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Without Product-Market Fit, Did We Quit Too Early?

Reflecting posthumously... Source: http://news.bbcimg.co.uk/media/images/64480000/jpg/_64480391_sunset_rocks.jpg
If the inner voice in you keeps telling you to go back or to keep forging ahead, should you? Should I?

I keep bringing up Body Boss recently because I feel it's unfinished business. I feel like we quit too early. Or maybe I'm just really passionate about it still. Or maybe I still get messages from happy customer-partners who want to continue to do more. Or maybe I'm crazy and I'm blinded by the potential opportunities to see the actual lack of opportunity.

There's a popular picture I’ve seen illustrating the cost of giving up too early:
Source: http://www.davidmcelroy.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Three-feet-from-gold.jpg

For the myriad of lessons learned in 21 Rough Lessons Learned from Failure post, I still can't shake that maybe we stopped building Body Boss too early for ONE major reason. In fact, Marc Andreessen shared the idea recently in "On product/market fit for startups":
"My contention, in fact, is that they [startups] fail because they never get to product/market fit." - Marc Andreessen
In the article, Marc was referring a lot to the market being the determining factor of startup success as the market can actually pull a product and team in the right direction. At least, that's my simplified synopsis. However, this notion of failure before product-market fit is an incredibly resonating one.

In the 16 months following launch, we had over 70 unique schools/ programs trial Body Boss, and we had 12 paying customers with about 4 of those signing back up. Yes, these are paltry numbers. However, if you look at the data from interviews as to why they weren’t subscribing or why they didn’t re-subscribe there were very, very common reasons. The market was trying to pull us in the right direction. We just resisted.

In fact, 3 of the 4 re-subscribers were actually in months 10-14 when we started to build some of those features customers were asking for. (They re-subscribed after we announced the zombification of Body Boss, actually.) However, in the end, we made a collective decision to not pursue Body Boss as it stood.

“So what are you trying to say, Daryl?!” I’m saying this…
  • Capture data, and you can start to see a story. For us, it was poor product-market fit at the beginning which could be explained, largely, by a lot of hubris on our part (we thought we could be like Steve Jobs and tell coaches what they really wanted) and by poor customer discovery up front.
  • Speed kills… or rather, lack of speed. If I could, I would’ve funded the team so everyone could be full-time on Body Boss, and thus, no other distractions of full-time employment elsewhere. Without distractions, perhaps we could have churned out the right features and user experience [quicker] to reach closer and closer to product-market fit.
  • Have Empathy and Let the Currents Take You. As I mentioned above, there were many moments we, as a team, failed to listen to our customers. We naively believed we knew the better way to do things. We lacked empathy, and even though the market was trying to pull us in the right direction, we didn’t let it. When enough of the market tells you to move one way, you have to put aside your ideals for the greater good.
  • Failure/ quitting is always an option. I don’t want to say “quitting” is always a bad thing, because sometimes, it’s the right thing. Like I said before, I could be blinded by what I believe is there. That’s why having a great team is important, too… to not just say, “YES” to everything I say, but to challenge me.  
  • Regret is a damned thing that can haunt you, but you have to move on. The experience with Body Boss has taught me a great deal on startups, about building a team, and much more documented in the 21 Lessons Learned. However, in corporate settings, a failure is a failure. In startups, failure is called experience. Embracing the lessons learned will give me great hope for the future.

Of the 70 schools who signed up for trials, but didn’t convert, I’d say at least half of those would’ve subscribed had we nailed a few items down ranging from a rework on user interface to features. That’d give us about 40-45 customers in the first 18 months – not too bad. That’s my expected benefit. Conservatively, 20 schools would have converted – still not bad, and I’d venture to guess many more would re-subscribe, too.

However, features aren’t always going to win over customers, I know. That’s why I’m suggesting this based on my actual conversations. Perhaps designing for the users would also have helped move a low-tech industry to embrace more technology… or maybe we would’ve died anyways. There are a number of things we could’ve implemented, too, to help really mitigate against building the wrong product such as Letters of Intent, development alongside customers, a system by which customers/ prospects can request or reserve features almost like a Kickstarter (it’s in my head how this would work), etc.

I suppose that given we never reached product-market fit and looking at the data posthumously… I can’t help but wonder the WHAT IF. I ask myself whenever I finish a project or day if I killed it (in a good way). I don’t feel like we killed it for Body Boss. I think we could’ve done better… that’s a pretty bad feeling, but one that I have to learn from and move on. Right now, our competitors are making large headway in the market, and the opportunity has largely passed by to revive Body Boss and be the dominant player. Lack of speed kills.

For now, Body Boss will be one of those opportunities with great regrets and great learning moments to take to my next startup.

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