OP-ED: Product-market fit is the new black

Reflecting on throwback Jessica Livingstone insights, Andile Masuku explores the nuanced journey of product-market fit and the value of curated human gatherings.

OP-ED: Product-market fit is the new black
Photo by Michael Muli / Unsplash

It is the eve of Africa Tech Summit Nairobi 2024, which is happening on February 14 and 15, which, sadly, I won't be attending this year due to conflicting work priorities.

I've been reflecting on the sparkling in-person, human-to-human interaction I will miss out on over the next two days at the Sarit Expo Centre.

Every so often, I encounter well-intentioned pontifications by African tech ecosystem colleagues faithfully echoing (mostly without contextual filtering) “how not to fail” advice delivered by the likes of Jessica Livingstone and many other prominent international venture capital (VC) and startup entrepreneurship heavies.

Livingstone is one of the four American co-founders of Y Combinator (YC), a tech startup accelerator, which, according to the firm’s website, has “invested in more than 4000 companies that have a combined valuation of more than $600 billion (R11.4 trillion)” since its launch in Boston in 2005 and subsequent expansion to the heart of Silicon Valley in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2019.

Stripe famously acquired the Nigerian fintech startup and YC alum, Paystack, a company that is widely regarded as a posterchild for African startup success.

Addressing more than 800 women tech founders at YC’s third annual Female Founders Conference in 2016, Livingston presented a list of seven insider tips on how not to fail.

Her warning to “stay focused“ came swiftly on the heels of her opening directive for the audience to ”make something people want“.

Conferences are a waste of time

According to Livingstone, time-wasters that sap focus and compromise startup success include things like “grabbing coffee with investors”, “talking with potential acquirers”, “networking”, “recruiting boards of advisers”, ”doing a ‘partnership’, thinking it will get you more users", "spending time on PR before you have made something people want", "arguing on social media" and, yes, even "going to conferences". No… *gasp* Not “going to conferences”?

I've heard locals build on these notions to infer that the most promising African startups aren't found at conferences because they're too focused on putting in the work. They often exhort the continent’s most diligent founders, operators, investors and venture-building support professionals not to be swept up by the hype. *internal eye-roll*

Mind your product-market fit

Side-bar: For the record, I believe that, to a large extent, Livingstone’s words have never been more relevant. What with the awkward extremes of clout-chasing and the unhealthy glamorisation of entrepreneurship that we see across digital sub-cultures nowadays, not least within early-stage tech?

It's nearly impossible not to submit, as I did in a brief on-camera media interview with Sara-Jayne Makwala King for Connecting Africa, that the most critical skill for startup teams is to focus on achieving product-market fit (PMF).

PMF represents a pivotal point in a startup's journey: signalling alignment between the product being built out and actual customer needs. It's solid evidence for whether or not you are making something people want and are on the path to commercial success.

The definition of PMF has evolved since the term was first coined, emphasising quantitative measures like retention, acquisition/growth, active usage and user engagement.

Despite PMF theory appearing linear, in practice, it's a messy and iterative process (especially in Africa). And, as Founders Factory Africa’s head of growth, Steven Waidelich, unpacks in this handy Medium article titled, “A tool to help African startups systematically find product-market fit”, it’s a process that demands paying close attention to traction metrics and customer feedback.

Oversimplification is the enemy

Back to the stream: Happily, while Livingstone is an ardent proponent of the pursuit of PMF above all else, I appreciate her sense of humour about the irony of encouraging founders not to attend conferences while on stage at, of all places, a conference that she had a hand in curating.

After all, by her admission, well-curated ecosystem gatherings can be an invaluable way to make meaningful human connections, exchange insights and learnings and build the leverageable relational trust and goodwill needed to do business.

Given the myriad complexities of live business culture and consumer behaviour dynamics and the numerous barriers to cross-border commercial collaboration across Africa, we would all do well to take sweeping statements about the need to boycott conferences with a grain of salt.

Heads up, in a future article, I may dig into the massive information, resource and network access gaps unique to a Pan-African context, which render it wise for the ecosystem as a whole to wholeheartedly commit to prioritising embedding community practice across the continent.

Apply wisdom

That said, allow me to invite you to subscribe to the well-tried definition of wisdom as "becoming competent with regard to the realities of [African tech ecosystem] life".

Then, please join me in applying the wisdom of Nigerian medical doctor turned founder of health-tech startup WellaHealth, Ikpeme Neto, in setting sound priorities for actively seeking meaningful fellowship in 2024 and leveraging the “hivemind” to hone in on the best, context-relevant opportunities to build and nurture relationships in person.

Editorial Note: This opinion editorial was first published by Business Report on 13 February 2024.