October 1, 2019 | Portfolio

3 signposts on the road to product market fit

Costanoa Team

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Costanoa Team

A salmon aquaculture farm in Norway, the dominant producer of farmed salmon
A salmon aquaculture farm in Norway, the dominant producer of farmed salmon

In the earliest stages of startup life, every founder’s central task is to find the right product market fit. They must find a real problem in the marketplace — and offer a solution that customers want to buy. Aquabyte is a young startup that has quickly found its niche by observing three simple rules. First, it engaged in a true discovery phase and found a real problem in a huge but underserved industry. Second, it used the available tailwinds in the marketplace to propel itself to wider recognition. Finally, it was extremely creative in the solutions it devised and didn’t shy away from using hardware or humans to make everything work. In this article, Founder Bryton Shang shares his learnings during the initial phase of building Aquabyte.

Immerse yourself in a true discovery process. 

Long before coming up with a solution, deeply engage with the industry you hope to disrupt.

Harness existing industry trends.

Use every existing trend you can you to your advantage. When the Norwegian government imposed a tough, new regulation on the industry, Aquabyte quickly pivoted to help farms comply.

Embrace unconventional solutions.

Go for the right solution, even if it leads you to uncomfortable places. By combining things like hardware, software, machine learning, and human insight you can gain a competitive advantage that future competitors may find difficult to emulate.

Too often, startup founders put the cart before the horse. They come up with an idea for a product, and then try to validate it in the marketplace by seeing if they can find someone to buy it. As a result, they don’t realize until later that their products are actually poor fits for the market, and they have to do expensive pivots to succeed.

While pivoting is a common part of any startup’s lifecycle, it’s better to get more right as much as possible upfront and leave the pivoting for later as you grow into your market. This is the approach taken by Bryton Shang, the founder of Aquabyte. No stranger to product market fit, he had served as the CTO of two earlier startups, one for predictive trading and another that improved cancer screening. When one of his previous cofounders suggested he look into fish farming, Bryton took the task seriously.

Bryton Shang, Founder & CEO of Aquabyte at San Francisco HQ
Bryton Shang, Founder & CEO of Aquabyte at San Francisco HQ

Deep discovery

In a true discovery process, a founder may come to an industry with a hypothesis but never has a serious attachment to it. Rather, he or she undertakes a deep dive into an industry and its problems before settling on a potential solution — and is willing to throw away as many ideas as he or she sticks with.

Shang knew that fish farming was a huge and underserved market. But while it may have been a fast-growing, $240 billion industry, it was not an easy mark. Startups in the field need to deal with rugged conditions, limited connectivity, and foreign government regulation.

Shang traveled several times to Norway to learn about his intended market first-hand. He found out that the industry was amassing large amounts of data on growing conditions but had little way to harness it into an understanding of fish growth. Farmers couldn’t efficiently answer questions like how much should they feed the fish let alone how water temperature and oxygen levels affected them. This was obviously an area where machine learning could play a role.

With this knowledge in mind, Shang came up with a product idea that involved cameras, machine learning, and humans-in-the-loop. The plan was to collect even more data, including visual data, to start understanding the real drivers of growth. And because he started with a known issue, he knew that he had solved a real problem in the industry.

Put simply, the first step to ensuring you get great product market fit is not to just validate an existing hypothesis, but to get the context you need to make smarter decisions about what will provide real customer value.

Take advantage of existing tailwinds

Startups always need all the help they can get. All too often, however, founders believe their product is so wonderful that people will simply love it. A more realistic approach is to look for existing trends that can help you succeed.

In Aquabyte’s case, Norway provided an excellent opportunity for this. In 2017 the country’s government moved to deal with a serious problem with its fish farms: sea lice. This parasite grows in the open ocean but thrives in the close quarters of fish farms — often to the detriment of wild fish. And so, the Norwegian government instituted regulations that require farms to remove ten fish a week and count the lice on them. This took time and was not a particularly accurate way to gauge the health of the fish.

Shang realized his technology could tackle this pressing issue and decided to make a parasite-counting product the first thing Aquabyte shipped. It was soon installed in a test farm with the permission of the government. And when it proved successful, many more farms requested it.

In other words, although you may be seriously focused on developing your product, it’s always a good idea to be aware of what’s going on in the broader market. You may discover a development that provides customers with a compelling reason to buy your product today.

3 signposts on the road to product market fit

Don’t shy away from hard but unconventional solutions

Most startups, especially in Silicon Valley, are software-obsessed. They tend to be led by engineers who want to build something virtual that scales indefinitely at low cost. They also prefer to implement automated solutions as quickly as possible. While both make sense to a degree, they may result in a solution that doesn’t really meet potential customers’ needs.

Aquabyte went the opposite direction, devising solutions that reflect the difficulty of the problems faced by fish farmers. “Our scope is quite a bit different from a traditional startup,” says Shang. “The innovation is how can I get a camera to work, how can I get the data, and how can I measure fish. We’re dealing with biologists weighing fish. There are many practical problems around how to do that.”

Creating a hardware and software-based system that relies on human scientific insights may not be as easy as writing software, but it ends up with a creative solution that solves the real problems of the industry in a sustainable way.

So, while you may be tempted to go for the simplest possible implementation and the one closest to your comfort zone, you should look for the best solution that answers all aspects of your customers’ needs.

Potential to grow — and make the world better

The Aquabyte story shows how startups can use great discovery methods to devise solutions that they can be confident will be valued by their customers. They can then take advantage of trends in the marketplace and be brave about creating a solution that will really solve a pressing problem. As a result, the company has the potential not merely to make great changes in a huge industry, but to address a growing need in the global food supply.


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