Recycle your scars
Getting to product market fit encompasses running a series of experiments successfully until a product offering is realized which can be sold repeatedly. Eureka! Builders – who can be founders or product folk – shout and cheer when they have figured a repeatable sales process for the set of messaging, features and pricing they have been experimenting towards for sometime.
After running through a few rounds of sales or user acquisition cycles, they declare that Product Market Fit (PMF) has been achieved. Builders feel that the total addressable market is clearly understood and worth pursuing with existing offering. They fly at the speed of light making incremental improvements to capture the market. Revenue, user base, usage or other relevant north star metric becomes the holy grail and growth is pursued at all costs with every ounce of energy.
Post PMF, every startup comes to a point in it’s journey where the core product is not enough to pursue bigger, wilder dreams (markets). The incremental improvements don’t help anymore and either have diminishing returns or contribute to product complexity. Here starts the hunt for the next big thing.
Some builders turn towards competitors for ideas, others conduct internal hackathons. Many arm tiger teams to explore moon shots while leveraging existing customer base. I have realized that there is one thing most shy away from – their battle scars.
All those failed experiments from yesteryears. Often, when a strategy similar to one the early team tried back in the day (prior PMF) is shared, those early learnings are shared as reason (or excuse) to why it “doesn’t work”.
We forget that there are various internal and external dynamics at play during execution. An idea may have not stuck because the market wasn’t mature or the ecosystem didn’t have the infrastructure for the kind of things were trying to do. Maybe major consumer preference, social or technological shifts have happened since. If an old idea is being presented — something which failed previously — it is important to ask what social or technological realities have changed for us to reconsider this scar — giving us PTSD.
There are some pre-requisites for ensuring that your pains of recycling these scars are worth it:
1. Writing (aka learnlogs)
It is paramount that every builder writes. In the early days the team is small and tribal knowledge is easy to propagate. Everyone is watching the dashboards and Slack bot messages to monitor new user sign-ups. Anything that goes wrong is visible to all. It is essential that this tribal knowledge – esp. around experiments – stating early learnings, social/technological realities and market dynamics are recorded for your future-self. These priors with maximum context will help you easily baseline and evaluate when older ideas are being presented at a later stage.
2. 0→1 product team
Building product from scratch is it’s own art form. It is very different from adding features or optimizing growth. Taking a product from zero to one – be it pre or post-PMF – requires a different level of rigour, process, patience and experience. For post-PMF it requires you to have have product talent which can navigate your — now larger — organization, get buy in and required investments while running a skunkworks team. Dare I say, you need some:
Intrapreneurship. The product folks running post-PMF should be able to think like founders while having the luxury of revenue (runway) and pre-existing behavioral understanding of customer base to leverage rather than worrying about the first sale (like pre-PMF builders). 0→1 product folks need to be able to strengthen the moat and almost lead a small rebel team to greener pastures — while recording their learnings.
3. Core product experience
It is essential for the 0→1 product team which is running this post-PMF project to have deep experience with the core product offering. This means that they understand customer behaviour and the Company’s core value prop — fundamental customer promise — really well to be able to leverage it across the new intrapreneurial venture.
Next time when looking for post-PMF ideas maybe open that learnlog and recycle those scars instead of hunting for a shiny new thing.
Thank you Kevin N. for reviewing an early draft of this post.