Product Market Fit – not just for tech brands

Following a webinar I did the other day for Young Foodies, a viewer got in touch with me.  He commented that it was great to see “Product Market Fit” – a tech concept – applied to the world of food and drink.

This struck me, because it wasn’t something I had intended.

However he is dead right – the parallels between the concept and what I’ve been recommending for brands are huge, so I thought I’d explore that a little more here.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, Product Market Fit (popularised by books such as The Lean Startup and Growth Hacker Marketing) essentially means designing a product which fits market needs so well that it achieves explosive, effortless growth.

It’s common in the tech world, where it’s achieved by constant tinkering with a product until it catches fire – often undergoing a total transformation away from the original concept in the process.

To give a classic example, Instagram began its life as a location-based social network called Burbn, which contained an optional photo feature.  As the developers tinkered with the product they came to notice that users gravitated towards this feature (which they thought was unimportant) more than any other.  Thus they eventually decided to orient the whole business around it, relaunched, and gained 100,000 users within a week.

As you can see this is a textbook case of “listening to your business” and following it where it wants to go, rather than pulling it where you want it to go – a theme I’ve mentioned many times before.

This to me is common sense.  What is perplexing however is that this concept is only widespread in tech, and is almost unheard of outside of it.

In most industries, the process is almost the reverse.  You build the thing you want to build, the thing you think is right, and then you try to force it on the market.  Success or failure is often put down to the strength of the marketing – rather than the inherent strength of the company.  Marketers have no option to say that they don’t think the actual product is right.  They simply have to work with what they’re given.

As Ryan Holiday said in Growth Hacker Marketing:

“As a traditional marketer, I can think of precisely zero times when we went back to the drawing board after seeing a less than stellar response. It wasn’t permitted. Our only move was to put more muscle behind bad products and companies.”

Looking back, I can see it was a lack of PMF thinking which prompted me to set up Basic Arts in the first place.

At the time I was working for an agency that was tasked with launching a new cider for one of the big alcohol conglomerates.  It was, on paper, a good brief, but I struggled with it because the actual product itself had almost nothing to recommend it.  It wasn’t bad by any means; it was just a duplicate of what existed already.  It would’ve had no chance of succeeding by itself “in the wild” if it hadn’t had the massive leverage of its parent company behind it.

To me this was not only bad business – it was borderline unethical.  To force a brand on people which the market hadn’t organically chosen felt like crony corporatism at its most rank.

Thus I made it my business to help people create companies the market actually wants.  Companies where advertising, retailer relationships, and all that other stuff are simply nice bonuses – things which the business could succeed with or without.

This is probably why I’ve gravitated towards working with independent brands: because they can’t rely on brute force to succeed.  They need Product Market Fit, whilst the big corporates can generally get away without it.

Ultimately I guess that’s why it hasn’t travelled much outside of tech.  You can’t trick or compel people into using a tech product they don’t want to use.  It’s a far more “pure” market than others in that way.  That’s why they’ve embraced this concept (plus I’m sure the cheapness of tinkering has something to do with it as well).

However, in other industries, you can succeed by other means.  Budgets.  Relationships.  Logistics.  Smothering competitors.  Scale.  Anything other than creating something which flies purely by virtue of the value it adds to people’s lives.

If these other routes are an option for you, then fair enough, go for it.  I probably would.

But if they aren’t, or if you want to create something truly meaningful, then you have to feel your way to Product Market Fit.  No matter what industry you’re in.

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