How to find product-market fit before your product exists

Product validation is not a one-time event. Instead it’s a stair-step. It’s important to stop and test product-market fit at every stage as you develop your business. But that validation looks different at each stage.

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How can you find product-market fit before your product exists?

If you're thinking this, then you are asking the right questions: after your product has been built is the wrong time to validate product-market fit. The right time is always. Your product will not survive its first contact with the market, but you can increase your chances by validating continually and every step of the way.

Talk to Potential Customers

I put this first because it always works: The first thing that you should do when you have a product idea is to talk to potential customers. But wait: before you pitch your idea, listen. Try to find out where they're experiencing pain or friction. Figure out what they're doing, why they're doing it that way, and what they've tried to do differently. You're looking for answers to questions like these:

  • What pain or problem are they experiencing in their process?
  • What solutions have they tried?
  • Why didn't those solutions work?
  • Who else is experiencing this problem?
  • Why hasn't the problem been solved yet?

Don't try to offer solutions at this stage. If you do you may get a false positive answer; any solution you pitch at this stage will seem like an improvement. Your objective in asking these questions is to collect data, not to pitch your idea.

Put up a Landing Page and Collect Emails

Collecting emails is a great way to validate the messaging of your idea. Once you've figured out what kind of language your customers are using to describe their problem, you can turn that around and craft language to describe your solution. At the very least, your landing page should contain:

You might also consider structuring your landing page like a sales letter. Most sales letters follow some variation of the following format:

  1. Identify the pain or problem that your customers are experiencing.
  2. Paint a picture of how life would look if that pain or problem were solved.
  3. Describe your solution.
  4. Make your offer.
  5. Counter any objections.
  6. Demonstrate social proof.
  7. Close the deal (at this stage, you'd ask for their email address).

Provide Your Service Manually

Some of today's most successful up-and-coming companies leveraged their done-for-you in-person services into amazing products that automated the service. MeetEdgar, a social media automation service, began life as founder Laura Roeder's social media consultancy. Laura and her team managed clients' accounts using spreadsheets to schedule social media updates, and then posting those updates manually.  (If you haven't read Laura's story, you should.)

Use Existing Platforms

Could you demonstrate your idea with an existing platform? What can you string together with Wordpress plugins? Could an off-the-shelf message board provide some foundation to build community and start getting traction? Do you have to write code to have a first version? ProductHunt, which is now one of the most popular destinations on the web for discovering new products and startups, started life as a simple link sharing group built on LinkyDink. LinkyDink didn't have most of the features that we look for today - voting, following, none of that. All you could do was share a new product. But that was enough to get some very influential people very excited.

Write Lots of Content

By now you know a lot about your customer. You know who they are. You know what they're feeling, and you know that your solution could be the right one for them. It's time to turn that knowledge into content. Content is how The World will find out about your product, it's how you will communicate your message to a broader audience, and it's how you will convince individuals that you are an expert and that they should trust you. A well-defined content strategy is often the missing piece that could make the difference between success and failure. None of this is easy or automatic. Companies that look like overnight successes are almost always standing on years of work or experience. It's not foolproof but by combining these steps you can build an audience, demonstrate value, and become an expert before ever writing a line of code.

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