The earliest stage of work on a new product is like crossing a raging river

The book Crossing the Chasm uses a metaphor of traversing a deep chasm to illustrate the perils of moving from early product-market fit (PMF) to mass-market growth. I’d like to propose a related metaphor for getting to initial PMF: Crossing the Rapids.

The earliest stage of work on a new product is a lot like crossing a raging river.

The goal is to reach product-market fit on the opposite shore, but stepping off of the near shore into your initial go-to-market is risky. Each step your company makes – from slippery, unstable rock to slippery, unstable rock – could be your last.

Many founders find this early-stage dynamic deeply frustrating. Our minds are set on the big opportunity that the opposite shore represents – the new world made possible by our initial set of features and a steadily growing userbase. That big opportunity is why we’re doing all of this in the first place! Because our sights are set on the horizon, the time and effort spent staring at our feet deciding where to step next feels tedious and infuriating. Our gut tells us it’s a time-wasting distraction in the face of our far more inspiring medium- and long-term vision.

And yet, as the metaphor suggests, those early moves are critical and fundamental. Each step could sink the project, or strand us in the middle of the river with no path forward. Our path across the river also determines where on that opposite shore we’re going to land, which in turn determines where we head from there.

As an example, imagine that you’ve got an idea for a dog-walking app that you’ve been thinking about for years. You’ve saved up some money and think it might be time to quit your job in order to work on it full time. Leaving your day job represents that big, risky step off of the near shore. It’s critical to locate that first rock you’re going to step off to before making the leap. This rock could represent an early adopter community – perhaps suburban dog walkers whose unique needs haven’t been addressed by the market yet, which has been focused solely on urban dog walkers.

But which suburban dog walkers? Is the initial focus going to be on a specific geographic area? Freelancers vs. dog-walking services? This decision will determine whose pain points you focus on and therefore what you end up building first, which will in turn determine which customers you attract next. You want to pick an initial rock that will be the most immediately stable but which will also set you up for an easy step to the next rock. And those rocks need to line up directionally towards the opposite shore, not laterally up or down the river.

If your product idea requires deeper technical innovation, that first step might not be an early adopter market, but instead could represent the fundraising and team-building you need to do in order to move forward. Do you pursue federal grants or angel investors? These paths require very different activities, take different amounts of time, and set you on different medium-term paths. It’s important to understand those differences and weigh them against your own personal runway – how much time can you spend without funding or revenue before you need to start drawing a paycheck of some kind?

I like the metaphor of crossing river rapids because it’s one nearly everyone has some experience with (even if just from watching movies!), and because it gives an accurate sense of the way this stage of work should feel: You want to move quickly and thoughtfully. Pivoting is to be expected since it’s rare that nature will have lined up a perfect line of equidistant rocks straight across the river for you.

Most importantly, the river metaphor helps frame how to think about that opposite shore. If you keep your eyes solely on the opposite shore instead of the rocks at your feet, you’re almost guaranteed to make a misstep onto a slippery rock, an unstable rock, or straight into the icy rapids. Luckily, the opposite shore is a large target – impossible to miss! So don’t worry so much about taking your eyes off of it for a few hours, days, or even an entire week. ;)