According To This Founder, One Simply Does Not Achieve Product-Market Fit
The primary method of educating students has not changed in decades. Traditional lecture-based learning still dominates our primary, secondary and higher education systems. Lecture-based learning is ineffective in helping students retain knowledge. Maxwell Brodie, 26, and Edward Sun, 26, started Kaizena to give educators the tools to provide fast, high-quality feedback on student work with voice comments, explainer videos and skill tracking through a web app. The founders recently completed Y Combinator’s startup accelerator program and have raised roughly $1.2 million in venture funding from NewSchools Seed Fund, Horizons Ventures, Jeff Weiner (CEO of LinkedIn), and other angel investors.
Frederick Daso: Is it ever possible to truly achieve product-market fit? Have you been able to accomplish this at Kaizena?
Maxwell Brodie: Product-market fit is more like a continuum. A continuum with a minimum threshold for having a product that is successful in the market. Yes, you need a certain amount of product-market fit before you can expect your users and customers to refer you to others, but every time you get feedback from your users and customers along the lines of “Oh, that doesn’t work as I expected it to,” or “Why doesn’t it do this?” It’s like a disruption in the product-market continuum reflecting how you haven’t truly achieved what people are looking for to meet their needs. I ask myself, ‘Do I ever expect to NOT receive feedback from my customers or users? Is there not something more that they want or something else that would work better if it were different?’
The answer to that question is ‘no.’ The more that we create for our teachers and students, the more they are going to want. There’s a minimum amount of product-market fit for a specific, initial, narrow and deep problem to solve.
The day that your users and customers are no longer suggesting changes to your product is the day that people have lost interest in your company.
Daso: That’s an incredibly telling phrase: The day that customers don’t continue to suggest improvements means that your product, your service, your company, is no longer useful to them. That’s a warning that all founders should heed right?
Daso: Let’s keep building on this. You just talked about solving this deep, entrenched problem. Should a startup attack adjacent marketplaces once they’ve established sufficient product-market fit?
Brodie: Man, this is an art. I don’t know if there is a right answer to this. It’s always better to defend your core, to be excellent at your one main competency. Once your startup has dominated one part of your market, only then should your team focus on the remaining areas of the marketplace. It reminds me of a story that one of our investors told at our incubator (unfortunately, I forget his name). He was talking about when LinkedIn launched their search feature. Larry Page, the cofounder of Google, saw their search feature and thought it was phenomenal. It was an incredible piece of technology. Page found it so well-developed in fact, he believed LinkedIn threated Google’s dominance in search. He took his search team and brought them into his office area, where their desks surrounded his desk. They stayed in that arrangement until Page felt that they had reestablished their dominance in search.
The lesson is this: once you’ve established and consistently defended your dominance in your primary market, then you can start attacking adjacent markets.
Daso: I see. However, isn’t there a danger in only focusing on your product or service for your primary market versus paying attention to your customers’ needs?
Brodie: If the market is shifting under your foot, that’s what you have to respond to first. Our early investors used to say, ‘people, product, market.’ Of those three, the market is the thing that you want to get the most right, followed by people, then product. The other thing is if the product that you have focused on creating is neither sticky nor defensible, it doesn’t prevent competitors from taking your market share with their respective products. It’s a good idea to focus on your core competency until you have a margin, clear leadership in your field, then you can spend your efforts on other endeavors.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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This work was first published on Forbes.