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You've Got to Rethink Product-Market Fit to Stand Out Startups are having a harder time distinguishing their brand. Here's how to avoid the same fate.

By Alexandra Cote

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Most startup founders I talk to make the same core mistake: They don't really understand their target buyers. And just as often, they are certain they do. The causes for this common lapse are diverse, from getting stuck on a specific target-market ideal or limited by a low budget that doesn't allow for proper research. Or perghaps you're simply not positioning it correctly.

The different people around your product

Who is your target buyer? Who is a decision-maker? Who sits through a product demo? Who is the final user of the product? Who is your biggest promoter? What type of buyer/user/company stays with your product for longer? I'm probably missing quite a few of these basic questions myself because every business model asks for different questions.

Related: Product-Market Fit: How to Measure If Your Business Is Filling a Need

Take differentiating users. If you've got a project-management tool, you can have multiple types of users, each one requiring different resources, marketing campaigns and values. You've got your managers overseeing everything and, most often, requiring extra features. Then there are regular users who need you to focus on usability and making things as easy for them as possible. And occasionally, you've got the independent user (e.g. a freelancer/consultant) who needs different features and is responsive to completely different pitches than your usual "helping teams work" mission statement

Most startups (and, unfortunately, this goes way beyond the startup stage) merely have a rough ideal-customer profile. Not understanding exactly who you're targettng, who's making the final purchase decision, who can promote a product et al is what leads businesses to failure. Many SaaS tools have a complex ecosystem of people of interest. For each one you should:

  • Know their pains and gains.
  • Get a full grasp of their jobs-to-be-done.
  • Map their journey and touchpoints.
  • Understand what makes them engage with your brand.

Every industry has its quirks

The best strategies for standing out still depend on your industry. Think about anything tied to developer tools or open-source. I've seen so many startups in this space jump into creating content. The SEO kind. Sometimes even before launch. When targeting developers, content can work if you can cover topics of interest for them and set up a solid content-distribution system. Hacker News can't always save the day.

For this, you need to fully understand your target market's needs and pain points. The challenge is transforming all that into messaging they can resonate with, ultimately building a community. Twitter, Discord, GitHub, YouTube — even local meetups work.

That's what you focus on first. Differentiation hurdles extend toward overcrowded industries like project-management. Let's face it: We all know one or two or five or more project-anagement tools. This is what makes it one of the most complicated industries. That's why whether you do marketing for a project-management app, a time tracker or any other productivity solution, your messaging is predisposed to sameness.

I came into the project-management space a bit over four years ago, back when Asana already had the money to sponsor everything and you'd see in use everywhere. So what did they do to make sure people still remembered them? They continuously tweaked their messaging. I specifically followed's messaging and positioning journey. They went from a mere tool that simplifies the way your team works to the go-to solution for remote teams (go figure) and, like you'll find them today as they're "building a new category", the Work OS.

That's just one example of a company that's constantly trying to reinvent itself. Sameness is scary, so if you don't have the millions to juggle technological innovation (e.g. see Notion and Airtable), test your messaging.

The new way is through better messaging

What if I told you you could be well on your way to product-market fit, but you either:

  1. Haven't fully understood who your real users, decision makers and promoters are and what they want. (This is obvious if you're hesitant to extend your marketing efforts towards new audiences or if you don't want to tweak your current offering a bit because you're afraid it will be a waste of time.)
  2. Have a great product, technologically superior to competitors, but don't know how to position it. (Evident when you've got several features you're userbase asked for or switched to your solution for, but you're still way behind your competition.)

Related: How Customer Discovery Can Significantly Enhance Your Product-Market Fit

A message map can change the way you position your product and finally make its value obvious to the world. Think message-market fit before you even start measuring for product-market fit. In fact, getting approval on your messaging early on (as early as beta) will help you continuously improve your value proposition as you're moving toward product-market fit. All it takes is speeding up feedback loops and not being afraid to dedicate 10-20% of your time and resources towards a channel with high-growth potential. Yes, even when it seems like it's not your ideal target market.

That's how Notion grew organically, with minimal efforts from their side. They're mainly targetting the B2B space, right? That's where the most money is. But the B2B world also has people — humans like you and me with interests outside of just business. So naturally, Notion grew through their community of ndividuals interested in bettering themselves, reducing procrastination and ditching old bullet journals. This market isn't exactly ideal in terms of ROI, but it's brought in the word of mouth and virality they needed to scale.

Most of your products have the product-market fit reserved. You just need to be honest about who your market really is and what they truly want, and not your theory of what the product could be like.

Alexandra Cote

SaaS Growth Marketing Leader

Alexandra Cote is a SaaS growth marketer and product-led growth advocate who's worked with dozens of brands in the MarTech, HR tech, productivity and developer tooling space. She’s also a strong supporter of staying happy at work and choosing a healthy career path.

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