The Illusion of Product/Market Fit for SaaS Companies

“We have product/market fit.”

“We are searching for product/market fit.”

“We are raising this financing to find product/market fit.”

“Our customer traction demonstrates product/market fit.”

Product/market fit. It’s a wonderful phrase, thanks to Marc Andreessen, Sean Ellis, Steve Blank, and Eric Ries. But it also one of the most overused, and inappropriately used, phrases that I hear with SaaS companies on a daily basis.

I was in a meeting a month ago with a company I’m on the board of where product/market fit was asserted. I sat quietly for a moment and then stated as clearly as I could that the company didn’t have product/market fit, they had the illusion of product/market fit. A long conversation ensued which resulted in me pondering this illusion and trying to put some parameters around it.

But first, some history.

There’s a fun post from Ben Horowitz in 2010 titled The Revenge of the Fat Guy that weaves in comments from Fred Wilson about product/market fit where Fred argues in his post Being Fat Is Not HealthyWhile ostensibly it’s a post about lean vs. fat startups, it really is about discovering product/market fit and it gives a good history lesson on the thinking circa 2010 on this issue. Ben eventually states, and then explains, four product/market fit myths.

  • Myth #1: Product market fit is always a discrete, big bang event
  • Myth #2: It’s patently obvious when you have product market fit
  • Myth #3: Once you achieve product market fit, you can’t lose it.
  • Myth #4: Once you have product-market fit, you don’t have to sweat the competition.

As I rolled this around in my head, I started to realize that part of the illusion of product/market fit is that there’s a belief that once you have it, you never lose it (myth #3). There’s also the belief that there’s a magic moment where you have it and declare it (myth #1). Worse, there’s the belief that it’s obvious when you have it (myth #2). And tragically, a lot of companies believe when they have it, they don’t have to worry about anyone else because they’ve won (myth #4).

I’ve experienced the downside of each of these myths many times. I’ve seen companies have to rediscover product/market fit after getting to a $500k MRR (monthly recurring revenue). I’ve been involved in companies that thought they owned the market at a $2m MRR only to have a new competitor come out of no where and beat the crap out of them. I watched companies at a $4m MRR enter new markets and struggle mightily to discover product/market fit for these new markets. Or worse, I’ve seen a new product release that was late completely toast product/market fit and force a company to hang on to customers any way possible while rushing to fix what was broken.

The illusion of product/market fit pops up at multiple points in time. So I started thinking about heuristics for these points in time and came up with MRR as a parameter to explore. Suddenly, the illusion problem came into focus for me based on MRR, with clear transitions happening up to a $1m MRR. While I’m going to keep exploring this, I have a hypothesis now about the dynamics around product/market fit in SaaS companies that I’m playing around with. Feel free to tear it apart.

When you have $0 of MRR, you have no product/market fit. Ok – that was easy. You are working on a product and searching for your first customer.

From $1 to $10k MRR, you have the illusion of product/market fit. You finally found someone to pay you for your shitty MVP, but you’ve got a long way to go before you truly have product/market fit. Do not pour on the gas at this point. Stay calm and keep doing what you are doing.

$10k to $100k MRR is a super exciting time. You’ve got a semblance of product/market fit. You are starting to learn what your customers will pay you for. You feel like things are actually cranking. You probably have one or two salespeople and one of your founders – maybe your CEO – is still the head of sales. If you try to raise a Series A, the process is straightforward. It’s easy to believe you’ve got it figured it out here. This is the point at which myth’s #1 and #2 usually kick you in the ass. If you aren’t growing a compounded 10% each month, you don’t have product market/fit yet. If you are growing faster than that, you have found something.

Going from $100k to $500k MRR is a product/market fit sweet spot. You are starting to build a sales organization, have visibility in the market in your segment, and might even have customers coming to you on a regular basis. This is where myth #3 bops you on the head. You think you’ve got it and it’ll keep scaling, but you hire the wrong VP Sales, you focus on the wrong metrics, or you end up struggling to renew your customers when the first annual renewal cycle hits. You get confused about negative churn and conflate upsells with growth with churn. Lots of companies stall here – some due to self-inflicted pain; others due to the illusion of product/market fit.

If you can blast through the $500k MRR mark and march to $1m MRR, you’ve found product/market fit. You are now at the magical point some people call “Initial Scale.” Cool – you’ve got a business.

Now, your value is going to be determined by your growth rate. At any point in time, if you are growing > 100% year-over-year you will be highly valued – think at least 10x revenue, but I won’t tell you whether it’s trailing or forward, as that’ll shift around based on the public markets. And, the faster you are growing, the more discontinuous (e.g. higher multiple, but not linear) your valuation will be.

If your growth rate is between 50% and 100% and holding steady, that’s good and you’ll see a nice, big, healthy valuation. But if it’s declining, watch out for that magic 50% year-over-year mark. It’s like a trip wire that will send off all kinds of weird alarm bells. Once you decline below 20%, you better make sure your existing investors are going to be ready to step up to finance you, or else start the rapid march to profitability, which likely generates even slower growth.

Myth #3 and myth #4 show up all the time at MRR’s > $1m. You disrupted someone a few years ago which is what caused you to discover product/market fit. Don’t be confused about the world – someone else is gunning for you now that you are the big player in whatever segment you are in.

Every time you work on something new, whether it’s a new feature, a new product, or a new product line, recognize that you are searching for incremental product/market fit. The search is a continuous and never ending quest. Don’t confuse illusion with reality.