Finding product-market fit can be one of the most challenging and confusing parts of being an early-stage founder. While some rare startups hit product-market fit right out of the gate, it often takes companies multiple years.
Our team spent 18 months iterating on and refining our product in search for product-market fit, and over that time, we learned an incredible amount.
Here are 7 things I wish I knew when we were first starting out about how to find product-market fit.
1. Get the team aligned about the journey ahead
Happiness = reality - expectations
When everyone expects instant success, it can be demoralizing when you don't achieve that right away.
Instead, set clear expectations with your team about what it's going to look like to find product-market fit, and how long it will probably take.
Having everyone aligned on that allows for a more open and curious culture where people feel free to voice constructive feedback and are open to experimentation.
A few tips to set expectations well:
- Onboard new teammates with this mindset. Make sure new teammates understand that they have joined a company at the discovery stage, not at the growth stage, and what the implications of that are for how they can best contribute (aka do: suggest new experiments and give product feedback, don't: spend time optimizing for scale yet).
- You can use examples of startups (Notion, Figma, Superhuman, Segment, etc) that took years to find product-market fit. Many people don't know about the pre-product-market fit stage of startups if they haven't worked at an early stage startup themselves, so having examples can be really helpful.
- Treat everything in the company as an experiment. Call everything an experiment. It's an experiment! You don't know what will work yet.
2. Make mental space for creative thinking
Finding product-market fit is a nonlinear process.
You can't really work harder to get there. You can work harder to ship a new version faster, but the learning and iteration is non-linear.
What mindset do you need to be in to do that type of creative thinking? It's probably not: tired, stressed and in a time-crunch.
Being in the right mindset is crucial: you want to be in a headspace that's open, curious, imaginative, intellectual.
Finding product-market fit is a mental game of both strategy and endurance. Treat yourself like an e-sports athlete :). Sleep, eat, and exercise well to be at a good enough headspace and energy level to compete. Don't burn yourself out. You won't think out of the box if you're so tired you can't think.
3. Build for yourself first, and be your first critic
Most startup advice says to ship fast, get real users in, and learn from them as soon as you can.
We followed that advice early on in the search for product-market fit, but in the best iteration of Jam – the one that stuck – we took the complete opposite approach.
We decided that before we would bring in a single external user, our team would be the first user of our product, and we wouldn't ship until we loved it so much, we'd miss it if it was gone.
This led us to ship something way better than what we would have shipped initially. Because we were our own initial customer, we could learn and iterate really fast. No waiting on customers to hop on the next feedback call!
Of course, this made the risky assumption that how we work as an early startup has enough similarities to how our users work in big enterprises. But we found that the difference wasn't so far off, given that even big companies divide work into smaller, roughly Jam-sized teams.
Most importantly, whatever's not good enough for us has no chance of being good enough for external users, so having this goal of building something we couldn't live without first pushed us to keep working and perfecting things until the product truly stood a good chance.
4. Small scope, high quality
Most startup advice tells you that startups should ship fast and messy, because you'll know you have product-market fit when users use your product even when it's broken.
However, that old advice doesn't apply for most SaaS startups in today's hyper-competitive environment. If a product is too buggy, users will find another alternative because they simply need to get their job done.
As a startup trying to figure out whether your product is on the right track, it's surprisingly difficult to tell whether users are churning because the product is too broken, or because the product doesn't have PMF.
As a young startup searching for PMF, you need clarity. And having a buggy product makes it much harder to see clearly how close or far away you are from having product-market fit.
One of the big differences in our approach from the earliest iterations of Jam to the one that worked was realizing that we needed to ship a high quality product in order to cleanly test for PMF.
When we built the final iteration of Jam, we focused on small scope, high quality. That made a huge difference. We could actually then measure retention as a marker for PMF without retention being clouded by bugginess.
(PS – check out our more in-depth blog post about this topic.)
(PPS - one of the easiest ways to make sure no bugs slip through the cracks is to ask your team to all install the Jam extension and use it to instantly log bugs when they see them.)
5. Test a narrow hypothesis by bringing in a narrow type of users
One of the things we did differently in the final iteration that stuck was be clearer about who we wanted to let into the alpha to test our product with.
In the early experiments, we thought we would launch the product version publicly, open up the floodgates, and see who stuck.
In the final iteration, we instead defined a hypothesis about who the product will work for (e.g. "people who are of this initial customer profile will retain and engage weekly"). Then we screened early users and only allowed in those who fit that profile. That gave us more structure to figure out whether things were working.
6. Get good at foolproof user interviews
User interviews are incredibly important. You can learn a lot from user interviews before you even write a single line of code, but there's a danger that you accidentally lead the user to tell you what you want to hear.
Read The Mom Test for a great guide about how to conduct foolproof user interviews. This book was really influential for us and I wish we had read it right from the start!
7. You'll know you have product-market fit when you no longer think about having product-market fit
We used to wonder how we would know when we get to product-market fit.
Mike Adams, CEO of Grain, framed it for us in a very helpful way:
It's a spectrum. There's a time when all you think about is product-market fit, and then there's a time when you suddenly realize you haven't been thinking about product-market fit, because you've moved onto new challenges.
We found this to be extremely true. There was a time when we only thought about PMF, so much that my phone would autocorrect OMG to PMF! And now, it's been a very long time since we've thought about it.
Good luck and have fun!
This is probably the only moment that will be like this in the whole history of your startup, so enjoy it! Once you find PMF, everything changes. It's about scale, not greenfield invention, so remember to take lots of photos and screenshots and enjoy the inventing times.