Of late, I have been thinking of a concept I call the Congruent Square (or Rhombus for the math-purist) to better explain to founders why some of them are struggling with hitting product market fit (PMF).
Defining the Congruent Square
Congruent Square says there has be a broad alignment / congruency in the product you are taking to market, the team that is taking it there, the consumers / market that will consume your product and finally, the approach you are taking to get the products in the hands of the customer (Go To Market or GTM) — the four mechanisms of the startup org / machine.
To illustrate this, let us compare Mindtickle which makes sales enablement software (helping sales teams perform better) and Postman, which is a platform that helps developers build and test APIs.
Mindtickle has a top down motion / GTM, i.e., the co’s sales reps reach out to senior decision-makers (ICP or Ideal Customer Persona) in enterprises that could become potential customers. Postman on the other hand is a great example of bottom up motion, in that a developer in a small or a large co starts using it, and then eventually the entire co starts using it. Also sometimes referred to now as Product-Led Growth (PLG).
Aligning GTM and Team
Each GTM needs a certain kind of org to support it. A top down motion needs a strong sales team. To get a strong sales team, the founder / CEO has to spend enough time on hiring a senior sales leader (or do it herself); post hiring she has to spend time ensuring understanding of the product and the problem amongst the sales leader (and eventually the sales team), set the right incentive structure to drive their efforts, and monitor the performance. A bottom up motion at the early stages doesnt need a sales team. Only after a certain point, when the product is seeing mass adoption in an org and you need to do an enterprise contract do you need to reach out to the CTO / CFO of the co, and given it may not be frequent, for a long time you can get away without a senior sales team.
In a Top Down Motion co, the CEO cannot grow and succeed without sales becoming a key pillar. The CEO has to give time, energy and attention to the sales team. This means you are going to take time from say, product. And because in top down orgs, you have to iterate per the customer’s needs often, it means an org where the product and sales teams have equal billing. It is a certain kind of product + tech teams who will work in such orgs.
An org which is product-led / bottom up motion has zero or few sales folks (early on). Sales is a clear junior function here. Such firms attract a very different kind of product / tech and sales leaders. I am not talking about capability. Notion, I am sure has a decent corp sales team, but the best corp sales person will be found in Salesforce or similar orgs where sales has equal billing with product. Similarly the best / top product minds are rarely found in orgs where the sales guys (actually customers) instruct them on what to build (nothing wrong with this).
Overtime, the kind of folks who work in top down and bottom up motion orgs tend to be very different. For example you need a strong finance team in a top down org. You need strong design / growth minds in product-led orgs; and so on. Often the founders themselves have the kind of personalities and drive suited for a certain kind of motion. Imagine a long time business leader and senior tech person from a Mindtickle starting a co. It is not unrealistic to say they are suited to build a top down motion org over a bottom up motion org.
Aligning Product and Market
Thus you need strong alignment between the product (the tool to solve the customer problem), the GTM (how you will take the product or solution to the customer), and the team (the people who will take the problem to the customer). In addition you will need strong alignment between these and the market (customers for the product).
Imagine Mindtickle saying we will now launch a mid-market SMB product. The ICPs or Ideal Customer Personas suddenly change — it is not Chief Sales Officers but instead small business owners. The channels that you were using to acquire them may move from LinkedIn or targeted lists / databases to Google Adwords / FB etc. You suddenly need new expertise. Additionally you may need to have an inbound strategy as well leveraging content / SEO as the average contract value may be too small to justify the cost of reaching them. Then again you may need to give the product free or even build it as a freemium product. A product team that is used to building at a certain scale and cadence will now struggle with this new scale, abbreviated feature set and faster cadence. You will need different talent sets for different products with different motions for different customers.
Alignment, PMF and Pivots
The need for high alignment is especially critical at the prePMF stage. Startups at this stage need to have very tight alignment between the four — the product, the market / customers, the motion and the team. Lack of alignment means time and money wasted, the two most important resources at this stage. Post PMF, some loose coupling becomes inevitable as you expand your ICPs or channel saturation results. A larger richly funded startup can afford the loose coupling and the inevitable time and money waste that comes with it. The younger startup can’t. Time and money matters, and hence it needs to have tight alignment and fits between the four mechanisms.
Startups at the prePMF stage have to be learning machines not earning machines. Product iteration cycles have to be fast so that they learn what matters to the customers, and what channels are working as they seek the largest, most predictable market for the product and achieve product-market fit. The tight alignment and a Congruent Square enables this iteration, optimization and learning.
Founders who are struggling with PMF (i.e., PMF = predictable, repeatable unit positive customer acquisition) should take time to see if the four key mechanisms or aspects — Product, Team, GTM, Market — are congruent with each other. It is very likely there is some misalignment. If so, go back and align one or two — this is effectively a pivot. Pivots can be seen thus as an alignment of one or more of the mechanisms with the others.
Questions / feedback welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org | Founders who want to spar with me on the above or want me to think aloud alongside them are welcome to write in with as well. Happy to spar.