Very recently I was asked about the role of product in the context of an early startup and Agtech– this is a really great question and so I thought I would write a little bit about it, because an early product-driven approach helps to go from an idea, into validating that idea and eventually scaling it into a valuable business. So, in this note, I think it’s fair to answer the question: what do product managers do?
Setting up the stage
Product managers are responsible for understanding all aspect of a company’s product from initial discovery to framing possible solutions, product teams will shape the product until it achieves product-market fit. But … what is “a product”? A product (or set of products) is a solution to a problem (or sets of problems) that the company’s customers are currently facing. Product Managers are therefore responsible for understanding all aspects of this product (or set of products, like in the case of a platform solution, for example). They’ll accomplish this by exploring “the problem(s)” that the company has been funded for fixing, testing the founder’s proposed solution against carefully crafted hypotheses and iterating the product through small, measured changes. In fully understanding the problem landscape, product managers will be able to shepherd the product from an initial idea (or sets of ideas) in the business plan to a fully fleshed solution to the customer’s problem.
But wait. Isn’t the founder the product manager?
Ben Horowitz famously said that the product manager is the “CEO of the product” – without context, maybe sometimes there is confusion about the role of product teams from technically-minded CTO- and business-oriented CEO-founders.
Actually, Product exactly sits right in between the Business and its Technology.
And there are founders who have a natural inclination towards product and usually during beta phase and possibly stealth mode they play a key role in shaping the product. However, as their company grows, they’ll have a growing list of competing interests like strategic fit and fundraising leaving the ground product management to a dedicated product team.
Moreover, while the founders shape the vision of the company and the strategy on how to fulfill it, the product team should support the founders by validating their vision and strategy against the market and to build on the business goal to create valuable products for the customers. So, it makes sense to separate the roles early on so that founders can focus on strategy and fundraising while product focuses on addressing the changing needs of customers.
So how does this look like in the context of an early stage startup?
Product’s primary responsibility is to have a full understanding of the problem landscape to provide the best solution for customers. In practice this means that product managers are responsible for discovery, managing the build of the product and then, iterating the product based on customer feedback.
The Discovery Phase
Founders always have a set of business goals in mind and as we consider building products, the product team will be responsible for digesting these business goals and embark on the discovery process, which essentially boils down to speaking and surveying potential customers in order to best answer the following product market-fit questions:
In practice and when this is possible, this means talking and harvesting customer experiences and key challenges, where possible compare against market research data (and any other data-driven source) and using these insights into accurate customer personas (the “who”) that are centered on the results of good user research (the “why”), and understanding of what needs to be built vs. the nice to have (the “what”) resulting in a prioritized list of product goals (the “how”).
In early stage startups this phase could take from 4-6 weeks to a few months depending on the market and potential customer pool – in B2B cases, the pool of potential actors are all over a supply-demand value chain for example, that discovery might become more cumbersome to get crisp clear on business goals alignment, customer interviews, stakeholder interviews, creating personas and the synthesis of all user research to get to, ideally, a design sprint (made super popular by Jake Knapp at GV a decade ago) during which the product team ingests user research, iterates through ideas, creates a prototype product and tests it with key market actors to validate interest. Usually founders, product, dev and design run the sprint.
Building the product(s)
Once discovery is complete and we have decided what to build, it’s the responsibility of the product team to manage the building process. For digital software products, with an outline of the solution to the customers problem, product managers will breakdown the large tasks (usually referenced in an Epic) into more manageable tasks (called user stories) that capture a piece of value for the user and form the basis of discussion between designers and developers in the team on how to build this feature in the product. Organized in a prioritized backlog, product managers will work with the development team to build the product at the cadence of two- or three-week sprints (if the methodology is agile scrum) and release it to customers.
Measuring and iterating
As the company releases the product in small releases the product team will have a chance to gather quantitative data (in the form of product analytics if the product is digital and connected) and qualitative feedback (user interviews) after each release. This basically helps build a good picture of whether the product is addressing the company’s business goals and will help identify areas where the product isn’t solving customer problems clearly enough.
Measure and iterate is the third leg of the product manager’s stool: with each new release comes a good opportunity to gather more data and make small changes to the product (especially if this is a software/digital product) in order to potentially improve KPIs on the product (for example engagement, repeat usage or even conversion for software platforms) – this process of measuring and quantifying each customer interaction with the product will lead directly back to suggesting solutions all the way to new user stories and alternate prioritizations in the dev team’s backlog.
In conclusion: why do startups need early product thinking?
Bill Campbell, former CEO of Intuit, spoke of the importance of hiring a product-minded individuals when he suggested that his first big hire would be “somebody who can really understand the dynamics of what goes on in a marketplace, apply technology to that marketplace, see how the technology can work, and continue to advise brilliant scientists so they can adapt their products to make sure customers are happy.”
Fully understanding the problem leads to innovative solutions that founders and startups can take advantage of when building the business.
Product teams’ main benefit is that they’ll help reduce both human and financial wasted investment (of building the wrong product, which also results in wasted development time, etc). Rolling out a product that doesn’t have market fit and doesn’t resonate with customers is an expensive setback that most startups won’t recover from. A product team focusing on the discovery phase will dramatically reduce the risk on the company’s product being rejected by customers.
In addition, product teams have the responsibility to collect customer feedback and use the data to iterate on the product. Data analytics and metrics-driven development reduces time spent on reworking a product to fit the market. Starting with a well baked MVP (Minimum Viable Product) and then releasing bit by bit drastically reduces risk that a product won’t solve customers’ problems as well as reducing the amount of time to fix that
One of the key responsibilities of a product team is to create, and maintain, internal alignment. Usually, there is a “Goals Alignment Workshop” with the Founders and all major stakeholders ahead of the discovery phase (not always necessary by the way) with the goal of extracting all the key business goals (and any product goals) that will influence the development of the product.
One of the side effects of having a product team working hard on gathering feedback from customers is to foster a data-drive culture of experimentation: as the customer base grows, it becomes more and more difficult to make big changes and as a result a culture of experimentation becomes key. And in the end, all of this leads to better customer intelligence – to provide more value to customers. By making small changes and measuring the impact, both the customer needs and challenges can be validated with more granularity and precision – as well as the product team’s assumptions to address these needs and challenges!
And lastly, product teams always emphasize on lean product building which prioritizes only what is necessary and pushes the “nice to haves” to future dates in order to keep the build process on budget while at the same time providing customers with the features they need and value. This process starts in discovery but really becomes apparent when working with the development team to build a backlog of properly formed User Stories to work on.
Let me know what you think here.
My name's phil mora and I blog about the things I love fitness, hacking work, tech and anything holistic.
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