Founder Market Fit

12/29/2023 4-minute read

Most Silicon Valley origin stories start out like “while working at X amazing technology company, we saw this unique challenge that inspired us to create this amazing new technology” or “while running Sales at Y enterprise company, we realized we could revolutionize software sales”. For us, the story started very differently. We started team first instead of idea first. We had worked together at Splunk, and we had developed a strong working relationship and a lot of trust. In hindsight, this would be much more important than any idea we might have started with.

In the first 18 months, before we pivoted to what would eventually become Cribl, we ignored one of the most important aspect of success in startups: Founder Market Fit. In the Valley, the concept of Product Market Fit is paramount. Does the product solve such a key problem for customers that nothing can stop its adoption? It even gets abbreviated (PMF)! So, the goal is simple. Just create something amazing everyone wants. How hard can it be?

Well, given startup success rates hover in the 10% range for any successful outcome, quite hard. Since we had started team first, rather than idea first, the first problem we needed to solve was what should we create. This is where we made our first critical error. The team we created had deep domain expertise in IT Operations, Observability, Security, Logging, Metrics, and in general the space around managing operating and securing of technology workloads. Rather than lean into our core area of expertise, we instead wanted to be seen as doing something new and far way from our last roles. We chose to ignore Founder Market Fit.

In 2017, as we were starting, we were nearing the end of the influence of the Lean Startup movement. I have nothing against Lean Startup, and I think there are some important lessons to be gleaned. We read a ton of content from Steve Blank. We learned a key lesson that a startup is a business in search of a business model. We used the Business Model Canvas to evaluate ideas we eventually might build. We interviewed dozens of people in our networks to search for a problem that was critical to be solved for them. We read Running Lean by Ash Maruya which was a superset of Eric Ries’ and Steve Blank’s work on how to iterate towards solving a critical problem for our prospects. It was a very expensive way to discover a problem, and ultimately, it simply didn’t work for us.

Deep insight about problems to be solved usually does not come from outside amateurs interviewing experts. There is a counter example to every rule about startups, so I’m certain there are brilliant entrepreneurs who have simply, from the outside in, looked at an industry and found a huge problem to be solved. You are probably not them. Especially in the area of enterprise software, the only way to get the kind of insight into the challenges they have is to spend years working right alongside them, either as an employee, vendor, partner, contractor, integrator, or outsourcer.

We found ourselves constantly one feature away from product market fit, or so we thought. Because we had pivoted away from a market we were deeply familiar with, we also lost our most important asset: our network. Missing Founder Market Fit meant that we did not have access to buyers. We didn’t have a rolodex of people we could call. We were heavily reliant on investor introductions or warm intros from friends. Without relationships with potential buyers who already trusted us, we were at a significant disadvantage.

Once we lighted onto the problem that would become Cribl, everything clicked back into place. By finding Founder Market Fit, we now were able closely pair our product and our go-to-market motion. We were able to do things that didn’t scale, as Paul Graham has famously written, because we had expertise to offer a community that had nothing to do with our product. We had a vast network of trusted community members who wanted to help us just because we had built long, trusted relationships with them. We had the advantage of a selling into a larger company’s customer base. While they were not universally supportive, we had a large number of supportive contacts whom we had, again, built trusted relationships with.

Ultimately, the insight we used to create Cribl came from years of working closely with enterprises. We knew data growth was a massive challenge. We had heard it for years and years. We knew that enterprises were struggling with a one-size-fits-all data management strategy for their IT & Security data. When we found Founder Market Fit, building a product that would find Product Market Fit came very naturally.