I recently talked to another early stage software company that is managing their product portfolio by committee. Oddly enough they too are using an agile development approach – I believe that the committee approach fits well into the notion of daily meetings, product backlogs on the whiteboard, etc. Regardless of the development methodology I wonder how sustainable this is. At what point does this method of managing products breaks down?
Early stage companies typically have a dozen employees or so. What I’ve seen so far is that the committee consists of a combination of the CEO, head of development, Chief Architect, and head of marketing. One or more members are usually the founders / visionaries. Now each have their own roles within the company and they devote a portion of their time (roughly 10%) on the product management activity. The committee primarily decides what goes into the product and when. All works well, but the challenge they face as the company grows is that the members of the committee become more consumed with their primary roles (as they should) and the product management activities fall by the wayside. The result is that a single person – usually the head of development or the chief architect – takes on the task of deciding what goes into the product. But as the development team grows, these product management decisions are made from an internal perspective and not from the outside in as they should be. I believe that as companies approach and move through the $1.5M to $3.0M annual revenue milestone and/or the 20-25 employee threshold, they will see the breakdown of the product management by committee methodology. Most notably, committee members find it a challenge to attend meetings and to focus on the details of what needs to go into the product.
Here are some of suggestions to help get through this phase … (1) hire a product manager with product management experience, (2) invest in building an infrastructure (processes, artifacts, etc.) that meets the needs of your development methodology, (3) document your core competency, market problems you solve and why you add value, and (4) setup regular status meetings with the stakeholders. The key is to setup your product management methodology to support the next stage of your companies growth.
Hi-tech start-ups are primarily driven by technology enthusiasts – someone or some group has an idea and away they go. Their focus is on the technology – building on their collective vision. Their tendency is to add to their vision as they encounter potential customers – building the product and expanding their target market as they go. Unlike companies beyond this stage, start-ups do not have the luxury of leaning on a customer base for information to drive the direction of the product. Unfortunately by using this ad-hoc way of managing their product, start-ups ingrain these habits into their everyday processes. As they grow up and suddenly have to juggle customers as well as expanding into markets, these habits become a serious limitation to being able to operate at their best.
But despite the lack of a customer base, start-ups need product management. Product management is about determining what’s important to build; who you are building the product for and when to roll out the capabilities. Start-ups have limited resources so in order to gain the biggest bang for their development dollars, they need to understand what to build first, then second, third, and so on.
Product management is a collection of many activities – from strategic to tactical and from business to technical – the breadth of which can be overwhelming. But there are 3 key activities that are critical to setting the right product management tone in the start-up company.
Differentiation – identify and articulate how you are different than any alternative your target market has. Maybe you have a direct competitor, maybe you don’t – the point is that your potential customers will compare you to alternatives (including the status quo). Your differentiation needs to be based on your core competency, but must be articulated from the perspective of your target market. How uniquely do you solve the markets problems better than any alternative?
Market Problems – identify and articulate the market problems that your product addresses. These need to be from the perspective of your potential customers – not from the features in your product. When you are in front of a prospect, they will resonate with the problems your product can solve – not with the features you have. Once you’ve identified and articulated the problems, prioritize them. This will focus your scarce development resources on building the most important features and capabilities first.
Value Chain Mapping – your product will touch a number of different people or entities as it is deployed and used. You need to identify the value every single person or groups of people or entity will receive from your product. In some cases it may simply be monetary – in other cases it may be usage oriented. If your product does not provide visible, measurable value to everyone in the chain, then someone (group or entity) will not be a supporter of your product – potentially blocking the sale.
And lastly – validate, validate, validate. As a start-up this is tough. Maybe you have a few people in your industry that you can call on – so long as they are respresentative of your target market. Maybe you have some past experience. Maybe you are lucky enough to have a small sample of customers – word of warning, a small sample can skew your findings, so be aware. The point is to get out to as many people that are in or a have a vested interested in your target market to get feedback. To paint the best picture for your audience have a prototype to show the key concepts and a presentation to describe the entire offering.