It took 160 days for one of our YouTube videos to reach its first 300 views. For our most recent video, it took 2 days. What happened? This is the power of finding product-market fit. Here’s the story of our journey.
It was the end of 2018 and I had just accepted a job at Google, to work as a product manager for YouTube to build tools for creators. I immediately started following the product manager decree of “use your own product” and started a YouTube channel.
I’m a bit camera shy but lucky for me, my then 8-year old son was not. He became our on-screen talent and I was the director, producer and editor. We happily started making foodie videos of him comparing In-N-Out burgers to Big Macs and his predictions of who was going to win the next Superbowl (his two passions). We weren’t even thinking about who our audience was, we just did it to get the experience and to play the part of a YouTuber.
We relocated to Zurich, Switzerland in early 2019 to start my new job at YouTube. We continued to make videos, but our material for foodie videos dried up. Eating out in Zurich is at least 2x the cost as in the US, thus we ended up mostly eating at home. We had to pivot. So we made videos about life in Switzerland, like how to find affordable groceries, and how to recycle. We also made videos about our travels in Switzerland, like our trips to Zermatt and Lucerne.
As of November 2020, almost two years after we started making videos in earnest, most of our videos had less than 100 views. Our video production quality was getting better. I added music and voice overs. I used custom thumbnails. But to be honest, it was pretty discouraging to spend 3 to 4 hours on a <10 minute video to only get a few dozen views. So much so that we didn’t upload any new videos for 3 months.
One March morning in 2021, I randomly decided to search for our channel on YouTube and was shocked to see that one of the videos we uploaded nearly 6 months prior, 7 Culture Shocks: Swiss Schools vs American Schools had over 500 views. I know in YouTube world, 500 views is peanuts, but to someone whose videos average 50 views, 500 views was a big deal!
I sprung into investigation mode and quickly realized that this video was picked up by a woman who runs a consulting service to help expat families settle in Zurich. She shared the video with her clients and on Facebook and people were watching it! I did some more digging using YouTube Analytics and saw that the top keywords driving traffic to our videos was “Swiss schools”.
Finally, this is what feels like to connect with an audience on YouTube! Previously, we were just making videos about the stuff we liked, and it was like throwing darts in the dark. Now we finally had a sliver of a clue from the YouTube black box. Our audience is English speaking expat families with school aged children who are thinking about relocating to Switzerland or have already relocated. In Zurich, Switzerland’s largest canton where we live, roughly 34% of the residents are foreign born. Many parents face anxiety about how their children will react when moving to a new country with a new language. There are other videos in this category from parents but our videos are unique in that they’re from the perspective of the children. We leaned into our target audience and created more videos about Swiss schools: Swiss Secondary Schools vs American Middle Schools and Swiss School in Corona Times.
Recently, we published a video on Integrating into Swiss Public Schools: How We Learned German in Just One Year. It has received 300 views in the first 2 days. Most of our new traffic actually comes from us promoting our videos to Facebook groups. Then the YouTube algorithm takes over, and >90% of traffic on our existing videos comes from YouTube recommending our videos to viewers. We’re by no means on our way to becoming professional YouTubers. But for now, we have found an audience who wants to hear the stories we want to tell.
Going through this experience reminded me that at the core of the product management job is finding that product — market fit. The term product-market fit means the degree to which a product satisfies a strong market demand. The term was popularized by Marc Andreessen of the legendary venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and is a part of the standard product management vernacular.
The process of finding product-market fit is not an exact science. Sometimes you stumble upon it by simply trying and having good luck. With our YouTube channel, we didn’t have a strategy ahead of time. We were just experimenting. However, as product managers, we’re pretty obsessed with making sure we find product-market fit as efficiently as possible. My nightmare scenario is to spend lots of time and resources building a product or feature that hasn’t proven to have product-market fit.
When I interview product managers, I try to assess their process for finding product market fit. We will go through a hypothetical exercise and I evaluate how clearly candidates state their assumptions, i.e. what is a product’s value proposition, what are the characteristics of their target market, what is their unique differentiator, who are their competitors, etc. I then watch how they convey their strategy for validating those assumptions as efficiently as possible. The more experienced candidates will very quickly identify all the relevant factors that influence the product-market fit. For example, are you solving a nice to have problem, like I want my lights to turn on automatically when I walk into a room, or a critical need, like I want to know when my pet has accidentally left the house when I’m not home. I look for candidates that can identify the risks that are carried in the various assumptions and ways to mitigate those risks. These are skills that are acquired after years of building products, failing and learning. But when you do find that product-market fit, like in the case of our YouTube channel, that’s when the magic happens.