How to find founder/market fit

When Whitney Wolfe founded the dating app Bumble in 2014, she returned to her alma mater of Southern Methodist University and signed up as many of her former sorority sisters as possible for her app. Her thesis was that a dating app that put power in the hands of women would be appealing to sorority sisters and that a pool of sorority sisters on the app would help drive interest from others.

When Mark Zuckerburg started Facebook, he was a student at Harvard that made a social website for other students at Harvard. Only after reaching a critical mass of Harvard students did he expand the site to other elite universities, where the site benefitted from the halo effect of already having succeeded at one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

The restaurant reservation startup Tock (recently acquired by Squarespace) was cofounded by Nick Kokonas, the co-owner of probably the most prestigious restaurant group in Chicago. He was able to bootstrap the platform with his own restaurants and benefit from the halo effect of those restaurants as he recruited others onto the platform.

What do each of these stories have in common?

In each of these, the founder of the startup pushed an unfair advantage to gain market insight and distribution for their startup. If you or I were to try and compete with that founder given an equally good product and market insight, we almost certainly would have failed because we lacked the key advantage that they leveraged.

Some unfair advantages are obvious (owning the most prestigious restaurant in Chicago) while others are less so (being a former sorority sister). However, it’s critical to have a good fit between the product you’re trying to bring to market and the advantages you have. Otherwise, you’ll be on equal footing with your competitors and your chance of succeeding falls dramatically.

People often discount their own unfair advantages because they just feel like uninteresting characteristics or pieces of backstory. However, it’s this very fact that makes these advantages so powerful: they’re such an innate part of “who you are” that it’d take another person years or decades to try to mimic those advantages.

Furthermore, people often further discount those unfair advantages that seem unrelated to entrepreneurship and startups. I’d posit those “unrelated” advantages are the most important ones to leverage because it’s less likely that another startup founder has already moved into the space. It takes an incredible level of technical prowess and market insight to start a successful API-only software product in 2022 because the overlap between entrepreneurs and software engineers is massive. On the other hand, if you’re a stay at home mom that has unique insight into challenges that other stay at home moms might face, there’s probably a lot more problem space left to explore.

Too often, startup founders try to compete on equal footing instead of moving to areas where they have the high ground. Identifying those areas and integrating them into your startup’s story can dramatically improve your ability to gain traction as a company.

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