A Systematic Roadmap to Product/Market Fit
Stop wandering aimlessly.
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Getting to product/market fit is considered the most significant milestone for a startup. This is often described as the inflection point in the hockey-stick curve when traction takes off.
The problem is that product/market fit takes roughly two years to achieve, and 80% of products never get there.
Why? Because startups operate under extreme uncertainty, often depicted as a wavy squiggle of aimless wandering where nothing works until it does.
But it doesn't have to be this way.
With the right mindsets and thinking processes, the early stages of a product can be systematically traversed much like you would a labyrinth.
The objective is to get out of the maze with an idea (or business model) that works before running out of resources.
Yes, there will be twists and turns, dead-ends, and back-tracking, but unlike aimless wandering, this approach is less wasteful and systematic.
I have been studying the journey to product/market fit for the last ten years, and in this issue, I will lay out my roadmap for getting there.
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The Running Lean Roadmap
In this section, I’ll outline the journey to product/market fit as time-boxed stages with clear and measurable business model outcomes.
Because time is the scarcest resource in a startup.
While passion and determination (grit) are essential attributes needed to drive a vision to its full potential, left unchecked, they can also turn the journey into a faith-based one driven by dogma. Pretty soon, weeks can become months and years.
The best way to hold your idea and team accountable is by establishing a time-boxed reporting cadence where you periodically measure your progress against expected outcomes.
What’s the right measure of progress?
Unlike revenue and profit, which track near-zero and negative during the early stages of a product, traction can track positively right from the outset of an idea — making it a reliable leading indicator of business model progress.
What’s the right time-boxed cadence?
I prefer breaking the journey into quarterly or 90-day cycles. I find ninety days long enough to achieve significant traction yet short enough to allow course correction.
Here’s what the stage-based Running Lean roadmap looks like:
The roadmap is broken into three main stages:
Business Model Design,
Business Model Validation,
Business Model Growth.
Let’s walk through each one.
1 - Business Model Design
A key mindset in the Running Lean Framework is viewing your business model, not your solution, as the true product of your startup. As with any product, the first step is design.
This is where you deconstruct your big vision into key business model assumptions using one or more Lean Canvases. Then subject your business models to a set of stress tests to identify your riskiest assumptions and either refine or eliminate your business models further:
Business model design aims to turn your big idea into 2-3 narrow and specific business models that stand the greatest chance of achieving product/market fit.
This is the first milestone of (founder-)business/model fit.
2 - Business Model Validation
While a starting business model blueprint is critical for driving clarity and focus, it’s essential to recognize that all models are abstractions of reality and not reality.
In other words, they must be validated with evidence versus taken on faith.
This is where you iteratively test your business model in stages using 90-day cycles starting with your riskiest assumptions.
Your customer-problem-solution assumptions form the foundation of a working business model.
If you get these assumptions wrong, everything else in your business model comes crashing down, which is why I advocate validating your business model in this particular order:
You achieve customer-problem fit when you can make an evidence-based case for finding a big enough problem worth solving. Contrary to common belief, the best way to gather this evidence isn’t through surveys or focus groups but carefully scripted problem discovery interviews.
The typical timeframe for achieving customer-problem fit is 4 weeks.
Once you’ve identified a customer problem worth solving, you define/refine/reposition your solution before pitching it to customers. The counter-intuitive insight is that you don’t need to build a working product to test demand, i.e., make a sale.
All you need is an offer.
Offer = UVP + Demo + Call-to-Action
This DEMO-SELL-BUILD approach is key to shedding off months of effort that would otherwise be spent building a product and why problem/solution fit is achievable across any product in any domain in just 90 days.
If you did your homework during customer-problem fit, it’s even possible to build my favorite high-converting (80-90%) offer — a mafia offer.
Mafia Offer: An offer your customers cannot refuse.
You achieve problem/solution fit when you demonstrate sufficient demand for your product before building it.
The typical timeframe for achieving problem-solution fit is 6 weeks.
Armed with a pipeline of potential customers from problem/solution fit, you build your MVP (Minimum Valuable Product) and prepare to pilot your release 1.0 with early-access customers. Too many founders fumble this step by taking too long to build their MVP, rushing to a public launch, or not defining the success criteria for their pilots. Even here, a stage-based (10x launch) mindset helps prioritize your riskiest assumptions without getting overwhelmed.
You achieve solution/customer fit when you can secure sufficient referenceable testimonials from early customers.
The typical timeframe for achieving solution-customer fit is 6 months.
3 - Business Model Growth
Solution/Customer Fit validates your business model working at a small scale. The growth stage is about accelerating your traction toward product/market fit.
While you continue refining your product during this time, equal and often more emphasis is placed on
understanding your unit economics,
optimizing for profitability, and
finding a growth rocket (channel) to help you achieve escape velocity and scale past product/market fit.
You achieve product/market fit when you’ve secured sufficient traction to derisk your value hypotheses (product good enough) to warrant transitioning into scaling (firing your growth rocket).
Running Lean Playbooks
In this section, I’ll expand the roadmap further into step-by-step playbooks.