A View into Achieving Product Market Fit
Allison Light and Matt Hirst are portfolio company leads at West, a venture studio based in San Francisco. We asked them to reveal some insights from their experience of working with some of their category leading portfolio companies.
Many founders will create a product, then iterate and pivot until the golden product market fit is achieved. Yes, it works, but it also burns precious capital and can delay the start of real traction. The very best products still require intelligence, inspiration and diligence to find their rightful position in the lives and hearts of happy customers.
Our approach has been to start with the market and work out how a product may be tailored to address unmet needs. One of our key tools is to map the consumer journey. We’ll get to the particulars shortly, but first, a few over-arching truths:
The right question
“Why does it exist?” is as essential a question to start with as “who is it for?” or “what problem are we trying to solve?”. It’s simple but can be overlooked. When the problem being solved is clear, or the new solution is being offered, customers easily project their personal needs onto it. Let’s take the example of a service delivering streaming music suggestions: for one person it’s about passive convenience; for another it’s a journey of active discovery; for still another its about curation and sharing. In our work, we find that discovering the answer to a “why” that everyone agrees with is a very humbling, human moment.
Someone, not everyone
Any single product can be perceived and even used in radically different ways. The working mother of three, compared to the tech-savvy New Yorker, compared to the retiree describe just three sets of perceptive and cultural combinations. Who are you making the product for? “Everyone” is probably not the most useful answer. It’s better to mean everything to a specific type of customer and grow from there.
The greatest product still needs to invest in market
To focus on the need and the craft of market-building, as distinct from marketing, sets a company apart. Successful CEOs can be surprisingly revisionist in their undersell of the amount of “marketing” effort that was needed to create their “runaway success”. This is reflected in the proportion of budget allocated to all marketing related functions. The product itself is abstract if it’s devoid of real-life context. Linking up awareness, need, repeat usage and advocacy is how things start to get real.
Expanding the bubble
It’s always valuable to acknowledge the need for true diversity. Here in the Bay Area and no doubt in London or Berlin too, many startups can be conceived and grown in a bubble. A vision and ambition, whilst inspiring and exciting, can be in danger of overshooting the reality of the general populace. The antidote is diversity: diversity of people, experience and geography. Tech hubs are fertile incubators, but they’re infinitely richer and more effective when representation from beyond the valley or the city is stirred into the mix.
Product-Market Fit is a wise, practical aim, when you look backwards. Not so easy when you need to create a market that doesn’t currently exist. iPod is the archetypal example. There were plenty of portable hard drives around in 2001 and sales were slow until 2004, but we know what happened next. Other products reconstruct their markets. The angle-poise lamp, the ballpoint pen, Fitbit, Uber… the list may seem intimidating, but the point here circles back to the top of the page: the customer, their behaviour, and their preference, is the bedrock of these success stories. Product and market are the two sides of the equation. It’s possible to affect both.
The company’s DNA is key to this process
Who are we? What are we getting up for in the morning? Where do we want to go? The internal culture of us as a community of people, producing this product must also be included as part of any mapping.
Just because it can’t be quantified doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist
Human motivations are soft and blurry… and massively powerful. Understanding how to identify and describe this level of insight, how to prepare for it, plan for it and price it is all part of the process. Customer Journey Mapping takes us there.
Customer journey mapping
Let’s reveal some of the questions that underpin the process. As far as the structure of the matrix is concerned, think concentric circles — a kind of nested customer journey — that reach out to increasingly broad aspects of the customer’s life.
“When not engaged with this product, how will they spend the rest of their free time?”
Ask this question and you begin to connect the outer rim with the core experience. This isn’t about dominating a person’s every waking hour, rather it allows us to examine the “fit” of the product in a broader context and to see how connections can be made to make the product more relevant, more rewarding and more delightful to the customer.
“What might they choose to engage with other than our product? What might they substitute for it?”
Acknowledge a customer’s choices. This moves our mindset towards enabling, easing, complimenting, colouring. And away from dominating, manipulating, forcing, capturing. You can feel the difference, so can they.
“How might they engage with others who are not using the product?”
This opens up advocacy. It’s outer rim stuff, but we know from experience how it can enrich core thinking. Users-as-advocates — particularly in the hyper-connected world of tech — is a no brainer. But dwelling on this question brings in subtle elements of ownership and exclusivity as well as the infectious nature of enthusiasm.
“Have we optimised for delight, or minimised pain?”
Or both? Not long ago kitchen utensils were hard, heavy and sharp. Now they can be smooth, beautiful and iconic. UX from the micro level (the smooth swish of the app’s cursor across your phone screen) right the way through to the macro (an efficient, safe and cost-effective product) is how delight is optimised. Any missing part will damage the whole.
The process allows us to bring out all the levers you could possibly pull. In doing so, within a structured matrix, “customers” become people; and “products” broaden out into experiences. Then one fine day, a founder’s concept becomes a living reality in the lives of delighted customers.