Finding Product-Market Fit: Navigate the Process in Start-Up Marketing

Published on: | Updated on: | Trisha Miles


For your start-up to be successful, you must create a product or service that satisfies the needs of ideal customers and the demand in the marketplace. What does this mean? You have to find product-market fit best suited for your business.

Once you understand the need of your target consumers and how your value propositions fulfill these, it’s time to scale and uncover more target audiences in the market through in-depth research, customer feedback and reviews.

At a high level, this all sounds simple – just create something innovative, bright & shiny. But finding product-market fit is a nuanced process that is a key part of your growth marketing strategy.

Paul Biggar, Founder & CEO of Dark, has founded two separate companies, both of which experienced completely different processes for successfully discovering product-market fit. Tune in to hear:

  • His firsthand experience and the differences between some approaches to finding your product-market fit

  • Why you should wait to invest in growth pre-product-market fit

  • How to distinguish between users’ excitement and having product-market fit best suited for your business

Video Transcript:

CAROLINE: Hi, and welcome to Growth Marketing Chat. Today, I'm here with Paul Biggar. Paul is the CEO and founder of Dark. And previous to founding Dark, he also started CircleCI, which was a really successful company. Paul, thank you so much for being with us today.

PAUL: Thank you so much for having me.

CAROLINE: So I'm really excited about this chat because you've had experience starting really two different companies with two different kinds of growth. So my first question for you is, your first company kind of reached product-market fit really quickly. I think you said within three months. And scaled really fast. While your second company is taking longer. Can you tell us a little bit about the different approaches, and why it's okay to have, you know, you can reach product-market fit really quickly, but sometimes it takes longer, and like, it can still be really successful. Can you tell me more about that?

PAUL: Yeah, so the trajectory of the two companies is quite different. With Circle we, yeah, it was three months. Like, our first, the first customers that we tried it with, we had like very, it was like very successful, and it was working with them, and there were some minor changes. I think it was six months before someone actually paid us. But it was, it's just a completely different situation when you're building something that's like, where there's a market ready for it. Which is what it was with my first company. It was very clear that software development was moving to the cloud.

GitHub had already gone to the, was already taking source control to the cloud. Heroku had already taken production hosting to the cloud. And so the line in between was, you know, something that someone needed. And that's what CircleCI ended up being. And at the same time, there were dozens of other companies who were doing the same thing. And so the task as a company became, you know, be ahead of the other companies. Be the choice for people to make, even though there's, you know, I would say at various points, there were 30 or 40 different, different competitors, along the route. Then, what I'm doing with Dark now is, is a much bigger idea. And it's something where there's a lot of people playing in the general space, but no one is doing what we're doing.

What we're trying to solve is how hard it is to build backend cloud applications. And there's dozens and dozens of companies who are trying to do that. But our approach is so different to everyone that we're sort of like, alone in the market. Or alone in our little segment of the market. And the result of that as well is what we're building is so big, there's so much of it, that, you know, that you can't just get to market in three months.

We actually had a roadmap where we planned to, to fully get to market in 18 months. And instead, we had one user in, you know, after 18 months. And now it's been, it's been about four years that we're building it. We're still not at product-market fit. We have sort of like hundreds of users, but they're, you know, they're doing relatively small things. So that's going to be a lot more work before we get to somewhere where, you know, where the average developer who uses it thinks, you know, that this is actually going to solve my problem.

CAROLINE: Alright, alright. So, it's kind of like you're building a much bigger solution, to solve a much bigger problem. Right, so it's-

PAUL: Yeah.

CAROLINE: More time.

PAUL: I'm sorry, I missed that last bit.

CAROLINE: So it's going to take more time, right.

PAUL: It's going to take more time, and I think, most startups are a little more incremental than this one. So with Circle, it was an incremental solution to a problem. People needed this sort of like testing and deployment solution. And that's a relatively small task. You work with the existing things that people have. You build a little bit of tech. And then over time, you expand it. So when we started, we only supported a very small number of people, people who were doing Ruby on Rails and sort of modern, for the time, stack. And that was totally fine.

There's tens of thousands of those people, and they were happy with it. And then as more and more people came in, we improved it slightly, we made it work for them. You know, over time we added Python, and Node, and PHP, et cetera. Now, you know, 10 years later, it's full support for, you know, everything under the sun. It's,you know, you can run it on Mac, you can run Windows stuff. You can, Docker and, you know, all the technologies that have spun up in between, is a thing that you can do on Circle, but that's not what it was, but we had that opportunity to solve one really small use case. And then gradually expand. And when you pick something big, like it is with Dark, so for context, we're building a programming language and editor and a platform as a service in one. And that's the selling point, because it's all in one, you don't have to deal with all this like, extra complexity. But, you know, none of those is a small task.


PAUL: And when you build three of them together, it becomes a smaller task than three individually, because they only have to work with each other. But still it's, you
know, it's quite a lot. And the, you know, the challenge of getting to product-market
fit with so much thing, it just, yep, it just takes a lot longer.

CAROLINE: Right, right. So with that said, I think it's really interesting when I talk to you because you have a very different perspective than a lot of entrepreneurs that are all about growth, right now. Is there a time that as an entrepreneur, you should not be investing in growth? And how do you know that?

PAUL: There's a pattern that I see with a lot of, a lot of entrepreneurs, and, well, a lot of startups. And sometimes they're sort of pre-product market fit and they're investing in growth. I mean, that's the time not to invest in growth, when you're pre-product market fit. And there's a little bit of a catch to it too, because you need to have enough users to know whether you have product-market fit, and obviously, this is quite different depending on whether you're an enterprise selling to ones of customers or a consumer app that's, you know, trying to have like millions of users, and often with a consumer app, you won't have product-market fit until you have millions of users. Which is why I try to tell startup founders to do B2B apps. 'Cause they're nice and simple, and they're easy to find product-market fit. But I have, I've known lots of companies who invest in growth. And some of them have raised like, tens of millions of dollars. And they're investing in growth, or they have like a VP of marketing, or they have a growth team or something like that. And they haven't found product-market fit yet. And they're just like, engaging in the wrong activity.

And I think that that's just, I mean, it's just kind of like the wrong order. I think there's so much pressure to grow in order to raise the next Rand or to, you know, to be seen as successful or something along those lines, that people invest in it, in a way that is unsustainable. And it's unsustainable because they don't have product market fit. Once you have product-market fit, any investment you make in growth is going to pay off. I mean, not any investment, but like most investments will pay off, because you actually have the foundation for solid growth. And with Circle, we did no investment in growth. It just grew by itself because the need was there. The product and the market matched each other, they had fit.

And so people were telling each other just by word of mouth. And like, people tell each other about, you know, sort of like, boring B2B software companies, if it solves their need. If there's a thing that they think is really cool and it's solving their problems, they will tell people. And when that starts happening, that is the time where growth actually starts to pay off, as long as, you know, that’s the right, I mean, even then, that might not be the right investment because you might be dealing with so many users coming in and that you actually have to solve their problems as they come in, and not deal with the top of funnel. But I think that, you know, certainly for every company, if you don't have product-market fit, it is too early to search for growth, except where you need to get users to validate it in the first place.


PAUL: And for most people that will be like, a very small handful of users that they need to be able to validate it. They don't need to do like, growth marketing activities to do that.

CAROLINE: And kind of a follow-up question to that is how, because I think a lot of people think they have product-market fit. They go into it and invest in growth when really they don't have product-market fit. How can people avoid that?

PAUL: Yeah so, it's quite a difficult challenge because the, often you're building something that you understand yourself. And so, you know the full product vision, and you know where you're going, and you know what it's gonna look like when you get there, but you have to cut it. And you have to like decide, you know, this should be enough to be able to get product-market fit. This is what we're gonna build. And so you're not going to know whether that cut-down version is actually the right cut-down version, for the users that you have. Or the users that you want your early cohort to be. And I think that that becomes the challenge. It's hard to know what product-market feels like when you're there. It's hard to know. It's hard to know from looking at the product.

When you talk to users, it becomes a little more obvious. But even then, it's hard to distinguish between a user excited by something that's an early broken product, but that sort of points in the right direction. And they're excited that someone is pointing in that direction or that someone is like, you know, building this thing that they think should exist, and actually being at product-market fit. And that was the mistake that we made at Dark. We did a launch in 2019, and lots of people were just like, really excited. We had a large mailing list, and we were just, you know, sending it to people. You know, they just, they just weren't sticking. And, but we had thought that they would, because we had, we were able to do things with it. We thought, you know, some small number is going to be able to do the, to be able to do the same thing. And then it took another three or four months of tweaking to be able to actually get it to something where those users were able to use it. But by that point we had, you know, we'd already done our launch. We'd already like, you know, blown through a whole bunch of people around. And that's kind of the that's kind of the challenge. So I think, coming back to answer your question.

There's a Superhuman blog, a blog by the company Superhuman, that talks about how to recognize product-market fit. And I think it's got an excellent answer to that, which I'm not recalling off the top of my head. But what I do is I just ask users. And I, you know, ask users for their feedback, and from that, I sort of try to intuit over. But by talking to like, you know, kind of a couple of dozen users, try to intuit, like where exactly on the journey are we. And it doesn't much matter, like the binary, do we have it, or do we not have it. You're really in a journey from not having it at all to having it quite strongly. So as you move through that trajectory, you will get stronger and stronger signals that you're in the right place.

Feedback will be a lot more specific. It will go from sort of like, vague, don't really understand what I'm doing here, to, it was really annoying when this widget, you know, I click this button and this thing happened that was unexpected. By the time you get to that point, it's like, it's pretty clear that that the people are actually using the products, actually enjoying the benefits of the product. And they're complaining about shit that doesn't really matter.

CAROLINE: I love this. I love this. This is how you know. Starting to complain about
the color of the button.

PAUL: Yeah, something along those lines, right? You know, it has been great for this use case, and it doesn't support this use case. As opposed to like, yeah, I don't know,
I don't really know what's wrong with it. It's like, (sighs) yeah, I dunno. It's fine, I suppose. That's kind of what it feels like before.

CAROLINE: Interesting. Awesome, well, this is really amazing feedback here. And I think it's going to be useful to everyone watching. So thank you so much, for spending time with us today. And sharing, yeah, I really appreciate it. Thanks Paul.