Product-Market Fit vs. Doing Your Thing

There is a question that I have been asking myself for many years, one that is most commonly asked in business, but applies to other fields as well: Should you try to find out about the needs of the market and cater towards these needs? Or should you follow your personal inclinations, hoping there will be a market for those inclinations eventually?

Or the short version: Give the market what it wants vs. shape the market around you.

I have answered this question differently at different times of my life. When I first became self-employed, I was strongly leaning towards the product-market fit option, i.e. give the market what it wants. For example, I purposefully converted my pure Brazilian Jiu Jitsu gym I was running at the time to a Mixed Martial Arts gym – based on the prediction that in a few years, MMA would be all the hype here in Germany, just like back in the States.

This prediction paid off. Even though our gym was the last one to come to the local Munich market within 1-2 years we overtook all the other BJJ schools in members, as MMA did become very popular indeed. So there is no arguing with it: Paying attention to product-market fit can pay off – literally.

There are some people who become extremely good at this game: Predicting certain market needs, testing that prediction against the market, modifying your initial prediction accordingly, testing again – until you come up with the perfect product and start selling like silly. This is essentially the game modern start up culture is based around: Who is the best mind reader? And if it happens to be you, you win and it is quite exhilarating (as even a small fish like me can testify).

But there is more to business than the payday. By always asking for what the market wants, you naturally forego what YOU want; rarely do these two ever line up. I mean, what are the chances? You really think the Uber founders had a deep-rooted passion for private taxis? The drop box people can’t help but dream about cloud storage every free minute of the day?

Please.

These projects, though highly successful, are completely interchangeable. Testimonial to that claim: People exit these companies all the time, just to start another, completely unrelated company.

By the way, so did I. Exit my company, I mean. And a very significant reason for that was that product-market fit may work, but it didn’t work for ME. By basing my business model around the customer’s needs, I had forgotten to ask myself what I needed or wanted. I’ve come to suspect that question might be just as important, if not more so: You cannot keep going with a business, or at least not happily so, that doesn’t truly reflect your own core interests and inclinations. Ignoring these core interests, the business becomes a show without any soul driving it. And even if you are able to keep this charade up long term, it might not be worth it. In truth, work is what our life’s come down to – we spend no more time awake at anything but work. Nothing comes even close in time, not our relationships, not our hobbies. So what use is coming up with the next big app, if that project then in turn is going to consume the rest of your life? And don’t give me this crap about high paying exits: You want to exit so you can finally do the things that matter to you? Could it not be more meaningful then to have stuck with these things in the first place?

I admit, there is something scary about that prospect though. If you uncompromisingly go for the things that truly appeal to you, you might end up in very strange places (as I can also tell from experience). Think circus clown, porn star, comic bookstore owner or my friend who builds weapons for fantasy live role playing games for a living… As I said, strange places. And it’s not just the prospect of going down a road that is not very well trodden – it’s also just the very legit concern, if there will be enough people to buy from you. Many people need a taxi, only so many people need foam swords. But we all need to pay rent.

But then again, maybe this is not smart thinking either. After all, if you are one of the mass consumption mind readers, targeting the herd, you can be sure as hell that you are competing with a ton of other would-be Mark Zuckerbergs, trying to do the same thing. Yes, the herd is many, but so are its feeders. Ironically, by shooting for the big market, you face the problem that you yourself become just one drop in the sea.

But let’s say you take the complete opposite approach and really focus on your idiosyncrasies. And I mean REALLY focus on them. To the point where you will seem so outlandish, there is really no danger of mistaking you for someone else. Will that shrink your potential market for you? Most certainly. But will this also lead to you hardly having to compete with anyone and attracting customers to you that cannot help but buy from you, exactly because of your completely unique product, not anywhere else to be found?

I think so. Well, or at least I hope so. Talking to myself here, as usual… Who needs a market, right?!

Until next time.