In early-stage companies you hear the term “product-market fit” all the time.  Every startup CEO I meet declares that they have “amazing product-market fit.”  A few minutes later they usually tell me why they’re having trouble gaining traction.  So which is it, amazing product-market fit? Or weak traction?  You shouldn’t have both.

I’ve already described two aspects of product-market fit that every entrepreneur should consider:

1. Vet multiple product/market options before choosing one.  Starting from a single point is a weak evolutionary model.

2. Think of product-market fit as problem-solution alignment.  You never quite solve all the problems.  You just aim to decrease the pains of the problem more and more through time.

The following are some additional traps that many startups fall into with regards to problem-solution alignment.

 

Biased Feedback

When a founder says, “All my friends and family love our product.” I think, “Your friends and family probably love your children’s art too – but would they pay for it?”  Probably not.  In most cases, friends and family will go out of their way to be supportive.  They may even finance a crazy scheme to be supportive.  For most people, friends and family aren’t good startup advisors.  I encourage you to think twice about using friends and family as your basis for thinking an idea is good.

 

Distribution

You have no market or solution if you can’t get your solution to the people who need it.  Therefore, you cannot have good product-market fit or problem-solution alignment without a distribution mechanism.  In the past decade distribution has become much easier for startups.  Services like Amazon Web Services, the App Store, Amazon and Shopify make distribution much easier for many products and services.  Unfortunately, these services don’t just help your startup, they also help every one of your competitors.  These services become part of the market.  Understanding these distribution mechanisms is essential for solving the problem better than your competitors.

 

Chicken & The Egg

Many startups need lots of users to attract lots of other users, but can’t attract any users without lots of other users.  So what should they do?  The answer is simple, either quit what you’re doing or find another growth vector like forming a partnership.  Too many founders insert the term “go viral” in their pitch deck.  You can’t just “go viral”.  You can find a feedback loop that helps you amplify your presence.  You can use alternate routes to get your initial customer base.  You don’t have a solution if your solution requires a lot of users at day one.

 

Vapor Alignment

Before you actually have a product, you can state all sorts of metrics.  In these early stages many founders claim product-market fit.  Those metrics are wonderful.  But they do not foretell problem-solution alignment.  If you have vaporware, then you have vapor alignment.  If you have an MVP, you have minimal viable alignment.  If your early-stage startup is scaling, you have problem-solution alignment with early-stage adopters.   Until you have something that people can react to, you don’t know what your alignment really is.

 

Champions

There are early adopters and then there are champions.  Champions are those individuals who are die-hard advocates.  They will help you blast your product, service or message out into the universe.  A champion will write blogs and encourage friends to buy.  If you aren’t finding any champions, you don’t have problem-solution alignment.  If you solve a real problem or fill a real desire, someone will love your product enough to champion it.

 

The Story

Sometimes you have problem-solution alignment, but your message is just off.  If you speak in technical terms, your customer might not understand that you have a solution for them. You could describe a product as an external computer hardware device that translates physical motions tracked via roller or optical tracking into cursor location on a digital computer display.  But your customer may not understand you.   Alternately you could say, “Our ‘mouse’ allows you to interact with your computer with a simple point and click.”  Which story do you think has greater product-market fit?

 

The problem-solution alignment is much more complicated than just finding a problem and creating a solution.  Problems do not exist in a vacuum.  People perceive problems as serious pains.  So, unless you can get your solution to people (distribution), provide them with an actual solution (not a vapor solution), find champions to support your solution, and craft the right story to convey your message to your clients, you do not have problem-solution alignment.  Hopefully, by highlighting these common pitfalls, you will be able to avoid them.

 

 

Fun BITS:

  • “Continually optimize your product’s fit in the market by minimizing wasted resources, through a focus on experimentation over making assumptions.” -Gerry Claps on Product/Market Fit 
  • “I think the right initial metric is “do any users love our product so much they spontaneously tell other people to use it?”  Until that’s a “yes”, founders are generally better off focusing on this instead of a growth target.” – Sam Altman, Before Growth 
  • The 4 Step Model to Figure out your PMF Strategy:
    • Step 1: Define Step 2: Measure Step 3: Break down Step 4: Maximize     -Vikash Koushik

Jesse Lawrence

 

Author: Jesse Lawrence

Founder and CEO of @Boulder_Bits also a Sci-fi lover, game theory strategist, and idea generator