The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.
― Mahatma Gandhi
You join a startup and they have some really cool technology and no customers. What do you do next?
Of course, a blog post alone will not be sufficient to help you. I suggest you roll up your sleeves and start with a user’s manual for startups — The Startup Owner’s Manual. I highly recommend it.
It’s common for startups to have an idea or a prototype that amounts to no more than a piece of technology and a vision. They either have no customers or a very few.
As a product person, I have several times had the opportunity to lead the search for what is sometimes called a product market fit. I don’t like that term because I think it is misleading. It seems to imply that both the product and the market will adjust until they fit each other. What is more realistic is that the product will have to adjust until it fits the market — and by that I mean the product has to be developed and iterated until it provides a solution that people (or companies) are willing to pay for.
There is a misconception that the product itself changes people. That the product creates the market. For example, before Facebook came along, people didn’t socialize online. The truth of the matter as that people have always needed to stay connected with a community (friends, family, past classmates, neighbors). Before Facebook they found other ways to do it, some in person face to face, and some virtual (telegraph, letters, email, telephone, posting photos on a local bulletin board). Facebook created a place where it appears to be much easier to find everyone you ever knew and stay in touch with them.
There’s another misconception: that people are happy and willing to use free products. In fact, every product comes with a cost, even Facebook. You have to sign up, you have to overcome your fear of having your privacy violated, and you have to suffer through advertising and fake news. You have to risk having your emotions manipulated in one of their studies.
All of this is a cost to you, even if the cost is not in money. You may be happy to do it because you want to stay in touch with all those people I mentioned above, and trying to do so using mail, email, telephone, or visiting them is so much harder. But Facebook isn’t free.
Additionally, there are lots of products that are much cheaper than Facebook that you probably have no interest in using. For example, if an evangelical tries to give you a biblical tract on your way to work in the morning, you are likely to turn it away. If a poster on the train offers you $50 to try a new drug, you will probably refuse.
So the first thing to realize is that no matter how cheap the product, people will still refuse to use it unless they are driven to use it. And they will only be driven to use it if it provides an easier and cheaper solution to something they already want and need to do. (For more on this point, read about the jobs to be done framework here, and here.) The “market” for your product is the set of people who have a need that is important to them and that your product intends to solve. The payment for your product is (at least) the trouble that people will have to go to in order to use it.
So the art of helping a semi-formed company that has some technology and an idea, and no specific market, is to figure out the shortest development path for your technology that will turn it into a product that solves a need for some market. Even if along the way you jettison the technology itself (as sometimes happens).