Achieving product-market fit

My first product management role was in 1994.

What ... 1994?

Yep. Pre .com even.

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

It was called First Class Law and the bulletin board was a digital environment connecting community legal centres from all around Australia into a virtual space where they could share information, news and views and where they could collaborate on work projects.

We had great take up and usage and people loved it. I worked hard to understand the needs of our customer base and spent a lot of time doing customer and tech support and being a Community Manager. Admittedly a large part of its success was the people using it, but clearly, it met an unmet need. It had Product-Market fit.

It lasted for years.

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 .com. "Seriously!" Wait, it gets better.

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

We lasted a year, maybe 18 months.

Burned around $1M in cash a month, never launched anything. Got a trip to Seattle though, where our brand agency was and where I had the enviable task of creating the product communications and collateral for a product I never ever saw. [fancy being an Australian company with a brand agency in Seattle...]

Why didn’t it work? After all, it was actually a decent idea, we spoke a lot about how we wanted customers to be much more empowered, to own their power when it came to banking and managing their financial position.

It failed because it was totally shit execution. We didn’t understand the market.

We just attempted to build a product straight-away. No market research, no 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 the problems/needs, the product, the market, anything. 

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 product hypotheses and testing them, and validating the problems. What we now call achieving Product-Market Fit.

What typically happens though is this rush to the awesome solution you’ve been chatting about over your lattes and sticky notes, or the one your CEO gave you after he chatted with his brother-in-law (note to self: new article on the ideas that come from a sample set of 1!).

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 the product-market fit.

Be vigilant you product people. Vigilant, all the time.

I learnt lots of great lessons that year and I have to be vigilant myself. Keep looking for the product-market fit.

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