As a serial entrepreneur, I’ve learned a lot over the years and not all of that learning comes easy. You have to learn to take the good with the bad and move forward. One of the biggest lessons learned is that if you’re not thrashing about to find the market opportunity, you’re probably not doing it right.
A successful startup is one that develops an innovative product or service, brings it to market, and has customers adopt it because it’s solving a real problem in a new way. This is hard; very hard. It involves carving your own path rather than following one that’s already been defined. It means tussling with different ideas and testing theories until you uncover the one that clicks. You’ll inevitably face conflicting feedback from many different people. The feedback will be all over the map and be biased towards their specific needs and wants. The challenge lies in balancing the feedback to make changes, adapt and continue moving forward.
At Charli, over the past several months, we’ve been going through our own tumultuous process to find the right market fit, which can feel chaotic at times as we validate assumptions, make quick changes and react to new discoveries. Throughout the process, we’ve had our share of ups and downs. One day we thought we nailed it, the next we were back to the drawing board. As a team, we’ve had to stay nimble, curious and positive, helping each other through the exercise and fostering an open, inclusive environment to try new ideas, fail fast, pick ourselves up and keep going.
Why do I share this? To remind other startups that this is completely normal. In fact, it’s unavoidable and it is desired in order to prove your innovation.
Here are some things to keep in mind if you are in the midst of thrashing with product-market fit:
1. Your competitive edge is speed, never forget that. Startups have a short runway. The faster you can make decisions and the quicker you can pivot, the more nimble you’ll be and the faster you’ll arrive at your destination. If you’re coming from a traditional business environment where decisions move slowly and bureaucracy is thick, this can be a bit of a shock. Embrace speed. Enjoy the extremely rough ride. Know not every decision will be made with complete information.
2. Fail fast, learn things. We often hear the phrase “fail fast, break things.” But I think it should be “fail fast, learn things.” If something’s not working, don’t stay attached to it. Instead, accept that it failed, learn from it, let go of it and move on to the next idea. Yes, this process sometimes means admitting you were wrong or forgoing an idea that you loved – and that can hurt. However, the faster you can put aside your ego, and stay humble and curious, the better off you will be in the long run.
3. Build resilience amongst your team. Most founders will tell you that their startup has experienced the highest highs and lowest lows – oftentimes all within the same day. However, it's an important leadership skill to foster resilience within your team. Creating an understanding of the larger vision and how everyone plays a role in driving product led growth can help accomplish this. Pick a north star metric or develop a powerful vision statement to help maintain sight of the goal even when there’s turbulence. If you and your team can learn to ride the waves, weather the storm and maintain an even keel, you’ll have a better chance of sailing out the otherside.
4. Focus your energy on evaluating the signals. Sometimes, when you’re moving quickly and in uncharted territory, little issues get disguised as big issues, and big issues get disguised as small ones. Apply your energy and intuition to undertake the important task of decoding issues. Really understanding what drives product value and gets users to "stick" is so critical. In the early days, there can be lots of distracting noise, fuelled by a product’s broad applicability or by competing needs of users. The most important signals to uncover quickly are those from high-expectation users who would be extremely disappointed without your service. Tackling it from this perspective will reduce your risk of getting bogged down with insignificant stuff or blindsided by big stuff.
5. Embrace the struggle in order to get to the “aha” moment. Or as I sometimes refer to it as the “Oh S***!” moment. The struggle with product-market fit is necessary when it comes to running a startup. To get to the right point, you need to put in the time and the sweat. Remember that while startups move fast, they’re not get-rich-quick schemes. They require you to do something different – not copy others – and that, by its very nature, requires moving out of your comfort zone, trying things that have never been done before and pushing the limits of your imagination.
In summary, whether you’re a first-time founder or a serial entrepreneur, the process to uncover product-market fit is strenuous and challenging – yet completely worth the ride considering the potential impact your idea could have on the world. If you’re going through this process right now – as we just did at Charli – I encourage you to keep thrashing, keep tussling and keep fighting until you reach your “aha” moment. It’s a challenge worth taking.
A lot of us have felt the chaos of finding product-market fit, share your story in the comments.