Frameworks—and The Elusive Challenge of Finding Product-Market Fit

Frameworks—and The Elusive Challenge of Finding Product-Market Fit

Frameworks, archetypes, models—they’re all tools that businesses can use to understand themselves, and their customers, in clearer, more nuanced ways.

Their structures and constraints can reveal to us meaningful insights that we’re often blind to without them.

The problem is, we don’t always have these tools when we need them.

Case in point: Years ago, before starting Thrive, I joined a medtech startup that a friend from high school had founded.

The company had been around for some years before I got there, so it wasn’t a startup in the traditional sense, but it was in the midst of a complete business model transformation—from a service-based, location-specific business to a technology company.

After a year of work and fundraising, we couldn’t get the traction we needed.

The market we served was enthusiastic about the product, and the problem we solved was important (and life-saving), but that enthusiasm and importance weren’t translating to users or sales.

In short, we never achieved our product-market fit.

This matters because product-market fit is critically important in ways I didn’t understand at the time.

It validates that’s there a real demand for the product and a target market willing to pay for the solution.

Without it, everything—the technology, the investment dollars, the business itself—is in jeopardy.

It’s painful to admit that I simply didn’t know that at the time.


Hard to describe, easy to feel

“You can always feel when product-market fit isn’t happening,” wrote venture investor Marc Andreessen in a now-famous 2007 blog post. “The customers aren’t quite getting value out of the product, word of mouth isn’t spreading, usage isn’t growing that fast, press reviews are kind of ‘blah,’ the sales cycle takes too long, and lots of deals never close.”

This is indeed exactly what it felt like to me at the time the medtech company was sputtering out.

No matter what we did, it seemed that we just couldn’t move the needle in any meaningful way.

The flipside to this, of course, is what it feels like to achieve product-market fit.

Andreessen goes on to write, “The customers are buying the product just as fast as you can make it—or usage is growing just as fast as you can add more servers. Money from customers is piling up in your company checking account. You’re hiring sales and customer support staff as fast as you can.”

He then describes some of the other wonderful qualities of finding product-market fit, but I’m sure you get the point.

When you’ve achieved it, the feeling is incredible— and undeniable.


Finding a framework

But I also wonder if we didn’t achieve product-market fit because we weren’t thinking about it in the right way—or even at all.

Much of my recent thinking on this topic has been sparked by Sequoia Capital’s now-public Arc Product-Market Fit Framework, which is interesting because it focuses on how the customer relates to the problem the product solves, rather than simply how the product relates to the market.

“Rather than diagnosing whether you have product-market fit,” Team Sequoia writes in their introduction, “this framework outlines three distinct archetypes of PMF which help you understand your product’s place in the market and determine how your company operates.”

They go on to describe these three archetypes, which I’ve summarized for concision:

  1. Hair on Fire: In this archetype, the product solves an urgent, obvious need in a crowded market. Customers are actively seeking solutions, and the key to success is delivering the best-in-class, differentiated solution quickly.
  2. Hard Fact: Here, the product solves a problem customers have accepted as a fact of life. The challenge is to educate the market and capture the opportunity by changing the status quo.
  3. Future Vision: This archetype involves enabling a new reality through visionary innovation. Customers may be unaware of the problem or believe it’s impossible to solve. Success requires attracting and retaining top talent and finding commercial opportunities along the way.


According to this framework, our medtech company was operating within the Hard Fact archetype.

Our customers had accepted a certain problem as a fact of life, and our job—though we didn’t think about it in these terms at the time— was to not only provide the solution that solved that problem, but to educate the market so they would adopt our perspective.

We needed to “upend how things are done with an unexpected approach,” to put it in Sequoia’s words.

But as anyone who’s ever tried to change someone’s mind knows, this is an incredibly difficult task to accomplish, and it was one that we ultimately failed at.

We had an approach that was novel enough, and a compelling story to tell.

However, in hindsight, I’m not sure the problem mattered enough for people to make a substantive change.

This was an insight that, had we known, would have saved both our investors and us a considerable amount of time and money.


Timing is everything

Everything always makes a lot more sense when you’re looking back on it.

You can see where you went wrong, where you could have made a different choice, where your thinking was off base.

Perhaps if we had a tool like the Arc product-market fit framework back then, we could have used it to see ourselves, our customers, and our product more clearly.

The lesson that I take from all this, and one that seems increasingly more important the longer I stay in business, is that frameworks, archetypes, and models are some of most useful tools we have at our disposal.

They provide a structured way of thinking about the complex problems we face as knowledge workers, helping us break them down into smaller, more manageable components.

By using these tools to guide our thinking, we can navigate the complex challenges of building and growing a business with greater clarity, getting closer to achieving that elusive but unmistakable feeling of product-market fit.

Never miss an insight. We’ll email you when new articles are published.