I led a fun session on this topic this past Friday at the Charleston Digital Corridor and had some really positive feedback. Lots of stimulating discussion and I think we all walked away with some great learnings, myself included. This is my take on the top 10 things holding back your product growth (+3 bonus items). There’s admittedly a lot of room for debate here. It’s so tough to assign a ranking to each one of these as they’re all super important. Then again, there’s no drama in an unordered list! Some of these are geared towards the small, emerging software company but most hold true no matter your size. I’d love to hear any thoughts you might have or about ones you think I missed. Enjoy!
(Runner Up) Getting Dragged Around By the Competition
Focusing too much on your competition distracts you from your own strategy, results in lots of starts and stops and becomes fatiguing for the rest of the team. This is especially debilitating for a small company and frankly, it’s lazy product management. Instead of letting competitive activity drive your product strategy, stay generally aware of your competition but think long and hard about deviating from your plan simply because your competitor launched something cool. Resist the temptation to play ‘check the box’. Stay focused, trust in your plan and execute.
(Runner Up) Lights, Camera, No Action
Have you ever worked long and hard on a great new innovation that everyone is confident in, only to bring it to market with a loud ‘thud’? The lack of a robust, repeatable and effective go-to-market program risks putting your new innovations in a tough position to succeed. First impressions can be ruined. Users aren’t fully informed on the new value or how to leverage it. Thus, you end up with lots of unrealized customer value. You’re also likely not set up to measure success in a confident way. If any of this resonates with you, I’d recommend formalizing your go-to-market program using techniques like pre-release beta programs to drive early success metrics and client testimonials to be used in marketing material. Ensure that your value proposition is super tight, speaking directly to user pain points, and that users are properly educated on how to leverage the new value. And always make sure you’re set up to measure success within days of release.
(Runner Up) The Product Management Silo
No doubt that talking directly to clients and end users is the best way to understand their world and biggest pain points, But, if you’re not also supplementing these (costly and time consuming) discussions with (cheap yet insightful) perspectives from internal client facing teams, then you’re wasting a valuable resource. Folks on the sales, account management and support teams are often a great proxy for what the user will want or think, and usually very willing to share their thoughts…yet often ignored. Tap into this resource by setting up periodic check-ins with these groups to discuss recent complaints, innovation ideas and early works in process. Learn how to dig under the surface and extract the real user needs and not just take straight feature requests at face value. On the sales side, set up a structured way to collect and analyze win / loss information to get valuable insight into why you’re winning and losing deals.
#10 – The Swiss Army Knife Strategy
Avoid feature glut and broadening your feature set too quickly, trying to be everything to everyone. The Swiss Army Knife has lots of tools but how great are the tools themselves? How great are the scissors…how about the nail clippers…and what about the pliers? Not very. Yes, there’s a market for the Swiss Army Knife, but you get my point! More features dilute your value proposition. New features always carry a lot of validation, design, development and long term support overhead. Before you know it, your scope overhead swallows the team and innovation comes to a halt. Instead of quickly moving to greener pastures, try first fertilizing your current pasture. You’ve probably got a ton of room for improvement and your customer would rather you be awesome at a few things than mediocre at many. Rule of thumb: dedicate 80% of your bandwidth to improving existing scope and 20% on new feature efforts.
#9 – Teams Bigger Than “2 Pizzas”
As Jeff Bezos is quoted as saying, if it takes more than 2 pizzas to feed a product team then it’s gotten too big. You need lean, cross functional product teams (PM, developers, QA, designer) no bigger than around 7 to stay nimble, cohesive and fully utilized. At a smaller size, it’s also easier for the teams to have important inner conflict that’s essential for growth. Once you start getting bigger than around 7 you start to have folks who are under utilized, not fully engaged and less agile. Target smaller, cross functional product teams that are dedicated to a focused area of the product with specific KPIs to impact. This way, the team can continue to grow their expertise in a certain area and become experts over time.
#8 – Not Enough Domain Experts
Typically, the small, initial nucleus of a start up software company carries all of the initial market domain expertise (i.e., they’re the customer experts). As the company starts to grow, this domain expertise needs to be backfilled as the co-founders and executives have broadening responsibilities. The lack of a deep understanding of your market’s most burning pain points is crippling to a savvy product strategy and future innovation. This is also a slow area to develop as you can only ramp up experience so quickly. Thus, make sure you’re always looking at domain expertise as a key component to hiring on the product side, especially product managers. This isn’t always possible but I’d recommend weighting this quality very high. If you can’t hire people with previous domain experience, I’d recommend following the advice in #9 above and make sure you’re allowing your product teams to focus and build up expertise in a certain area as quickly as possible.
#7 – Ad Hoc Opportunity Assessments
Who’s tired of the mind numbing and chaotic debates over product priorities that are typically fueled by competitive activity, favoritism, personal opinions and knee jerk reactions to one off conferences, client conversations, and sales losses? Yes, I think I see lots of hands raised out there! When there’s no framework behind product priority calls you tend to overlook a lot of great opportunities and it becomes increasingly difficult to support priority decisions to the rest of the company. There are lots of frameworks that can be used here, but the most important thing is that you have something. As food for thought, here’s one option that I’ve used in the past with good success.
#6 – No Clear Scoreboard
Do you have clarity on whether you’re moving the business needle in the right direction on a day to day, week to week basis? Lots of innovations don’t have a direct sales / revenue impact, and even if they do these indicators are lagging. Without good insights on leading success measures (indicators that are drivers to ultimate business metrics like sales and revenue numbers), you won’t know if you’re winning or losing until it’s too late. Thus, intelligent adjustments can’t be made along the way in an incremental fashion. Address this by assigning a few important, leading KPIs that each product team is charged with impacting and set up public dashboards to give timely insight into progress. Take new measurements as frequently as possible. This not only adds clarity and defines success for each team but it raises awareness across the company on progress towards business goals.
#5 – The Headless Product Org
For all software companies, it’s not a matter of ‘if’ but a matter of ‘when’ it makes sense to bring in someone to drive the product management discipline. As the company grows and this role remains unfilled, on a strategic level there’s nobody to own the ongoing success and growth of the product, and deep understanding of the market. Tactically, nobody owns the discipline of shepherding new innovations from concept to market delivery. This expertise is unique and not common to most founders, developers or designers. So, hire a product leader to own this critical discipline or hire a consultancy like SurgePath to help with this transition!
#4 – Operation “Innovation Air Drop”
Do you suffer from top down innovation where specific features are being dictated by a few top level leaders? It’s easy to understand where this habit got its start. At one point, the company was just a handful of folks and this is just the way innovation was done. But as the company starts to grow, it’s no longer scalable to have all the innovation ideas being dictated from a few top level folks. If the company is growing, they’re likely adding talent and talent needs to be fully utilized in order to scale. Otherwise, you end up in a situation where most of the company is not involved in the innovation process, product team members are less engaged and innovation velocity suffers. To address this, start by hiring top notch talent. Then try defining the anatomy of a great innovation idea so that everyone can participate in contributing new ideas. Validate promising ideas quickly in the market and trust in your team to execute!
#3 – Polishing Apples
Are you spending too long trying to perfect new innovations before getting market feedback? This is what I refer to as “polishing apples”. The problem here is that engineering is your most expensive resource and the longer you spend developing in a certain direction without feedback, your risk of rework (and wasted money) continues to increase. Plus, most polishing doesn’t really impact customer value anyways. If you’re on this track right now, start to adopt an Agile development process and MVP (minimum viable product) mindset. With MVP you isolate the few most important things that have to be right to create the target value. In addition, make sure you have an inner circle of clients that are willing to partner with you on new innovations and provide feedback along the way. For SaaS companies, flexible anytime release capabilities along with the ability to turn new functionality on / off for specific clients and users will be a huge asset in accommodating rapid, ongoing market feedback.
#2 – The Noise Before Defeat
Are you mistaking busy-ness and cool new feature development for true strategic progress. If so, you may be in dire need of a strategic product plan. As a small emerging company it’s very easy to let the momentum of the market, cool emerging opportunities, competitive activity, etc. to essentially become the fuel that powers your strategy. The next thing you know, you’re drifting with the current. This can be deadly for any company, especially a small company. If this is you, get heads down on a strategic product plan ASAP that’s built on a top level vision and supported with driving components and measurable goals. Having this essential plan sets the table for virtually everything else, including product roadmaps, innovation, scalable execution and…team trust.
#1 – No North Star
Do you have a simple, clear, guiding light for the rest of the company to follow? Have you set a vision, a company identity, and communicated it until you’re blue in the face? If not, the time is now. This is my #1 and it sets the foundation for the majority of this list. Without this focus, you don’t have a solid basis for your strategy and you also haven’t equipped the rest of the company to drive ground breaking innovations and make effective day-to-day decisions. So, set your north star and etch it in everyone’s minds. Over communicate it. And, for bonus points, come up with a catchy analogy that everyone can grab on to. YouTube wanted to be “The Flickr for Video”, the movie Alien had a vision to be “Jaws on a spaceship”, Cisco’s internal catch phrase was “We network networks”. What’s your vision?
How’d I do? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Download The Full Presentation (PDF)