A Method to Find “Product Market Fit” Before You Have A Product

August 7, 2020

Product-market fit , Product & Engineering


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Method to find product market fit

This is an excerpt from partner Ajay Kamat’s talk for Pear Accelerator S20.

Pear Accelerator is a small-batch program, where our partners and mentors work hands-on with exceptional founders through the journey to product-market fit. Learn more: pear.vc/pearx

One of the challenges with product market fit is that it’s challenging to define. If you look online and read blog posts, there are dozens of different ways to describe product market fit, and each of these descriptions applies to wildly different stages of companies. Even ‘early-stage’ has a wide range of definitions.

So, let’s be clear about what stage we’re focusing on as we publish our method for finding product-market fit.

The advice here is for companies generally in the same phase as our Accelerator companies (where we give this talk) — typically ground zero, with 0.5 as your “end of summer” goal.

Jump to section:

A Few Words on the Superhuman Method

The Pear PMF Method For Ground Zero Companies

(1) Understand your insight

(2) Verify your insight

(3) Build your MVP

(4) Test, observe and iterate

A Few Words on the Superhuman Method

The seminal piece of startup advice for product-market fit is Rahul Vora’s engine to find product/market fit for Superhuman.

Howevermany of our Accelerator founders aren’t fortunate to have the same conditions as Rahul:

…in practice, because of my previous success as a founder, we didn’t have problems raising money. We could have gotten press, but we were actively avoiding it. And user growth wasn’t happening because we were deliberately choosing not to onboard more users. We were pre-launch — and we didn’t have any indicators to clearly illustrate our situation.

Moreover, while the 40% metric is a famous benchmark, what happens if your denominator is 0? What if you don’t have any product yet to ask users ‘How would you feel if you could no longer use ___?’ Rahul suggests that you only need 40 users to get directionally correct data from the exercise, but maybe you’re not even at 40 “real” users yet.

With Superhuman, Rahul knew that they were building an email product already. In many cases, at the Accelerator stage, our founders might not necessarily know what their product is going to be. They’re really a step before that, so there isn’t anything to ask about. They’re trying to find out what the ‘email product’ to build even is.

If this sounds like you, there really is one goal, and one goal only: find a product that a few customers need and love, and ultimately will pay for, and evidence that there are many more similar customers.

You don’t need to figure out if it’s possible to scale it yet. Focus on product love.

What you might see here is that this is essentially the same question that Rahul is after in the Superhuman story — he’s segmenting and drilling down his user base to find that specific group of people who really need and love Superhuman and would be disappointed if they could no longer use it.

The difference is, as a “stage 0” founder, you’re starting from scratch to find your very first version of a product that might attract enough users to begin measuring.

Our own four-step methodical process to getting to that first initial product is normally reserved for our exclusive batch of Accelerator companies.

The Pear PMF Method For Ground Zero Companies

  1. Understand your insight
  2. Verify your insight
  3. Build your MVP
  4. Test, learn, observe and iterate

Let’s walk through it.

(1) Understand your insight

Your insight is unique to you. It comes from your particular view of the world. It’s the reason you feel like your idea is possible.

Sometimes we see a founder who seems born to build the specific company that they’re pitching. We call it founder market fit, and it’s the best-case scenario.

Insight comes from four places:

  • Experience — you’ve done it, you have worked on this problem before.
  • Market knowledge — you’ve studied this problem deeply; you’ve analyzed all the competitors in the space and feel that there’s an opportunity to approach the problem differently.
  • Observation — you’ve seen this problem over and over.
  • Gut feel — you feel it.

Ideally, your insight comes from some combination of all of these. It’s critical that you feel your insight is unique, that what you bring to the table gives your company an opportunity that the other companies tackling the same problem won’t have.

(2) Verify your insight

Talk to customers, talk to customers, talk to customers. The best founders we see talk to hundreds and hundreds of customers before writing a single line of code. They listen attentively to the already existing problems that these customers have.

Of course, you should go in with your hypothesis of where you can help (your insight), but you’ll want to truly verify that it’s a real problem from actual customers.

There’s a method for doing this the right way too, called customer development. But suffice to say, there is no skipping this step. If you get too excited by your idea and insight and jump to the building, you might invest a lot of time and money to build and sell a product that customers don’t want.

(3) Build your MVP

The tenets of building a true MVP:

  • Dead simple product
  • Avoid feature creep
  • Iterate. Fast.

We know that disruptive founders think big, and we love that. But when you’re just getting started, you need to think minimal. We’ve seen founders build the first version of a product with all the things they dreamed a product should have, but we think that’s the wrong approach.

We advocate for building the product with the minimum number of features you need to test your observed insight. Then, iterate on the product.

When Ajay launched his product, Wedding Party, for example, it didn’t even have an onboarding flow. Visitors would go to a landing page and type in their email address. In the earliest days, the team would email them back. If the user wanted to sign up, the team would call the user, set up their account on the back-end, and give them a login.

“We weren’t trying to prove whether or not they would go through the signup flow. We were trying to prove that once customers got into the product, they would use it. In defining it very clearly, we realized what we had to build and what we didn’t need to build.”

Keep the features very, very tight, and the hypothesis that you’re testing very clear. Set your company up to iterate quickly.

Of course, everyone knows this, everyone’s read about minimum viable products, but we’re reminding you again because it’s insanely difficult to internalize. We’ve seen many founders go through a “failure to launch,” where there’s always something going on before they can get in the hands of customers, some reason to procrastinate because their product won’t really be proving their hypothesis.

We encourage founders to get a product that’s ugly into the hands of a few customers (the ones you’ve talked to in the previous step) and then update it very, very quickly as you learn.

We do get it — it’s tricky to find the right line between minimum viable product and bad product that won’t tell you anything. But at some point, you need to put stakes in the ground. Better to bias toward launching than to wait.

(4) Test, observe and iterate

The number one question all your metrics should be answering: Are people using the product?

Treat these metrics as your product. You don’t need to be optimizing a customer-facing front end yet. You need to be optimizing the metrics that prove your core insight or value proposition. In fact, we might argue that it’s better to have fewer customer-facing features and more developed back-end infrastructure, so you can really understand what’s going on when your customers are using the product. If you don’t have the metrics, then you don’t know what’s happening with the users, simple as that. You’re flying blind.

Because this is the critical question that your company depends on, it pays to be extremely skeptical of it and not give yourself fake gold stars.

When you see something interesting going on in the data, the first question you should be asking is why is it happening? If you see a spike in invitations, is it really because your users love it and invite their friends in a viral loop, or is there spam or a bug going on?

Along the lines of giving yourself too many fake gold stars, avoid vanity metrics, such as the number of signups. These are fun to look at, but they don’t actually tell us anything about the underlying health of the product’s usage.

The key point is to be honest with yourself and take a hard look at what’s going on in terms of the usage of your product.

If people love it, they will absolutely tell you.

The worst-case scenario is really when users are lukewarm about your product. They might say, “Yeah, it’s cool. It’s nice.” It’s very tempting to take this as proof of love, but this is not what you want. Again, if your users love it, they’ll tell you.

Think about the products you’ve bought in your life that you loved, and how you reacted. You tell other people about it — because how can they be living life without this product? That’s what you need to be looking for in your usage. Nothing less.