Without PMF, your company stands very little chance of success — 34% of 80+ failed startups we interviewed cited lack of PMF as their reason for shutting down.
Product-market fit is the bedrock of scaling up and growth for any business.
But how exactly do you achieve PMF?
This article will teach you how to seek PMF throughout the different stages of your startup.
Stage 1: Idea to MVP
You should start looking for PMF before you even start building your product. You can do this by testing the promise of your product against your target market, which is called finding your “product-promise-market fit.”
The reason for testing your product-promise-market fit before you move from the idea phase into building a prototype or an MVP is that the more people are excited about the idea of your product, the more likely it is that you will be close to hitting PMF upon launch.
To do this, there are two things you must validate before you start building:
The problem’s existence (ensure that you are solving a problem that people have).
Your theoretical solution to the problem (ensure that people are willing to use your product to solve the problem).
Validate the Problem’s Existence
There are three main tools you should use to validate the existence of the problem you want to solve with your startup:
1) Online Content
To evaluate base-level interest in solving a problem, start by posting content on social media and other online communities. Good places to do this include Twitter, LinkedIn, and Reddit, as these are the sites where people tend to be most willing to share constructive, professional feedback.
Create posts asking for people’s opinions about the problem you want to solve to try and gauge how serious the problem is and what people are currently doing to solve it.
Try experimenting with a mix of short- and long-form content. For example, you might cross-post a short question or poll on various relevant subreddits and write a longer article about the problem you want to solve on LinkedIn, asking for people to comment with their opinions.
Make sure to always call for action from readers — asking direct questions and telling people to respond in the comments is usually the best way to do this.
The founder of Encharge, a marketing automation tool, used this strategy. He created an article sharing how he had launched and sold his first SaaS, promoted it across online communities and soon got +3,000 readers.
2) Interviews with Potential Customers
After gathering initial feedback from social media and other online communities, try to get more in-depth validation from customer interviews (preferably via calls).
To find potential customers to interview, reach out to people who were most engaged with the content you posted online. Thank them for their feedback and interest, and politely ask them if they would be willing to have a call with you to help you gain a deeper understanding of the problem and how they are solving it currently.
It’s very important at this stage not to mention your startup idea. You still want to focus on validating the problem's existence and make sure it’s big enough that it’s worth building a product to solve it.
If you mention your idea to interviewees, they may try to hide their honest opinions to protect your feelings, so focus mainly on discussing the problem.
3) A New Mailing List
The final tool for validating the existence of a problem is to compile a mailing list. To do this, try collecting emails from the people you connected with online. The more emails you get, the more interest there is in the problem.
Having a list of people you can continue to reach out to will help with continued validation as you move into building a product. It also gives you a group of potential early adopters you can test out your prototype or MVP with and get feedback from to iterate on and improve your product.
Encharge's founder also used this strategy. He turned readers into email subscribers through free lead magnets. He then used this newsletter to ask for feedback and get interviews with potential customers.
Validate the Theoretical Solution
After you have proven that the problem you want to solve exists and that potential customers want and need a new solution to the problem, the next step is to validate your theoretical solution. There are three ways to do this, still without building an actual product yet:
1) Landing Pages and Design Mockups
The first way to validate your theoretical solution is to create mockups that show how the product will look and give potential customers an idea of how it will solve their problem.
The best way to put these mockups in front of the eyes of your target audience is to build a landing page for them. On this landing page, you should describe clearly what you promise to do for users with your product and back up these promises with the mockups you made.
The idea here is to test your value proposition against the target market to see how people react to seeing the theoretical solution to the problem you already validated.
You can get traffic to your landing page the same way you started validating the existence of the problem: by posting links to it on social media and other online communities.
Ask people what they think about your product idea and monitor the comments on your posts to get feedback and start validating your theoretical solution.
Only after you’ve successfully validated the problem's existence and your theoretical solution can you start building a prototype or MVP of the solution.
It’s crucial to be as close to PMF as possible by the MVP development stage because it means that, even if you don’t have perfect product-market fit when you launch the first version of your solution, you will be able to iterate on it to get there.
Conversely, if you launch a solution without validating the problem or the theoretical solution and don’t have PMF right away, you might need to pivot and try something different to get there. This is much more expensive and time-consuming than simply iterating on a solution that’s already close to having PMF.
After you build an MVP, the first people you should share it with are those from who you collected emails during the validation phase of your project. These people are the most likely to become early adopters and are the best ones to test PMF with.
Once you have some users trying your product out, measure product-market fit using PMF surveys and customer interviews to determine whether you need to further iterate on your product or whether you can start scaling up.
You should never shift into scaling up until you feel a strong pull from the market and don’t feel like you have to push your product onto people.
Some common signs that you’ve achieved product-market fit include:
Users become annoyed when the product is down or has bugs.
You are getting frequent requests for new features.
Early adopters start promoting the MVP for you, and your users start to grow in numbers without additional (or expensive) efforts on your side.
It’s important to note that, even after you find PMF and start to scale, you shouldn’t abandon measuring it and trying to achieve it.
In reality, PMF is a continuum that you constantly need to work on achieving and maintaining as your market’s needs change and you develop your product(s) further.
There is a lot to be learned from other founders’ experiences. Here are examples of three successful companies and the experiences they had with finding PMF.
Superhuman, the blazingly fast email client, is an interesting case study in finding PMF because its founders did precisely what we said you should never do — developed an MVP without validating the problem and the theoretical solution to get close to PMF first.
By 2017, Superhuman’s founder Raul Vohra and his team had already been working on their product for two years, and they were feeling a lot of pressure to launch. However, Vohra didn’t feel ready yet and knew they needed to test their PMF before launching and scaling up.
So, Vohra decided to measure their PMF using a leading PMF indicator: whether or not at least 40% of users would be “very disappointed” if they could no longer use Superhuman.
At the time, Superhuman had somewhere between 100 and 200 pre-launch users that they could poll to find the answer to this crucial question, so they went ahead and sent out a PMF survey.
The results came back, and they were not impressive — only 22% of respondents said they would be very disappointed if Superhuman shut down. This let Vohra and his team know that they needed to iterate on their product before they were ready to launch and scale.
To optimize Superhuman, Vohra decided to focus on feedback from the people who said they would be very disappointed if Superhuman went away.
This might sound counterintuitive, but the reasoning behind this was that these people best represented Superhuman’s true target market. Their feedback would help improve the product enough to convert people on the fence about it into supporters.
Based on survey answers from the segmented users, Vohra was able to determine that the biggest benefits of Superhuman were its speed, focus, and shortcuts, so it was clear that these were areas to continue optimizing the product in.
After making various improvements, Vohra surveyed users again and found that now 32% would be very disappointed if Superhuman disappeared — they were getting closer to their goal of 40%.
Vohra included follow-up questions on the survey about what other ways they could improve the email client, which helped them prioritize new features to add, such as a mobile app and integrations.
After adding some of these features and sending out another PMF survey, Superhuman improved the percentage of users who would be very disappointed if they could no longer use it to an impressive 58%. They now had PMF and were ready to officially launch and scale up.
Lesson: Through segmenting your target market and listening to customer feedback, you can iterate on your MVP until you have good PMF.
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Despite now being the world’s biggest vacation rentals and experiences marketplace, Airbnb didn’t instantly achieve product-market fit with their idea.
Founders Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky initially came up with the idea for a site that would allow travelers to book stays in host’s homes when hotels were full during conferences, conventions, and other events.
However, after they tested the platform at the 2008 Democratic Convention in Denver, Colorado, they realized that the demand for such a service would not be high enough to scale up if they targeted only people who were going to events that created a high demand for hotels.
Gebbia and Chesky decided they needed to provide an offering superior to hotels in other ways for certain types of customers — not just when hotels were all booked during large events.
Airbnb’s founders were able to get accepted to Y Combinator and received $20K to keep working on their product. They focused on talking to hosts about their experiences and problems and were eventually able to test new ideas and improve the platform enough to reach PMF.
Instead of continuing to work on Airbnb as an alternative to hotels when they were full, they shifted to making it a cheaper alternative for all travelers and a more profitable alternative to long-term rentals for property owners.
Lesson: Iterating on a product idea based on customer feedback can help you achieve PMF. Many ideas may have the seed of product-market fit but require some changes to get there.
B2B customer data platform Segment is an interesting case study showing how sometimes you must completely switch gears before finding PMF.
Despite raising $600K from Y Combinator in 2011, Segment’s initial idea was failing, and the company was quickly running out of money.
Their initial project was a tool called ClassMetric, which was an app that would let students press a button any time they felt confused during a lecture and show professors a real-time graph of how many students were confused.
Despite the idea being good enough to earn them their initial round of funding, when they tested the product, they found that students weren’t using it. The test showed that 80% of students were using Gmail and Facebook by the end of the test lecture, instead of engaging with the class through the app.
In other words, ClassMetric was a solution to a problem that didn’t exist, and students did not have any need for it. This is why validating the existence of a problem before you develop an MVP is so important for achieving product-market fit.
After discussing the failure with investors, Segment’s founders were told to look for a new idea on which to use the remaining money.
The next idea that Segment worked on was an analytics tool called Segment.io, which was a bit like Google Analytics, but more focused on segmentation. However, after 12 months of working on Segment.io, the startup still had no real customers.
With just $100K left in the bank, Segment’s founders had a critical decision: keep trying to make the analytics tool work or completely pivot to working on another new idea. They decided to do the latter.
During the development of ClassMetric and Segment.io, the company built an open-source data library that collected user data and sent it to various existing analytics tools. This database tool had generated some interest, so Segment decided to build on top of it and see what happened.
The company started by creating a landing page for the product with an email signup form, which they posted to Hacker News. They instantly saw positive responses that validated the idea, so they continued developing it and saw success, eventually leading to a $3.2B exit.
The Segment experience reinforces how important it is to validate problems and theoretical solutions to them. In this case, doing so earlier could have saved the company over a year of development efforts and $500K in investors’ money.
Lesson: It’s crucial to abandon ideas that are not working — if an idea has product-market fit, you should be able to feel a sudden strong pull or a gradual and compounding pull from the market. If you feel like you’re having to push your product onto people, it doesn’t have PMF.
Final Words on Achieving Product-Market Fit
To avoid making the mistakes that past startup founders have made, always start trying to achieve product-market fit before you build the first version of your product, no matter how confident you are.
Start by validating the existence of the problem you want to solve and your idea for a solution to the problem. After you’ve done this, you can move on to building an MVP that should, in theory, be relatively close to PMF when you launch it.
However, don’t stop testing and measuring for PMF after you launch. You should continue to survey and interview customers to get feedback that allows you to iterate on your product and optimize it for PMF before you start scaling up.
Remember that achieving PMF is a continuum that you must constantly strive to achieve and maintain as your startup grows into a big business.