How to Find Founder-Market Fit
For entrepreneurs, the importance of product-market fit has become conventional wisdom. Selling the right product to a strong market that really wants it is a cornerstone for growth.
But startups and investors are increasingly focusing on a different kind of compatibility: founder-market fit. You may have a great product for a strong market — but are you the right person to build the company? Maybe the most obvious element of founder-market fit is based on experience. It’s essential to have founders with the right kind of skills and background to match the market.
At the Finding Founder-Market Fit panel the 2019 Vivatech conference in Paris, AWS brought together three entrepreneurs to talk about achieving that balance: Francis Nappez, from the carpooling service BlaBlaCar; Jean-Baptiste Aviat of Sqreen, a security tool for developers; and Nicola Furlani of Privateaser, an events booking platform.
Francis Nappez is now CTO of BlaBlaCar, which connects travelers with drivers that want to fill empty seats in their cars. His technical experience in building solutions that can scale quickly was key to the company’s success, which has grown from a platform of a few thousand users to one that serves 80 million users in 22 countries.
Nappez says that the first piece of putting the right founding team together is more fundamental than any particular expertise. “We need to align on values, we need to align on what the company is really doing, and how the company should be focused in the future,” he says. “You have to have these discussions [from] the very beginning of a company.”
Shared values among the founding team can define how the company will grow, attract and keep talent, and overcome obstacles. While that can sound inspirational, says Nappez, it’s key that founding values become operational principles that are actually useful to employees.
“We work a lot on building a value framework that everyone can rely on in every decision of the company every day,” he says. “Then it’s international, it’s company-wide, and you can use [them] in tech, in business, in marketing, in customer support. And all these values are the pillars of the decisions we make [and] the way we interact between teams.”
Nicola Furlani, CEO and co-founder of Privateaser, also spoke about the importance of making sure the founding team is on the same page—and highlighted that it’s an ongoing process. Every month, says Furlani, since the company’s founding, he meets with his co-founders over beers to renew a “gentlemen’s agreement” about their expectations and the vision for the company.
“Thanks to that, we are [all] going to make the same decision,” Furlani says. “Instead of resolving problems when the problems arrive, you have already prepared in the gentlemen’s agreement what […] you want.”
After core values, the second part of finding founder-market fit is building a team with the right skill-set. The Paris-based Privateaser offers a marketplace where people can easily find spaces for events, seminars, and parties. Originally, the founding team only knew that they wanted to create an events startup, although none of them were experienced in the space. That didn’t matter, says Furlani; the key was to recognize what kind of technical skills they needed.
“For us, if you want to create a tech unicorn, you need to have in your founders one expert in tech,” he says. Knowing they wanted to build a SaaS-enabled platform led Furlani to seek out a CTO with the technical background as the third co-founder.
Jean-Baptiste Aviat, CTO of Sqreen, talked about the importance of having the right skills on board for the company he founded. Sqreen provides a security management tool for app developers who don’t have a background in security. Before starting the company, Aviat spent five years finding vulnerabilities and helping developers at Apple solve them.
But Aviat underscored that the background needed is highly dependent on the nature of the company, and, sometimes, its growth prospects. “We are first-time founders, but when you witness second-time or third-time founders, you know that your company is going to grow very fast, in some cases […] You are looking for someone that has the experience of building and scaling a technical team, a sales team,” he says. “You know the business that you are tackling, and so you just need to be sure that people will scale your company.”
Starting with a founding team that already fits the target market can also make a big difference from the point of view of investors. Aviat says that one can certainly create a successful company by starting with a solid product-market fit, and then building a team around it. But having founder-market fit from the beginning can mean faster growth.
Francis Nappez, the BlaBlaCar founder, agreed. “You may need to be reassured on how the team is fitted for this market,” he says. “I think as a VC you will look for a very strong team, and a very highly skilled team, to be sure that your money will be used in a good way.”
In part, founder-market fit is so essential because the founding team is often one of the few constants for startups. Nappez points out the frequent churn within young companies, making it all the more important for founders to start on the same page, and stay there.
All three panelists — each coming from different sectors and at different stages of growth — repeatedly strike on that theme. Individual skills and experiences are crucial, but in terms of long-term fit, it’s the strength of their partnership that makes or break a founding team.
“Make sure you enjoy spending time with your co-founders before starting a company, because you will have tremendous success and everything will go well—but to get there, you will also have a lot of questions and doubts and hard work you need to be ready to do together,” says Aviat. “You will spend more time with your co-founders than your mother, so make sure you have the right ones.”