Suppose you launch your new startup and don’t get the traction you were hoping for. How do you know whether to give up or keep going? This is a tough question. There are lots of examples that support seemingly contradictory theories. Instagram pivoted before launch, and Pinterest refused to pivot for years. Many other startups pivoted too early or kept working on dead-end ideas for too long.
If the pre-product/market-fit phase of a startup is about efficiently testing hypotheses, then continuing to test an idea only makes sense if you have a strong theory about what has gone wrong and how things will improve.
Specifically, you should have a theory about: 1) how to modify your product, 2) how to modify your marketing/distribution strategy, and/or 3) how external events (a new technology wave, cultural events, regulatory change, etc) might make your product take off. In other words, you need a plausible argument as to why the future will be different than the past.
Another way to think about this is using what Jeff Bezos calls the “regret-minimization framework.” Imagine you do give up on your idea. Have you explored most of its plausible implementations? Are you confident that another entrepreneur won’t come along and make it work? You’ll regret it more if you nearly created a big company than if you spent an extra six months iterating.
Finally, beware of the temptation to get distracted by new shiny ideas. When you are deep in the weeds, new ideas seem refreshing but this is usually the false signal of “uninformed optimism” that accompanies all new things.
An extremely useful concept that has grown popular among startup founders is what eminent entrepreneur and investor Marc Andreessen calls “product/market fit”, which he defines as “being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market”. Andreessen argues persuasively that product/market fit is “the only thing that matters for a new startup” and that ”the life of any startup can be divided into two parts: before product/market fit and after product/market fit.”
But it takes time to reach product/market fit. Founders have to choose a market long before they have any idea whether they will reach product/market fit. In my opinion, the best predictor of whether a startup will achieve product/market fit is whether there is what David Lee calls “founder/market fit”. Founder/market fit means the founders have a deep understanding of the market they are entering, and are people who “personify their product, business and ultimately their company.”
A few points about founder/market fit:
Founder/market fit can be developed through experience: No one is born with knowledge of the education market, online advertising, or clean energy technologies. You can learn about these markets by building test projects, working at relevant companies, or simply doing extensive research. I have a friend who decided to work in the magazine industry. He discovered some massive inefficiencies and built a very successful technology company that addressed them. My Founder Collective partners Eric Paley and Micah Rosenbloom spent many months/years becoming experts in the dental industry in order to create a breakthrough dental technology company.
Founder/market fit is frequently overestimated: One way to have a deep understanding of your market is to develop product ideas that solve problems you personally have. This is why Paul Graham says that “the best way to come up with startup ideas is to ask yourself the question: what do you wish someone would make for you?” This is generally an excellent heuristic, but can also lead you astray. It is easy to think that because you like food you can create a better restaurant. It is an entirely different matter to rent and build a space, market your restaurant, manage inventory, inspire your staff, and do all the other difficult things it takes to create a successful restaurant. Similarly, just because you can imagine a website you’d like to use, doesn’t mean you have founder/market fit with the consumer internet market.
Founders need to be brutally honest with themselves. Good entrepreneurs are willing to make long lists of things at which they are have no ability. I have never built a sales team. I don’t manage people well. I have no particular knowledge of what college students today want to do on the internet. I could go on and on about my deficiencies. But hopefully being aware of these things helps me focus on areas where I can make a real contribution and also allows me to recruit people that complement those deficiencies.
Most importantly, founders should realize that a startup is an endeavor that generally lasts many years. You should fit your market not only because you understand it, but because you love it — and will continue to love it as your product and market change over time.