As I approach two years working on Lattice, I now believe early stage startups should operate in two very distinct modes; before product market fit and after product market fit.
I don’t have an exact definition for product market fit, but I think if you’re honest with yourself, you know it when you see it. When you start to get product market fit, selling isn’t so hard anymore, people aren’t just testing your product to be nice, and you are convinced that your product is actively making customers’ lives easier.
Here are the top things I think startups should do before they find product market fit:
Spend as little cash as possible so you have as long as possible to find product market fit. The best way to save cash is by not hiring a lot of people. You and your cofounder(s) will be the ones who have to find product market fit anyway, so keep the rest of your team as lean as you can to give yourself as much time as possible.
Talk to customers like your company depends on it. You’re not going to just dream up product market fit, the market is going to pull it out of you. You don’t need some fancy customer development process, you need lots of real-talk conversations with people about their problems and a mutual exploration of how you can solve them. If you are in the vicinity of a real problem with a real customer, they will be more than willing to do this with you because they will want you to solve their problem.
Don’t make growth your primary metric before you really feel the market need. Your goal should be to make a small number of customers very happy; if you can do this, there will be more like them and you’ll be able to make them happy, too. You might feel a ton of pressure to “grow 7% a week!” or whatever before you really have a product people need. Resist this if you can, the market will pull the growth from you when you’re ready for it.
Don’t lie to yourself about whether you’re starting to get product market fit or not. A good rule of thumb might be if you’re not sure, you probably aren’t there yet. Peter Reinhardt of Segment gives a great talk about what it looks like when you have it. In his telling, it’s not some squishy spectrum from customer disinterest to interest. It’s stark, and it’s the difference between customers saying “sounds cool” or “when will it be able to do x and y? I need this by next month can you be ready?” I think this is right.
These are some of the things I wish I knew when I was first starting, and how I would spend the very earliest days differently next time.