I had dinner list week with Sean Ellis. I wanted to talk to him about an advisory role at ShopWell, and we spent most of the dinner talking about metrics-driven marketing. It was interesting enough to prompt the first post here in a few months.

I’ve spent a fair bit time recently thinking about the point where a start-up can and should stop focusing exclusively on the product and spread its energy across marketing and other efforts. My analogy is tennis – there’s a strong natural impulse to look past the ball and across the court (towards the opponent, and the spot you want to hit) before you make impact, but its critical to look at the ball all the way through impact to truly crush it. Federer is a great example. In the photo below, you can see he’s left looking at where the ball used to be well after the stroke.


Similarly, I think its critical to follow-through in a start up, focusing manically on the product until the company finds product market fit.

The conversation with Sean was interesting because he’s developed a simple survey to assess whether to whether the product is successful enough to start to market it, essentially whether its found product market fit. Since LogMeIn‘s IPO, demand for his metrics-driven marketing has exceeded the limited supply of his hours, and he’s had to pick the right products and the companies that are ready to divide their focus.

The survey has eight questions, but two stand-out as particularly interesting because they speak directly to whether the company is ready to go to market:

  • How would you feel if you could no longer use the product?
  • What would you likely use as an alternative if the product were no longer available?

The survey is typically sent to a subset of users that have used the product enough to see the core value prop, and Sean’s is specifically looking for the percentage that would describe themselves as “very disappointed” if they could no longer use the service. Bottom line: if these users wouldn’t be disappointed to lose the service, it’s time to go back into the garage and build a better product. If they would be disappointed but can easily name an alternative, you’ve got a utility, and it’s time to differentiate. If your users would be disappointed and don’t have a alternative ready, you’re ready to go to market. Beyond this, there are two other questions I love:

  • What’s the primary benefit you receive from the product?
  • What type of person do you think would benefit most from the product?

I love these questions because they speak to the fact that the value that you envision when you build the product is not necessarily the value the users perceive, and the user you envisioned may not be the best target. For example:

  • You built a mobile social network but folks are using it as an address book
  • You built a backup service but folks are using it for synchronization
  • You build a collaboration portal but kids are using it to trade music

Fred Wilson’s talked about the majority of his successful exits coming from companies with the agility to pursue products and business models markedly different than the original vision, and there’s often gold in these hills if the company is keen enough to spot it and agile enough to pursue it.

My bottom line takeaway: Follow through until you find product market fit before dividing your resources and attention, use metrics and surveys to objectively when you are there, maintain a keen eye for the opportunities you haven’t envisioned.

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