The three ‘Rs’: Startup success relies on research, recruitment and a willingness to redevelop your product


Airwallex co-founder and CEO Jack Zhang.

The significant impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on businesses worldwide is undeniable.

Businesses in every industry have been forced to reinvent the way they operate, communicate and serve their customers. As the dust begins to settle and restrictions start to ease, we are emerging from the wake of the crisis more aware of the need for innovation.

Businesses spend years perfecting product-market fit. Those who get it right end up with a great product that solves a problem, or fulfils a need or desire for a large enough segment to make a business viable.

Attaining product-market fit is one thing, sustaining it is a completely different matter. Product-market fit is not a milestone to reach or a goal to tick off; rather, it is a continuous cycle of growth. Finding it in the early days is key, but recent disruptions and global shifts have shown us that evolving product-market fit for new opportunities that come our way is equally important.

I recently had the opportunity to speak to Startup Victoria’s chief executive officer, Judy Anderson, for a retrospective session where I looked back on the lessons learnt from our unique journey of finding product-market fit at Airwallex. I’ve outlined some of them here.

1. Find a large problem space

Think of the problem as a space where customers’ needs, challenges or desires live — where the product you are delivering will fulfil those requirements. The larger the problem space, the larger the opportunity. There is limited scope if the problem space applies to only a small segment of people or a single market.

Identifying a problem space that you can solve in more markets allows you to be relevant internationally.

Beyond the shores of Australia lie massive markets in the US, UK, Europe and Asia. The Australian economy makes up less than 2% of the world economy. Expanding into the US, UK and EU provides access to more than 30% of the world’s economy, or approximately 40% when you include China, which is a significant increase in addressable market size compared to Australia alone.

Under the current volatile circumstances, it is important now more than ever to tap into the global economy and the opportunities it brings for business growth.

2. Research to ensure your product fits this problem space

When I started Airwallex with my co-founders, we didn’t get it right straight away.

The idea behind Airwallex was inspired by our experiences running a small business. Based on some of the challenges we faced as small business owners, we created a product that we assumed many other Australian small businesses required as well.

Preliminary research was done to prove the need for the product. However, our research wasn’t comprehensive enough to really understand the biggest pain points that SMEs were facing at that moment to capture the majority of the market.

It was then that we decided to buckle down on extensive user research – listening to feedback and pain points from existing and potential customers to help us redesign our product.

The problem space we were in then suddenly widened as we pivoted from a niche product, exclusively targeted at Australian SMEs, to one delivering a solution that many global businesses truly needed and wanted. Today, user research and data continue to inform our decision making across all aspects of the business.

Product-market fit is a continuously evolving process. Constantly engage with your customers to get a sense of their priorities — what they need today may change tomorrow, as we’ve recently seen happen with the current pandemic.

At Airwallex, we make it a priority for the management team to speak to our customers directly and not always rely on feedback from the sales team. We want our customers to know that communication channels — a phone call, an email, a meeting (virtual for now) — with the key decision-makers are always open. Through these channels, we get honest and unfiltered insights that are invaluable when building our product features.

3. Hire the right team to build a great product 

Product and engineering are critical roles for any technology-driven business. I’ve spoken about the importance of finding the right problem space and the need for regular customer engagement, but all of that effort will be for nought without a great product.

Product and engineering teams greatly influence every aspect of a product’s success, so it is important to ensure that you have the best talent possible.

Recruitment was a challenge for us in our early days. As we didn’t start out with a dedicated HR team, my founders and I scoured our personal networks for our initial product and engineering hires.

But for a CEO, or any other senior leader for that matter, it is not practical to devote the time and energy needed to source and secure exceptional talent while delivering on the demands of your day role.

We ended up compromising on the quality of talent we brought onboard, which proved to be a huge mistake. Any founder will tell you that hiring the wrong people will set you back, as it did for us. An inefficient product built on bad code in the first couple of years was hard to undo.

Thankfully, once we introduced a dedicated recruitment team (after two years without one), more stringent interview processes and a higher standard of talent quality, a solid product and engineering foundation soon followed.

In the past two months we have added two stellar product directors to the Melbourne team — Richard Jeremiah and Shannon Scott. They have already had a huge impact on the team with their unique skills and experience. A great team with great talent makes all the difference.

Final thoughts

In a world where change is the only constant, we must adapt to ensure the sustainability of ourselves. That goes for any human, and for any business. As customer behaviour shifts and e-commerce continues to rise and become more prevalent, listen to your customers and continually innovate your product until you find product-market fit, so that you can rebuild your business and start seeing growth again.

This article was first published on Airwallex’s website.

NOW READ: A unicorn twice over: Airwallex closes $250 million Series D round, despite the global COVID-19 crisis

NOW READ: “I’ve had to unpick every part of the business”: Tips from industry leaders to keep innovation on the agenda


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