If you know Y Combinator, you know Justin Kan. The co-founder of livestream sites Twitch and Justin.tv, was part of the startup accelerator’s legendary First Batch in the summer of 2005.
Kan's YC company, Kiko, which he founded with Emmett Shear, wasn't a hit. But his later ventures have earned him legend status, which is why he was recently invited to give a talk to the 2021 winter batch. He shared his advice in a Twitter thread.
According to Kan, nothing is more important than finding product market fit. Everything else, he wrote, is “all window dressing.” The best strategy, Kan says, is to get to know your market on a personal level.
“Many founders don’t want to talk to their customers because it makes them vulnerable, because it's hard work, because it's scary,” he wrote. “Creating a tight feedback loop with customers is the one thing that will help you discover PMF. If a customer isn't one of your cofounders, try to create a customer panel that allows as tight of a loop as possible. Call them daily. Put them in your Slack.”
Kan retweeted a 2019 thread by Shear, now the CEO of Twitch, about product market fit. Shear, who co-founded Kiko, Justin.tv, and Twitch with Kan, has kept close ties with his business partner over the years. Shear likened product market fit to rolling a boulder downhill.
“Founding a startup is deciding to take on the burden of Sisyphus: pushing a boulder up a hill,” Shear wrote. “But there is this moment that comes, eventually, where you crest the top of the hill. And suddenly you’re pushing the boulder and it’s moving so easily! You have reached the promised land of product/market fit.”
Kan then brought up his own experience of product market fit while founding Atrium, which was designed as a hybrid legal software startup and law firm. Atrium’s software was meant to streamline workflows for lawyers, but many firms with older leadership and established systems weren’t interested. Atrium’s law firm, meanwhile, splintered off into its own private practice.
“At Atrium, I confused myself on whether we had PMF because I was really good at sales,” Kan wrote. “Basically, I was really strong and could roll the boulder uphill more easily. But it was still uphill.”
To get product market fit, Kan says, founders should focus on intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. Founders shouldn’t put money, fame, and success before actually enjoying their jobs. “Intrinsic motivation will keep you working when extrinsic motivation will not,” he wrote.
Kan then spoke about Y Combinator itself — while the startup accelerator is invaluable for startups, Kan views it more as a helping hand than a golden ticket.
“YC is really an accountability framework for you to make fast progress in finding PMF,” he wrote. “No one wants to be the person that shows up during office hours and reports that nothing got done the last two weeks.”
“Example: I used to eat pizza every day for lunch, and then would take a nap,” he continued. “I thought I was just a tired motherfucker. But it turns out if I change my work diet, I am more productive.”
Aside from product market fit and motivation, Kan advised founders to prioritize values and a great team dynamic. Without values, Kan says, stressful decisions like pivoting, shutting down, or selling become much harder. Another critical framework to set up, he says, is a clear company structure, starting from the top.
“Make sure there are clear co-founder roles and a clear decision making structure,” he wrote. “Have this conversation up front even if it is uncomfortable. With your co-founders, build trust through vulnerability, clear communication, clear areas of responsibility.”
To round things off, Kan gave some advice on loving what you do: “work with people who put a smile on your face. Life is short!”