Marc Andreessen once wrote that product-market fit is the only thing that matters for a startup. And in so many ways I couldn’t agree more.
However, attaining and sustaining product-market fit are two completely different things.
Because a business model is never complete, and therefore product-market fit will continually evolve.
If you look at the Lean Startup methodology, it goes something like this:
I like to think of this in terms of Business Model Exploration, Business Model Validation and Business Model Scale.
In essence, you explore your idea or solution to a problem to see if it resonates with people in a profound way. You then figure out whether or not you can validate a real business model around that initial idea or solution and once you’ve conclusively validated it to the best of your/your teams ability, you scale it like crazy (if only it were as easy as it sounds there).
Ash Muarya defines this really succinctly in his book Running Lean by suggesting a simple question for each stage:
Problem solution fit – do I have a problem worth solving?
Product market fit – have I built something people want?
Both questions are really powerful and to answer ‘YES’ to both of these questions likely means you’re onto something pretty good.
Honestly answering yes is the hard part for a startup.
But sustaining, rather than simply ‘attaining’ product market fit is a fickle thing for a number of reasons, namely: products, technology, markets, competitors and customers change over time.
And as they change, so does the ideal product market fit.
In some cases it’s likely this change gave you your breakthrough idea, enabled you to build a radically superior product and gave you the capabilities to build a solid business model around that product.
So isn’t it funny that this very change is the disrupter you once sought to disrupt?
In numerous ways I see this as a conundrum currently faced by many corporations today. And will likely be a conundrum many startups that have attained product market fit will surely face.
The battle to sustain product market fit is alive and well.
Famous examples such as Kodak, Blackberry and Polaroid all attained product market fit. In fact, they each sustained product market fit for quite some time.
However, as the rate of change accelerated, incumbents differentiated and consumer expectations rose, the product market fit they once enjoyed died.
In fact, if you compare the Fortune list, only 67 (13.4 percent) of the Fortune 500 from the year 1955 still existed by 2011.
This is a challenge that must be addressed once initial product market fit is attained. And only through the constant iteration of your business model and the product or service associated with it will you sustain product market fit.
In today’s world, the need for continuous innovation, as well as constant business model exploration and iteration, is greater than ever.
Launching a product is a thousand times cheaper than it was two decades ago and this is merely one of the barriers to entry that has been smashed in recent times.
This however does not make the search for product market fit any easier.
And even if you find it, or found it some time ago as is the case for large companies, keeping it is no guarantee.
You need to continue exploring your business model, iterating and optimising in line with customer expectations to ensure that product market fit wasn’t just something you once had, it’s something you will sustain for years to come.
So quickly back to Marc Andreessen’s point that product market fit is all that matters.
This is absolutely true for a startup in its infancy.
But for an ‘adolescent’ or ‘adult’ company, the constant evolution and therefore sustainability of product market fit is all that matters.