The blessing and the curse of Community-Product fit.
They say it’s not what you know, it’s who you know that matters.
I disagree. It’s both.
As an entrepreneur, knowing people is only half of the job, if you’ve nothing to sell to them; just as having the best product in the world is pointless if there’s nobody to sell it to. Having both is key.
Over the past 18 months, I have visibly seen the rise of businesses with a community either as the product itself or at least as the core foundation of other products on top of that. There are even thought leaders now commanding the space including people like David Spinks of CMX. As such, Community-product-fit is a vital component of the modern-day startup mix. However, it’s something that isn’t being written about — so here you go!
In a startup world obsessed with acronyms, one has been around for a long time. PMF, or ‘product-market fit’ as it’s known, refers to the suitability of a product being built vs the demand of its market. If people buy it, use it, love it, talk about it, then you’ve definitely found ‘product-market fit’ and achieved a key milestone in growing a bigger business.
It’s the ‘what’.
It’s commonly touted as the holy grail for startups in a world where they already have an obvious market to sell to, but in a world where founding teams are actively building communities around subjects or passions, before creating a product to sell to them, there’s a new type of ‘fit’ to be found: ‘Community-Product fit’.
This is the ‘who’.
Finding community-product fit or ‘CPF’, is the act of finding a product that fits the community you’ve built. Naturally this comes before finding product-market fit on the startup journey.
It’s pretty easily explained, yet much, much harder to achieve. Let’s explore that…
Increasingly, people are using social channels like Instagram or purpose-built platforms like Discord or Circle to build communities around a brand or experience, creating a readily-accessible customer base as a by-product.
Hundreds, thousands or even millions of people sat there, waiting to become customers. This can be a powerful thing. Selling to them should be easy. But it can just as easily be one of the most frustrating parts of the startup journey if you let it.
Having done this myself, over a number of years, I can advise that it’s not as easy as it seems. A few universal truths and questions, for almost every business that has ever existed, still come very much into play.
- People often don’t actually know what they want or need.
- You never end up selling what you think you’re going to sell in the way you think you’re going to sell it. Something will change.
- When does an MVP start and when does it stop being an MVP?
Henry Ford once famously said “If I’d have asked people what they wanted, they’d have said ‘more horses’.” referring to the juxtaposition of the founder-view on how the world could/should look, versus the lack of considerations a consumer might go through in thinking about how their experience might be improved.
People don’t know, what they don’t know.
A cleaner using a vacuum cleaner may have asked for smoother wheels, whereas James Dyson reinvented the fundamental way that vacuums worked forever and built a huge company and brand out of the result. Taxis weren’t really ‘broken’ per se, and yet Uber came along and created a whole way of life not only for consumers but for thousands of workers globally too. There are many more examples where this is true.
This is contrary to the usual advice of asking people what they want and building it but it is grounded in common human psychology. Would you or your consumers be more excited about slightly cheaper insurance? Or the ability to access and update their cover for everything in their life from one application on their phone? You could do either. Or both. But which first?
Active feedback is the power of the community-first business but there is a real challenge in finding a balance between building what people say they want and what people don’t know they need. Community-Product fit comes in constantly reviewing the two and, in my experience, taking more leaps on the latter, to bring your community with you into the experience you know they need.
It takes confidence, self-awareness and a huge amount of tenacity to fight the imposter syndrome that comes with it. However, you should rest assured that if you’ve built a community over a long enough duration, with a deep enough understanding then, yes, your community can help guide what you go on to create, but your viewpoint is more powerful than you might think and you may just reinvent the wheel for your community — and many more people beyond that.
Iterating constantly is the tireless job of every startup founder. It may be true to say that neither community-product fit, nor product-market fit are ever fully achievable but seeking understanding where they both come in the journey is an important step for any community-founded company.