In the past few years we’ve tested many different product ideas with Segment’s customers to see what resonates with who. Finding product market fit with new product ideas is simultaneously tricky, and obvious in retrospect. And you can waste A LOT of time pursuing false positives during the tricky bits. But I’ve never had such a stark demonstration of this odd juxtaposition of tricky and obvious as a recent meeting with a large ecommerce company.

We were meeting with this ecommerce company’s head of digital architecture, walking through five new concepts, testing how each one resonated with the company's needs.

For the first concept, he nodded and said “mmhm, that sounds super useful.”

For the second concept, he asked a clarifying question and said “wow, got it, yes I definitely understand the value.”

For the third concept, he said “I see how other companies would find that super valuable, but we have an internal team that takes care of that today.”

For the fourth product concept, he said “Very cool! That’s elegant and makes a lot of sense.”

If the meeting had ended then, it would have been completely impossible to discern the relative product market fit of the first, second and fourth product concepts. Or whether any of them fit at all. With a little more digging, some slight differences emerge, but you could go back and forth all day debating whether they really needed it or whether he was being nice.

Then, we presented the fifth product concept, and he said “Wait, so you’re saying you can do X? Wow hmmm… that’d be huge for us. That’s something we haven’t been able to pull off and we’re considering spinning up a team to focus on that. [Turns to another teammate in the room.] Can you set a followup meeting with so-and-so, and make sure this gets presented to other-so-and-so, we should fast-track this and get a full demo rundown and technical details of this ASAP.”

Ah. 🚨🚨🚨 that’s product market fit.

We were immediately backpedaling to explain that it wasn’t built yet, and asking him to slow down for a sec to tell us more about why this was important to them. It had switched from us pushing to the customer pulling.

The other three questionable product market fits that seemed so tricky to interpret are all obvious “no”s in retrospect. When he said he understood a concept was valuable, and saw that it was technically cool, he didn’t actually mean “We have this problem and need a solution.”

It’s always obvious in retrospect. If you feel like you need a psychic to read the situation it’s just not product market fit. The customer has more dynamic range in their feedback than you think… when you hit something painful they’ll really jump. So you need to turn your filter up to 11 out of 10 when you’re searching for real pain. The customer always ends up pulling—ripping(!)—it out of your hands when you hit a real pain point.

At Segment we’ve felt this customers-are-pulling-and-we’re-just-trying-to-fulfill-demand feeling when we launched analytics.js, warehouses and sources. It’s incredibly fun and a bit alarming because you suddenly lose control, and the customer takes control. But for our first year and half we misinterpreted kindness and idle interest as shades of product market fit. So be careful out there, you can waste a lot of time chasing tricky fake positive feedback.