Talent Along the Road to Product Market Fit
As part of this series on what I’m calling Growing Pain Gotchas, it is worth exploring how decisions regarding acquisition of talent along the the road to product market fit can go wrong or slow the trajectory for success. Understanding and finding product market fit is essential for startup success. Likewise, it is intuitively obvious that anyone building and seeking to grow a company (or a new division in a larger one), would be laser focused on acquiring the “right” talent to do so. No one really argues with this concept. Who in their right mind would allocate scarce resources to the “wrong” talent at this time in a company’s infancy when the allocation of scarce resources is so vital to success? The challenge of course comes into play in terms of how a leadership team or founder defines “right.”
But isn’t product market fit really the most important thing, you say? In a recent article that I read in the First Round Review newsletter, Punit Soni shared advice to potential founders who want to navigate the leap from larger companies to founding a startup. In this article, he noted a key principal in his experience that resonated with me as I prepared this article:
“Startups die at the mercy of go-to-market, not at the hands of product.”
Punit Soni, Co-founder Suki
Blindspots in Hiring for Go-To-Market Acumen
Some founders, often hiring in their own image so to speak, believe hiring the “right” talent means hiring the best technical developer or product talent. And sometimes this view unintentionally overlooks go-to-market experience or acumen. Other times, technical founders go so far as to even disregard the value of talent that is astute in go-to-market. My take and position on what is the “right” talent comes from observing and working with successful and struggling startups in action. I have concluded that finding the “right” talent must incorporate finding go-to-market astute talent early in a startup’s life cycle as an important means to rapidly get to a solid understanding of product market fit.
PMF is originally attributed to Andy Rachleff who famously said, “The only thing that matters is getting to product/market fit. Product/market fit means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market.” Rachleff still lectures on this concept today. In one of my favorite bookmarked Marc Andreessen oldie but goodie articles from 2007, Andreessen talks about the role of PMF and highlights the fact that you only really have three variables when you are starting a company: Team, Product, and Market. Andreessen places his bets squarely on the third variable – the Market – as being the most important and defining for future success.
Achieving Product Market Fit Success
There are many reasons that folks stumble down the sometimes long and illusive road to finding PMF. The complexity of each situation is rich and it is impossible to surface a single culprit to the challenge and I’m certainly not suggesting there is one single culprit. I am instead highlighting where I have seen blindspots or missed opportunities. The nature and mix of talent is important and it is well worth the time for founders and even their investors and advisors to reflect on their own strategies when PMF seems illusive.
History is littered with products that were technologically superior taken to market by companies that ultimately failed or never got out of the gate. Software companies in particular can fall prey to this downfall. If you build a new company and expect it to be successful solely based upon hiring the best of the best software development team, you may in fact end up with a technologically superior product but no customers. Not placing value on investments in a balance of talent that understands markets and knows how to engage effectively and with a solid dose of objectivity and curiosity with potential buyers is going to make getting to PMF much more difficult if not impossible.
Talent in the Team, Product, Market Triangle
Talent as an enabler for finding PMF is an important consideration and must go beyond pure technical and product strength. Roles can vary, there is no special title that must be held by these folks. What matters is that the individuals effectively have the ability to listen, analyze, and glean insights about what people “desperately need” and that they will pay for. Bringing the “right” talent to the overall mix means incorporating those with the curiosity and understanding of how markets work and what go-to-market means as part of your team. These folks become your market sensing north star. They bring the critical skills of being able to objectively really listen to potential customers’ during the pursuit and significantly raise the likelihood that your startup or new unit of business is among the few that survive and thrive.