Founder Market Fit

We constantly hear about “product market fit.” But my post yesterday about The Power of Passion When Starting Your Company was about “founder market fit.” And I’ve come to believe that – especially among first time entrepreneurs – founder market fit is much more important than product market fit at the inception of the company.

I stumbled on the phrase a few times over the past year and it’s been rolling around in my head a lot since. The first time was on Chris Dixon’s blog Founder / market fit which led me to a guest post by David Lee of SV Angel on More Thoughts on What Makes Great Entrepreneurs Great.

I’ve seen this over and over in TechStars. Founders come in with something they are super excited about. As they get exposed to mentors and feedback, they quickly start moving around within the market (or domain) as they search for a clearer focus, which could be defined as product market fit prior to getting a product out there and doing any real testing. This search is usually qualitative – it involves real feedback from potential customers and users, but it’s not a measured, tested approach.

In parallel, there’s often a Lean Startup methodology going on that does more quantitative tests of the specific product. But in a lot of cases, the qualitative feedback at the very formative stages is just as, if not more, important to make sure you end up in the right zone to test.

Underlying all of this is the regular shift away from something the founders are passionate about. The Orbotix example in my post is a great one – it would have been easy for Adam and Ian to decide to work on something that had a better product market fit, like iPhone enabled door locks, instead of something that not only hadn’t been invented yet, but also wasn’t obvious what market would really want it (a ball controlled by your smartphone – ok – that’s cool, but who will buy it?)

They, and their co-founder and CEO Paul Berberian had a vision for who would want a ball controlled by a smartphone. And Adam and Ian were obsessed with the idea. The three of them had extraordinary founder market fit, well before they figured out the product market fit.

We’ve got lots of other examples of this in our portfolio. I can’t tell you the number of times I get asked “what would someone ever use a personal 3D printer for?” But Bre Pettis at MakerBot is completely and totally obsessed with bringing 3D printers to the masses. While product market fit is getting clearer with each new product release, the founder market fit in this cases was awesome. Or Isaac Saldana of SendGrid, who initially named the company SMTPAPI. He has a great chapter in Do More Faster where he wrote about how he “Looked for the Pain” as a developer, found it in sending transaction email, and created SMTPAPI (now SendGrid) to address it. Or Eric Schweikardt who is unbelievably focused on creating the next generation robot construction kit at Modular Robotics. Sure – the “market comp” in this case is Lego Mindstorms, but Eric’s vision for the market goes well beyond this, and the product follows.

I’m not suggesting that product market fit isn’t an important concept. It is. But at the very beginning, especially with first time entrepreneurs, founder market fit is even more important.

  • Good thoughts.. I wonder if you can truly achieve great success with PMF but no FMF. I suspect you can.. thought longevity would be tougher. I know some founders whos ‘product’ seems to be startups themselves. It’s a bit unsettling.

    • I think you can, but it’s not nearly as fun. It’s also hard to sustain your energy if you only have PMF but no FMF.

  • Guest

    nice follow to yesterday’s post. btw I don’t believe for a minute that SV doesn’t have an age bias.

    • I saw that and decided not to comment on it – it’s not really part of the FMF fit post and I couldn’t find a link to FMF and SV Angel separately.

  • Guest

    thanks for this, and yesterday’s.

  • DaveJ

    If you look at your examples, you’re actually describing founder-product fit (FPF). A ball controlled by a smartphone is not a market, it’s a product. A 3D printer is not a market, it’s a product. A robot construction kit is a product, not a market. Right? What am I missing?

    • Excellent point. I struggled with it but decided that since it was a play on words on Product Market Fit it was better to go with Founder Market Fit, which I then quickly saw some likes to. But I think you just came up with the title for my post for tomorrow.

      • DaveJ

        It’s actually an interesting triangle. You would know far better than me, but in my limited experience it’s not uncommon to build a cool product and have it turn out that the people who want/need it are not people who resonate for the founder.

        • That definitely happens but it’s more common that no one really cares about the product. That’s the challenge of getting alignment between founder-market fit, founder-product fit, and product-market fit. The focus only on product-market fit is a miss as a result.

      • I agree entirely. Founder-product fit is more descriptive but founder-market fit is more catchy 🙂 Thanks for mentioning me, Brad. A real honor – I read a lot of your stuff when I first started investing!

  • I just re-read Dixon’s post–good stuff, and the RC ball is an awesome story. Was great to see Obama try it–must have been a fun moment.

    I’ve been studying and developing around search, social, and community for the past two years. When I started it wasn’t what you would call a classic fit. But I was so tired of the search results I was getting–so heavily brand-laden, a lot of dated material that had SEO juice but no currency, etc.

    When I read Dixon’s post the first time, well, it was really disheartening. I wanted to fix the problem but I don’t come from search, or social. I built products and APIs, not algorithms.

    He says “just because you can imagine a website you’d like to use, doesn’t mean you have founder/market fit with the consumer internet market.” Felt like he was talking directly to me.
    After a few years of obsessing about it, the fit’s pretty good. But it was a ton of work to get to that point, and my passion has moved closer to the community part of it but not completely away from search. Fun stuff. Thanks for these posts–very good reminders.

    • On our internal CEO thread there’s a discussion around this regarding technical vs. non-technical founders and how that plays out. I believe that if you have enough obsession around something in the context of software, you can get through the technical barrier, but it’s hard and takes a long time.

      • Highest-value application of your time vs low-value applications of your time.

        I’ve rebuilt the app from the ground up on Node.js. Love Node 🙂

        But I’m not the right guy to be building this stuff. I’m a catalyst, leader, evangelist, opportunist, cheerleader, salesman. That’s my high-value stuff.

        Love to code but am not a great coder. My lower-value stuff.

        I should have raise a bit of angel, recruited the right dev lead as a co-founder, and do what I do. I knew better but wanted to give it a shot.

        man you’re real-time Feld today…

        • For a few hours I was real-time. Then I became “on the phone time” Feld. Now I’m about to be “going for a run” Feld.

  • Would you agree that having a founder market fit person and product market fit person in the startup is important. My point is that you want that guy who really thinks his product is ‘cool’ but you also want the guy who brings slightyly more reason to the table and looks at the market fit. FYI. I belong to the latter group 🙂 This is something I learned during my biomedical research years – chasing cool things didn’t always result in high impact publications which you sometimes pay for down the line

    • Yup – I think this is a great combo. In fact, there is a trifecta – founder-market, product-market, and founder-product. Getting all three in the mix is powerful.

  • ^1

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  • In other words, the founder must be a subject-matter expert about the market he’s entering. I like the trifecta scenario too.

  • We’ve found that FMF also has an exponential effect as the company brings in early team members. We’re passionate about our market and so we run local meetups, sponsor hackathons, etc, and out of that comes a great inbound pool of talent also passionate about the same market. Simply pitching our product wouldn’t have had the same result.

  • eMBee

    i am a little bit confused by the message here. now naturally, i think everyone starts out with an idea they are passionate about (unless they are only in the game to make money which i don’t think is a good motivator), so wouldn’t that mean that founder-product fit comes naturally?

    and wouldn’t that also mean that someone passionate about their idea will resist any change in direction to a different product? how is that helpful? the only benefit i can see is that if i resist changing to a potentially more successful product-idea that i am not passionate about, then i’ll avoid entering a path that i won’t have the drive to follow through. in other words if i find that the idea i am passionate about doesn’t work i am more likely to give up, which may be better than doing something i don’t like.

    greetings, eMBee.

  • eMBee

    resisting to change is more helpful than i thought:

    greetings, eMBee.

  • wfjackson3

    Maybe I am wordsmithing, but the Orbotix example doesn’t strike me as Founder-Market fit, especially because they didn’t know who would buy it. Isn’t that Founder-Product fit? A passion for the idea/solution but not necessarily the customer? Wouldn’t Founder-Market fit be otherwise known as domain expertise? Interested to hear your thoughts here.

    PS – FYI, new disqus is a piece of crap. I just typed this twice because it deleted everything after I logged in.

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  • adamslieb

    This makes me think of the common investor question “Why you.” If the only answer is “we thought of this in a brainstorming exercise” or “we were really excited about this, but a pivot led us to this market” trouble might be on the horizon. If you are the founder/team that is going to succeed, it is usually because you are uniquely qualified to tackle a specific problem and/or you have more passion/drive to solve this problem than every other team.

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