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Keeping the focus on finding product-market fit

Finding product-market fit

My first product role was in 1994. Yep, 1994, pre the .com boom even.

It was an electronic bulletin board for the Australian community legal sector. We followed in 1996 with our first website.

It was called First Class Law and it was a digital environment connecting community legal centres from all around Australia into a virtual space where they could share information and collaborate. Take up was excellent, usage consistent and people loved it. Thinking about metrics and measures, acquisition, activation, retention and referral were tracking brilliantly. We’d worked hard to understand the needs of our customer base and spent considerable effort looking after our customers. First Class Law met an unmet need, it had product-market fit.

It lasted for more than a decade.

It met an unmet need, it had Product-Market fit.

Fast forward to 2000, I was part of an Australian mining company that did a “reverse back-door listing” to turn itself into a financial services tech startup. Seriously? Wait, it gets better.

It was going to be the 21st century platform for financial services companies that would place customers “at the centre of the experience”.

We lasted just over a year. Meanwhile it burned around AUD$1M in cash a month and we never launched.

First ideas for solutions are almost never the right ones

Why didn’t it work? After all, it was a decent idea, our intentions were valid; we wanted customers to be empowered, to own their journey when it came to managing their financial position. It failed because it didn’t have product-market fit. We didn’t understand the market and we attempted to build a solution straight-away. No market research, no product strategy, and very very little customer insight; I don’t recall any of us talking or engaging with customers.

On top of that, no validation — of customers, of their problems/needs, or the potential solution. I learnt some valuable lessons from that experience particularly about how much better the pay-off is, how much more likely your product will succeed when you spend the requisite time in the problem space; learning from and talking with customers, analysing the market, articulating problem hypotheses and testing them. What we now call finding product-market fit.

The desire to rush to a solution affects every great Product Manager I've met. But staying vigilant and focused on figuring out if there is a need in the market for the great idea your company has, will save you in spades.

What happened to us was a rush to the awesome solution you'd worked up over lattes and sticky notes (it was serviettes back then!), or the one the CEO came up with after having a crap experience with a banking website. But you have to be vigilant because it’s easy to slip back into those bad habits of building solutions before you’ve validated whether there is a problem or unmet need out there in the first place. We all do it, we forget to go find product-market fit.

So be vigilant product people. Test and iterate your way to product-market fit.

Given how bad this company ended up, probably the one thing I did well ... I worked for cash not equity. Phew.

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