Founder Denial Versus Product/Market Fit

Posted on November 02, 2014 by Paul O'Dea


In a previous post (Getting to Product/Market Fit - how can startups get there faster) and in the book The Business Battlecard ( I wrote, about the science of product/market fit and  different approaches to get their faster. The scientific and tools based approach to product/market fit is promoted so widely now by people like Steve Blank, Eric Ries, Sean Ellis, Tristan Kromer, Morgan Brown and others that sometimes we forget the human element. I got a sharp reminder recently.

I had planned to sit in on five different customer 'problem interviews' led by a startup founder, let's call him Fred. Now Fred can debate the right way to build a startup with the best.  He is a visionary and believes he can change the world. However, his product sales have been poor. I believe Fred is suffering from founder denial. He believes strongly that most CIOs rate the problem he solves in their top 5 priorities. So using the scientific method, we agree to test Fred's opinion (or hypothesis) - will the interviewed CIOs rate Fred's problem in their top 5 for this year? We prepped well, crafted good questions and agreed NOT to try to sell anything.

The results were:

  • Interview 1 – strike out – Fred ignored our prepared interview questions and started to sell
  • Interview 2 – after I cautioned him – Fred used the interview guide (2 questions) but put the CIO on the defensive, when the answer to question 2 was not the answer Fred was hoping for
  • Interview 3 – after a yellow card – Fred used the agreed interview questions under protest but felt they cramped his natural style
  • Interview 4/5 – I bowed out of the interview process as I felt I was cramping Fred's style.

I met an excited Fred a week after the customer problem interviews had been completed. I naively expected that Fred might have changed his views (a little) after the CIO interviews. Not at all. ''They don't understand'' he claimed ''Wait until I come back to them with a finished product, then they'll understand''

No matter what tools or processes you use – the human factor of founder denial needs to be managed carefully.

Posted in: Entrepreneur, Founder, Product/Market Fit