Do Your Customers Know How to Find Your Product?

Having a great product doesn’t matter if you’re not thinking about how customers will find it

My mom is a serial entrepreneur. She’s also in her 70s and lives in a 150,000 person retirement community in central Florida. Because of this, nearly every week she calls to pitch me a new idea for a product she’s thinking about developing. In her words: “All those Silicon Valley companies filled with young people don’t care about building products for a more mature audience like us, so we have to do it ourselves.”

Sure, whatever you say, mom. I’ll pretend that the last time I visited her retirement community it didn’t have more Apple Watches and Teslas per capita than any place I’ve been this side of the Bay Area.

To be fair, my mom’s most recent innovation is decidedly not techy, nor is it something I expect will be getting VC term sheets anytime soon. Instead, she showed me a product she and her friends have been selling that she calls “Travel Buddy Trays.”

A Travel Buddy Tray is a 10”x10” piece of quilted fabric with snaps on each corner. When the snaps aren’t engaged, it lays flat like a tiny blanket. But, when the corners are snapped together, it creates a handy, fabric tray that’s perfect for hotel room bedside tables. Her pitch is simple:

Put your jewelry, your watch, and/or your wallet in it, and it’ll help keep all your valuable belongings in one place.

Example of what a Travel Buddy Tray looks like.

As someone who doesn’t wear much jewelry, I’m not the target demographic. However, according to my mom, her Travel Buddies “sell like hotcakes” anytime she’s got a booth at her local craft fair.

“As soon as we tell people what they are,” she explains, “they inevitably buy half a dozen. One for themselves and one for each of their closest friends. Everyone wants it for when they travel.”

“Sounds like you found yourself a good niche, Mom,” I told her after she shared her story. “Thanks for growing my inheritance,” I added, dryly.

“Oh, shush,” she said. “I’ve got a serious question for you, and it might just turn into a good inheritance if you can help us. For seven bucks a pop selling these things at craft fairs, we’re not selling enough to make good money. We need a bigger market, so we want to start selling our Travel Buddies on Etsy and Amazon. What do you know about that stuff?”

“I know it won’t work,” I said with a casual shrug. “Wrong kind of product. You don’t have product-marketplace fit.”

“What do you mean ‘product-marketplace fit’?” she asked in the accusatory tone I’d often heard growing up when she thought I was lying. Even at 40 years old, it still makes me anxious, so I quickly shared whatI knew in the hopes of convincing her I wasn’t hiding anything.

“Product-marketplace fit is a play on a concept called product-market fit,” I hastily explained. “In entrepreneurship, product-market fit means having a product that fits the demand and buying preferences of your market. Product-marketplace fit is like that, but it’s more about making sure your product aligns with the buying expectations of the marketplace in which you’re selling. Specifically, every marketplace has a built-in set of expectations for how people discover products and make purchases. At the same time, every product needs to be sold in a certain way. If the marketplace you’re selling in doesn’t have a buying process that matches the optimal buying process for your product, it won’t sell.”

“So what’s wrong with selling on Amazon and Etsy?” she asked. “Everyone buys stuff from there all the time.”

“They do,” I agreed, “but, nobody goes to sites like Amazon or Etsy thinking, ‘Show me something cool I hadn’t thought of buying.’ They go with a certain product in mind. They want to buy a certain pair of shoes or a certain type of bag, etcetera. In other words, users of those platforms generally have a specific problem they’re trying to solve, and they’re on Amazon — or wherever — looking for a solution.”

“But that’s just it,” my mom countered, “Travel Buddy Trays solve a huge problem! When older women like me travel, we usually bring a lot of jewelry, and I can’t tell you the number of friends I’ve had with stories about leaving a favorite ring or necklace at the hotel because they left it on a counter and forgot it. What else solves that problem?”

“Doesn’t matter,” I told her, “because it’s not a problem people are searching for on Amazon. When your friends come home after those experiences of losing their jewelry, they don’t go on Amazon and search ‘tray to hold my jewelry while traveling so I don’t lose it.’ Instead, you have to sell your product by doing what you’re doing now which is show it to people and explain the problem in a way they can relate. It’s a perfectly fine way to sell something, but it’s not something you’re customers are going to search for on Amazon.”

“So how would I sell my Travel Buddies online?” she asked.

“You’d need to find ways to tell their story,” I said. “You’d want articles and social media posts. You could probably create an explainer video. Those kinds of things. Basically, you’ve got the type of product that needs more of a traditional marketing strategy where you’re promoting something and then driving people back to a website where they can buy it. It’s not as easy as posting on Amazon or Etsy, but I suppose it’s doable if you can get the right conversion rate on your website.”

“Well I don’t want to bother with any of that nonsense,” she grumpily said, as though I was just another member of the young, techno-elite crushing the dreams of “old people.” That, of course, wasn’t my intention. Instead, I was trying to explain a concept I teach all the entrepreneurs I work with. You can’t just create a product and magically expect it to sell. You also have to figure out how to sell it. The process includes determining the type of marketing your product requires and making sure you have product-marketplace fit. If you can’t find product-marketplace fit, you can have the greatest product in the world, but it won’t sell because your customers won’t be able to find it.

Author – Aaron Dinin, PhD