Lessons from 500 Startups on Building a Product Business

BY ALEKSANDRA SMELIANSKA ON OCTOBER 26, 2017

ProductTank Lviv was the first ProductTank community in Ukraine. When we had our first meetup around a year ago, there were only 10 of us but we’re now 150 strong. So while the product community in Lviv is still small, we’re hungry for knowledge.

Recently we had the opportunity to invite Marvin Liao, a partner at 500 Startups, to speak to us. 500 Startups is a global venture capital seed fund with a network of startup programs, and Marvin helps to run the San Francisco-based accelerator program. He is a mentor at a number of startup accelerators in Europe and Asia, and invests in seed-stage startups.

Meeting people like Marvin is always a great win for a local community, it’s great for us to be able to learn from and chat with a person with such huge experience and passion for what he does. We were keen to learn more about 500Startups, to talk about the importance of sales and marketing for startups, and what, in his opinion, makes a product successful.

A Sales and Marketing Focus From the Start

There’s a lot of technical expertise in Ukraine, and very often startups focus entirely on building the product, without knowing how to market or sell it. Sales and marketing are key functions which should be integrated in the business from the very beginning, Marvin told us. He said we should start marketing from day one, even before the product is ready. This advice is very pertinent for Ukrainian companies, as so many of them fail to do this. No matter how great your product is, if you can’t push it to the market and sell it, you will fail.

Talk to Your Customers

Marvin says this is the number one piece of advice for all the founders he works with. You should spend a lot of time talking to your customers, especially in the early stages of a company or product. Even if the product is not “perfect” from a technical or design viewpoint, it is better to ship it early and start getting feedback from users. It’s surprising how often we forget this basic advice!

Tell a Story With Your Product

Storytelling is important! While Americans, according to Marvin, have excellent presentation skills, he says that Europeans are not as good at “telling the story” behind a product. He sees a huge variation around the world in the way founders pitch their ideas and present their companies. The good news is that this is a skill which can be learned and improved, which is why companies at 500Startups spend a lot of time working on storytelling.

Technical Talent is Important

Marvin talked about the challenges he thinks Ukraine faces regarding startups and innovation. In Ukraine, like many other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, there’s a lot of technical talent, and many great engineers. This is a huge advantage and also necessary for the development of a startup ecosystem, and this wealth of technical talent is the reason why there are so many outsourcing companies in Ukraine, but very few product companies.

Marvin also noted that there is not enough expertise in disciplines like product, sales, marketing, and business development. This is what we should be learning more about in Ukraine to be able to build more successful businesses.

The Value of Sharing Knowledge

It was a great evening of learning and networking, and we had many takeaways both from the interview and the Q&A session that followed. We were especially delighted that Martin Eriksson, the founder of ProductTank and co-founder of Mind the Product, joined us for the evening. Martin shared with us some news about how the global ProductTank community is expanding and encouraged us to keep sharing and learning from each other as a way to build that product community and knowledge in Lviv.

There are also ProductTank meetups in Kiev and Odessa which launched recently and are growing very fast, demonstrating the huge interest and need for this type of community in Ukraine. As more and more young people in Ukraine start companies and build products, being able to learn from more experienced product managers and product teams becomes very important. Product communities like ProductTank are therefore critical to building successful local startup ecosystems, as there is a lot of value in sharing knowledge and discussing common problems.

About ALEKSANDRA SMELIANSKA

I specialize in user research, product and marketing strategy, helping companies understand their customers better and create products that people love. Passionate about building communities and organizing events, from large tech conferences to small meetups. Organizer of ProductTank in Lviv.

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