We’ve noticed a disturbing trend lately. Some product managers have been suggesting that startups don’t need a product roadmap—and that a startup should actually avoid building one, because at best it’s a waste of time, and at worst a roadmap can “lock the company in” to a product strategy.
Pardon us, but this is crazy.
The Threats Your Startup Will Face Without a Product Roadmap
A startup is a lot like the pilot episode of a new television series. The group hasn’t yet found its footing; the individual team (or cast) members aren’t quite sure of themselves; and everyone is waiting and hoping for some form of external validation.
In other words, a startup is a fragile entity still in search of direction, and in its early days the young company will face many major challenges. To cite just a few examples…
- The team is so full of enthusiasm and optimism that they keep getting distracted by the next “shiny new object”—and they lose sight of the company’s original strategic mission.
- An early prospect offers to become a major customer if the company will customize its product for them—and the team ends up developing a product that serves one company extremely well but not the rest of its target market.
- The team grows quickly, with new people each bringing new ideas—and as a result the product’s strategy is continuously shifting.
The common theme among these risks, as you probably noticed, is that a startup can easily lose focus and get drawn down the wrong path: chasing an exciting new feature or market, upending its strategic plan to land a big customer, etc. That’s one of the many reasons we believe that startups should have a product roadmap.
The Two Key Functions of a Startup Product Roadmap
A startup product roadmap looks different from an enterprise product roadmaps because the roadmap serves different roles in the different stages of a company’s life.
But here we’re arguing only that your startup should have a roadmap at all—as opposed to… who knows? What does a product team without a roadmap even do? Wing it? Guess? Ask their development group to work on whatever they feel like building on a given day?
But to distill the main reasons we believe every startup needs a product roadmap, here are the two mission-critical functions that a roadmap serves a young company:
1. Strategic focus and direction
We agree with the notion that startups do not necessarily need detailed business plans—and certainly not the highly detailed, 50-page monsters that investors of the previous century demanded from young businesses seeking funding.
Startups need to be nimble, able to adjust quickly to today’s rapidly changing market demands and competitive landscape. In that sense, a 50-page plan detailing every step the startup will take over the next five years is going to be largely fiction.
But to operate without a product roadmap means the startup will have no centralized place to capture and communicate the strategic plan and goals for its product. That means its product team, and others across the organization, will have no reference point to check in with periodically, to make sure what they’re working on is serving the company’s larger strategy—because without a roadmap, how will anyone know what that larger strategy even is?
In other words, a startup should develop a product roadmap if for no other reason than as a tool to help remind the team why they’re doing what they’re doing, and to help keep them on track working on the most strategically advantageous things.
“Startups that try to operate without a product roadmap have no centralized place to capture and communicate strategy.”
2. Prioritization and planning
Cross-functional teams can easily get distracted and pulled in different directions as the team becomes enthusiastic about one exciting new idea after another. This is a particularly high risk in a startup, where the company hasn’t yet organized itself around a clear strategic plan. The last thing you want is for everyone in the company to have more enthusiasm than direction.
Which is why the other primary function of the product roadmap is so crucial in a startup: It serves as a prioritization guide.
One concern cited by opponents of the startup product roadmap is that putting your product team’s strategy on paper can lock you in to a plan that won’t necessarily serve the company’s interests in six months the way you think it will today when you write it down.
But that’s precisely the reason to develop a roadmap in the first place—ideally in a format that allows you to quickly and easily update and change the roadmap as often as necessary. Yes, a startup’s needs, priorities, budgets, and other realities will change frequently. But if your team doesn’t have at least the broad outlines of a strategic plan today, how can you expect to know the most strategically sound way to adjust those plans when new realities demand it six months from now?
What Should Your Startup Product Roadmap Look Like?
Trying to bring a product to market successfully without this all-important strategic guide would be needlessly tying one hand behind your back. And we say needlessly because developing a startup roadmap should be easy.
So here are a few thoughts about what your roadmap should include.
Your startup product roadmap doesn’t have to include every idea or feature.
In fact, you can leave most of your team’s ideas—even many of the really exciting ones—for another document, like your product backlog or just a product brainstorming file.
Your startup roadmap, by contrast, should contain only the shorter-term strategic plans and functionality you’ll need to arrive at a minimum viable product, or your highest ROI features.
Your startup product roadmap doesn’t have to be pretty or even digital.
Physicist and MIT professor Alan Guth famously developed one of the most important concepts in the history of cosmology—the theory of inflation in the early universe—by handwriting it on a single page in a $5 notebook.
Similarly, your startup’s product roadmap doesn’t need to be fancy. It doesn’t need to look gorgeous (although, hey, a beautiful roadmap can’t hurt). It doesn’t even need to be captured in digital form. You can draft the first iteration of your product’s big-picture strategy on a napkin.
As your company grows, you might want to move to a purpose-built roadmap tool, one that lets you draft a roadmap and update it easily, sync the roadmap’s main elements directly to your project management tool, and share different views of the roadmap based on the audience you’re presenting it to. But for now, while you’re in startup mode, maybe just do the napkin thing.