Product-market fit: The slippery fish

The early days of a start-up are rough. Days are filled with scrambling for funding, users, and the ever-elusive product-market fit (i.e. PMF for you hipsters). A lot has been written about how you can tell whether you have PMF or not (e.g. would 40% of users be upset if you took away a product, etc.), but not anywhere as much on the importance of making sure you keep it.

Sometimes, it isn’t you

It’s natural for people to blame themselves when things go south. I’ve seen it at many companies — time and time again. The KPIs go in the wrong direction and the first reaction is to look back and see if it’s something that was done recently. Was it a bad feature? Did a marketing campaign not resonate with users? Heck, are the analytics tags working? We naturally blame ourselves — I mean why not? We’re not perfect.

However, sometimes the answer lies elsewhere. What many people in growth seem to often overlook are macro-trends. It should be pretty obvious, but surprisingly it isn’t. Things in tech change quickly. MySpace is big one minute and gone the next. Facebook is unstoppable one day, but faces a shrinking user-base the next. Man-buns are hot one moment — sorry, no. They were always lame. But I digress.

Product-market fit won’t last forever

Know this: Macro-trends have this nasty habit of messing with your PMF. No matter how close you try to be with your customer, no matter how many interviews you hold with them, PMF often slips away — like a slippery fish. Customers are notorious for not really knowing what they want. They are terrible at being visionaries. Ask customers what they wanted before the invention of the car and they would have said faster horses. It happens all the time. Users love a particular service until another company comes along, solves an adjacent, yet-more-important, problem. What you thought of as PMF, was simply the result of no one having a better solution out in the market. No matter how hard you try to fix things, you can’t. It’s not because something is broken — it’s because the problem you are trying solving just isn’t important to the market anymore. In fact, I’d say that you’ll never hold on to PMF for more than a few years. If you found something special, competitors are sure to come into your industry and solve related problems— all of which could be more important than what you’re solving.

This is why you always need to be looking ahead, always testing waters — always fishing for the next big catch. Growth shouldn’t end with the start-up — it has to exist at the enterprise level in some form. Because once you realize that you’re losing your grip of your PMF, it’s often too late — and you’ll become yet another cautionary tale about how a company let a big one get away.


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