Finding traction without a product: Our process
How we iterated fast and proved initial traction for Nango without building the actual product
In late August 2022 Bastien, my co-founder, approached me with a serious face: “We need to talk. I think this product is not working out.”
Bastien had just returned from a vacation. With fresh eyes he saw what I was reluctant to admit to myself: We had spent three weeks over the summer to build a product. But no matter whom we messaged, we could hardly get anybody to take a look or reply to our emails.
Even as second time founders we had just made a canonical founder mistake: We built a product before we had validated our idea is something the market really wants.
Why do founders keep on building products nobody wants?
We think the answer is because pre-product validation is very hard. Most definitions of product-market fit (PMF) assume you have some product and traction, e.g. Superhuman’s famous approach or Segment’s definition. Others, like the MVT framework, focus on testing hypothesis by emulating the essential parts of your product.
What we needed was different: A way to know if people want our product before we build it.
Minimum viable positioning: The earliest market signal
We made a list of everything that needs to happen for a user to start using our product:
- Our positioning (what we do and why it helps them) has to resonate
- The timing has to be right
- The product features have to be right
By building a product immediately we had attempted to solve all three at once. But we never managed to get people beyond step one. What if we just focused on this first step instead?
If we just focus on positioning we only have to worry about two things:
- The messaging: What we do for our customers and what the benefit is for them
- The differentiator: How we are different from what customers do today and the other solutions in this space
That seemed much simpler and something we could test without building a full, functional product. Our focus was clear now: Nail the positioning.
What a “great” positioning feels like
Signals can be confusing in the early days: If 30% of prospects answer to your email, is that good or bad? We needed some benchmarks.
Luckily the startup community is very friendly and we could get advice from the founders of Posthog, Airbyte and Human Interest. They all told us the same thing: When they found their winning idea, things “clicked” almost immediately.
Within 1-2 weeks of pitching their idea, or launching it on social media, they saw strong interest: An increase in GitHub stars, signups to the community and people trying to use the product far before it was ready or usable. One company even signed contracts with customers who were eager to buy before the product was available.
Armed with these insights we felt ready to iterate on our positioning.
From zero to initial traction in two months
We already described our first attempt at building a product above: We built what we thought customers needed. And it fell flat.
Luckily we are not the only ones building solutions for integrations in SaaS products. There are several other players, some of which seem to be quite successful.
Our second attempt: Copying what works for others
When we looked at our potential competitors we noticed that API aggregators seemed to do well. There were several companies in this space that became billion dollar businesses, such as Plaid.
API aggregators have a very clear value proposition for customers: Integrate once with us and get dozens of integrations immediately, instead of building each of them one by one.
We decided to copy this approach and try it on a new niche: An open-source API aggregator for CRMs. Within a few days we built a minimum viable positioning for this and started emailing potential prospects.
Over the course of three weeks we had a dozen conversations with potential prospects: A big step forward compared to our attempt from the summer. But instead of a clear market signal and enthusiasm Sales proved hard. Each customer had a slightly different use-case. Interest also never developed beyond lukewarm.
Truly deep market insights are hard
We found ourselves back at the drawing board again. And to be frank we were a bit frustrated. From the outside, API aggregators seemed like the perfect solution for our prospect’s problem. Why was it not working for us?
At this point we had spoken to almost 100 teams about their SaaS integrations and researched the problem for more than six months. For a brief moment we were very close to giving up and tackling a different problem altogether.
In hindsight this could have been a fatal mistake: Our biggest advantage as a startup at this point was our deep insight into the integrations market. If we changed the problem we would reset all our learnings and start again from scratch.
Luckily we never changed. We realised that the problem of integrations is still largely unsolved for our customers. More than 90% of the teams we talked to were building integrations in-house, from scratch and without any special tools. We just had to get more creative with the solution.
Building from a deep insight and gaining initial traction
Hours of brainstorming and poring over customer calls eventually gave us an insight: All of the existing players in the market were pre-building integrations. But prospects clearly told us that these solutions were not flexible enough for them. They needed to build deep integrations with the external APIs and this was just not possible with the existing solutions. So they had no other choice but to build them in house from scratch.
Out of this insight Nango Sync was born: Syncing data from a 3rd party API to their database was something we had seen dozens of teams do. Could we solve this particular problem for them? And would they care?
We built the initial positioning for Nango Sync in just 1-2 days. It only had a simple landing page and a Readme on our GitHub repo:
This time the response was different: Within days of sharing Nango we saw people join our Slack community with whom we never had any contact before. Strangers would star our GitHub repo. One Saturday, whilst I was hiking, my phone started vibrating: Pull requests and issue comments from people trying Nango started flowing in.
After the struggles of the past six months it felt like a dream come true (and to be honest, it still kind of is!).
Our learning: Don’t give up and focus on the positioning
If you are a startup founder, indie hacker or aspiring entrepreneur struggling to find product-market fit: Don’t give up just because your positioning does not resonate immediately. Don’t lose track of the problem you want to solve. Keep gathering insights & iterate on your positioning accordingly. When you find a positioning that works it is a signal that is hard to miss. And hopefully a source of huge joy.
If you would like to talk to us, or think there is anything we can help you with, please reach out on our Slack community: We love to help other founders whenever we can.
Best of luck!