Almost all advice for early stage startup companies focuses on product-market fit, which is the point at which it’s clear that your product is meeting a market need in a reproducible way and your business can scale.
While I agree with that advice, it takes quite a while before you can even determine if you have product-market fit. You need to identify the market, define the problem, build a product and test it with customers. After that process, it’s unlikely you have product-market fit (it’s very hard to attain) so you repeat the process over and over again until you find it or give up.
There is a much earlier point in the company building process where you can save yourself a lot of time by being more critical, which I call Problem-Market Fit. All successful companies are started to solve a problem (see Are You Sure You Are Solving a Problem?) but few founders spend time validating that it is even possible to build a successful company on the problem they choose to solve.
After you choose your problem, make sure you have Problem-Market Fit by applying the following criteria:
Do customers consider it one of the top 3 problems they have?
Would customers immediately adopt a solution if you provided it to them right now?
If you solve the problem, do you have ways to distribute your solution to the customers?
I am always shocked at how many companies are started, and how much effort invested, to solve problems where the answer to at least one of these questions is ‘no’. If your problem isn’t one of the top 3 problems a customer has, you will have trouble getting their attention since they will be focused on those other problems. If they won’t adopt it immediately, the problem likely isn’t acute enough to warrant a brand new solution. If you can’t distribute your solution, then it doesn’t matter how great your solution solves the problem because no one will ever see it.