odds are that you may solve part of a problem for a few customers – maybe. In this exploratory phase you are almost entirely focused on future assessment. This is the riskiest stage because you have too little data to constrain your problem. You may know that your customer hates doing taxes, but you don’t know if your solution will fix it. At this phase you need to focus on empathy-driven design. Ask your peeps how they would feel in a variety of scenarios.

 

Scripted Scenarios

I find scenarios are the easiest way to get at an emotional reaction – which is pure gold when evaluating a problem and solution. The emotional reaction is what tells me if a) a customer feels the pain of a real problem and b) the customer feels that the solution will ease that pain. In constructing a scenario I find it easiest to set out a standard script. I start by setting the scene. Then I state what would happen without my creation. Then I state what would happen with my creation. Finally I ask, how would my friend feel in either case. This scenario works pretty well for most business concepts.

 

Let’s run through a concept that I made up in trying to explain the scenario driven script:

 

Example Scenario: PhotoPay

Setting the Scene: You’re standing in line at the supermarket and you forgot your wallet.
Typically Outcome: Typically you’d have to go out to the car, then drive home to get your wallet and come back.
Introduce the Concept: What if the clerk could just take your photo, and you say a pass phrase and instantly your groceries are charged to your PayPal account? This service would cost either $10 for this instance or $60 for an annual subscription.
Get Feedback: How would you feel in each case?

 

Let’s contrast that to the following example:

 

Example Scenario ScriptMarketWire

Setting the Scene: You’re standing in line at the supermarket and you forgot your wallet.
Typically Outcome: Typically you’d have to go out to the car, drive home to get your wallet, and return.
Introduce the Concept: What if the clerk asked you to go to customer service where you could fill out sheets of paperwork, call your bank and get them to wire funds to the grocery store? This would cost you $25 dollars or $200 for an annual subscription.
Get Feedback: How would you feel in each case?

 

Clearly the first scenario solves more of the pain for most people. The second just replaces one pain with another. The scenario’s differ in reaction quite strongly when you try them out. In the first case, you might have initial problem-solution alignment. Further iterative testing could reveal how aligned the problem and solution really are.

 

Before and After
By structuring the problem-solution as a before-and-after comparison, it is easier to for people to envision themselves using the solution. They instantly see why they should use your product. The story component makes it easier to relate to. Before you had a problem. Afterwards that problem was gone. If you can’t tell that story with confidence, you don’t have product-market fit. If you can tell the before-and-after story without embellishing, you may be on the right track.

Fun BITS:

  • To determine if your product fits the market, one of the easiest indicators is a survey. The survey should answer this core question: “How would you feel if you could no longer use this product?” If more than 40% of your respondents answer “very disappointed” than odds are you have a strong product-market fit. –Josh Pigford
  • Ben Horowitz’s 4 myths of product/market fit: 1) Product/Market Fit is always a discreet big bang event 2) Its patently obvious 3) Once you achieve it you cant lose it 4) Once you have it you don’t have to worry about the competition. –Ben Horowitz via Marc Andreessen blog
  • “Every time you work on something new, whether it’s a new feature, a new product, or a new product line, recognize that you are searching for incremental product/market fit.” –Brad Feld

 

JesseLawrencePhoto

 

Author: Jesse Lawrence

Founder and CEO of Boulder Bits. Sci-fi lover, game theory strategist, and idea generator.

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