In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike answer a number of listener questions. The topics include defining product market fit, using cheap developers, when to quit, and more.
Items mentioned in this episode:
- The Quiet Light Podcast w/ Rob Walling
- Closer Sharing
- Sean Ellis: 40% “very disappointed”
Rob: In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Mike and I discuss the definition of product market fit using inexpensive developers, when to quit, and more listener questions. This is Startups For The Rest Of Us episode 409.
Welcome to Startups For The Rest Of Us. The podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching, and growing software products whether you’ve built your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Rob.
Mike: And I’m Mike.
Rob: We’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. Where this week, sir?
Mike: Do you hear that?
Rob: The silence behind you?
Mike: Yes. The kids went back to school. Oh my god, it’s so awesome.
Rob: You’re right. It’s nice that they’re not in the house except for […] of the day or eight hours of the day with buzz time.
Mike: Yes, yes. It is. There are certain cartoons that they watch that could not end soon enough because they’ve watched the same episodes over and over. I’m just like, “Oh, please. Let it stop.”
Rob: Totally. Our kids go back next week. Although by the time that this airs, they’ll have gone back, but as of the time we’re recording, they’re not back in school yet. I’m definitely looking forward to that.
Mike: Yup. What’s up with you?
Rob: Well, I’ve been listening to a few books. As always, I kind of have my audio queue full at all times for when I get through all the podcasts episodes for the week. One I listen to is called Brotopia. It’s about kind of the Silicon Valley boys club and I enjoyed it. It’s by Emily Chang. It really brings a lot of stuff to light. I’m very glad she wrote it. I wasn’t surprised by a lot of it, I was surprised by parts of it in a bad way, just about stuff women have had to deal with in Silicon Valley.
There was a small portion that I felt like, I mean, literary 5-10% of it where I was like, “Okay, I feel like you’re taking this a little too far.” Or, “This is a little over the top.” Or, “This particular argument or example just feels like a little bit sensationalist,” but all that to say, solid 80-90% of it, it was like, “Oh my gosh, yeah.” Things are beginning to change but it’s not nearly enough. I appreciated that book. I think it’s something interesting to read or listen to if that kind of stuff interests you–and it should. Diversity inclusion is something that everyone is thinking about these days or should be.
Another book that I listened to that I didn’t think I would like actually. But I’m a huge fan of Paul Simons—Simon and Garfunkel in particular. There’s a new biography called, Paul Simons: The Life. I figured that anything before Simon and Garfunkel, like his growing up and anything after Simon and Garfunkel would not be that interesting to me. But it turns out it was well-written, it was fascinating, the story, and just the way he reinvents himself every album. […] is painful process of being a maker in what he does. I loved just hearing about creators and how much—it’s the struggle. It’s the struggle of creating things and how hard that is. Anyway, it’s highly recommended if you’re at all into Paul Simon or want to meet and like the artist’s journey, kind of biographies.
The last one is just a fun diversion. I buy a lot of books thinking like, “I’m going to go out on a limb here. It’s not typically what I love.” But it’s by David Spade and it’s called, A Polaroid Guy in a Snapchat World. I’m not a David Spade fan, in particular. The only movies that I ever saw him in were like Tommy Boy. I think he was in two Chris Farley movies. David Spade was on Saturday Night Live in early ‘90s, I believe. I have not followed him, I have no connection to him, but man, this book was funny. He just turned 50 years old and he just talks about kind of being in 5 television shows, and 24 movies. He’s a famous person. He just talks about life in LA, and Instagram, growing up, and other things. It’s funny. I enjoyed that. I feel like at first, it kind of set off in a beaten path. It was something that I could listen to that would take my mind off of work, which is something you’ve talked about a lot, how you read fiction to give your mind a rest from it.
Mike: Yeah, very cool. I haven’t read any of those few books. But I’ve run across Brotopia before, at least I’ve seen mentions of it in a couple of places. It’s interesting but as you said, I wouldn’t expect a lot of the things that are talked about in that to be necessarily surprising because there’s a lot of stuff that’s come out of the Silicon Valley culture that is just unacceptable, to be perfectly honest about it.
Rob: Yeah, it’s pretty over the top.
Mike: What are we talking about this week?
Rob: This week we are answering some listener questions. We have one question that we’ll kick it off with. It’s about using inexpensive developers. An anonymous listener wrote in, he said, “I discovered some of your videos on YouTube and the principles that you teach specifically the idea of an MVP have turned my thinking upside-down and got me really stoked. I’m a lead developer for a government contractor and I have been for 12 years. I believe that good software cannot be pounded out by cheap labor. I’ve seen too many programmers not willing or able to separate concerns like DRY Code–Do Not Repeat Yourself Code, and otherwise make unmaintainable convoluted messes. On the other hand, I need help for my on-the-side startup and cannot pay anywhere near the $100,000 a year for good developer in the States. I’m considering trying cheap overseas labor and I will attempt to review a code and set a standard to keep the code base at an acceptable level of quality. I have a couple of questions.”
This is good stuff because we often, Mike, we often get the questions of, “I’m non-technical. How do I find somebody else? How do I validate?” But this person is technical and so this is a boat you and I have both been in. It’s interesting, right? Because back in, between 2005-2010, I was very much in this boat. I knew you have had folks working on both Audit Shark and Bluetick.
He has three questions. The first one is, “Have you tried this and do you have lessons learned?” Second question is, “I’ve heard you say don’t worry about scaling it until you prove your market. Would you take that as far as hiring cheap developers to write unmaintainable code for your first iteration of the product, assuming the code actually works, of course. Building, kind of a crappy, and repeat, and then rewriting it later.” The third question is, “How have you approached hiring developers?”
We may not be able to in-depth answer all of these. We have talked about hiring developers in the past. I actually talked about it on the Quiet Light podcast, in specific where I went to 5 or 10 minutes of just that topic. Maybe let’s send people over there or they can search the back catalog because we have transcripts of every episode. If you go to startupsfortherestofus.com, type in hiring, you can grab some old episodes from iTunes and you can listen to that. Maybe we just tackle the first two in this episode.
The first one, have we tried what he’s suggesting, kind of hiring cheaper than $100,000 a year labor, and what are our lessons learned from that.
Mike: Yes, I have. Lessons learned is that your expectations for them should be lower than if you were paying more. You can find developers as cheap as $5 or $10 an hour, but you’re going to get what you pay for. I found that when I went above $20 an hour, I stared to get better developers. You’re able to get a wider variety of in-depth experience as well. If you go to the lower levels, you’ll just find somebody who says, “Oh, I can do front code and I could do backend code,” but they can neither one of them very good or they’re really good at one and they’re just terrible at the other. They can do it, they just are not good. You’ll find that the code is completely unmaintainable, and it’s very difficult to work with even if you lay out like, “Here’s the entire process of exactly how to do everything.” It still is just probably not going to work out very well.
That said, leading into number two, not scaling until you prove the market which you take that as far as hiring cheap developers to write unmaintainable code for the first iteration of your product. That’s a harder question to answer because it depends on how long it takes them to get there. The mistakes that they make are going to bite you and there’s two different ways. One is, whatever rewrite you have to go through, and the second is the goodwill that you’re earning with your customers. Because if you’re going through and you’re continually breaking things that used to work, they’re going to get angry with you. It’s just going to make your life more difficult in terms of trying to build the business and build revenue because they’re going to leave, they’re going to churn out because like, “Oh, this product, it breaks every other minute or every other day whenever something new goes in. It’s just a complete mess.” It’s going to be hard to go that route.
I would definitely, if you can afford it, hire slightly better developers, pay more than you probably think that you can potentially afford, or at least you thought that you can afford because it is going to be worth it. You’re not going to find that you’re going to get a $15 or $20 an hour developer. You can get two of them and they will be just as effective as a single developer that’s at $40 or $50 an hour. You’re better off going to better developer route even though you’re probably going to get less code because of the fact that they’re going to do a better job at it.
Now, obviously, there’s wide range of skills between people. Some people may charge $40, some people may charge $80 and they could potentially be similar in skillset not likely, because people tend to know what their value is but definitely, at the lower levels, everything’s like a total crap shoot. Once you get into the middle of $40, $60, $80 an hour, it changes quite a bit. There’s a, I’ll say, an order of magnitude. Difference in capabilities in somebody who’s below $20 versus above $30 or $40.
Rob: Yeah. His statement of, “I really believe that good software cannot be pounded by cheap labor.” It’s like, yeah, don’t be too dogmatic about that because cheap is relative, right? I was charging $125 an hour as a contractor. People would go to hire me and then say, “Well, I can hire someone for $50 and they’re cheap.” Is $50 an hour cheap or is $5 an hour cheap? Keep in mind that this is not absolute. I like your point about—and I’ve found the same thing—$5, $10 an hour, it’s going to be a mess. Know that going in if you’re going to build something like that with $5 or $10 amount.
I have found that decent developers in the $15-$25 an hour range much like you were saying. The interesting part is they maybe good developers but they tend to have something else that leads them to only charge that much. They might have kind of a chaotic personal life, or they might not be able to work as many hours as you need them to, or they might be just a little more sporadic on the hours than you want them too, or they might not be detailed on other things. You can find a good developer who’s cheap. There’s probably something else they’re not super reliable or something like that. That’s a thing to keep in mind is, it’s all trade-offs.
I can think of 20 reasons why any startup that I’m going to start is going to fail. Even back in 2005-2010, when I was much more in the same boat as the original question that asker here, yeah, I was taking risks. I hired a bunch of people that were in the $15 range. Some of them were really good, and some of them were terrible, and I just had to vet them. I found PHP developers, I found ColdFusion developers, I found Classic ASP developer because I had a bunch of different code bases, and I didn’t have the bandwidth to do this. Can this work? Yes, it can, but it’s not going to work the first time. The best developer for $20 an hour is not going to magically drop into your lap. You’re gonna have to look, and you’re going to have to vet, and you’re going to have to put in the work.
I’d say, don’t be too dogmatic about, “Oh, someone need to be making about $100k a year in order to be a good developer.” That’s not true especially not true if you go around the world. But even in the US, you can find good side labor with people who are paying less than $100k a year especially if you hire a junior or mid-level and are able to train them up. That’s a whole other story but we did that with Drip. We took two developers right out of code school so they literally had, I don’t know, six weeks to two months of coding experience. They have done a little on the side. Could they write great code from the start? No. But we had a bunch of safeguards in place. Derek did a lot of code reviews and he kept a close eye on the code base and the code base grew—it’s very large now, and it’s still a very solid code base with a lot of tests covered. Yes, this is possible.
Second question is, “Would you take it so far as hiring to develop unmaintainable code for your first iteration of a product?” My answer is probably not. Personally, I wouldn’t do that. I care too much about not having to rewrite the product because once you start getting momentum, and you start getting a few K in MRR, the last thing I want to do is go back and spend six months rewriting the thing. I’ve seen companies do it. It is agonizing. It kills the founders, not literally, but it is so painful to do.
If I’m going to do it from the start, I would just tackle a smaller problem and I would try to tackle part of the MVP without software at all. You’ve heard us talk about this. Use excel spreadsheets, use emails, there’s a bunch of other interfaces, use cheap virtual assistants to do the grunt work. There are ways to do this without building software. As developers, we think software is the answer to everything. In most cases, it is not. There are some when you need it to be.
If you’re building the next Google, yes, you need software. But I’d say in 80% of the cases where someone says, “I’m going to build my MVP,” and they assume that means software. They’re actually incorrect. You can do a lot of things. You could sell a lot of people on idea, or on mockups, or on the excel, email version of something without ever having to write a line of code. That’s the thinking I’d be doing at this point.
Mike: Yeah, I was going to mention that as an add-on for his second question was that, the first iteration of product doesn’t necessarily need to be software. How far are you down the road of the validation process? I think that once your past validating it and you decided to pull the trigger on it, do it the right way. Hire the developers that you need as opposed to the developers that you can just afford. You need to get good developers in there doing it.
Rob: I’ll even say, I’ve hacked things together myself. I think of the, what is now Founder Café, which is our online community for bootstrap software founders, go to foundercafe.com to learn more about that. But the original version of that, it had a different name altogether, called Micropreneur Academy, I was a software developer. I could’ve built online learning platform. There weren’t very many that were any good at that point. Moodle was in its early days, 2008, 2009. I hacked it together. I hacked it together with WordPress, and plugins, and theme, and that was really it, and I hacked some PHP. It wasn’t great. In the end, we had some technical dab but it was years later, it had already been built up and do a pretty nice business at that point. I’m not saying build a SaaS app that way, but there are workarounds you can look at to make that happen. Thanks for the question, Anonymous. I hope that’s helpful.
Our next question comes from firstname.lastname@example.org. He recorded an audio question so he jumped to the front of the line. It’s a long question but he gives a lot of background, and I appreciate it because oftentimes, people will send short questions, and then we have a lot of questions in our mind about, “Well, they didn’t give this detail or that.” It’s a couple of minutes here, but hang out, and then Mike and I will weigh in.
“Hey guys. My name is Dan Webb from Closer Sharing. Before I get to my question, I just want to say thank you to both of you. Thank you for all you do. I’ve learned a bunch from you guys. I’ve been listening for a few years now. When I first started listening, I tore back through the archives and learned a bunch and have been listening ever since. Thank you, guys, for sticking with it and teaching a lot of people a lot of stuff. Thanks.
Before I get to my question, let me give you a little bit of background. I have a startup. It’s called Closer Sharing. It’s a sermon podcasting platform. It’s a podcasting platform specifically designed for churches, allows the volunteers to quickly and easily use our recorder to record, and tag, and post the sermon each week, and list it on their website, and just takes the pain out of it, of hosting, and getting on their website and all that. We officially launched the product in January of 2017—a little bit over a year and a half ago. I have tried to grow it.
Right now, I currently have seven customers. We have an MRR of $200 a month. We really bootstrapped the thing building it. We only have an outflow of $175 a month who we are in the black. Out of those seven customers, all are original, I have had no churn whatsoever, so everybody that’s using it really likes it. Some have been on it the full year and a half. The latest sign-up was a couple of months ago.
There is no churn. I think it is a good product for the people who get on it. The trick is getting people on it. I have tried cold emailing. I’ve tried Facebook Ads, I have tried conferences. I tend to walk away from each one with one customer. I went to three of them. It really became obvious to me, one of the mistakes I was making a couple of podcast ago when you were talking about SaaS marketing, and I have not been trying to really connect with people and teach them anything. I’ve been just—as I’ve heard some people say—ask him to marry me on the first date sort of thing. I have a series of blog posts in my head that I feel like I should write and get out on my blog, and start sending people to them, and getting people to know me, but I haven’t done that yet. Probably my next project.
We’re well in the year and a half in, I was listening to your last podcast about funding, and some of that made me think as I’ve been thinking maybe I should just say, “Hey, it’s been a year and a half. I’ve only got seven customers. Maybe I should kill it and shift to something else. But then again, I have seven customers and I like them and I like to continue to provide the service for them. But I don’t want to be that guy that’s just clinging to my startup just because I’ve built it. I would like to know if it’s a viable product. I do have a whole list of futures that could make this platform really great, but I don’t want to keep building on it if it’s not a viable product.
My question is, should I keep spending my nights and weekends on this thing—I have a full-time job—and continue to grow really slowly? Should I possibly look for some sort of funding, so I could spend more time on it and possibly grow it quicker? Should I just kill and walk away and work on another product and try to develop it into a business? I’d loved to hear you guys’ thoughts on these things. I appreciate all you do. Thanks, guys.”
Rob: Tough question, huh, Mike? What do you think?
Mike: I think that’s a really tough question. I do hear a couple of things in there in terms of working on the weekends and wanting to build features. I think that that’s very natural for any developer to want to do because that’s comfortable, but at the same time, I think I would go back and I would start looking at metrics in terms of how many people you’re getting in front of, and how many trials sign-ups you’re getting, how many actual sign-ups you’re getting, I don’t know if there’s a free trial or anything like that, but those are the types of things that I would probably look at first, and see if there are obvious places where—like your sales funnel is just simply not working.
If you’re not getting 1000 or 2000 uniques a month, then that’s probably the place to start and try and figure out, “How do I get more traffic?” Because there’s this whole funnel that has to be in place in order for you to be able to build a business. That’s longer-term stuff. I want to make sure that I emphasize that there’s a difference between that type of stuff and then shorter-term stuff that you can do which you’d mentioned that you’ve done some Facebook ads and some cold emails and things like that. But I don’t know if you really have much on the website in terms of what you’re offering to people. I think the blog post sounds like a good idea in terms of education but I’m not seeing email newsletter sign-up list or anything like that on the website.
It’s more of a, “Come buy this product.” And there’s really not much in terms of education about how the churches that would invest in this type of products will deliver better sermons or would engage more with their church members. I think that’s what you need to key in on this because that’s what’s going to be important to them. The professional sound, they’re not going to care nearly as much about that as you are. You have to ask yourself, “What is it that’s actually important to them? How can they connect better with their members? How could thy reach more of them? How can they be more convenient to them in a digital age where people don’t necessarily need to show up at a certain time to see a movie, they can just stream it On Demand.”
That’s what you’re trying to cater to. That’s one of the problems that they’re probably having. Offer advice and solutions and different techniques and things like that in the form of educational material, and then try and build up that early part of the sales funnel. I would absolutely try and contact them directly as opposed to just sending emails because those are very easy to ignore. Pick up the phone, I mean, it’s probably not that difficult to reach them. I would imagine that most of their phone numbers are available.
If you’ve got people that you’re cold emailing, you’d probably have a way to find out who they are, and get a phone number for them, and call them and ask them. Talk to them and say, “What are your problems around this and around building a community?” because it really seems to me that’s what your product is trying to do. How do you engage with them and getting the information directly out of their mouths is going to be very helpful? I wouldn’t just call 5 or 10. I would call 50 or 100.
Put a line in the sand at some point in the future like you’d ask about whether or not you’d kill it. “What is your line in the sand? How much more effort do you put into this?” and really put the pedal down to see what is going to work. “How much effort can you justify putting into it?” and then once you’ve hit that, “Have you hit whatever your goals are or do you see a light at the end of the tunnel?” in either of those cases, you can keep going. But if you get there and there’s nothing else you can try, or you can’t think of anything else, I would kill it at that point.
Rob: I feel like this is such a tough market because some churches don’t tend to adopt. Some churches adopt technology but a lot of them do not. The older churches with aging congregations are just unlikely to need podcasting. You’re dealing with such a small subset of the entire market. If you think about, in the world, the number of people who, period who listen to podcasts is very small. My mom and dad don’t know how to do that. If you just break that down into a subset, and do a subset of like, “Now it’s churches, and now it’s churches who have people maybe under age 40, or age 50 who also know how to use podcasts.” Those are the only ones that have any type of need for this service. It’s a very small market and it’s a market where obviously, in conversations, I’m sure that he’s learned that they are just not that interested in adopting it. That’s the first problem.
The second issue, Dan, is you have a top of funnel problem, it sounds like. If you had 1000 or 10,000 unique visitors to your website each month, you think you would convert them? I don’t know. But generating visitors is going to be really hard to do. If you’ve been doing for two years and only have seven customers, that’s a bad sign. That’s a sign that something’s not resonating here. I think a big question I would ask myself is, “Are you tired of working on this? Are you done yet? Are you still excited to invest time?” not even, “Do you still believe it can work but are you excited to get up and think about this problem and try do to it?” I would stop building features altogether. You shouldn’t be coding anything which doesn’t sound like you are.
Your biggest problem is, it sounds like might be driving traffic, or maybe driving traffic hasn’t worked at all and it’s only been in-person conversations, in which case ask yourself, “Is a $29 a month product worth doing high-tech sales for?” because for me, it’s not. It’s going to grow very slowly. You need $100-$200 a month minimum, to make that kind of approach work. I really don’t think funding will fix this.
This is not a problem of, “I need money to scale or I need to put in more time to get to a point where this product is worthwhile.” It seems that you have a worthwhile product already. You’ve a lot of cool features. More time to market? What would you do? It sounds like you have tried a bunch of stuff. I mean, you haven’t tried everything, maybe you didn’t try enough of it, didn’t have the budget, but I’m cautiously skeptical that if you have $100,000 in your bank account tomorrow, and you could go full-time on this for, let’s just say, nine months and had some budget for stuff, I don’t see this taking off like a rocket ship based on how you’ve described.
I think my biggest piece of advice, given what you’ve said and looking at the website, it seems like a pretty cool tool in all honesty. You have features like automatic intros and outros, professional sound without the work, automatic feeds, is there another vertical that could use this? Should it be horizontal? Should it go across all verticals, basically? Should you not limit it to churches, is what I’m saying.
Right now, you’re marketing to churches, is that too limiting, and is there either another vertical that would have so much more uptake on this or just open it to everyone, and then poof, you become the ‘how to start a podcast superfast’ service. Maybe you make it a little cheaper but sign-up for six months or a year at a time and you pay upfront. I don’t know if that’s the direction but that’s where I’d be looking. Are there already services that do that? Because at that point, if you could get into that space, now you have affiliate potential because you have people who teach other people how to podcast. Would they potentially refer you for an affiliate commission? That’s a bigger space is people trying to start their own podcast. Could you go after businesses or startups or whatever?
Again, this is something I would either try to research, do some customer development, put some digging into that because I feel like that’s a space where there are more likely going to be folks who will actually adopt this, and consider jumping on this train because it seems that you’ve built a decent piece of software–at least from the marketing side. It looks pretty interesting and has some features I haven’t seen elsewhere, but I don’t the competitive landscape. That’s probably where I would look at or shut it down. That’s the other option that I see.
I always hate to make a recommendation like that because I feel like the founder knows better than anyone else. They often need to see […] that’s where having a mastermind would help, right, of people who’ve been along in the journey. But to hear a formative voice and then make a recommendation that, you should check your product down, it’s tough. It’s tough for me to say that but, I think that’s a more viable option than trying to scale this up in the church space or raising the funding.
Last question of the day came from Twitter. It came from @chelso and he said, “Regarding episode 406. What is your definition of product market fit?” and then I started tying and then thought, there’s always so much nuance to a question like this, and Twitter is not the place to do this. This is either a blog post or it’s a conversation like this. I think product market fit is not a binary thing. I definitely think it’s a continuum and I think you kind of ease into it.
There is a nice measure that Sean Ellis created. It’s this survey you can send out that says, “How would you feel if you could no longer use this product?” insert product name here. The four options are; very disappointed, somewhat disappointed, not disappointed–it isn’t really that useful, or NA–I don’t really use the product, or I no longer use the product. If you get more than 40% who say they would be very disappointed, that is how Sean Ellis has defined product market fit. I think that would be the most common definition. I have run this exact survey on some of my products.
I know Hiten Shah has run this exact survey on, not only his products, but on a bunch of other products. He’ll run it on Google Analytics. He’ll just ask a bunch of people, and I don’t know if he uses a mechanical trick or how he does that, but Google Analytics definitely has product market fit, at least according to his slide deck and some talking he’s done. We will link to SlideShare, this Hiten Shah presentation in the show notes so that you can take a look at the work that he did.
I’ll leave it there, Mike, so you can weigh in. I have additional thoughts and kind of my own personal thoughts of when I saw Drip–what it looked and felt like before product market fit as we were getting there, and then once we had it, from my perspective. I do want to weigh in, but I don’t want to sit here and monologue and not let you weigh in.
Mike: True. This is probably not going be much different from other people on what they would comment but you’ll know it when you see it. I know that’s kind of a hand-wavy type of thing but there are some people who will look at metrics–so Sean Ellis has that product market fit survey. If you’re more than, I think he said that 40% are, I forgot what the exact percentage was, but certain percentage say that they are either somewhat disappointed or very disappointed that they would go away.
Rob: 40% said they would be very disappointed if it went away. 40% or more then, by his definition, you have product market fit.
Mike: Right. Like you said, that’s a very, I’ll say, exact in definition. I won’t necessarily say that that’s the only definition. It’s kind of my view of it. I like the way Rob phrases like, “There’s a continuum of it.” That’s why I say you’ll know it when you see it because if you’re involved in the startup from beginning to end or wherever you’re trying to figure out like, have you gotten to product market fit, you’ll know it when you see it because things will start to tick up and it will be obvious that you’re on the right track. Because it’s a continuum, you’re never going to be like, “We have perfect product market fit.”
You think things can always improve, they can always get better, and the market’s always changing, your product’s always changing, your marketing messages are going to be always changing–these things that interact with one another that you’ll never have this perfect product market fit. Even if you did, it’s very likely something that something is going to change and throw it all out of whack in 18 seconds.
Really, what you have to do is, if you don’t have the data, if you haven’t run a survey like this, you kind of have to go off of a gut feeling. My general view on it is that if you take the product and you put it in front of people who are in what you believe to be the correct target market, and they actually are, do you win much more than you lose? Are those people going to sign-up and say, “Yes, I would like this,” Or, “No, we’re not just interested.” Because that will tell you one of two things, either one, you’re pointing at the wrong market or your product is not good enough and it’s just not doing what people need it to do.
The second piece, which I didn’t mention yet, is that those people will have to actually stick around. You can explain to them, “Hey, this product will do X, Y, and Z for you. It’ll make all these problems go away.” But if you don’t also deliver on it, they’re going to churn out. You have to figure out ways to make them stick around. Those are two different competing things and sometimes, your things should make them stick around or going to be more features–sometimes it’s educational, or onboarding, or something like that. That’s a slightly different problem than product market fit. Somebody may believe that they need a particular solution, and they’ll pay for it, but then they don’t use it.
Think of any weight loss program on the planet. People buy into that stuff and then they don’t use it. Why don’t they use it? Is it a product market fit problem or is it a customer retention problem? That’s a hard thing to figure out because if they churn out, if they stop paying for it, if they stop using it, then is it because other things got in the way or the product doesn’t actually do what they needed it to do? There’s an attribution problem of, “Why did they churn out?” If it’s because it wasn’t actually a good product market fit and they bought into the messaging, but it didn’t solve their problem, then you don’t have product market fit. If they churned out because they just don’t have the chops or time or anything like that to actually do it, then that’s a slightly different problem–that’s a retention problem not necessarily a product market fit problem.
Rob: This is why it’s a good conversation to have. I won’t talk about weight loss stuff because I don’t even know if product market fit applies to that in particular. I mean, it does, but I don’t think about it in terms on that one. I think of a SaaS app, a retention is a product market fit problem, in my opinion. That if someone’s not getting on-boarded, not using it, then the need isn’t deep enough, and you haven’t found that fit with the market. The question that I ask, the way I frame it in my head is, “Have you built something people or businesses need?” That’s the question that I’ve asked.
I think Paul Graham says, “Have you built something people want?” I think it’s a great way to phrase it but have you built something that people or businesses need? Let’s stick to businesses because we talk a lot about B2B SaaS here. If you built something people desperately need, and they start using it, can you still fail, or can you still grow slowly? Yes, I believe you can even with product market fit because if the market’s too small, and you tap out, that’s one way.
If your market’s only $10,000 a month then you can own the whole market and really just tap out very quickly. Or if your market is huge but you can’t reach them in a scalable fashion, that’s a totally different problem than product market fit. I think there’s different problem than product market fit. I think there’s being able to build something that people need, and businesses need, and then there’s the ability to reach them in a scalable way and get them onboarded in a way that doesn’t kind of break the bank.
The three questions I think about, in order. The first one you have to ask—this is before you’ve built anything— “Is a problem you’re choosing to solve worth solving? i.e., is it much of a pain point for people?” then you’re going to start building it or you’re going to start validating it. Customer development even before you build it. You need find out, “Are people willing to pay for a solution to this problem?” Then you propose a solution and that’s where you hit that very first milestone is problem solution fit. You’ve proposed a solution to a problem. Does anyone care? Is it worth building at all? Are people willing to pay for that? And then product market fit is almost this, it’s kind of a twisted question or it’s a weird way to think about it, but it’s like, “Have you solved that problem well? Have you solved better than the alternatives? Is the problem worth solving? Are people willing to pay for it?”
You can build a good product but if you can’t reach the people and get them to sign-up, you’re going to really have a problem. I almost feel like problem solution fit is one, product market fit is the next, and then there’s this one, market marketing fit. I just made that up today because I was thinking, “Can you reach your market?” is almost the question there.
I remember when Drip started to scale up, at first it was like, people were churning, churn was high, trial to conversion rates were low and then they just flipped. Trial to conversion went up, churn started plummeting, and we started growing very quickly even with fewer trials that we’ve had in previous months. That’s when I knew, we are a product market fit, or at least I thought, and sure enough I did that survey, the very disappointed thing. I remember thinking it was going be really high because everyone was like, “Well, Drip is so great. Everyone’s switching.” and blah blah blah. We got like 43%, 46%, somewhere in there. I remember being disappointed by that because I thought, “Oh, man. I thought more people would be very disappointed.” but as it turns out, it’s really hard to get above 40%. That’s why Sean Ellis sets the bar where it is.
Mike: I think one of the things that you explained probably better than I did because I didn’t actually put a label on it was that, when I said, if you put the product in front of people who are in your target market, basically, that’s bypassing the problem of the product market fit piece of it and trying to ascertain whether or not you have a problem solution fit. Because by doing that, you’re making an assumption that you already have product market fit and you’re able to get the right people there.
If you don’t have that, if you get what you think are the right people, and you put it front of them and they don’t buy, then you probably do not have that product market fit. It’s just kind of a little subtle thing that I, I guess I talked about there, but I didn’t really explain like that. Applied to the previous piece and you’re just trying to avoid the whole marketing side of things. You just say, “Are we actually solving the right problem for the people that you think need that?”
Anyway, I think that will about wrap us up. Chelso, I hope that was extremely helpful for you. If you have question for us, you can call it into our voicemail number at 1-888-801-9690 or you can email it to us at email@example.com. Our theme music is an excerpt from We’re Outta Control by MoOt used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us in iTunes by searching for startups and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.
For anyone else looking for Hiten Shah’s slide deck re: product/market fit surveys mentioned in the episode, I believe this is it: