For years I’ve straddled the two worlds of startups and more mature companies. It’s given me a unique perspective on validating, launching and managing a variety of products. Along the way, I have learned some valuable lessons for getting products right (or rather, how to reduce the risk of getting them wrong).
I believe that product teams at larger companies can be innovative and entrepreneurial. And there are several skills from the startup world that can help them move even faster and launch products that are more successful.
Of course, larger companies are very different than startups, and not every lesson from the startup world can be applied to them. A larger company is focused on executing a well-understood business model while a startup is still figuring out the product/market fit. Mature companies also have layers of decision-making, multiple stakeholders, product portfolios to consider, and several other factors that require product managers to behave differently than they would at a startup.
That said, here are a few startup philosophies that I believe product managers in organizations of any size can take advantage of, especially if they are launching new products:
Seek to understand the problem first.
During new product development, successful startups focus first on understanding the problem before executing the solution. Of course, this sounds reasonable, but I’ve seen product teams at mature companies focus first on the features or a pre-determined solution only to later discover that few customers care about solving that particular problem.
Use open-ended interview questions to understand what’s important to customers. Dive deep during the interview to truly understand why solving the problem is important. This requires extra effort, and can’t be outsourced to the marketing team or learned through surveys. Once you have nailed the problem, you can move on to validating the product.
Validate the opportunity before executing.
Smart startups have product skills where they understand that all their product and market beliefs are merely a hypothesis – there is no way they know all the answers. So they use qualitative methods like interviews with customers and experts to validate their assumptions about the market opportunities and product before building the product. They conduct guerrilla market research because they can’t afford to outsource it. They craft small experiments to get answers to key questions.
At larger companies, it’s likely you’ll execute on the plan, but possible that the feature or product may not be the right one for the customer. Product teams can use startup-oriented processes like Customer Development to discover products and features that will solve problems, reduce risk, and put more valuable initiatives on the product roadmap. This step is essential, especially in larger companies where the financial investment and risk can be substantial.
Spend some time at the beginning of the product planning stage to document your assumptions and hypotheses about the customer segment, customer problems, value proposition, high-level product features, and pricing. Then set out to gather evidence by testing these hypotheses one by one.
Release fewer features, not more.
Because startups are cash and resource-constrained, they are often forced to release earlier with fewer features than they are comfortable with. They release at 50% rather than at 100%. In contrast, larger companies have the luxury of significant resources to launch complete products in large markets. It’s often possible they could release sooner with fewer features – yet still, delight customers the same.
I’m not speaking exclusively of agile development versus waterfall – this is more about the sense of urgency as well as the ability to release, learn, and iterate. Some key skills from startups: Get feedback early by making heavy use of prototypes and wireframes. Interact directly with customers rather than outsourcing. Ruthlessly prioritize and defer features to future releases if possible. Use methods such as storymapping to prioritize the big picture.
Get out from behind the desk.
Or as Steve Blank says, “there are no facts inside your building.” The product teams at successful startups have the skills to know that the answer isn’t in their head or around the conference table, so they gain an intimate knowledge of their customers before building products. Most product managers at mature companies understand the value of customer interviews, but how many customers have you spoken with in the last two weeks?
I understand that a product manager’s day is filled with meetings and putting out fires. But having meaningful conversations with customers is the best way to achieve empathy; it also provides fantastic inspiration for solving problems in an innovative way. Ideally, product managers should be spending several hours a month visiting or speaking with customers.
Much has been written about why companies are not simply bigger versions of startups. But product teams in these companies can still have the mindset of a startup and deliver innovative products. I’ll build on some of these concepts in future articles.