What to do if your product isn’t taking off
Seven steps you can take today to try to turn things around
👋 Hey, I’m Lenny and welcome to a 🔒 subscriber-only edition 🔒 of my weekly newsletter. Each week I tackle reader questions about building product, driving growth, and accelerating your career.
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Q: I’ve been working on my startup for a couple of years now. What are my options if my product isn’t taking off?
First of all, I’m sorry. Spending years of your life on an idea that isn’t clicking—the long hours, the stress, your reputation on the line, and not seeing the fruit of all that labor—it sucks. Especially while everyone around you is seemingly killing it.
Most startups, and new product ideas, fail—we all know this—but it’s different when it’s your product.
If it’s any consolation, this is going to be happening to a lot of startups in the coming months:
To help you make it through the darkness, here’s a series of concrete actions you can take today to try to turn things around:
Talk to more users (actually do it)
Change your target audience/ICP
Change your positioning/messaging/pitch
Try a “kickstarter” to get the word out
Find something that is working and pivot fully to that
Give it a bit more time
Give up and move on
Remember, many product builders have gone through what you’re going through now and have found a way. You can too.
1. Talk to more users (actually do it)
Gustaf Alströmer, a Group Partner at Y Combinator, shared this same advice during our chat after I asked him why most startups fail:
“If I drill down what makes companies fail, it’s quite simple: They don’t talk to users, which means they don’t find product-market fit. And if they don’t find product-market fit, nothing else really matters. This is the mistake most people make. It’s all about talking to customers and learning that you’re building something that’s actually useful. YC’s headline is ‘Make things people want,’ and it’s still true and it’s always going to be true.”
I know you’ve heard this advice before, and you’re probably doing it, but if you’re not, make it a point to talk to 5 to 10 potential customers this week. If you already are, that’s great.
When talking to people, look for two things: pain and pull. Pain tells you there’s an opportunity to solve a problem. Pull tells you that you’re actually solving the problem.
Here’s what pain and pull look like in practice:
People pay you money: Several people start to (or offer to) pay for your early product, ideally people you don’t have a direct connection to.
Strong emotion: You’re hearing hatred for the incumbents (i.e. pain) or a deep and strong emotional reaction to your idea (i.e. pull).
Cold inbound interest: You’re seeing cold inbound interest in your product.
Continued usage: If you’ve got a prototype running, people continue to use your product even if it’s bad.
When I was building my startup Localmind, we were talking to users all the time, and people constantly told us they loved the product, but, looking back, we didn’t hear much about their pain point. The pain we were solving turned out to be very low (helping people decide where to go out). It was a magical experience when it worked, and some people continued to use it, but for most people, it was more of a novelty than solving a real problem. We should have been more focused on the problem, and the pain we were solving, than the novelty of the solution.
If you boil it down, to build a successful business, you need to solve a big enough problem for a big enough group of people to make a profit. Everything in this post is a way to help you find a bigger problem or a bigger group of people.
Talk to 5 to 10 new customers, or potential customers, this week
Read How to validate your startup idea by Todd Jackson
2. Change your target audience/ICP
You may have the perfect solution to a different person’s problem.
Instead of trying to bang your head against the wall to convince the same people they need your product, try pitching someone else entirely.
The founders of Pinterest started off by pitching tech people, but almost by accident realized the group that needed Pinterest was 30-something female bloggers. The founders of Retool thought their product was for ops teams, but it turned out it was CTOs. DoorDash started with only independently owned restaurants in tier-2 and tier-3 cities. Stytch first went after growth teams, but then realized engineers wanted it most. Netflix realized their initial target audience should be DVD fanatics in online communities, because that’s who most wanted endless DVDs. Instagram initially went after designers interested in photography who had large Twitter followings. Snapchat initially went after high school students in Orange County.
Your target audience should also be very narrow. Almost comically narrow. Shoot for at least three narrowing characteristics. For inspiration, here are the original ideal customer profiles (ICPs) for top B2B products and, below that, the original target audience for top B2C products (what I call the “super-specific who”).
Why should your target market be so narrow? Several reasons:
Focus: It’s hard enough to solve one big problem for one person. By focusing all of your efforts on this one use case, you’ll have the best chance of solving a problem better than anyone else. Once you get one person to love you (which most products aren’t able to do), you can expand from there.
“The goal is for a fledgling start-up to take customers away from an established incumbent by focusing all their power at a single point of attack. This will be a problem that conventional solutions are not addressing well, one that is increasing in severity and attracting the attention of top management. The start-up commits to solving this problem 100%.” —Geoffrey Moore, author of Crossing the Chasm
Distribution: It’s easier to get people excited about your product if it feels like it’s made for them. It’s also easier to get in front of people with the same interests or problems. Tinder started with party-going college students at USC (one location). WhatsApp started with Russian emigrants in San Jose (one neighborhood). Discord started with PC gamers playing Final Fantasy XIV (one niche community). Instagram started with designers interested in photography who spent time on Twitter (i.e. easy to get to them), and from that beachhead expanded. Watch this short clip to get a sense of why starting highly niche counterintuitively helps you grow more quickly:
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Early adopters get your flywheel spinning: As Geoffrey Moore taught us over 30 years ago, most people aren’t early adopters. Instead, they wait for others to tell them a new product is worth their time. They wait for social proof. Early adopters, on the other hand, love new stuff. They’re less focused on pain points, and mostly just want to stay ahead. But once they get excited, they tell others. That’s how you cross the “chasm.”
“We want to light a billion-dollar bonfire. How do you light a billion-dollar bonfire if all you have is a match? You don’t hold it under a big log. You get some kindling together, you bunch some paper underneath it, you get your match, and you light the corner of the paper under the kindling, under the log.
Until I get the fire started somewhere, I shouldn’t try to spread my heat.”
“It’s a lot easier to boil a thimble than the ocean.” —Sarah Tavel, GP at Benchmark
3. Change your positioning/messaging/pitch
You may have the perfect solution for the perfect person, but if they don’t understand how your product will help them, they won’t pay attention.
In her amazing guest post, April Dunford relays how simply changing her team’s product positioning from a “Microsoft Access killer” to an “embeddable database for mobile devices” changed the trajectory of their business. In my post on crafting your pitch, I share stories of how DoorDash, Netflix, and Behance took off only once they figured out how to pitch their product effectively (and without changing the product itself).
In the case of Ramp, all they had initially was the messaging:
“When we launched, in mid-2020, I think we had ‘message-market fit.’ We were able to differentiate and have people be interested in our unique messaging, but we didn’t have the product there yet. In terms of the product itself, where suddenly it was spreading, that came later, probably fall of 2020, when it was finally delivering on the messaging we had.” —Eric Glyman, co-founder and CEO
Here are examples of how some of the most popular B2C apps successfully pitched their products early on:
4. Try a “kickstarter” to get the word out
Maybe you do indeed have the right solution, for the right people, with the right pitch, but these people just haven’t heard about you yet.