Product-market fit is often celebrated as a major milestone for startups and businesses, and for good reason – it means that the product or service is meeting the needs of its target market and gaining traction with customers. However, what is often overlooked is the fact that reaching product-market fit can also lead to the accumulation of technical debt. As the product or service grows and evolves, the underlying software systems and infrastructure may not be able to keep up, leading to problems and inefficiencies that can be costly to fix.
Read on if you want to understand how the Product-Market fit engineering trap works and how your startup can keep growing rather than dying.
What is Product-Market Fit Anyway?
The Product-Market fit pyramid is an effective diagram to explain how early stage startups can meet product-market fit (PMF). It highlights how you should first focus on discovering a target customer with an underserved need (the market). This need can then be satisfied by your product.
Why Product-Market fit matters
You can’t ignore product-market fit. Most early-stage startups fail because they never reach this crucial milestone. The Product-Market fit pyramid is a great tool in that it clearly structures your product discovery phase: First understand your customer and their needs, then build out your product.
How to reach Product-Market Fit
The fastest way to reach product-market fit is through a lean approach with fast iterations and quick pivots. This puts your engineering under strain in that it needs to prototype quickly, it’s is focused on the short term. This is perfectly fine at this stage.
The lean startup approach sums this up concisely: Build – Measure – Learn. The quicker you are with building, the faster you find your paying customers – as long as you don’t skip the measure and learn steps.
You say PMF – I say Technical Debt!
Right after reaching product-market fit your lean approach can become an instant burden. What was a rapid prototype before PMF is now an MVP ridden with technical debt. And technical debt can kill your startup just as much as lacking product-market fit can.
Eventually the engineering shortcuts you’ve taken in order to iterate quickly will not drive business value anymore but rather destroy it with bugs, delayed releases and ultimately frustrated customers.
In order to overcome the second obstacle of your startup’s journey you need to adapt your product engineering strategy. You need to prioritise engineering excellence.
Fueling the fire of technical debt
Another way to analyse the product-market fit pyramid is to look at the Features and User Experience (UX) elements. Hitting PMF means that you have a critical mass of features and quality of user experience that is sticky enough to retain customers. If you have to keep adding features to attract new customers you have not hit PMF yet. This could go on until you run out of funding: You build features for a set of customers, they eventually churn, you build the next set of features for a different set of customers who eventually churn too and so on. Every feature you add to your prototype is baggage.
You might be able to hit Product-Market fit with an extensive bundle of features but this will only make the obstacle of reducing technical debt even harder to overcome.
Avoid the Product-Market fit engineering trap before it snaps shut
Before you hit product-market fit your code turnover is massive. You have to throw most things away that you built. Because of this there is no justification to spend much extra effort on concerns that could be a problem in years down the line.
No excuse for bad engineering practices
Some good engineering takes a lot of time. Setting things up for scale doesn’t always work out of the box, especially not when money is tight. But there are also many forms of good engineering that are completely free if you have the right skills. Creating an inefficient database layout takes only slightly less time than modelling your data properly. It’s mostly a matter of recycling past experiences.
The moment you hit Product-market fit you need to make a 180 degree turn. Your focus needs to shift from the short-term to the long-term. Before PMF your engineering has a short time horizon, from one to at most 6 weeks ahead. But with PMF you suddenly have a sticky product in the market. This means that every line of code you write will stay around much longer.
How to prevent falling into the trap
So, can the PMF engineering trap be avoided at all? Or is it a fact of life? I believe it can be avoided. You must try to produce as little code as possible and discard it as quickly as possible. For this you have multiple strategies as an early-stage startup:
- No Code: Use low code and no code solutions for your prototypes
- Pruning: Before adding a new feature, remove something unused
- Isolation and decoupling: Instead of splitting your code by function, separate it by the speed of change
- Prioritise maintenance early on: Ensure that your dependencies are always updated and make time for refactorings even though they might feel preliminary
When you are in the Product-Market fit engineering trap already
To overcome the obstacle of technical debt of your startup you need to acknowledge that Product-Market fit means that you now have a set of features – your product – that is good enough to attract and retain customers. You need to live off this achievement for a little while now.
This realisation enables you to deprioritise churning out new features and focus on reworking existing features and their engineering foundation.
No quick fixes
What’s important to realise is that there are no quick fixes to the product-market fit engineering trap. You have to do the exact opposite. You need to switch from a rapid prototyping mindset to one that celebrates high engineering standards.
- Divide & conquer: Build a team of specialists and experts who can each bring areas of your engineering to the highest standards
- Upgrade your tooling: Invest in your tech stack to automate processes, improve efficiency, or otherwise reduce technical debt
- Outsource & integrate: Nowadays there’s a SaaS for almost everything. Often the most hacky parts of a codebase are the ones least related to the core business. Those can easily be outsourced by intergrating external tools.
When trying to prevent the “product-market fit engineering trap” you have to strike a balance between optimising too early and running into a steaming pile of technical debt once you hit product-market fit. It is a fine line to walk and needs careful consideration. Either way you have no choice: Your company’s success depends on it.