Structured and guided approach of scaling a startup with a lot of experience & small valuable tips.

Florian Beck, Head of Operations, Locatee, Zurich, Switzerland

What Four Challenges Come After Product Market Fit?

Has your startup reached product-market-fit? Congratulations. Now the real game starts. Do you know what the new challenge is your team will face first? And what happens if your team fails to master it before your runway runs out? In this article, we pull together the four key challenges every startup will face. Master them in order, and there is no stopping you all the way to IPO!”

What Comes After Product-Market Fit: Four Steps to Go from Product-Market Fit to Product-Market Dominance

If you are reading this, surely you are all familiar with Product-Market-Fit from Lean Startup, right? Hopefully, you’re already close or maybe you’ve even reached product-market-fit! But do you also know what comes after?

What Comes After Product-Market Fit

The problem after reaching product-market-fit is that people think everything moving forward is all about growth. Everyone starts defining growth in different directions. Obviously, startups strive for growth in revenues. But does that mean multiple markets, multiple products, or just growth in people? How do you define your journey once you’ve reached product-market fit?

In my book Scaling Silicon Valley Style, I set a new horizon for turning that product-market fit into product-market dominance. Once you have a toehold in that new market and are starting to gain traction, how do you turn that into a market that you can lead and dominate?

There are four distinct stages on the journey from product-market fit to becoming the leader and top dog in that market. Just keep in mind that you shouldn’t try to do everything at once. There is a well-defined order to the four steps that come after product-market fit.

Freshman Stage: Master Distribution

Freshman Stage: Master Distribution

The first phase is called the Freshman Stage. As a Freshman scaleup, your top priority is to master distribution. That means answering the question of how do I find a model to reach enough customers and convince them at a cost that is not out of the ballpark. In other words, can I convince customers to join me and pay for my products?

Of course, the total revenue that I can expect from them is going to be more than the marketing and sales costs I’ve spent acquiring them in the first place. It could even be two times, three times, or up to five times more than what was spent acquiring those customers.

Sophomore Stage: Reaching the Plateau

Sophomore Stage: Reaching the Plateau

The second phase, the Sophomore Stage, is a little bit less intuitive. The goal of the sophomore startup is what I call the Mastering Deepening challenge. This means that as you’ve mastered distribution, you expect your sales to start increasing. However, you actually see them slowing down or reaching a plateau.

When you reach this plateau, it means you have reached the limits of the initial visionary market, the early adopter market. Now you need to target the mainstream market. This requires deepening your understanding of your target market, honing in on specific verticals where you have a clear advantage. Check out Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore to learn more about this phase.

Junior Phase: Conquering the Mass Market

Junior Phase: Conquering the Mass Market

In the third phase, you have become a Junior scaleup. You can now start to see graduation on the horizon, but you aren’t quite there yet. In fact, this might be the most important phase yet. This is when you have to fully master disruption. How do you apply everything you’ve learned from the mass market and use it to conquer that mass market piece by piece?

Try thinking about it like a chess game. By that, I mean to make one move at a time. It’s important during this phase that you not try and boil the ocean all at once. Rather, pick the pieces that are most attractive and that will not invite full-blown competition when you cannot afford it yet.

Senior Phase: Play Defense

Senior Phase: Play Defense

Finally, the fourth phase and final phase is the Senior Phase. By now, you have become a dominant figure and so the assignment for a Senior scaleup is to master defense. Many other companies have set a great example of how to grow big and then become defensive about the market they conquered. This is the way it should be, as there are always other startups striving to disrupt your market.

Scaleup Stage Analyzer

If you want to know where you are at with your startup, there is an easy tool that you can fill-out. It has checkboxes that tell you: “Am I still in the startup stage or am I a freshman, a sophomore, a junior, or even a senior scaleup?” When you figure out your current stage, you can then adopt the appropriate strategy.

This worksheet “Scaleup Stage Analyzer” is available for download below.

Analyze Your Startup Stage

Without our coach, I do not think we would be in the position we are in to execute; he really aligned our thinking towards shared outcomes and fostered our trust ecosystem. Thank you so much for what you did here!

Loren Goodman, CTO, InRule, Chicago, IL