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Wartime before product-market fit
Reflections on Ben Horowtiz's essay in relation to Product Market Fit
Midway through my career I worked for a business which was going through multiple successive years of decline. I remember doing analysis to understand whether our share of market was decreasing or the market itself. The answer was both. Less pie, but we were losing at a faster rate. I got a few of the leadership on board with the idea of Wartime.
Ben Horowitz wrote about the differences between being a Peacetime CEO vs Wartime CEO in his book The Hard Thing About Hard Things1.
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Some of the highlights:
“Peacetime CEO knows that proper protocol leads to winning. Wartime CEO violates protocol in order to win.
“Peacetime CEO spends time defining the culture. Wartime CEO lets the war define the culture.
“Peacetime CEO always has a contingency plan. Wartime CEO knows that sometimes you gotta roll a hard six.
“Peacetime CEO knows what to do with a big advantage. Wartime CEO is paranoid.
“Peacetime CEO thinks of the competition as other ships in a big ocean that may never engage. Wartime CEO thinks the competition is sneaking into her house and trying to kidnap her children.
“Peacetime CEO aims to expand the market. Wartime CEO aims to win the market.
“Peacetime CEO strives for broad based buy in. Wartime CEO neither indulges consensus-building nor tolerates disagreements.
“Peacetime CEO trains her employees to ensure satisfaction and career development. Wartime CEO trains her employees so they don’t get their ass shot off in the battle.
“Peacetime CEO has rules like “we’re going to exit all businesses where we’re not number 1 or 2.” Wartime CEO often has no businesses that are number 1 or 2 and therefore does not have the luxury of following that rule.2
I’ve reflected on all of the companies I’ve worked with, seen inside of, or set up on this multiple times. The vast majority should have been operating with a wartime mentality.
I find that the distinction between the two comes down to: is the business currently living through an existential crisis? Or is the business riding what seems to be an unstoppable tidal wave of growth?
Peacetime vs Wartime at Wine List
We were blessed with luck during the early Wine List days. Two weeks after we went full time on it, covid happened and then experienced 5-8x growth over a 2 month period. Those months engrained aspects of what went on to be our company culture (and it wasn’t war).
If there was a BuzzFeed quiz called Answer these 20 questions to understand if you’re naturally a Peacetime or Wartime CEO, then I’d likely swing towards peacetime. I’m conflict averse, and while I’ve got visionary aspects, I’m also someone who enjoys analysis and process.
In the final month and a half at Wine List, we went into wartime mode. We very consciously changed tack to try to stem revenue loss and survive longer.. While it was the emotionally toughest period of the business, it was also the period when the team worked at its absolute best.
Wartime is uncomfortable. Thinking about the British founders and entrepreneurs I’ve met over the last few years, the vast majority I think ‘sway peacetime.’ But I’ve been thinking recently how would Wine List have turned out if we’d been focusing on wartime from the very start?
Before you’ve found PMF, you’re wartime
I’ve spent the last two years since closing Wine List consulting, freelancing and now as an agency founder. I’ve seen inside a few dozen businesses during that time. A big percentage are pre-PMF. And if you should be in wartime if you’re facing an existential crisis, well…
There is no greater existential crisis than not having product market fit.
It’s also an issue which seems to make people bury their heads in the sand.
Finding product market fit is not a product marketing problem.
It is not a marketing problem. It’s not a ‘when we hire a head of product’ problem.
It’s the only thing you should be focusing on as a business. It was tough raising money pre-PMF before the current climate, it will be next to impossible now.
Ben Horowitz said he was a peacetime CEO for nine months, and then wartime for the next seven years. The early-stage journey is one where you have to find early signs of success to be able to raise money, but once you’ve got it, change that mindset to wartime.
If you are still looking for product market fit. Take a read through the essay (linked below), and judge how you naturally lean. I have more faith that CEOs can be both peacetime and wartime than Ben does, but it takes work, and will be uncomfortable.
But I ask, what’s more uncomfortable, being a wartime CEO and the pressures that come with that, or your business running out of money before you find PMF?
At that business midway in my career, we managed to have a flat year in terms of revenue, which increased our market share and reversed a trend. A small win, which I put down to the four person wartime team we built in a basement under Baker Street.