I had beers last night with an engineer that in the not too distant future will likely be joining the ranks of Boston entrepreneurs. He is currently a mid/senior-level engineer at a small Boson startup that has been struggling of late. Like any good startup engineer, he volunteered to help fill the major issue impairing his company’s success: product management. His decision was driven by the realization that the difference between the success and failure of his company was not the code he writes, but whether or not it solved problems that matter to current and future customers. So over beers we mind melded our way to the top 9 ways to improve a startup product management process.
#9 - Bigger Sample Size
You can steer your company based on direct feedback from customers, but if the sample size of the data is too small, your product strategy can easily optimize for the statistic and not the trend. Product strategies should be based on hundreds, not dozens, of data points.
#8 - Balanced Feedback
This is one one pearl of wisdom I took away from a previous company’s push to adopt Pragmatic Marketing: market feedback must include representation from 1) the customers you have, 2) the prospective customers you lost, and 3) the customers you aspire to one day have. Don’t let your company over-optimize your roadmap for only one of the three.
#7 - Leverage the Company
I’m a big believer that product management in startups is not a department, but a company. While every company needs a single person with the authority to make the final call, investing too much risk in a single decision-maker increases the likelihood of building something that doesn’t matter. Empower your entire organization, not a single person or team.
#6 - Vision is a Compass, Not a Map
Product vision is essential to the long term success of a product strategy. But vision is a compass the steers the general direction of a product, but does not to determine the specific path of execution.
#5 - Be Willing To Be Wrong
It’s great to have opinion, but opinions don’t make a successful product strategy. Subordinate your opinions at the altar of the customer. Be willing to be wrong.
#4 - Be Data Driven
One of the greatest contributions of the Lean movement has been the increased attention to using data to support product decisions. An opinion or hypothesis can lead you astray, but data rarely takes you down the wrong path. Use data to support your decisions wherever possible.
#3 - Listen, Don’t Sell
There is a time to sell, and a time to listen. But selling is for after you deliver the feature, not during its envisioning. Don’t make customers tell you what you want to hear - make them tell you what you need to hear.
#2 - No Big Bets
One of the best case studies of how not to drive a product strategy is the infamous Dotcom story of Webvan. The company raised $375M to build out highly automated warehouses, complex logistics software, and a fleet of vehicles for delivery - all before having any customers. Once their service was delivered, they had severely constrained their ability to adjust their product strategy to the evolving needs of the market. The result: bankruptcy. Limit your exposure through the placement of several smaller bets - instead of one or two large bets.
#1 - Tighten the Feedback Loop
The best product management process is completely irrelevant if you don’t have a tight feedback loop (Build, Measure, Learn). This requires agility in both the product management and product development process. The best customer feedback comes when the customer knows it is likely to have a direct impact on the product.