Crewmojo - Performance management that doesn't suck!
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Mark Lewis By Mark Lewis • November 6, 2017

Startups: Forget Product-Market Fit, get Message-Market Fit

I wish we knew this one lesson when we started 18 months ago.

We did our best to follow the startup rule book. We had our great startup idea, we did a load of research to validate the idea, then focused our efforts on getting an MVP out as quickly as possible (took us 4 months). We got some early adopters to sign up from a bunch of different marketing activities (paid ads, expos and a slew of growth hacks we tried to copy from other success stories).

The theory goes that you then take feedback from these early adopters which gives you a clear direction to iterate your product all the way through to unicorn heaven. This is where we learnt the actual journey can quickly deviate from the theory. The reality for us was some mixed signals which made our path forward somewhat confusing.

Some of the positive signs:

  • Discussions with friends, colleagues and networking. People were always positive with comments like “This is a really good idea…” “I like it a lot…”
  • A number of early adopters converted to paying customers, they were highly engaged and gave great feedback.
  • We were using the product ourselves and finding it useful (though we’re pretty biased).

Hints we should have taken more notice of:

  • While people told us it was a great idea, they rarely engaged in a conversation that went beyond supportive comments.
  • Even though we had described our product once or twice, often the same people would ask us a few weeks later “What is it that you do again?”.
  • We weren’t getting referrals even though we were consistently speaking with a large network.

Being the optimists we are, plus all the memes that tell you to keep going in the face of adversity, understanding we must be in the valley of death, or the trough of sorrow… we kept iterating the product for another 8 months trying to reach the elusive Product-Market fit and the promised land.

After all that effort and iteration we still didn’t feel any closer to reaching Product-Market fit.

A pivotal moment

We were at a 3 day expo where there was a constant flow of people coming past our booth. At these expos you have about 1 sentence to grab some attention from passers-by. In the first day our message was simply not getting engagement.

On day 2 we started experimenting with different messages and over the course of a few hours, we iterated the message until people were stopping, asking questions and engaging in conversation. By now though, our message was quite removed from what our product actually did, but hey we were having great conversations:)!

Post expo founder meeting

After the expo we laid it out to discuss:

  1. Our vision to help work teams reach higher performance and have fun at the same time hadn’t changed.
  2. We had a product that was focused on task management, feedback and accountability, but had not achieved traction.
  3. We had a new message that was focused on performance management that appeared to be getting great engagement.

We asked ourselves a bunch of questions. Do we keep iterating the current product in the hope of reaching product-market fit? Do we stop developing the current product and build a new version that matches the performance management message? What if the performance message isn’t such a big hit after all? After all, we were totally convinced are previous message was great when we first came up with it! We knew we wouldn’t have enough time to build another product that doesn’t get traction so this was a big decision.

The way forward

We decided to extensively test the performance management message. What did this actually mean:

  • Put a hold on signups to the current product
  • Update social profiles, software sites and our entire website with the new performance management message
  • Replace the signup button with a wait list
  • Enter pitching competitions with the new message
  • Attend conferences and networking events to test the message

After 6 weeks we had more than enough confidence to take the leap and start pivoting the business to solving the problem of annual performance reviews.

5 months on from the decision and we are a week away from going into closed beta with a large number of corporate customers.

What we have found in the last 5 months is in stark contrast to the previous 12 months. Gone are the quick and supportive conversations because we now have message-market fit!

What is Message-Market fit?

We are now getting introduced to new business every week, CEO’s of well known brands are signing up to our waitlist, HR Leaders are nodding in agreeance with the problem we’re talking about and asking really meaningful questions, after pitching comps we are getting approached by businesses that want to try our software. Last week I even had a guy in a coffee queue ask for my business card when we ended up chatting about what I do.

Message-Market fit is like falling in love, you just know when it’s happened. And if you’re not sure, then you probably haven’t found it.

I wish we’d known about it when we started. We were so focused on getting an MVP out and chasing Product-Market fit that we missed this step all together.

We have learnt the hard way, you can’t have product-market fit without first getting message-market fit.

More learnings from this journey

I often get asked about our traction and the context is nearly always signups or revenue numbers, but these usually come months after day 1. In my view there are different traction metrics at the pre-revenue stage which should be thought of as traction towards message-market fit. At the beginning it might be the number of meaningful conversations, or the number of people saying ‘Oh you solve that! You have to speak with this person!’

When we first started, we had a big hangup about selling vaporware. The thought of selling something that doesn’t exist took us back to the year 2000. We have learnt that testing message-market fit is not the same as selling vaporware. We got comfortable by being completely transparent that we were looking to sign people up to a waitlist and then onto a beta version when it was ready. And being a beta user would have early adopter benefits.

Most people won’t tell you they don’t understand your message, they will say generic and supportive comments and the conversation will move on. If you’re having these types of conversations, it’s a big warning bell.

It took us months and months to get our message right and we are still evolving. When I talk about ‘the message’, we have written down words for every conceivable context; a 5 word tagline, one sentence description, one paragraph description, 200 words, 400 words, 2 minute pitch, 3 min pitch, 5 min pitch etc. It is remarkable how the context changes what you would say or write.

Entering awards or pitch comps is a great way to force yourself to refine your messaging. You get asked questions that you hadn’t thought of which will draw the information out that is no doubt buried deep inside you:)

Key take away message

The ‘one-liner’ you use to describe your product should allow your target audience to immediately understand the gist of what you do. It could be the problem that you’re solving in THEIR lives or a solution that they’re likely to be looking for. Either way, it needs to resonate, get them curious and asking you questions to learn more.

In our case, Crewmojo is targeting HR Leaders with:

Performance management that doesn’t suck!