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David Israel for Uclusion

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Product directionβ€Šβ€”β€ŠProduct Market Fit is harder than everyone admits

The typical corporate response to any problem is to create a job description for it β€” enter the Product Manager. Unfortunately, most PMs’ jobs tend to focus more on customer feedback than setting product direction. This has not gone unnoticed: many tout lean startup methodology as the solution:

Lean startup is a methodology for developing businesses and products that aims to shorten product development cycles and rapidly discover if a proposed business model is viable; this is achieved by adopting a combination of business-hypothesis-driven experimentation, iterative product releases, and validated learning.

Frequently, however, a reasonable call for trying to gauge market demand quickly is interpreted as a panacea for all product direction. For Uclusion and I’m sure for others, the result is an unreasonable pressure to achieve results very quickly. For every lean startup success story like

Idea to Paying Customers in 7 Weeks: How We Did It

there will of course be many other products requiring longer product market fit (PMF) cycles.

Not so lean technology

First there is a whole class of product direction that skirts the edges of what is technologically feasible. For instance in the book Build Better Products there is a description of the results of interviewing early cell phone owners on cameras in their phones:

Every single person interviewed stated unequivocally that they hated that there was a camera in their phone, because they felt it made the phone bigger and heavier and that it drained the battery.

Cameras in cell phones were a bad idea until one day the technology matured enough. Like cell phone manufacturers, any startup writing software will to some extent be at the mercy of technology maturity because minimum viable products are frequently much less minimum than is imagined.

Why doesn’t anyone want to play with my prototype?

Much of our Uclusion blog is about how recent advances in cloud and open source technology make it possible to build a great app orders of magnitude faster than even a few years ago. But its a double edged sword. If we can build these apps faster then the bar rises for beta user involvement and venture capitalist consideration. The sheer number of application debuts also rises.

So What do you do?

Next comes a class of ideas that are just hard to imagine before you use them. The limits of the lean startup methodology, and why it could kill your idea starts off with the Steve Jobs quote, β€œA lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Startup founders are almost hounded to work on their elevator pitch so they can get feedback quickly. There are competitions where founders are judged on the best spiel. A lot of this effort is based on assumptions about the ability to communicate an idea that maybe unrealistic.

Product market fit assurance is an investment

If you are an engineer one way of understanding the quest for PMF is through the lens of quality assurance (QA). For QA every product is different β€” for some investment in unit tests is the way, for others integration tests are more of a sweet spot, some use test driven development and for others that methodology doesn’t work.

Uclusion built a prototype and paid to attend a convention before realizing PMF on an early version wasn’t there. Could there have been a cheaper more lean startup way? Probably, but its hard to be certain. Uclusion also invested a significantly in unit tests that were eventually discarded in favor of integration testing (subject of another blog). Just like with any investment strategy efforts toward PMF will not always pay off and the most important point is to not be fooled into thinking there is any simple way to get results β€” including doing nothing.

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