Once upon a time I believed that to be a successful product manager, I simply had to create great products. The rest would fall into place, right? Not quite. I this post I’ll explain how I learned the importance of being obsessed with the market – the problems people are facing and the people facing them – in order to build products that sell.
For years I’ve helped my clients create new digital products and services for their customers. We threw terms like product/market fit around, without ever really giving a thought to what they meant. But to be honest, I didn’t have a clue. Nor did I understand why some of the products I’d helped to create succeeded while others flopped.
Reality bit in January 2017 when I quit my job to start my own venture. I spent nearly nine months working on a meal planning app called Tinkerdash, which failed, delivering me exactly zero paying customers, and left me stressed out and almost penniless. Not one to give up, I tried something new and to my surprise, I achieved more in a few weeks than I had in the previous nine months – a paying customer
What was different?
The first time around, I started with an idea, developed a solution and then tried to find customers. I created something nice but no one was willing to pay for it – there was no market. Sound familiar? The second time around, I started with a market. I stumbled upon a very specific problem and created a product that matched it pretty well, and that people were willing to pay for. I achieved product-market fit in just a few weeks, at a cost of less than £300 (and almost by accident).
Here’s how I did it.
Step 1: What are People Interested In?
In 2016, I outsourced my meal planning and grocery shopping to a virtual assistant based in India, and it was nothing short of life-changing for me – almost overnight, Nandini (my assistant) helped me to eat better, save money and skip the supermarket queues.
This spurred me on to take notice of companies offering meal planning services – they ranged from major supermarkets to start-ups. Reading forums and blogs, I got a sense that people were interested in these kinds of services but I felt they fell short of what my virtual assistant did – some were full of poor recipes and some were too pricey, and they didn’t work for a household. But therein lay an idea – I’d help people with their meal planning.
I then used Google Trends to gauge the interest in meal planning. I found that it had seen steady interest over the past five years in the UK, my home market. If anything, interest was increasing slightly, and that was good enough.
So, by keeping an eye on external trends, which I also had some experience in, I’d found a topic that I wanted to pursue further. Pretty simple.
This is where I had stopped with my first venture. I made the mistake of trying to create a product for such a broad topic that I found it impossible to market and effectively competed against the major supermarkets. That was never going to end well.
Step 2: What Specific Problem Could I Help to Solve?
Keen to avoid the mistakes I’d made with Tinkerdash, I wanted to pinpoint a specific problem I could help to solve. I turned to Google again.
Each day, millions of people share their deepest insecurities, problems and questions with search engines. And amazingly, Google (and others) give access to this information in the form of keyword research tools, such as Google’s Keyword Planner. Where better to start my research? I opened the Keyword Planner, typed in “meal plan” and hit Search. I got back a load of related terms along with the monthly search volume (i.e. popularity), competition rating and a suggested bid range (for adverts).
After several hours clicking through hundreds of related terms, I’d created a comprehensive list of problems, questions and even a few product ideas. One stood out – bodybuilding meal plan. It had decent search volume along with relatively low competition and a bid range I could afford. Plus, there were a load more related keywords with the same qualities – enough to feasibly build a business around.
So, with the help of Google’s Keyword Planner, I’d potentially found a niche market – bodybuilding nutrition – and a specific need – meal planning – to focus my venture around.
Step 3: Why is it a Problem and Could I Solve it?
To understand why meal planning for bodybuilding was such a problem for people, and whether I could help solve it, I turned to a place where people openly express their problems and opinions – blogs and forums.
With the help of Google again, I found the online bodybuilding resource and forum Bodybuilding.com, as well as loads more blog articles on bodybuilding nutrition. And what a gold mine they were. Comments such as this one below highlighted that the ready-made plans available didn’t always work for people’s lifestyles:
And traditional meal planning methods often meant many more hours in the kitchen, to people’s dismay:
After more research, I grouped comments into themes and tallied up the frequency. What I learned is that people seemed frustrated with existing solutions because of three things:
- They didn’t suit their lifestyles
- They weren’t tailored to their body or gym goals
- They required a lot of extra time in the kitchen
I also learned that people liked features such as ready-to-use shopping lists, weekly planners and nutritional information in their meal plans. From my own experience, I also added that any recipes would have to be quick and easy, and have fewer than eight ingredients to minimise cost. On top of this, I found that Bodybuilding.com allowed me to view people’s gender, age and location information. Sometimes even their body and gym goals too.
So, not only did I have a decent idea of their likes and dislikes, I also had an idea of who they were and what they wanted to achieve.
Based on all this information, could I create something that’d help these people? I was pretty confident I could. The question was whether anyone would buy it.
Step 4: Do People Spend Money?
I’d spent enough time with gym junkies to know that people spend an excessive amount on things that help them to look good. Take sports nutrition, people spent £66 million on food and drink products in the UK in 2015, up 27% from 2013. I’d also watched enough documentaries to know that bodybuilding is an obsession, which people are willing to go to extreme lengths to pursue.
Plus, the rising popularity of the meal kit industry, exemplified by companies like HelloFresh and Gusto, showed that people are willing to pay extra for convenience when it comes to food prep at home.
Despite all this encouraging information, I specifically wanted to know if people were likely to buy a bodybuilding meal planning product. My approach was to run a few adverts with Google Adwords, using my research to write the ad copy and explicitly stating a price. I figured that if people clicked on it, they were both interested and open to paying for it.
I also purchased a domain from GoDaddy and created a basic landing page using InstaPage to fit with Google’s T&Cs. The results were surprising. Apparently, anything above a 2% click-through rate (CTR) could be considered above average for this type of ad. So that’s what I was aiming for.
The click-through rate for all three adverts was in excess of 7%, well above target! People seemed to be very interested in the product and not put off by the cost.
What came next was relatively easy. I created a bodybuilding meal planning product, bodybuildingmealplans.co.uk or BBMP for short, using my research findings to determine the features. No guesswork involved. Then I created a basic sales funnel including the same advert, a landing page, sales page and basic email delivery system. Within a day I had my first sale and five more followed shortly after.
The process had worked!
In case you go looking, I later decided to retire my bodybuilding meal planning venture. Making sales is one thing, making a hugely profitable business is another – plus, more promising and lucrative opportunities were presenting themselves in my freelance consultancy business. But I’d learned a valuable lesson here: that you’ll have a much greater chance of building a product that sells if you become obsessed with the market, the problems people are facing and the people facing them. If you study them long enough, product ideas will emerge.
Do this in a market where people are spending money and you might just be on to a winner.
Read more on Product/Market Fit
To learn more about product/market fit – what it means, how to get to it, and what our role as product managers is in maintaining it, check out A Guide to Product/Market Fit.