“Make something people want.”
Creating a product nobody wants or needs is the worst marketing decision you ever make.
Still, for many years, this is one scenario where marketers always tolerate and accept as part of their job. They always tell themselves that they need to go to market with the product they have, not the one that people want or need. Then they wondered why their strategies failed, along with those expensive costs.
However, things are going to be a little bit different with growth hacking. Growth hackers believe that products can and should be changed until they are primed to generate big reactions from the first people who see them. In other words, the best marketing decision you can make is to have a product or business that fulfills a real need for a real and defined group of people, no matter how much evaluation it takes.
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Take a look at Airbnb, a start-up now valued at some $10 billion, for example. Today we know it as a site where, as cofounder Brian Chesky put it, “you can book space anywhere. It can be anything, and it really is anything from a tent to a castle.” Yet in 2007, the business started as a way for the founders to turn the living room of their loft apartment into a little bed-and-breakfast. The founders named it airbedandbreakfast.com and put out air mattresses on their floor and offered free homemade breakfast to guests.
Going back to the drawing board and hoping to capitalise on popular technology and design conferences, the founders repositioned the service as a networking alternative for attendees when hotels were booked up. This was clearly a better market, but the company sensed they could improve the idea further, so they pivoted slightly to target the type of traveler who didn’t want to crash on couches or in hostels but was looking to avoid hotels. This did better still. Finally, based on feedback and usage patterns, they shortened the name to airbnb and abandoned the breakfast and networking parts of the business, redefining the service as a place for people to rent or book any kind of lodging imaginable (from rooms to apartments to trains, boats, castles, penthouses, and private islands). This was explosive—to the tune of millions of bookings a year in locations all over the world.
Airbnb had a good idea in 2007, but the actual value proposition was a little mediocre. The founders could have spent all their time and energy trying to force the “let people crash on your floor and feed them breakfast” angle and creating a small business around it. Instead, they adapted their product and service as something malleable and were able to change and improve it until they found its best iteration. They went from a good but fairly impractical idea to a big, practical idea with a billion-dollar valuation. The shift was undoubtedly the best marketing decision they ever could have made.
Here is another example: Instagram. It started as a location-based social network called Burbn (which had an optional photo feature). The main service is based on attracting a core group of users and more than $500,000 in funding. Yet, the founders realised that its users were flocking to only two features of the app: the photos and filters. The service soon remade to become Instagram as we know it today. The result? One hundred thousand users within a week of relaunching. Within eighteen months, the founders sold Instagram to Facebook for $1 billion.
It seems simple in words that the marketing lesson from Instragram is that they made a product that was just awesome. However, that’s good news for you. It means there’s no secret sauce, and the second your product gets to be that awesome, you can see similar results. Another blatant example is Snapchat, which essentially followed the same playbook by innovating in the mobile photo app space. The app became a trend among youngsters and skyrocketed to a $3.5-billion-dollar valuation with next-to-no marketing.
Some companies like Airbnb and Instragram spend a long time trying new iterations until they achieve what growth hackers call Product Market Fit (PMF) while others find it right away. The end goal is the same: to have the product and customers in perfect sync with each other. Today, it is the marketer’s job as much as anyone else’s to make sure the PMF happens. Rather than waiting for it to happen magically or assuming that this is some other department’s job, marketers need to contribute to this process. Focusing on who your customers are, figuring out their needs, designing a product that will blow their minds—these are marketing decisions, not just development and design choices.
Stop sitting and start the dirty work. Optimising a product to spread and be well received by customers, by the media, and by influencers is something that you, as a marketer or a growth hacker, are uniquely qualified to do. You are, in effect, the translator who helps bridge the producers and the consumers so they are in alignment.
The exercise forces the team to focus on exactly what its potential new product is and what’s special about it. No longer content to let the development happen as it happens, we can influence it with input, with rules and guidelines, and with feedback. The growth hacker helps with iterations, advises, and analyzes every facet of the business. In other words, Product Market Fit is a feeling backed with data and information.
Getting The PMF
As explained above, some companies spend a long time to achieve the Product Market Fit (PMF) while others find it right away Perhaps you’ll get to PMF with one quick moment like Instagram, or it may be incremental percent improvements. Companies need to do whatever is required to get to product/market fit, including changing out people, rewriting your product, moving into a different market, telling customers no when you don’t want to, telling customers yes when you don’t want to, raising that fourth round of highly dilutive venture capital; virtually any necessary steps. Going all out is a must.
Open Up to Feedback
Being open up to feedback is important. Take a look at Evernote, a start-up that offers productivity and organisation software, which made the right decision to delay spending even a penny on marketing for the first several years of its growth. Phil Libin, Evernote founder, once told a group of entrepreneurs that “People [who are] thinking about things other than making the best product, never make the best product.” So Evernote took “marketing” off the table and instead poured that budget into product development. This undoubtedly slowed brand building at first—but it paid off. Why? Because Evernote is far and away the most superior productivity and note-taking application on the planet. Today, it practically markets itself.
Perhaps this is what you need to do. You might want immediate tips you can put into action, the places you can deploy your budget or resources. Still, let’s think outside the box, outside the budget, and consider whether improving your product might be the best strategy.
Once we stop thinking of the products we market as static—that our job as marketers is to simply work with what we’ve got instead of working on and improving what we’ve got—the whole game changes. Now we are not helpless, repeatedly pitching a product to reporters and users that is not resonating. Instead, we use this information to improve the product, with the idea of ultimately refining our idea into something that can in many ways sell itself.
The game has changed. The prize and spoils no longer go to the person who makes it to market first. They go to the person who makes it to Product Market Fit first. Because once you get there, your marketing efforts become like a spark applied to a bed of kindling soaked in kerosene. Marketing as we know it is a waste of time without PMF.
For the first time we can ask these questions because we intend to do something about it. No more privately complaining to friends, coworkers, and spouses that we’re stuck with a product nobody wants. Not to say that you must use all the data that comes back, but you should have it. The black-box approach is no longer necessary. Change is possible—which means you need to make yourself available and open to it. Product Market Fit is not some mythical status that happens accidentally. Companies work for it; they crawl toward it. But once these companies get PMF, they don’t just wait and hope that success will come along on its own. The next step is to bring the customers in.