Finding Product-Market Fit as a Non-Technical, Self-Funded Female Founder

Published on
March 28th, 2019
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"I had expertise and a mission. What I didn’t have was a business model, money, co-founder, or coding skills."
I'm a solo, non-technical founder. I’m also a woman, a mom (gasp!) and my company is committed to a triple bottom line. Putting all of those hurdles in one line has actually given me a moment of pause just now, but I don’t usually spend much time thinking about it.
My background is in food. I've been a professional chef for 15 years, which ultimately helped me self-fund my startup. My first business was a successful meal delivery company that preceded the trend we see today. Ultimately, that business reached its limit due to a lack of tech and funding. I sold it after 10 years and shortly thereafter decided I wanted to use my experience and skills for a greater good. If I was going to start something new, it would have to include a mission beyond being the boss and making money (though I like those things too!). The mission that spoke to me is to help home cooks reduce food waste — one factor that will limit the effects of climate change.
I had expertise and a mission. What I didn’t have was a business model, money, co-founder, or coding skills. So I did what anyone would do (in 2017) — I took to social media and began posting tips about reducing food waste. People I hadn’t spoken to in years started commenting with questions from their kitchens and telling me how they were inspired to try to make chicken stock. Around this time I met a woman who was building a series of classes to help non-tech founders succeed. I joined her beta group in a 12-week accelerator and came away with a few key lessons.
The most important lesson was the need to find product-market fit before you pay to build anything. It is the game of wealthy founders to build something before you really know who your customers are, what they struggle with, and what they will pay for. By using free tools and social media I was able to survey 1,000 people about their feelings on food waste, climate change, cooking decisions, home delivery meal prep kits, and other cooking tasks. They told me exactly why they were frustrated and how they would spend their money to solve it.
Because of the proliferation of meal kit boxes, I assumed people hated the grocery store. But my hypothesis was wrong. 83 percent of my survey respondents identified their top culinary concern as “choosing a recipe.” Only seven percent listed going to the grocery store as their frustration.
Armed with a defined problem, I designed a solution at a price point 1,000 people already approved (<$20/month). Ends+Stems is a meal planning subscription that tells you what to cook and makes use of everything you buy. I’ve solved for the top customer concern in a way that supports my mission to reduce food waste. People are thrilled to treat the planet better when it saves them money and asks for no extra work on their end.
End of story? Maybe it would have been if I could build the thing! Turns out the app I designed, with a sharpie and paper (I’m a chef, sharpies are our go-to) was going to cost more than $100,000.
I explored what it would take to get funding but I kept hitting barriers, as solo non-tech founders without warm leads tend to when cold calling VCs. After a few months, I realized I had spent so much time looking for money that I was not progressing on my business.
That moment was so important. I reevaluated, went back to survey results, and spent time sitting with my target market’s struggles and their willingness to pay for a solution. After a lot of work and hard decisions, I was ultimately able to come up with a way to run a beta test with paying customers that would cost nothing to run.
Almost immediately, 100 paying beta customers signed up. I went back to those who took my survey and showed them that I listened and designed a solution with them in mind. It’s now been six months and each week I collect invaluable feedback about my product. The beta users are too few to generate enough revenue for me to live on, so my side hustle funds my family’s existence (or is that my main hustle, if it makes all the money?) but it takes up a third of my time each week.
I found areas where I could trim or redesign my original idea. Some features of my plan were things that no one was really asking for, and they were included because I thought they were cool (aka a great way to waste hard earned money). I read an article that convinced me to build a responsive website, not a mobile app. Narrowing my search to website developers, I found a great team who would be able to build what my customers have specifically told me they will pay for, at a price I can afford.
Along this journey from idea to launch countdown, I have worked with food waste experts, other chefs, a six-week paid intern, a CTO advisor, a business advisor, editors on Upwork, my friend the product-market fit expert, an environmental impact strategist, and of course, the website developers. I use a bookkeeper, an accountant, and a lawyer so I’m incorporated. I’ve hired a PR team to help coordinate the launch and be seen by the next 1,000 customers. I’d be remiss to gloss over the wonderful daycare and preschool teachers who mind my children all day and my friends and family who are supportive. I always joke that to know me is to volunteer for my company (it’s not really a joke though). I’m the only employee for now, but through careful spending decisions, I’ve been able to outsource a team to get this far. We launch in May!
The specifics of my business and my life have me moving a little more slowly than a VC-backed, grow-at-all-costs company, but don’t count me out. I have specific expertise, quality content for years, a tight product-market fit, 100 happily paying beta customers, perseverance, and a mission to help the planet.
Will I make it to scale? Stay tuned for my launch.
Comments (6)
Rachel Masters
Very inspiring + you are using the same methods as tech companies to find your product market fit.
Nick Moussoulis
I build full featured messenger bots!
Loved the story so far! It shows that with the right process, you can move forward with your idea/startup with a few resources even if youre not technical. Keep going! 👍
Lindsay "Taybiss" Tabas
Designed my first interface in '02.
I’m clapping so loudly!! You’re an A+ student.
Katerina Petkovska
Chief Marketing Officer
Great points! It's hard not to make mistakes on this at least the first time arround
Mauro Banze
Great story!! What exactly did you do to get the paying customers without having a product? Can you help by giving out more details
Alison Mountford
Founder and CEO of Ends+Stems
@mauro_banze Thanks! I do have a product, its just not coded. I send out recipes, meal plans, and grocery lists using free tools like mail chimp and google docs. I manually do the work that technology will eventually do. (Not implying a comparison) but this is how Katrina Lake says she tested StitchFix until she built the technology.