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#6: Avoid Polish to find Product-Market-Fit
There are many ways to take a product to market and find product-market fit (PMF). The conventional wisdom is to run a tight feedback loop, and optimize for speed: build quickly, put it in front of users, and iterate. This means shipping an unpolished product as a matter of necessity; you don’t have the time to smooth out the edges. Barring exceptions where the product is the polish,1 I think this is right. Time is scarce, so you want to test your theory as soon as possible, and therefore be rigorous about the minimum in minimum viable product. However, there are two other, subtler reasons to avoid polish when searching for product-market-fit. I want to share them with you:
Frustration Tolerance as a Measure of PMF
Counter-intuitively, many products with truly strong product-market-fit are somewhat frustrating to use. Amazon’s search is far from perfect. Atlassian products are slow and clunky. Nobody enjoys Salesforce. Netflix’s movies aren’t great. And yet these companies have some of the deepest PMF, with mass adoption, low churn, and usage only increasing over time, despite the customers’ occasional grumbles. The customer will complain — and perhaps complain plenty, since they use the product so often — but they will never switch. That must be a valuable product!
The extreme form of PMF is coercion: a product that the customer hates, but must buy. As a product founder, that shouldn’t be your goal, but it’s worth noting that if the core product really works, then the user will tolerate some nits. You’ll notice this everywhere among successful companies: productivity software that is slow, enterprise software that doesn’t have team support, consumer apps that don’t respect privacy, and so on. Conversely, if a user is put off your product by a minor issue, then that means that your product just isn’t very valuable to them.
The takeaway is that if your core product really gets it right, then that will trump any lack of polish. You can skip building edge-case features. If them missing is found to be a real cause of churn or dropoff, then your core product’s value proposition may be much weaker than you expected.2 Allow customer tolerance for marginal imperfection to be a gauge for the strength of your core product.
Mistaking Feature-User-Fit for Product-Market-Fit
If you want to ship a highly polished product and cover all the edge cases, then you have to solicit user feedback. Users will often have ideas that, strictly speaking, will make your product better. The danger in these suggestions is that they may represent idiosyncratic, user-specific desires that do not improve overall PMF.
This is a common pitfall in enterprise software: consider a founder who gets their first one or two customers that are willing to pay Serious Money™. The customers require new features A and B, which make sense, but take time to implement. The founder may justify it, thinking that those features will make the product more attractive to other customers, too. Months later, the founder is on sales calls with new prospects, but they’re not interested in features A and B — they will only move forward with new features C, D, E, and F. The founder then realizes, with horror, that the core product on its own does not have PMF, and what they’re really selling is a bespoke feature-building consultancy; an unscalable business.
The pursuit of polish can disguise a lack of PMF, and it’s easy to slip into that. Founders tend to have very strong conviction in their product vision, which makes it seductive to think that a marginal addition (polish) is needed rather than to overhaul the core product vision. Startup advice often encourages such marginal changes, presuming that every customer represents several more: “find one true customer and build for them,” the refrain goes. That can justify all kinds of unproductive customization. Sometimes one customer represents only that one customer.
It’s important to be rigorous about what the product is and where the value comes from. This should be easy to articulate clearly. Conversely, a premature focus on polish can suggest confusion about where the value comes from; which doesn’t bode well for the viability of the overall product. Product design is one of the few fields where diversification is not the right approach, but it’s all about getting just one thing — the core product vision — as right as possible, like hitting a resonant frequency with the audience.
There is one large caveat to this piece, which I mentioned at the start: sometimes the product is the polish. In industries dominated by clunky tools, it’s possible to win not by innovating on new functionality, but by purely crafting an outstandingly delightful user experience. That’s perfectly fine, and an enjoyable thing to build. It’s just a very different type of product motion from what we’ve discussed in this piece.
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For example, creating a fully-featured, delightful product when all the competitors are frustrating to use. Linear is a good example: while many of its competitors (Monday, Asana, JIRA, etc.) have rich features and customizability, they’re all irritating and slow to use. Linear is an experiential delight, which makes a big difference for the people who rely on it as part of their daily workflow.
Or you undervalue the extra features! Consistent customer feedback will usually be a quick indicator of that.