March 11

Deep-Dive: Product-Market Fit

For Product Managers, Product Leaders, and even product-minded Entrepreneurs – the holy grail for any product is achieving true Product-Market-Fit. But what really is Product-Market-Fit?

The term, which was popularized, in part, by notable entrepreneur and venture capitalist, Marc Andreessen, encapsulates a core objective in the lifecycle of a product. Andreessen succinctly defines Product-Market Fit as “being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market.” This simple yet profound statement highlights the essence of Product-Market Fit: a harmonious alignment between a product’s capabilities and the market’s demands, where the product not only meets but anticipates and fulfills the needs of its intended users.

For Product Managers and Product Leaders, achieving Product-Market-Fit is a critical milestone. Especially considering how fast-paced and ever-changing the world of tech is, only products that resonate deeply with their target audience will carve out a space for themselves. Marty Cagan, Partner at Silicon Valley Product Group, emphasizes that Product-Market Fit is not merely a nice-to-have but is the very lifeline of a startup’s existence. In the early stages of a startup company or nascent product, when resources are scarce and the margin for error is slim, finding a product that resonates with a significant market need is paramount. Cagan highlights that until Product-Market-Fit is achieved,, efforts related to scaling, marketing, and growth are premature. The singular focus should be on developing a product that solves a real problem for a well-defined customer base in a way that is demonstrably better than existing alternatives.

So how do we get there and actually achieve Product-Market-Fit? And what happens after we’ve achieved it? 

Let’s dig in…

The Foundational Concepts Behind Product-Market-Fit

Dan Olsen, Author of the Lean Product Playbook, developed the Product Market Fit Pyramid as a part of the overall Lean Product Process, which is a framework and approach that emphasizes rapid iteration, validated learning, and a deep focus on customer needs. Drawing influence from Eric Ries’s Lean Startup methodologies, The Lean Product Process is structured around building a minimum viable product (MVP) that serves as a test bed for hypotheses about customer needs and market demand. This process encourages product teams to start with a clear definition of their target customer and to systematically identify and address the most critical underserved needs of this customer segment. By doing so, product teams can ensure that they are not just building products efficiently but are building the right products that customers truly want.

Dan’s book also clearly articulates the difference between the Problem Space and Solution Space – which is an important distinction to know in order to achieve Product-Market-Fit. The Problem Space is centered on the user’s needs, pain points, desires, and the jobs they are trying to accomplish. It’s about deeply understanding the challenges and issues faced by the target audience without considering potential solutions. This space is characterized by questions like “What problems are our users facing?” and “What are their most significant pain points?” The focus here is on empathy and insight, gathering qualitative data through methods such as customer interviews, surveys, and direct observations. The goal is to develop a rich, detailed understanding of the user’s world from their perspective, laying a foundation for meaningful solutions.

In contrast, the Solution Space involves the actual products, features, technologies, and designs that are created to address the needs identified in the Problem Space. It’s where ideas and hypotheses from the Problem Space are brought to life through tangible solutions. This space is dominated by the development, testing, and iteration of products and features, guided by the insights gathered about the user’s needs. The emphasis here is on creating solutions that are not only innovative and effective but also viable and feasible from a technical and business standpoint.

A part of achieving Product-Market-Fit is not jumping into the Solution Space too early – which can be an easy trap to fall into. Instead, it’s important to focus much of your time on the Problem Space to ensure that product teams (and your product) are solving the right problems. By fully understanding the user’s needs and challenges before jumping to solutions, teams can avoid the common pitfall of building features or products that don’t address real user problems. Once a thorough understanding of the Problem Space is established, teams can then move confidently into the Solution Space, designing and iterating on solutions that are more likely to achieve Product-Market Fit.

Identifying Your Target Market and their Needs

Identifying Your Target Market and their Needs

In order to focus on the Problem Space, though, you’ll need to first identify the market you’re focusing on. This may seem obvious, but choosing the right market is critical. As Andressen pointed out, Product-Market-Fit isn’t just about choosing a product that can satisfy a market… but it has to be a good market – one that can be profitable once Product-Market-Fit is achieved.

Identifying the right market involves understanding not just the broad market landscape but segmenting it into more manageable, homogenous groups that share common characteristics, needs, and behaviors. The team at Chisel advocates for a structured approach to defining the target customer as the foundation of product development. By starting with a clear understanding of who the product is for, teams can more effectively navigate the complexities of market needs and user expectations. In his talk at INDUSTRY: The Product Conference, Dan Olsen further refined this concept by advocating for a focus on underserved customer needs. According to Olsen, the key to identifying your target market is not just to understand who they are but to deeply comprehend what they lack in current offerings. This insight into underserved needs is what guides the creation of a value proposition that is uniquely tailored to your target customer, setting the stage for Product-Market Fit.

A part of this process could include the development of user personas, which are detailed, semi-fictional representations of your ideal customers, crafted based on market research and real data about your existing customers. These personas help product teams to empathize with their users, understanding their needs, challenges, and motivations on a deeper level. By bringing these user personas to life, teams can make more informed decisions about product features, design, and user experience, ensuring that the product resonates with its intended users.

Olsen also suggests employing frameworks like the “Jobs to be Done” theory, which is a powerful framework that shifts the focus from products to the underlying needs or “jobs” that customers are trying to fulfill in their lives. By applying JTBD, companies can gain a deeper understanding of their markets by recognizing that customers essentially “hire” products or services to complete specific tasks. This perspective encourages businesses to look beyond superficial market segments or product categories and delve into the functional, emotional, or social jobs customers need to accomplish. For example, understanding that people don’t merely buy a drill for its features, but for the job of making a hole, can open up broader market insights, revealing a range of potential competitors and complementary products previously not considered. Olsen also advocates for the “5 Whys” technique, which encourages probing deeper into each identified need to understand its root cause. All of these approaches can help in peeling back the layers of customer feedback to reveal the underlying needs that drive their behavior and choices.

Once a comprehensive understanding of the target market and their needs (essentially, the “problem space”) is accounted for, product teams can then transition into the “solution space” with a clear direction. At this point, there’s a better chance that your solutions will achieve Product-Market-Fit because those solutions are grounded in a deep understanding of customers’ needs. This is where the true value of a product is realized.

Crafting Your Value Proposition

Crafting Your Value Proposition

A compelling value proposition is the cornerstone of a product’s identity; it articulates why a customer should choose your product over others. Dan Olsen suggests that the Kano Model could be a useful framework to help identify and hone that value proposition. The Kano Model offers a nuanced perspective on feature prioritization that goes beyond the traditional importance-satisfaction matrix. It helps us identify three different types of features: must-haves, performance features, and delighters. 

Must-haves are basic expectations from the product; their absence leads to dissatisfaction, but their presence doesn’t necessarily increase customer satisfaction. Performance features are directly correlated with customer satisfaction—the better these features are, the happier the customer. Delighters, on the other hand, are unexpected features that can significantly boost satisfaction and can be powerful differentiators in the market.

Utilizing the Kano Model, product managers can strategically prioritize features to ensure their product not only meets the basic expectations of their target market but also excels in areas that directly contribute to higher satisfaction and incorporates elements that surprise and delight users. This balanced approach ensures a value proposition that is both solid in its foundation and inspiring in its aspirations.

But Product Managers should be careful not to focus too much on granular features. A compelling value proposition is more than a collection of features; it’s about narrating a meaningful story of how the product enriches the user’s life or work.

Building Your MVP

Building Your MVP

The Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is a fundamental concept in the lexicon of modern product development, serving as a critical tool for testing hypotheses about Product-Market Fit with minimal resources. While MVP’s are commonly talked about with startups, certainly aren’t limited to startups. As defined by Eric Ries, a Minimal Viable Product is that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort. Marty Cagan introduces the concept of the MVP Test, emphasizing its role not as a scaled-down version of the final product, but as a means of validating the most crucial assumptions about a product’s value proposition and its appeal to the target market. The MVP Test is the smallest possible experiment to test a specific hypothesis. This perspective shifts the focus from building to learning, where the MVP is a vehicle for understanding what resonates with users and what doesn’t.

Dan Olsen adds another layer to the MVP discourse by stressing the importance of reliability and usability in MVP development. While it’s understood that an MVP won’t have all the features of the final product, Olsen argues that it should still provide a reliable and user-friendly experience. This ensures that the feedback gathered from users is about the value proposition and core functionality, rather than being clouded by frustrations over bugs or poor usability. This approach not only leads to more accurate insights about the product’s fit with market needs but also helps in building trust and credibility with early users.

Rahul Vohra, CEO of Superhuman, offers a novel approach to measuring and optimizing Product-Market Fit using the MVP as a litmus test known as the “Product Market Fit Engine”, which he outlines  in his talk at INDUSTRY: The Product Conference — and is influenced by Sean Ellis’s Survey Method. Vohra’s method involves directly asking users how they would feel if they could no longer use the product, a simple yet powerful question that cuts to the heart of Product-Market Fit. By categorizing users into segments based on their responses, Vohra’s method provides a quantifiable measure of how close a product is to achieving Product-Market Fit. This data-driven approach allows product teams to iterate on their MVP with precision, focusing efforts on areas that will move the needle in terms of user satisfaction and product appeal.

All of this leads to the notion that an MVP is not just about creating a stripped-down version of a product idea. It’s a strategic endeavor that involves designing tests to validate critical assumptions, ensuring the product works reliably and is easy to use, and measuring user engagement and satisfaction to iteratively improve the product. The MVP is a bridge between the theoretical value proposition of a product and its real-world application, providing invaluable insights that guide product teams from initial concept to a product that truly meets the needs of its target market.

Iterating Towards Product-Market Fit

Iterating Towards Product-Market Fit

Achieving Product-Market Fit is not a one-time event but a continuous process of iteration, where product teams refine their offerings based on user feedback and evolving market conditions. Merci Victoria Grace emphasizes the importance of recognizing the indicators of Product-Market Fit, which serve as critical signposts along the journey. Among these indicators are organic growth, high user retention rates, and a strong Net Promoter Score (NPS). These metrics suggest that users not only see value in the product but are also willing to recommend it to others, a clear signal of Product-Market Fit. Grace’s perspective underscores the need for product teams to stay attuned to these indicators, as they provide tangible evidence of the product’s resonance with its target audience.

From keeping track of these important metrics, Product Managers can employ a methodical approach to iteration, characterized by setting clear hypotheses, conducting rigorous testing, and being receptive to user feedback. It’s all a part of the “Build, Measure, Learn” cycle that Eric Ries talks about with his Lean Startup framework. Rahul Vohra’s Product-Market Fit Engine also is useful in this iteration phase, as it emphasizes measuring user satisfaction and engagement to inform product decisions. By consistently applying these principles, product teams can refine their offerings, making informed adjustments that gradually enhance the alignment between their product and the market’s needs, inching closer to the coveted state of Product-Market Fit with each iteration.

Scaling After Achieving Product-Market Fit

Scaling After Achieving Product-Market Fit

So how do you know when you’ve reached Product-Market-Fit? Sometimes, it’s determined by the old adage – “you know it when you feel it.” 

Marc Andressen, in his early writing of Product-Market-Fit, had this to say:

“You can always feel when product/market fit isn’t happening. The customers aren’t quite getting value out of the product, word of mouth isn’t spreading, usage isn’t growing that fast, press reviews are kind of “blah”, the sales cycle takes too long, and lots of deals never close.

And you can always feel product/market fit when it’s happening. The customers are buying the product just as fast as you can make it — or usage is growing just as fast as you can add more servers. Money from customers is piling up in your company checking account. You’re hiring sales and customer support staff as fast as you can. Reporters are calling because they’ve heard about your hot new thing and they want to talk to you about it.”

Once a product does reach Product-Market, though – while it’s a significant milestone for any product, it is not the final destination. The journey from a product that satisfies market needs to one that thrives and dominates requires careful scaling and continuous evolution. Marty Cagan emphasizes that this phase is about deepening the product’s value, expanding its reach, and enhancing its features to not just retain the existing user base but also to attract new segments of the market.

Cagan advocates for maintaining a balance between innovation and optimization in this phase. While it’s crucial to refine and improve the existing features that users have come to rely on, it’s equally important to explore new areas where the product can solve additional problems for its users. This approach ensures that the product remains dynamic and continues to offer compelling reasons for users to stay engaged, thereby driving retention and reducing churn.

Merci Victoria Grace highlights the pivotal role of growth teams in this phase. Once Product-Market Fit is achieved, growth teams come into play to amplify the product’s success and accelerate its adoption across the market. These specialized teams, armed with data and insights from the initial Product-Market Fit phase, employ a mix of marketing strategies, product optimizations, and user experience enhancements to increase the product’s visibility and attractiveness. Their goal is not just to drive user acquisition but to ensure that new users find immediate value in the product, leading to higher engagement rates and long-term loyalty.

The scaling phase also involves a strategic expansion of the product’s feature set, guided by ongoing user feedback and market trends. This requires product teams to stay agile, continuously testing new hypotheses and iterating on the product based on real-world usage data. Dan Olsen’s Lean Product Process remains relevant in this phase, offering a structured approach to prioritizing features, measuring their impact, and making data-driven decisions to enhance the product’s market fit.

Scaling after achieving Product-Market Fit is a delicate dance between leveraging what works and boldly venturing into new territories. The aim is to not just grow but to thrive, ensuring that the product continues to meet and exceed the evolving needs of its users.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Achieving Product-Market Fit is a complex journey fraught with challenges. There are plenty of potential pitfalls to avoid – with strategies on how to sidestep them:

Losing Focus on the Target Customer:

One of the most critical pitfalls is deviating from the clearly defined target customer. Every product decision should be rooted in a deep understanding of the target customer’s needs and behaviors. Diversifying too quickly or attempting to cater to a broader audience before firmly establishing Product-Market Fit can dilute the product’s value proposition and erode its appeal to its core user base.

Strategy for avoiding this pitfall:
Maintain a laser-focus on your initial target segment until Product-Market Fit is undeniably achieved. Use user personas and Jobs to be Done as a framework to provide a constant reminder of who you’re building for and rigorously validate each feature against their specific needs.

Overcomplicating the MVP

Marty Cagan’s MVP Test concept emphasizes the importance of validating assumptions with the simplest version of the product. However, a common mistake is overloading the MVP with features, mistaking complexity for value. This not only stretches development resources thin but also makes it harder to pinpoint why the product is or isn’t resonating with users.

Strategy for avoiding this pitfall: 
Adopt a disciplined approach to MVP development, focusing on a minimal set of features that test your most critical assumptions about Product-Market Fit. Embrace the mantra of “less is more” and prioritize learning over feature breadth.

Ignoring Usability and Reliability

As Dan Olsen points out, neglecting the usability and reliability aspects of the MVP can lead to misleading feedback. If users are frustrated by poor performance or convoluted design, they won’t be able to accurately assess the value of the core features.

Strategy for avoiding this pitfall: 
Ensure that your MVP, while minimal, offers a seamless and bug-free user experience. This doesn’t mean it needs to be feature-complete, but it should be user-friendly and reliable in the functions it aims to test.

Relying Solely on Quantitative Data:

Rahul Vohra’s method for measuring and optimizing Product-Market Fit introduces a valuable quantitative approach. However, relying exclusively on numbers without understanding the ‘why’ behind user behaviors can lead to misguided conclusions.

Strategy for avoiding this pitfall:
Complement quantitative data with qualitative insights. Regularly engage with users through interviews, surveys, and usability tests to understand the motivations and contexts behind the data.

Stagnating After Achieving Initial Fit:

Achieving Product-Market Fit is not the end goal but a milestone. Marty Cagan warns against complacency post Product-Market Fit, urging continuous evolution in response to market changes and user feedback.

Strategy for avoiding this pitfall:
Foster a culture of continuous improvement and remain attuned to shifts in user needs and market dynamics. Regularly revisit and reassess your value proposition to ensure it stays relevant and compelling.

Summing it all up

Achieving Product-Market Fit is an intricate dance that balances the art of understanding user needs with the science of iterative product development. The journey isn’t an easy one, yet it is the most critical path a product team must navigate to ensure their product not only enters the market but thrives within it. 

In the end, achieving and maintaining Product-Market Fit is an ongoing cycle of learning, adaptation, and growth. It demands a relentless commitment to understanding and serving the user, a disciplined approach to product development, and an organizational culture that embraces change and iteration. Product teams are encouraged to view Product-Market Fit not as a destination but as a dynamic state, continuously evolving in response to the shifting landscape of user needs and market conditions. In this ever-changing journey, the constant is the need for empathy, insight, and the willingness to adapt, ensuring that the product remains not just relevant, but indispensable to its users.

A big thank you to the many out there that I’ve learned a great deal from when it comes to Product-Market-Fit – including Dan Olsen, Merci Victoria Grace, Marty Cagan, Rahul Vohra, and so many others!

Mike Belsito

About the author

Mike Belsito is a startup product and business developer who loves creating something from nothing. Mike is the Co-Founder of Product Collective which organizes INDUSTRY, one of the largest product management summits anywhere in the world. For his leadership at Product Collective, Mike was named one of the Top 40 influencers in the field of Product Management. Mike also serves as a Faculty member of Case Western Reserve University in the department of Design and Innovation, and is Co-Host of one of the top startup podcasts online, Rocketship.FM. Prior to Product Collective, Mike spent the past 12 years in startup companies as an early employee, Co-Founder, and Executive. Mike's businesses and products have been featured in national media outlets such as the New York Times, The Atlantic, CNN, NPR, and elsewhere. Mike is also the Author of Startup Seed Funding for the Rest of us, one of the top startup books on Amazon.


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