This is a guest post from Ryan Holiday. It’s an abridged excerpt from the first chapter of his best-selling book “Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing and Advertising” and course Growth Hacker Marketing.
You know what the single worst marketing decision you can make is? Starting with a product nobody wants or nobody needs.
“Make something people want.”
Yet for years, this was a scenario that marketers tolerated and accepted as part of the job. We all told ourselves that “you go to market with the product you have, not the one you want.” And then we wondered why our strategies failed—and why those failures were so expensive.
What attracted me to growth hacking from the very start was that it rejects this obviously flawed approach outright. Growth hackers believe that products—even whole businesses and business models—can and should be changed until they are primed to generate explosive reactions from the first people who see them.
In other words, the best marketing decision you can make is to have a product or business that fulfills a real and compelling need for a real and defined group of people—no matter how much tweaking and refining this takes.
As a traditional marketer, I can think of precisely zero times when we went back to the drawing board after seeing a less-than-stellar response. It wasn’t permitted. Our only move was to put more muscle behind bad products and companies.
Instagram started as a location-based social network called Burbn (which had an optional photo feature). It attracted a core group of users and more than $500,000 in funding. And yet the founders realized that its users were flocking to only one part of the app—the photos and filters. They had a meeting, which one of the founders recounts like this: “We sat down and said, ‘What are we going to work on next? How are we going to evolve this product into something millions of people will want to use? What is the one thing that makes this product unique and interesting?’”
The service soon retooled to become Instagram as we know it: a mobile app for posting photos with filters. The result? One hundred thousand users within a week of relaunching. Within eighteen months, the founders sold Instagram to Facebook for $1 billion.
I know that seems simple, that the marketing lesson from Instragram is that they made a product that was just awesome. But that’s good news for you—it means there’s no secret sauce, and the second your product gets to be that awesome, you can see similar results. Just look at Snapchat, which essentially followed the same playbook by innovating in the mobile photo app space, blew up with young people, and skyrocketed to a $3.5‑billion-dollar valuation with next‑to‑no marketing.
Some companies like Instagram spend a long time trying new iterations until they achieve what growth hackers call Product Market Fit (PMF); others find it right away.
The end goal is the same, however, and it’s to have the product and its customers in perfect sync with each other. Eric Reis, author of The Lean Startup, explains that the best way to get to Product Market Fit is by starting with a “minimum viable product” and improving it based on feedback—as opposed to what most of us do, which is to try to launch publicly with what we think is our final, perfected product.
“Often times the Minimum Viable Product is simply an experiment that allows customers to sign-up. Would you even have to create page 2 where you apologize that the product isn’t even available yet?”
Today, it is the marketer’s job as much as anyone else’s to make sure Product Market Fit happens. Your marketing efforts are wasted on a mediocre product—so don’t tolerate mediocrity. OK?
But rather than waiting for it to happen magically or assuming that this is some other department’s job, marketers need to contribute to this process. Isolating who your customers are, figuring out their needs, designing a product that will blow their minds—these are marketing decisions, not just development and design choices.
The imperative is clear: stop sitting on your hands and start getting them dirty. Optimizing a product to spread and be well received by customers, by the media, and by influencers is something that you, as a marketer or a growth hacker, are uniquely qualified to do. You are, in effect, the translator who helps bridge the producers and the consumers so they are in alignment.
And this is true whether you’re making some physical gadget, designing a menu, or creating an app. Someone has to be the advocate for the potential market (customers), and the earlier their influence is felt in the process, the better.
Amazon has actually made this part of their basic procedures. Ian McAllister, general manager at Amazon, calls this approach “working backwards from the customer.” For new initiatives, employees begin by creating an internal press release that announces this new potential project as though it was just finished. It’s addressed to the customers—whoever they happen to be—and explains how this new offering solves their problems in an exciting or compelling way.
If the press release cannot do that, the initiative is tweaked and tweaked and tweaked until it can. According to McAllister, Amazon encourages product managers to think like Oprah—that is, would she rapturously shout about this product if she were giving it away to her fans as a gift?
The exercise forces the team to focus on exactly what its potential new product is and what’s special about it. I guarantee that someone with a mind that bends toward growth hacking put this policy into place.
No longer content to let the development happen as it happens, we can influence it with input, with rules and guidelines, and with feedback. The growth hacker helps with iterations, advises, and analyzes every facet of the business. In other words, Product Market Fit is a feeling backed with data and information.
“A full executive team with a salesforce and all that stuff before you have a killer product is a complete waste of time.”
How Do You Get PMF?
Because Product Market Fit can be overwhelming as a technical business concept, allow me to explain it by dropping the jargon and presenting an analogy. As it turns out, I was familiar with PMF long before I read Andrew Chen’s article.
Much of the marketing I do is with authors and books. I’ve worked with dozens of bestsellers in the last five years—and, of course, I’ve also worked on many books that weren’t successful. In my experience, the books that tend to flop upon release are those where the author goes into a cave for a year to write it, then hands it off to the publisher for release. They hope for a hit that rarely comes.
On the other hand, I have clients who blog extensively before publishing. They develop their book ideas based on the themes that they naturally gravitate toward but that also get the greatest response from readers. (One client sold a book proposal using a screenshot of Google queries to his site.) They test the ideas they’re writing about in the book on their blog and when they speak in front of groups. They ask readers what they’d like to see in the book. They judge topic ideas by how many comments a given post generates, by how many Facebook “shares” an article gets. They put potential title and cover ideas up online to test and receive feedback. They look to see what hot topics other influential bloggers are riding and find ways of addressing them in their book.
The latter achieves PMF; the former never does. One is growth hacking; the other, simply guessing.
One is easy for me to market. The other is often a lost cause. One needs only a small shove to get going. The other has a strong headwind every step of the way.
Open Up to Feedback
Part of this new approach is having the humility to accept that marketers are not necessarily the most critical members of the team. It’s true. Sometimes the best thing marketers can do is to not let people get distracted by “marketing” for a minute. Sometimes the outward-facing part of the job is exactly the least important part.
Take Evernote, a start‑up that offers productivity and organization software, which made the companywide decision to delay spending even a penny on marketing for the first several years of its growth. As Evernote’s founder, Phil Libin, told a group of entrepreneurs in a now-classic talk, “People [who are] thinking about things other than making the best product, never make the best product.” So Evernote took “marketing” off the table and instead poured that budget into product development. This undoubtedly slowed brand building at first—but it paid off. Why? Because Evernote is far and away the most superior productivity and note-taking application on the planet. Today, it practically markets itself.
“We just try to pay 100% of the attention to making the best product possible, and we don’t really think about what other people are doing. We don’t try to look backwards.”
Perhaps this is what you need to do. I know you’re probably reading this looking for some immediate tips you can put into action—places you can deploy your budget or resources. But let’s think outside the box—outside the budget—and consider whether improving your product might be the best strategy.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t do anything at all. Evernote still came up with a bunch of clever tricks to get people to see its products while marketing was on their strategic back burner. After hearing customers complain that their bosses were suspicious of employees using their laptops in meetings, the Evernote team produced stickers that said, “I’m not being rude. I’m taking notes in Evernote.” Thus, their most loyal customers were turning into bill‑boards that went from meeting to meeting.
Once we stop thinking of the products we market as static—that our job as marketers is to simply work with what we’ve got instead of working on and improving what we’ve got—the whole game changes. Now we are not helpless, repeatedly pitching a product to reporters and users that is not resonating. Instead, we use this information to improve the product, with the idea of ultimately refining our idea into something that can in many ways sell itself.
Ask your customers questions, too: What is it that brought you to this product? What is holding you back from referring other people to it? What’s missing? What’s golden? Don’t ask random people or your friends—be scientific about it. Use tools like SurveyMonkey, Wufoo, Qualaroo, or even Google Docs, which make it very easy to offer surveys to some or all of your customers.
For the first time we can ask these questions because we intend to do something about it. No more privately complaining to friends, coworkers, and spouses that we’re stuck with a product nobody wants.
Not to say that you must use all the data that comes back, but you should have it. The black-box approach is no longer necessary. Change is possible—which means you need to make yourself available and open to it.
Product Market Fit is not some mythical status that happens accidentally. Companies work for it; they crawl toward it. They’re ready to throw out weeks or months of work because the evidence supports that decision. The services as their customers know them now are fundamentally different from what they were at launch before they had Product Market Fit.
But once these companies get PMF, they don’t just wait and hope that success will come along on its own. The next step is to bring the customers in.
If you want to discuss any of the concepts in this post let me know in the comments below. I’ve got a more detailed chapter handling Product Market Fit with an already active discussion happening right now inside of my Growth Hacker Marketing Course. Join in, the course includes a copy of the book and is going for only $20.