Startup Journey: Knowledge Acquisition

Stephanie Mertz
4 min readMar 28, 2023

Startups are a journey to find product-market-fit (PMF) in a large enough market for it to be an exciting opportunity with a product that your team is uniquely capable of solving.

We were working to find that fit in the intersection of the fintech and crypto market. It might be fair to say that late 2022 / early 2023 was a “bad market,” and that bad market won.

https://pmarchive.com/guide_to_startups_part4.html

Push vs Pull

When building a product, there are two broad categories of experiences: “Push vs Pull.”

Pushing is advertising, selling, convincing. If you’re pushing, it may either be because you’re market annealing, or you’re barking up a non-PMF tree. “Pull” is the response to a known market need where customers feel as if they’re “pulling” your product out of your hands. We’re using the feeling of “market pull” to indicate we’re on a path to PMF.

When we no longer felt pull working on our old product, we knew it was time to explore new paths.

Exploring PMF Paths

We had our heads up and experimentation hats on. But now what? Where does one start in the PMF journey?

  1. Build your Inventory

Our inventory consisted of unique team skills and knowledge sets. For example, we thrive in navigating complex regulatory requirements in evolving markets. This inventory functioned as our compass as we started exploring current market opportunities.

2. Map Market Regions

We returned to an analogy of sailing to explain our journey. While our inventory was our compass, we had a wide map to explore containing many different market segments. We could sail near areas and, if they looked promising, disembark to deepen our knowledge, take note of unsolved problems, and identify interesting opportunities.

3. Deepen Opportunity Knowledge

We found that our ability to find interesting opportunities was directly tied to the “depth” of knowledge we had acquired. I define “depth” as quality which stems from uniqueness and accuracy. Given our compass specifically pointed in the B2B Fintech Infrastructure direction, we needed knowledge from the lowest level of the knowledge graph: customer feedback.

However, we couldn’t jump straight down to customer feedback. If we called a CEO and asked about their biggest problems, they said “revenue,” “CAC,” or “COGs.” This didn’t give us enough surface area to come back with any meaningful suggestions, and we couldn’t ask any better questions. Instead, we worked more like researchers, perhaps because that was my comfort zone after having worked in research labs for years.

I would start with a hypothesis, using google to fill out my knowledge gaps and verify if my hypothesis was valid. After googling, I would take my refined hypothesis to friends in the industry friends to ask for their take. Often they’d say “well that’s not really a problem, but this other thing is!” This would sometimes cause me to get back on my metaphorical sailboat and sail for new shores. Other times, it would deepen my understanding of the problem area and kick off further learning on how other companies were trying to solve this problem.

The “tool” stage would enable me to build out a landscape map and hone in on areas of underdevelopment. This gave me a better feel for a market segment. I didn’t want to build in a crowded space, and if I saw many tools thinking about the same problems, I doubted that I would have a 10x better solution. If, after conversations at this level of the knowledge graph, I still had lingering unsolved problems, I would have a deep understanding of them and could write rough pitches and better discovery questions around them.

The final stage, and the largest by far, is the customer stage. Only in this stage do you get a feel for what the market pull feels like around a specific problem. The benefit of going in this order is that by the time I was talking with customers, I had a solid understanding of the problem areas I really wanted to lean into asking them about and could get detailed feedback on their complex operational problems and needs.

While we don’t know what the future holds yet and if this process will result in PMF, it has given me multiple market areas to explore deeply and get customer feedback on products addressing real problems they’re facing.

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