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Product-Market Fit Isn't Black and White

The hope – and often the expectation – is to develop a product that is ideally suited for a large set of specific customers. The sequence goes like this: Establish perfect product-market fit. Launch. Sales flood in. Competitors fail to catch up. Have a massive exit that’s glorified in the media. Retire in paradise. Maybe become a TED speaker and best-selling author.


And then there is reality.


The concept of an unrivaled and singular product-market fit is as much unrealistic as it is limiting. One hundred percent market share means you’re doing something illegal or the market is so small or narrowly defined that it’s not important. Then, as inevitable market changes occur, there is no place for the offering to evolve or for the company to pivot.


The good news is that product-market fit is less like two puzzle pieces and more like two piles of LEGOs – a product pile and a market pile. In the jigsaw puzzle, there is a pile of pieces and two fit together in only one way. LEGOs, on the other hand, can be mixed and matched to make a unique and flexible pairing.


From the product pile, many things can be done to reshape the offering. Design, features, quality standards, user experience, and cosmetics can be changed, as can levels of support and service. Furthermore, portfolios or bundles can be created with complementary offerings for unique value.


On the market side, it’s possible to mix-and-match market segment elements to define a group of customers that respond to a unique mix of product attributes, price, message, and channel. Move up- or down-market across the spectrum of low- and high-price. Move to an adjacent market sector. Use different words to describe the offering in various media. Go direct-to-customer or use a value-added distributor, and so on.


Sometimes the idea that product-market fit is more like a puzzle is simpler because there is just one workable combination. The degrees of freedom that come from all the combinations of product and market takes analysis and resources to sort out. If both sides aren’t built properly, there won’t be an aligned fit. Yet the level of flexibility with LEGOs allows for easier pivots as markets change versus being stuck with a singular puzzle piece and nowhere to put it.  

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