Product research

You need to rethink the product-market fit to stand out

Opinions expressed by Contractor the contributors are theirs.

Most startup founders I talk to make the same fundamental mistake: they don’t really understand their target buyers. And just as often, they are certain that they do. The causes of this common failure are diverse, ranging from being stuck on a specific target market ideal or limited by a small budget that does not allow for proper research. Or maybe you’re just not positioning it correctly.

The different people around your product

Who is your target buyer? Who is the decision maker? Who attends a product demonstration? Who is the end user of the product? Who is your biggest promoter? What type of buyer/user/business stays longer with your product? I’m probably missing a few of these basic questions myself, because each business model asks different questions.

Related: Product-Market Fit: How to Measure If Your Business Meets a Need

Take user differentiation. If you have a project management tool, you can have multiple types of users, each requiring different resources, marketing campaigns, and values. Your managers oversee everything and more often than not require additional functionality. Then there are regular users who need you to focus on usability and make things as easy as possible for them. And sometimes you have the independent user (e.g. freelancer/consultant) who needs different functionality and reacts to completely different arguments than your usual “helping teams work” mission statement.

Most startups (and, unfortunately, this goes far beyond the seed stage) simply have a rough ideal customer profile. Not understanding exactly who you are targeting, who makes the final purchasing decision, who can promote a product, etc. is what drives businesses to failure. Many SaaS tools have a complex ecosystem of people of interest. For each you must:

  • Know their pains and their gains.
  • Get a full understanding of their tasks at hand.
  • Map their journey and touchpoints.
  • Understand what drives them to engage with your brand.

Each industry has its particularities

The best strategies for standing out still depend on your industry. Think of anything related to developer tools or open source. I’ve seen so many startups in this space jump into content creation. The SEO genre. Sometimes even before launch. When targeting developers, content can work if you can cover topics that interest them and have a strong content distribution system in place. Hacker News can’t always save the day.

To do this, you must fully understand the needs and pain points of your target market. The challenge is to turn all of this into messages that they can resonate with, ultimately creating a community. Twitter, Discord, GitHub, YouTube — even local meetups work.

That’s what you focus on first. Barriers to differentiation extend into crowded industries like project management. Let’s face it: we’re all familiar with one or two or five or more project management tools. This is what makes it one of the most complicated industries. That’s why, whether you’re marketing for a project management app, time tracking, or any other productivity solution, your messaging is predisposed to sameness.

I came to the project management space a little over four years ago, when Asana already had the money to sponsor everything and was used everywhere. So what did they do to make sure people still remember them? They continually tweaked their messaging. I specifically followed’s messaging and positioning journey. They’ve grown from a simple tool that simplifies the way your team works, to the go-to solution for remote teams (go figure) and, as you’ll find them today as they “build a new category,” the Work BONE.

This is just one example of a company constantly trying to reinvent itself. Similarity is scary, so if you don’t have the millions to juggle technological innovation (eg see Notion and Airtable), test your messaging.

The new way is through better messaging

What if I told you that you might be well on your way to adapting to the product market, but you:

  1. You have misunderstood who your real users, makers and promoters are and what they want. (This is obvious if you’re hesitant to expand your marketing efforts to new audiences or don’t want to tweak your current offering a bit because you’re afraid it’s a waste of time.)
  2. Having an excellent product, technologically superior to competitors, but not knowing how to position it. (Obvious when you have several features requested by the user base or have opted for your solution, but you are still far behind your competitors.)

Related: How Customer Discovery Can Dramatically Improve Your Product-Market Fit

A message card can change the way you position your product and finally make its value obvious to the world. Think about the market fit of messages before you even start measuring the market fit of products. In fact, getting your messaging approved early on (right from beta) will help you continually improve your value proposition as you move towards product-market fit. Just speed up the feedback loops and don’t be afraid to commit 10-20% of your time and resources to a channel with high growth potential. Yes, even if it doesn’t seem like your ideal target market.
This is how Notion grew organically, with minimal effort on their part. They mainly target the B2B space, right? That’s where the most money is. But the B2B world also has people – humans like you and me with interests outside of business. So naturally, Notion grew through its community of individuals interested in self-improvement, reducing procrastination, and ditching old bullet journals. This market isn’t exactly ideal in terms of ROI, but it brought the word of mouth and virality they needed to scale.
Most of your products have the reserved product-market fit. You just need to be honest about who your market really is and what they really want, not your theory of what the product might look like.