This article is one of the 8-part series of evergreen topics that all startup founders face. It is based on what the mentors actually teach startups during the StepFWD pre-accelerator. 

Our thanks go to Monica Obogeanu, Startup Programs Manager at Orange, and, Alexandra Anghel, Director of AI Engineering at Algolia, for helping founders efficiently develop their product.

Product development primer

Product development, in general, is closely linked to customer development, because you can’t develop something unless you validate your assumptions with customers. 

In this process, one valuable resource that startups should make the most of is to listen to the people that are criticizing their product. If they find a way to get back to you and give you negative feedback, then those are the ones that have a pain that they want to solve. 

They’re trying to use your product for something. So the frustration that they get that makes them give you negative feedback proves to you that they really need your product and are invested to see it succeed. So this gives you valuable hints on what you should improve or what you shouldn’t build.

Now, bear in mind that the product is a means to an end, it’s not a goal in itself. As Marty Cagan,  the Founder of Silicon Valley Product Group puts it: 

“Your job is to deliver a product that is valuable, usable & feasible.”

Marty Cagan

So in order for the startup to survive, it needs to build a product that actually solves a problem that is significant enough to keep the business running (so avoid the situation where the problem is too small or the market is not big enough).

The process for managing the development roadmap of your product relies heavily on teamwork and communication (both internal and with external stakeholders). There are a lot of methodologies out there to help you communicate with your team and better organize your product development work, and 2 popular ones are story mapping and impact mapping.

But first, let’s see what the role of a product manager should be in a startup.

The role of a product manager

Product management sits at the intersection of customer, technology, and business. The product manager should be able to wear multiple hats (a jack of all trades if you’d like) and to always communicate with the technical & business teams but also with its customers.

A product manager should be thinking about the product strategy, have meetings with customers to validate what you are putting on the product roadmap, and then prioritizing the features on that roadmap depending on the feedback that you got from the customers.

It’s important for them to always make sure that the product that is being built is serving the customer, and is also taking into consideration the limitations and opportunities that are brought by technology advancements or any changes that are happening on the market that you’re addressing. 

The ideal product manager should be:

  • a very good communicator both with people inside and outside the company that will share different points of view about what you’re creating
  • making sure that your product makes sense money-wise when it comes to having a stable company and growing your company  
  • someone who’s not afraid to be proven wrong in order to find insights into what is not wanted, not working, or shouldn’t be changed about the product and communicate it to the team 
  • the person that everyone knows is making the decisions about the product roadmap – prioritizing features, testing them, and pushing them live, so your customers can use them as well

At least at the beginning of the startup, you might not have just a fully dedicated person that is called the product manager, but someone in the team will wear this hat quite often. Therefore, this skill is somewhat spread across all members, but in order to have clarity, this role should be assumed by 1 or 2 people in the company (most of the time the role is filled either by the founders and / or a technical person). 

Key Takeaway!

The product manager should be an information hub, but also a decision-maker.

Product development roadmap

When we’re wearing so many hats in a startup it is difficult to find the time to stop and think and build a strategy, so if you don’t set this time aside in the calendar, it tends to be pushed back. There is always urgent stuff to do, urgent things to fix, or the need to build new features, so it’s crucial to set time aside for these discussions.

Have a process that includes regular meetings to talk about the product roadmap and the feedback from customers that you’re seeing over and over again. 

Don’t build a product roadmap that is too big. Just go from small iteration to small iteration while you’re validating your assumptions. Get some early feedback by building an MVP, show it to your (potential) customers and build a product roadmap upon your findings.

So before you go in and spend a few months creating a product, even a very simple one, you should validate that what you’re building makes sense to customers. In the absence of customers, you can use your own judgment, but as soon as you have feedback, just use it because it’s much better than going with assumptions. 

Key Takeaway!

Product development involves a lot of hard work and iteration.

Impact mapping

Impact mapping allows you to start from the goals that you define for your business and for your product so you can move on through the customer’s perspective, what tasks they need to achieve, and to the features that you need to build inside your product to fulfill your customer’s needs. As Gojko Adzic, the creator of impact mapping puts it: 

Impact mapping is a strategic planning technique that prevents organisations from getting lost while building products and delivering projects, by clearly communicating assumptions, helping teams align their activities with overall business objectives, and make better roadmap decisions.

So it’s important to start from a business goal that you have as clearly as possible defined for yourself. An impact map is a mind map developed collaboratively in a product workshop, following four important pillars:

  1. Goals – Why? 
  2. Actors – Who? 
  3. Impact – How?
  4. Deliverables – What? 

Key Takeaway!

Impact mapping talks a lot about the impact that needs to be measurable. 

Story mapping

User story mapping is a visual exercise that helps product managers and their teams define the work that will create the most useful user experience. No matter if they are created on a physical or virtual medium, you should generally follow the following steps

  • Frame the problem
  • Understand the product’s users
  • Map user activities
  • Map user stories under activities
  • Flow and prioritize
  • Identify gaps, dependencies, technical requirements, and alternatives
  • Plan sprints and releases

Jeff Patton, who is credited with developing a lot of knowledge around the topic, talks about how you can extract ideas from your or your users’ heads. 

This can be accomplished by asking questions, taking notes, and ordering what you find inside a story map, that shows the experience your users would like to have while trying to accomplish a task. Then it’s just a matter of creating the product roadmap in order for your product to match this experience. 

Key Takeaway!

Do it iteratively – build the most important features, validate and then move on.

If you need advice on how to approach your product development strategy, we’ve invited Monica & Alexandra for 1-on-1 feedback sessions on June 9 to which you can apply here.

This article is part of the StepFWD your startup series. Do you need resources for your startup? Check them out: