July 10, 2024

Finding Product-Market Fit as an Independent

Pollen Team
When you’re first starting out as an independent, you might worry about whether your products and services will gain traction in the market. Will enough people want to buy them? Will you reliably be able to connect with those clients? Will they pay you enough to sustain your business and personal life over the long term? 
Finding Product-Market Fit as an Independent

When you’re first starting out as an independent, you might worry about whether your products and services will gain traction in the market. Will enough people want to buy them? Will you reliably be able to connect with those clients? Will they pay you enough to sustain your business and personal life over the long term? 

Essentially, you’re worried about product market fit (PMF)—and that’s a good instinct. Finding PMF is one of your earliest tasks as an independent consultant, and once you’ve found it, you’ll be able to make strategic business decisions based on the answers to these questions. 

What is PMF in the world of independence?

PMF for independence is similar in concept but different in practice than what you might be used to if you come from the world of startups.

Simply put, for an independent consultant, PMF happens when your service satisfies strong market demand and provides enough income to support your goals. You can picture it in terms of a Venn diagram with four circles:

  • The work you can do
  • The work you want to do
  • The work your clients need
  • The work for which your clients will pay enough to justify your efforts

Your PMF is where all four circles overlap: You’re able to do the work, you want to do the work, your clients need you, and they’re willing to pay a price that justifies your labor.

Arriving, evaluating, and maintaining PMF

From the time you’re curious about getting into consulting to when you sign your first few clients and beyond, you’re finding PMF. There’s a misconception that you “arrive” at PMF and then you’re set forever. In reality, it’s a constant process of learning, iterating, and maintaining PMF.

Generally speaking, you’ll be in the early stages of PMF after you’ve signed your first handful of clients. This is when you’ve run water through the pipes, have made sure you like this work, your clients have a good experience, and you can get a lot more specific about who you’re serving (and how you’re serving them).

You might also be noticing some signs that suggest there’s work to do on finding PMF. Be on the lookout for the following: 

  • All of your projects and customers are extremely different from each other
  • Each of your clients has different key pain points
  • The sales process for every client is very different
  • You can’t predict your client’s needs very well

The reason you want to look at consistency across these elements is to evaluate if your positioning and offering holds water and can resonate with a group of people. If you notice any of these signs, you’re probably early in the process of finding PMF—and you’re doing a lot of extra work to make up for it. It’s okay if your processes aren’t incredibly efficient right now–you’ll get there. The good news is that you’ve started to gather the data and can learn from it.

General process of finding PMF as an independent consultant

  1. Identify a super-specific ICP
  2. Use customer discovery to validate the market need
  3. Consider the type of work you really want to do
  4. Diagnose and refine
  5. Make adjustments and repeat

Finding PMF is an iterative process. You’ll start out by making some assumptions about your work and ideal customer, testing those assumptions, and adjusting your approach based on what you learn. With each new client, you’ll receive more information and continue moving forward.

Generally speaking, here are the 5 phases to finding PMF as an independent consultant. 

1. Identify a super-specific ICP

First, identify your ideal client profile (or ICP). Your ICP needs your services, so consider what you offer and who is in a position to be able to pay for it. If you’re an HR consultant, for example, you might target founders and C-suite executives in the process of staffing up. When considering your ICP, here are some qualities to think about: 

  • Stage. Are you targeting seed-stage founders? Established businesses? Companies preparing for an IPO?
  • Industry. What industry (or industries) will you serve?
  • Initiatives. What initiatives are your ideal clients pursuing?
  • Budget. Are your ideal clients cash-strapped or flush?
  • Pain points. What are the parts of your clients’ business that seem to consume unnecessary time and resources? Where are they failing in their own goals?
  • Internal dynamics. What are the internal dynamics for your ICP? Who are the decision makers, and what do decision-making processes look like? What stakeholders need to be engaged?
  • Team skill sets. Who is on your client’s team? What can they handle internally, and what will they need to outsource?

If you have multiple ICPs, we recommend taking it one at a time – it’s better to go very deep in one ICP than shallower across multiple. You risk being distracted and not finding deep traction with any of them. In reality, it’ll benefit you to run through this process multiple times as you change your ICP and your services.

2. Use customer discovery to go deep into your customer’s needs

The next step is doing customer discovery with people who fit your ICP. If you’ve never heard of customer discovery, it’s essentially the process of learning about your customers needs, wants, and pains. Although you may end up winning a client, the objective of these calls and research isn’t necessarily to earn business—it’s to validate your assumptions about your ideal clients, gather data about their pain points, and get a sense of how interested they are in your services. 

Use your network or do some cold outreach to schedule calls. Don’t start these calls pitching your services, but rather get curious and ask questions to learn about what’s important for them, what they’ve tried so far, what works and doesn’t work, what their budget is, etc. Here are some questions to bring up:

  • Pain points. What are your goals? What’s preventing you from reaching your goals? Why is that an obstacle? 
  • Severity of pain. On a scale of 1–10, how painful is this problem?
  • Demand. How have you tried to figure this out to date? What are the substitutes or competitors? Have you used an external service provider? What have you found works, and what doesn’t work?
  • Budget. Do you have somebody internally who does this? How much does that cost? At what point would you consider solving this problem so expensive that you wouldn’t buy? What price would you consider a bargain? What price is so low that you would question the quality of the solution?
  • Hesitations. What would prevent you from hiring a company that could solve this problem?
  • Feedback. What feedback do you have for businesses that serve customers like you? If I were to present you with my solution, what advice would you give me? What questions would you have?

If you’re wondering how many of these you should be doing–there’s no set number, but a good rule of thumb is that once you start to notice strong patterns, you’ve done enough for now. 

From this research, you’ll generate a ton of information about all of the different needs that your ICP has. In essence, you’ll have gone quite wide. The next steps will help focus down and match their needs to the services you can offer them.

Another way to go about this is to “flip” steps 2 and 3. So rather than starting with the ICP’s needs and matching to your services, you can start with the work that you want to do, and do research on various ICPs to see who would be the best customer for you. Both ways work, but we recommend starting with the customer first.

3. Evaluate if it’s the right ICP for you

Once you’ve conducted your customer discovery calls, take a step back to review the data. Do your services seem like a match for your ideal clients? Is there enough demand and willingness to pay? Can you do this work repeatedly?

You’ll need to make this determination for yourself, but here are a few ways to think about it.

  • How severe and urgent is the pain point you’re offering to solve? (This is a good leading indicator of how fast you can sell to them and how much they’ll be willing to pay.)
  • What are their budgets like for this and does this fit with what you want to charge? 
  • How displeased did they seem with existing solutions? 
  • Do you think you’ll like working with them? 

If yes, great. Start pitching those services to your ideal clients. It’s also a good signal if one of those discovery calls ends in a client engagement. If your answer is no, then this is a good time to make adjustments to your ICP so it lines up more with what you want.

4. Sell, deliver, diagnose, and refine

Now, you need to get more feedback from the market in the form of sales, customer feedback to inform the strength of your PMF. This takes time and just as a forewarning–there is usually no one clear signal that will make your level of PMF clear as day. It’s a constant process of iteration and evaluation across how you’re resonating with leads, the prices you can charge, how satisfied your clients are, and how repeatable this whole process is.

If your services don’t seem like a fit for your ideal clients, your next move is to figure out why they aren’t resonating. Is it a positioning, service, or sales problem?

Here are a few questions to consider: 

  • Do you have the skills? Make sure that you actually have the skills you are trying to sell—and the experience to back them up. If you don’t, you may need to adjust your offerings or commit to building those skills.
  • Is it a delivery problem? Examine your proposed delivery model, e.g., fractional services, consulting, coaching, project-based, etc. Is this delivery model appropriate for your ICP? Would a different delivery model reduce the barrier to purchase or better serve your clients’ needs?
  • Is your ICP specific enough and right for your product or services? Would a more specific version of your ICP be interested in your services? For example, if you’re targeting founders in all industries but your specific experience is in CPG, are you better positioned to serve CPG industry founders?
  • Does the client not care enough about the problem you can solve for them? If your clients have low intent, you’ll struggle to make sales even if you’ve correctly identified a problem. You may need to reframe your services or focus on a more serious problem you can solve. 

5. Make adjustments and repeat

After you’ve gathered that market intel, adjust your approach and repeat the process. You’ve built your expertise over decades and can only change your skills so much, so pivoting is primarily about adjusting your ICP, positioning, and delivery model. Consider the following adjustments:

  • Client. You might target a narrower ICP or a different type of client entirely. Consider details, too. Are you targeting the right type of person at the company? 
  • Delivery model. Can you offer a different delivery model without compromising your process or the quality of your work? If you have several viable options, you might consider running them by an ICP during your next customer discovery call.
  • Pricing. You can adjust pricing up or down based on the data you gathered during your customer discovery call. If your pricing is in line with what you need to charge to earn a profit, but your ideal clients are hesitant to pay, you might also consider using a wedge to reduce the barrier to purchase. 
  • Problem being solved. Revisit your customer discovery call data and identify the most common and urgent problems your customers raised. Are your skills appropriate for that problem? If not, you might need to reframe your ICP.

Once you’ve made adjustments, restart the customer discovery call process. You can always customize your question list based on your more thorough understanding of the data you need to firm up your PMF.

Signals of PMF

Your discovery calls will help you know if you’re on the road to finding PMF, but the real test comes once you’re open and running. Here are a few signs that your PMF is getting stronger.

  • Faster and more predictable sales cycles. You’ll be able to reliably predict after one call whether a client will close on a proposal. You’ll understand a client’s pain points and needs and efficiently pitch your services in a way that appeals to your ideal clients, shortening your sales cycles. 
  • Increasing ROI for your sales efforts. Your revenue will offset your investments in customer acquisition and you’ll be able to predict the likely value of a deal early in the process and focus your efforts on high-value prospects. 
  • Reliable conversions from outbound sales efforts. Some new independents mistakenly believe that engaging in outbound sales is a sign of failure. In reality, most new businesses rely on outbound sales, especially in the first few years. You’ll start seeing trends in what works with these processes.
  • You’re increasing your prices. When you’ve found PMF, you’ll be able to successfully close larger contracts with higher-value clients—and you may be able to raise your prices.
  • Projects are relatively consistent. Another sign you’ve found PMF is that your projects are relatively consistent in scope and structure, allowing you to standardize processes and increase the efficiency with which you deliver your services. 

Finding PMF is an ongoing process, so give it time—and don’t worry if things aren’t clear after your first customer call. Persistence and focus are key. 

In addition to fine-tuning your services, remind yourself that you’re also building a critical skill that will serve you in the long run. You’ll need to adjust PMF every time you offer a new product or service or when market conditions change—so the better you get at it, the stronger your business will be.

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