Early-stage startups often operate in a state of constant stress. Everything is a race against the end of your runway, and it always feels like taking the time to stop and simply think is a luxury you can’t afford.
However, every successful tech team knows that there are decisions, especially those revolving around product strategy, that can’t be rushed. That’s why having a product strategy framework early on to guide your team’s thinking can have so much impact.
How to talk about product strategy
First, some definitions (as they apply to early-stage startups).
Product management: In tech startups, the role of a product manager - or product owner - is to coordinate cross-functional teams to align product development with business objectives and customer needs. Product management is the sum of all the activities that make that possible, like analyzing market trends and competitor offers, conducting user interviews, setting roadmaps, and project-managing product teams made of engineers, designers, and sometimes marketers to get a product on the market and then iterate on it.
Product roadmap: A software product roadmap is a strategic plan that outlines what happens with a product over time. It’s a guiding document for the whole startup to align on the product's development journey and future goals, and usually maps feature or product releases and company milestones to a timeline, making it a crucial tool to help teams ship products seamlessly.
Product Marketing: Product marketers bridge the gap between product development and the market, by making it possible to launch new products and communicate around them for maximum business success. Product marketing includes activities such setting product positioning, launching new features, creating sales enablement materials, and gathering market intelligence. Closely related to product management, but different!
The case having a for product strategy even in early stage
Or, in other words, why you should even care about having a fancy product strategy when you don’t even have paying customers yet.
One of the best analogies I’ve heard for product management strategies in small teams has to do with navigation. If you know the location of your ultimate destination on a terrain map, but the map doesn’t really tell you how to get there, then you better get a compass so you can keep going in the right direction regardless of how windy your hike gets.
The compass being your product strategy. (Because product management is so encompassing, as a function. En-COMPASS-ing, get it? GET IT?)
It’s the same for early-stage startups: you know what problem you want to solve for customers, more or less, and who those target customers are - again, more or less - but you don’t know the details yet, and no one can give you the answers in advance. You have to keep moving with trial and error, and rely on your product vision to keep you going in the right direction.
For lean teams in particular, it’s really easy to start building software and get caught up in the tech, or get lost in the race to feature parity with a bunch of different competitors.
Which is why having a common vision for the product, or having someone in the team who ‘manages the product’ and owns the product strategy is so important. It keeps the team clear on what the core end goal is.
In short, having a solid product strategy framework in early-stage helps teams:
- Do the research and make informed decisions on the pain points you are solving. Getting this right helps big time with making smart choices on the go-to-market strategy.
- Keep everyone aligned by checking in regularly and implementing team collaboration processes. Developers, marketers, designers, and leadership all have to agree on exactly what you’re building, and why.
- Give marketing and leadership a vision to sell to both investors and future employees. It's like saying, "Hey, we're not just winging it; we've got a solid game plan."
Product strategy frameworks that every startup should know
A lot of the frameworks used in tech product management are originally found in business strategy, because they answer deeply strategic questions, like ‘is this market worth building a product for?’ or ‘how should I position myself against the competition?’.
In the last couple of decades or so, however, with the role of Product owner becoming more defined, and with tech companies placing more emphasis on product strategy and product management, we’ve seen a few frameworks emerge that are highly specific to lean product team needs.
Jobs to be Done Framework
The Jobs-to-be-Done framework gives product development teams a way to translate customer's needs and motivations into product features. It looks at the 'job' a product or service is hired to do for a customer and gets information straight from the end user, not just about what they think they need now, but what they don’t even know they might need in the future.
RASI is a responsibility assignment chart that clarifies roles and responsibilities in cross-functional or departmental projects and processes. RASI stands for Responsible, Accountable, Supportive, and Informed, helping teams identify who does what in a project.
For lean product teams, you usually only need to know who is Responsible for delivery, but taking the time to explicitly call out the various expectations at the start of a workstream makes it much harder for things to conveniently slip because they were no one’s job.
MoSCoW Prioritization in Product Management
MoSCoW is one of the many prioritization frameworks used by tech teams to prioritize tasks based on their importance and urgency. It stands for Must have, Should have, Could have, and Won’t have (for now).
RICE Scoring Model
Tech company Intercom developed the RICE scoring model to help its product teams prioritize projects or features based on four factors: Reach, Impact, Confidence, and Effort. It’s a bit less abstract than other prioritization models, and works best if you already have usage data to leverage.
DEEP Product Backlog
DEEP is a product backlog management technique that ensures that items in the backlog are Detailed appropriately, Estimated for effort, Emergent to adapt to changes, and Prioritized by importance.
If you’re a small engineering team with an overwhelmingly long list of random, half-baked thoughts in your product management tool or your issue tracker, then you know exactly why this is so helpful.
How tools and process impacts product strategy
We built Iteration X to help lean teams launch quality web-based products faster and iterate on them efficiently. Our own experience led us to pivot in our product strategy when we realized how much tools and processes can change your ability to ship better and faster.
This applies to every aspect of product management, but we are particularly focused on what happens every time a startup launches a new web product or a major feature, or even makes substantial changes to a website:
- Capturing issues in the product, either pre-launch during QA or post-launch, while iterating
- Communicating them within a cross functional team of people with different skill sets
- Tracking their progress and resolution so the team knows how to allocate resources
In smaller teams in particular, it’s extremely painful to find a good rhythm between developers, designers, QA engineers, and founders trying to wear multiple hats and pitch in where they can.
So how does process - enabled by the right tools - help with issue tracking in particular?
Having the team agree to a set of rules and compromises for every work stream is the first step. How to decide what to work on first, how much information to include in different types of tasks, and who has the responsibility of making sure something is done… all of that can be achieved by the product strategy frameworks we mentioned earlier.
But processes can’t be set in a vacuum; you need to give the product team a way to apply them easily. We decided to enable better issue tracking and management in small product teams by addressing those 3 steps above in the following way:
- Making it easier to articulate the visual aspects of an issue for designers or marketers by giving them an automated capture tool that takes screenshots and videos
- Formatting those issues in a way that works for the developers who will solve them, by making them automatically appear in a task-tracking dashboard with all the context automatically filled out - including technical browser-related data points that non-developers wouldn’t think to include
- Making all these automatically created tasks easy to handle for someone playing the role of Product owner, so they can be shelved under different projects, prioritized, assigned, filtered, labelled, and overall managed.
Having a robust product strategy framework can feel like an unnecessary step and a time suck, particularly for lean teams, but it’s truly a case of slowing down to go faster, and most importantly, further.
A clear product strategy keeps startups focused on the one true problem they are trying to solve, even through constant change. It’s vital for aligning cross-functional teams and managing resources effectively. And getting in the habit of thinking like a product team and learning to use the right tools and processes is necessary to enable that sort of focus.
Those are two sides of the same coin, and they ensure that startups can navigate the challenges of launching new products, making informed decisions, and maintaining a clear vision for growth and success in a competitive market.