If you ask entrepreneurs or VCs which of team, product, or market is most important, many will say team. This is the obvious answer, in part because in the beginning of a startup, you know a lot more about the team than you do the product, which hasn't been built yet, or the market, which hasn't been explored yet.
On the other hand, if you ask engineers, many will say product. This is a product business, startups invent products, customers buy and use the products. Apple and Google are the best companies in the industry today because they build the best products. Without the product there is no company. Just try having a great team and no product, or a great market and no product.
Personally, I'll take the third position -- I'll assert that market is the most important factor in a startup's success or failure.
In a great market -- a market with lots of real potential customers -- the market pulls through the product. The market needs to be fulfilled and the market will be fulfilled, by the first viable product that comes along. The product doesn't need to be great; it just has to basically work. And, the market doesn't care how good the team is, as long as the team can produce that viable product.
Conversely, in a terrible market, you can have the best product in the world and an absolutely killer team, and it doesn't matter -- you're going to fail.
You'll break your pick for years trying to find customers who don't exist for your marvellous product, and your wonderful team will eventually get demoralized and quit, and your startup will die.
The #1 company-killer is lack of market.
Andy Rachleff, formerly of Benchmark Capital, puts it this way:
- When a great team meets a lousy market, market wins.
- When a lousy team meets a great market, market wins.
- When a great team meets a great market, something special happens.
You can obviously screw up a great market -- and that has been done, and not infrequently -- but assuming the team is baseline competent and the product is fundamentally acceptable, a great market will tend to equal success and a poor market will tend to equal failure. Market matters most.
And neither a stellar team nor a fantastic product will redeem a bad market.
Can't great products sometimes create huge new markets? Absolutely. This is a best case scenario, though.
The only thing that matters is getting to product/market fit.
Product/market fit means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market.
You can always feel when product/market fit isn't happening. The customers aren't quite getting value out of the product, word of mouth isn't spreading, usage isn't growing that fast, press reviews are kind of "blah", the sales cycle takes too long, and lots of deals never close.
And you can always feel product/market fit when it's happening. The customers are buying the product just as fast as you can make it -- or usage is growing just as fast as you can add more capacity. Money from customers is piling up in your company checking account. You're hiring sales and customer support staff as fast as you can. Reporters are calling because they've heard about your hot new thing and they want to talk to you about it. You start getting entrepreneur of the year awards from Harvard Business School. Investment bankers are staking out your house. You could eat free for a year at Buck's.
Lots of startups fail before product/market fit ever happens. My contention, in fact, is that they fail because they never get to product/market fit.
Carried a step further, I believe that the life of any startup can be divided into two parts: before product/market fit (call this "BPMF") and after product/market fit ("APMF").
When you are BPMF, focus obsessively on getting to product/market fit.
Do whatever is required to get to product/market fit. Including changing out people, rewriting your product, moving into a different market, telling customers no when you don't want to, telling customers yes when you don't want to, raising that fourth round of highly dilutive venture capital -- whatever is required.
When you get right down to it, you can ignore almost everything else.
Whenever you see a successful startup, you see one that has reached product/market fit -- and usually along the way screwed up all kinds of other things, from channel model to pipeline development strategy to marketing plan to press relations to compensation policies to the CEO sleeping with the venture capitalist. And the startup is still successful.
Conversely, you see a surprising number of really well-run startups that have all aspects of operations completely buttoned down, HR policies in place, great sales model, thoroughly thought-through marketing plan, great interview processes, outstanding catered food, top tier VCs on the board -- heading straight off a cliff due to not ever finding product/market fit.
Ironically, once a startup is successful, and you ask the founders what made it successful, they will usually cite all kinds of things that had nothing to do with it. People are terrible at understanding causation. But in almost every case, the cause was actually product/market fit.
This article is a shortened version of a post by Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape and Silicon Valley VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, on June 25, 2007. You can read the full version at http://web.archive.org/web/20070701074943/http://blog.pmarca.com/2007/06/the-pmarca-gu-2.html