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Debugging Product-Market Fit

“If you have to ask whether you have Product-Market Fit, the answer is simple: you don't.” - Eric Ries

I don’t like this sentence because it’s 1) wrong 2) simplistic and 3) the opposite of helpful.

PMF is nuanced. Asking whether you have it is certainly a sign of a problem, but you might still be on the right path. You might be very close.

Instead of making you feel bad about asking an important question, I’d like to offer a framework to fix it. I call it PMF debugging.

For the sake of this article, I will simplify product-market fit to: delivering deep value to a real human.

Debugging Product-Market Fit

Most engineers debug software pretty randomly, but the nastiest bugs only succumb to a systematic attack.

By debugging your PMF systematically, you will stop shooting in the dark, learn what’s actually wrong, and fix it much faster.

PMF debugging answers 3 key questions:

  • Problem Debugging - am I addressing an important enough problem?

  • Value Debugging - am I offering enough value to the person who has the problem?

  • Delivery Debugging - am I delivering that value to that person?

Step 1 - Problem Debugging

There is no PMF without value, and there is no value without a big underlying problem.

The first step is to validate that the problem exists and that a real human cares deeply about it. It is itself a 3-step process:

  • Write down the problem you are addressing in one sentence

  • Write down the exact type of person who has this problem

  • Find 10 of these people, show them the problem statement and ask them to rank the pain from 1 to 10

You want to see at least 3 people rank your problem 8 or higher. If this didn’t happen then you are not addressing an important enough problem.

Not addressing an important enough problem requires a pivot. Either change the problem or the target user. Building more features is not going to help. I tried that for 2 years only to ultimately pivot.

Step 2 - Value Debugging

The biggest pitfall with value is improving things by 10% instead of 10x.

Adding a lot of value means doing at least one thing that the user cares about and can’t do today. The 3 debugging steps are:

  • Write down the 1-3 most important things that are impossible to do without your product. Be concrete and specific

  • Explain them in a simple one-pager or even better, mockups

  • Go back to the same 10 people and show them. Then ask for money in exchange for those 1-3 things

You want to see at least one person say “wow” and give you money to start using your product right now. If none of them did then you are not offering enough value.

Not offering enough value requires iterating on your value proposition. What are those 1-3 things that will make people go “wow?” Iterate and experiment until you know. Don’t build until you’re sure.

Step 3 - Delivery Debugging

This is where things get messy.

I once sat down with a user to test a core product capability. I was not delighted to see that he was using the product in an entirely unpredictable way. His way was cool but didn’t deliver any of the intended value to him.

Delivery debugging is about using your own eyes to watch the value being delivered. It can’t be done with surveys or engagement metrics. Only live:

  • Pick one of your core product values

  • Write down a simple task that tests this value

  • Sit down with a relevant user and ask them to perform the task

  • Watch in horror while saying nothing

You want to see most users complete your tasks most of the time and without any guidance. Until this happens you have a value delivery problem.

Not delivering on the promised value requires iterating on your UX and workflows. What prevents users from getting the value? Repeatedly debug and fix until the answer is null.


Debugging is no fun, but more fun than not having PMF.

Not having PMF could happen for 3 reasons that you now know how to debug:

  • Not addressing an important problem that a real human cares about

  • Not offering high enough value to that person

  • Not delivering the promised value to that person

Does PMF end right here? Nope. There’s engagement, retention, market demand, business model, buyer vs user dynamics, and whatnot.

But delivering deep value to a real human is the seed from which all else grows.


I’d like to thank the DoP for promoting my content. Their product newsletter is worth a peek.


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