We’re all familiar with the term product-market fit: The degree to which a product satisfies a demand in a particular market. It is often cited as one of the most important components of any startup venture, and the reason why many products fail.
But what about founder-market fit?
Founder-market fit refers to how connected a founder is to the problem he or she is trying to solve. It is a newer concept, but it is something that investors have started looking for.
Imagine if your grandma told you that she was going to make the next dating app. Unless you have an exceptionally hip grandma, it may be hard to imagine her building this solution since she can’t relate to the problem of her prospective customers.
This is the importance of founder-market fit. It is understanding what your customers need, the pains they’re feeling, and what they need more than anything, maybe even before they do. Having real founder-market fit can be a significant differentiator for a founder, in three main ways.
1. You Solve a Real Problem
When you as a founder can relate to the problem you’re trying to solve, you can be confident that you really are solving a real problem. Pieter Omvlee, founder and CEO of Sketch, embodies the idea of founder market fit: He and co-founder Emanuel Sá designed and built Sketch because, as UI designers themselves, they wanted a better tool to solve their own problems in their work.
As Omvlee explains, “You make the best product if you solve a need that you're having. If you're trying to solve a need that you don't have and you're just doing it because customers ask for it, you just make a mediocre version of it and you won't help yourself or know your users. Just doing what you think is best and solving the problem that you're having is, I think, still the right answer.” Instead of trying to be everything to everyone and losing the unifying vision, solving a real problem that you have personally experienced makes you better suited to create the right solution and serve the market.
2. You Leave Manageable Skill Gaps
As a founder, you’re not going to have every skill in the book. There are going to be gaps in your skillset that require some outside help, whether that help comes from a co-founder, a partner, an advisor, or all of the above.
Marty Cagan, founder and CEO of Silicon Valley Product Group, has worked with countless early stage startups, and has recognized winning patterns for founders. According to Cagan, “good product people know what they can't know and admit what they don't know.”
There are nice-to-have skills when creating a product, but an important qualification that Marty Cagan looks for is not technical knowledge or sales savvy. He looks for a founder that understands and is driven by the problem they’re setting out to solve. That is not a skill that is easy to replace; it is a critical piece if a founder’s puzzle that can’t be brought in later.
3. It Keeps You Going
It is no secret that starting a company is hard work. Any founder story you hear will be littered with low points, moments when they had to stare directly in the face of rejection and pick their head up, walk out the door, and do it all over again the next day. Without the personal connection to the problem you’re trying to solve, it can be really difficult to keep going.
This is what Sara Mauskopf, CEO and co-founder of Winnie, recognized on her startup journey to create a product that made it simpler for parents to find childcare options. As a mother herself, Mauskopf personally experienced the struggle of finding childcare for her child when she was ready to go back to work, and because of this experience she set out to solve the problem.
As Mauskopf explains, “We have kids and we've faced this pain point ourselves. So we understand it very viscerally. I think that is important especially when you're a founder because there are so many ups and downs of building a product and there has to be something that keeps you going beyond all reason.” Knowing that this was a real problem was what kept spurring Mauskopf along, because no matter how much rejection she faced she knew that she had felt this problem so personally that there was a pain point waiting to be addressed.
There are so many variables to a founder’s journey, and everyone is always looking for the perfect recipe for success. But while there is no magic bullet, having founder-market fit can be a significant differentiator for a startup because you’re solving a problem that you’ve experienced and that provides confidence, skills, and motivation that others can’t lean on.