Product – Market Fit is an important concept in very early stage start-ups.  It is the thing that is perceived by founders and investors alike as THE milestone to signify that customers want the product and it is time to accelerate growth investments.  As Marc Andreessen is quoted as saying, “Product/market fit means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market”. Blogger Sean Ellis (@seanellis) of defines Product Market Fit as the time when 40% of your initial customers say they would be  “very disappointed” without your product.  Netscape’s CEO Jim Barksdale said it in a bit more folksy way, “It’s not dog food if the dogs don’t come off the porch and eat it.”  Product market fit, implies that it is indeed dog food that’s in your dog food can.  So, now, we gotta let the dogs know it’s time to come and get it.

However, as Dan Olsen (@danolsen), author of The Lean Product Playbook, discusses in this slideshare entitled, “How to Achieve Messaging-Market Fit” Message-Market Fit is determined by “How appealing the messaging sounds” to the customer, not by how well the product meets their needs as in Product-Market Fit.  Dan goes on to give a good primer on the basics of good messaging and positioning.

In my book, Launching to Leading, I dive deeply into the market leadership life-cycle and what that leaders must do to breakthrough and lead.  Here, let’s use the lens of Message-Market fit to frame this discussion.  There are three levels of Message Market fit that you must achieve to lead and win your market. Let’s call there Level I Value Fit, Level II- Unique Value Fit and Level III – Viewpoint Fit.  Moving through all 3 of these levels is necessary as you grow from launching to leading your market.  Let’s take a quick look at these three levels.

Message Market Fit Level I – Value Fit –  When we launch and start to invest in growth marketing, many are at a Level 1 Value fit.  Value fit means we have articulated a set of benefits that our initial set of customers are willing to pay for.  And that this value is greater than the cost of acquisition and ongoing use or implementation of the solution, it has a positive ROI.  Unfortunately, at this level of fit, we are only launching into the market, we are not yet moving toward leadership.   To begin to participate in shaping and leading the market, we must move to a Level II message market fit, Unique Value.

Message Market Fit Level II – Unique Value – To achieve this level of Message Market fit, we must move from Value to Unique Value.  Unique Value are the benefits we can deliver to the market that the competitive alternatives, be they other products, services, build you own, or do nothing, can not.  And these Unique Values must matter more to the customer than any Unique Values that our competitors can deliver.  And, this is NOT a feature discussion, it is a benefit one.  Unique Value is the first time we begin to establish our participation in the market as a leader.  This level of fit is how we win competitive deals, but it can be expensive, bloody street fighting.  To really breakthrough and lead, we must move to Level III of Message-Market Fit, Viewpoint Fit, and in doing so we tilt the entire market battle in our favor.

Message Market Fit Level III, Viewpoint Fit – This level of Message Market fit operates at a level above the other two, that of context as opposed to direct benefit.  When we achieve this level of fit, we answer perhaps the most challenging question of all, why should customers listen to us in the first place.  How do we rise above the cacophony of noise in the marketplace to get attention so we can communicate our Level II Unique value to more and more receptive prospects?

Customers live in their context, not ours.  To achieve Level III Message Market First, we must relate our uniqueness to the customer’s world.  We must show them why we matter, and why our mattering aligns to their world and it’s challenges and opportunities.  We should them how our unique approach, our mindset, our innovation aligns with their world and how it can be the magical power that can make their world so so much better. I call this telling your Viewpoint Story, and you can read more about how in the detailed blog series here.

Market are conversations.  These conversations are framed in the customer’s world and in the known approaches to solving their problems.  By starting our conversation with prospects with a Viewpoint anchored in their world, we raise our importance, breakthrough, AND actually can grow our Unique Value.  Leaders with Level III Message-Market fit start and end their stories with the customer and their reality.

Product-Market fit is a necessary first step to growth.  However, without paying close attention to Message-Market fit, and driving through the 3 levels of Message-Market fit, companies will stall and fail to grow despite having a product that fits the market.  And who wants to join the set of companies who solve a problem but fail to matter.

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