We Need To Pay More Attention To Founder Market Fit

In the startup world, one of the first things people talk about is this mythical thing called “product market fit”. Ok, it’s not that mythical (maybe to me it is). This is the notion that your product has the right price, is attractive to the right people, and is solving the right problem. Obviously it’s important, otherwise you’ll spend years in startup purgatory peddling some shit to the wrong people. It sucks. I know from first hand experience.

But equally as important to product market fit is this idea of founder market fit. By this I mean “are the founders the right people to be running this business?”. Lemme explain.

I once did a startup program associated with a college in Atlanta that emphasized “finding the pain” in a market. While I agree w/ this notion (ever try selling something that’s not solving a painpoint? is your name Steve Jobs?), I did not agree that you should follow that pain regardless of the market you found yourselves in. We had engineers who dutifully followed pivot after pivot after pivot until they found themselves going from a logistics company to a fashion blog to something else entirely. While they may have found a product market fit (ok, they didn’t), was there ever any consideration for founder market fit? You know, were we asking baseball players to do ballet? Had we ever asked “wait, should there people be the ones working on this problem”? This is the idea of “founder market fit”.

I understand some folks were just meant to be entrepreneurs. This may lead you to owning all kinds of random shit (a buddy owning a hair salon comes to mind. I can get a discount on a really nice haircut so there’s that). That’s awesome. More power to you. But If you’re starting a company, especially a tech company, take a few things into consideration:

What do I know about this market?

I’m a firm believer that you have to absorb every possible detail there is to know about a market to enter it as a startup. To do that, I feel like there should be some level of empathy with the market. Do you even care? If you don’t, if you just see an opportunity, run. Because as soon as the shit hits the fan, and it will, you’ll be all like “ooooook, time to cut and run”. I knew a lot about the restaurant business b/c my dad has owned and operated restaurants for 50ish years. I bartended my way through college. I understood what people’s issues were. When things got gnarly with We&Co, and it did, several times we stuck it out. If we didn’t care, it would have been easy to bounce at the first sign of trouble.

With my current company, Standard Code, I may not be an epidemiologist (I’m still learning how to pronounce that) but I’m totally fascinated by Global Health issues. How can we make technology solve the world’s health issues is something I could live and breath. But if you were to say “TJ, go build a company that helps people sell more stuff” I’d probably tell you to fuck off. Hey, I love sales people but it sounds boring to me, ok?

What do I know about this kind of business?

The longer I am an entrepreneur, the more I think this is the really important one. Are you good at selling the shit out of something? Scaling sales teams? Understanding pricing models and markets? Admittedly I sucked at those. I’m an engineer that happens to also be good at relationships (or so I tell myself when i go to bed at night). This means I’m good at explaining complex technical solutions to non technical people. VOILA! I should be running a dev shop (which I am now). But I SUCK at hiring sales people (as the graveyard of people I’ve tried to get to sell my stuff can attest). My point here is to really understand who you are as person and what your capabilities are. Product people tend to do better with B2c; sales people do better with B2B. These aren’t set in stone obviously — things just tend to play out this way.

If you haven’t started a business yet, give it some thought — different kinds of people should be running different kinds of businesses. It’s not a one size fits all.

TJ Muehleman

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