Many unsuccessful founders believe their business failed because of a “market problem.” They think it’s “the market” that wasn’t ready for their product or that “the market” made the wrong choice.
This line of thinking is a dangerous —and most of the time completely false— perspective to take.
It’s not a market problem. It’s a marketing problem.
Better yet: it’s a problem with what most entrepreneurs understand “marketing” to mean. It’s commonly understood to be focused on post-product activities: advertising, brand-building, and grabbing people’s attention.
If you believe that marketing is mostly about “getting the word out,” you’re operating from an extremely limited vantage point: marketing starts long before you advertise your product. Anything related to your market is a part of a holistic marketing approach.
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The market is never wrong; it’s merely the collection of preferences and decisions. If there is anything wrong, it’s your assumption about the market. Anything else is self-deception.
Let’s dive deeper into this.
Your market doesn’t just consist of “people who should buy your product.” A market is a much bigger concept. It consists of your prospects, sure, but it also contains your competitors, their products, industry regulators, potential partners, organizational bodies, and much, much more.
A market is a web of relationships between individual actors, not just the sum of actors themselves.
That means that the market for your product either exists or doesn’t exist long before you start working on turning your idea into the product in the first place.
Validation and market research are a part of marketing. If you skip these integral activities and build your dream product only to find that no one wants to buy it, it’s a marketing problem. If there is no market for your product, how can you blame it on “the market?”
I get it. It sucks to make mistakes and operate from unvalidated assumptions.
But for a founder, this is a great opportunity to sharpen your skills. Owning up to the fact that your “great product idea” didn’t resonate because there was nobody out there who showed any inclination to resonate with it leads to an important discovery: without noticeable pull from the market, you’re running the risk of wasting your time and effort on something nobody wants.
Of course, this sounds a lot like the old Henry Ford quote about people wanting faster horses when asked what they want. But besides the fact that Ford likely never even uttered these words, we have to think of the difference between a need and a want.
The job of an entrepreneur is to bridge this divide. Their task is to turn a nebulous want into a straightforward solution to a critical need. That’s where the Ford quote is so self-defeating: it’s about understanding people needing to get places quickly — a thing that only customer feedback can reliably unearth. You don’t need to build the solution that people come up with when you ask them, but you need to understand why they ever thought about coming up with it in the first place.
The faster horse is about the “faster,” not the “horse.”
And that is a market research learning. If you completely ignore customer feedback before you build, then you might come up with a faster horse or a slower car, both options that people likely won’t have much of a budget for. One is a minor improvement, and the other is a step back. Neither is a quantum leap.
Well-thought-out marketing includes the understanding that one of the first questions you need to answer is how much of a leap your customers actually expect in a product before they change from their current choice.
Consider you offer a product for day-traders. If you can just provide a tiny edge over someone else —by offering real-time data where competitors can’t or access to knowledge that’s only available to a select few— then people will quickly use your product. A slight edge in a hyper-competitive market makes a lot of difference and might allow you to charge twice as much as other vendors.
But if you’re selling a beverage container that keeps your coffee hot for six hours instead of five like your competitors, people won’t pay twice the amount of money. Diminishing returns appear rather quickly with most things and services.
The job of pre-product marketing is figuring out what “the market” expects from its actors — and what you can expect from them.
If you don’t do this work, the “market problem” you complain about is truly just a lack of marketing work on your end.
Now, there are exceptions to this. Sometimes, markets make unexpected moves that derail all existing relationships and expectations.
If a government agency introduces surprise regulation that makes specific actions illegal —think of EU privacy regulation, for example— then you’ll have to scramble to stay profitable. When competitors launch a product that revolutionizes a core industry process and makes all competing solutions clearly obsolete, you’re in for a tough couple of months trying to catch up.
But are these truly market problems?
They’re preparation problems. Regulation rarely comes without warning: bills are drafted years before they are put to the vote. If you follow industry news, you’ll have heard of regulatory changes long before they take effect, and you can work on your product to be ready.
It’s not a market problem. It’s a preparation and adaptation problem. If you expect your market to stay static and unchanging, you’re doing wishful thinking, not building a business. Businesses are grounded in the reality of their markets. Those markets shift every day — that’s not a problem, that’s the whole reason why new players can make a difference in the first place!
These shifts are an opportunity. And they’re —once again— a part of a holistic marketing approach.
Besides telling prospective customers about your product, the job of marketing is to keep your positioning as truthful and effective as possible. Marketing includes “staying in touch” with the ever-changing landscape of competitors, regulations, and developments.
There is only one kind of problem in a market, and that’s the problem that needs founders like you to be solved.
Anything else is an opportunity — for you or someone else.
If you want it to be for you, you need to start caring about the market from day one and then never stop keeping an eye on it. If you have a problem “with the market,” you’re using a too-narrow definition of marketing. If you feel like “the market” is responsible for your lack of progress, you might be reversing cause and effect.
Successful founders search for the problems in their own approach.
They don’t blame the market. They look for problems at home.
And then adapt and overcome them because they understand that they are part of the market, and the only way to make a difference is to keep working towards their goals.
It’s dangerous for entrepreneurs to blame anything outside themselves for a business failure. And I’m not talking about self-condemnation and flogging yourself with whips. This kind of reflective blaming is about taking responsibility for operating under invalid and unvalidated assumptions.
The path forward is to actively look for signs of self-deception. The moment you consider that “the market” made the wrong decision, you’re ignoring that even though humans make subjective choices that might not seem logical to the outsider, that’s the reality you have to integrate into your business efforts. You won’t make people make better choices. You just have to appeal to their preferences better.
And if there is a legislative change that catches you by surprise, don’t blame the lawmakers; find out why you didn’t have this on your radar. Establish a process to regularly check industry news sources for things that might impact your business journey.
I know this is hard to stomach.
We don’t like looking for mistakes in ourselves. I don’t want to be wrong, and I think you might dislike that, too.
But the learnings from discovering your mistaken assumptions will set you apart from all those founders who keep blaming some external force for their own lack of research and adaptability.
So catch yourself when you’re blaming the market and look for the wrongful assumption.
Then, try again.