In working at Seedcamp and helping over 100 startups understand product thinking, Taylor Wescoatt has learned some valuable lessons he’d like to share, together with some real-world examples to drive the point home!
Being the first product manager at a startup typically means being the 10th or 15th employee, and recognizing that – although product management has both tactical and strategic components – you’ll initially be more focused on tactics.
Early on, before product-market-fit, business strategy and product strategy are one-and-the-same & thus product vision needs to be owned by the founder. It takes a while to reach that fit to the point that you can optimize business and product strategy independently! However, no matter what level you’re operating at, product management has to deliver 3 things into an organisation:
Strategically, this is about focusing vision and limited resources. On the tactical side, it’s about drilling down into the endless lists of things that you could be working on, and making sure you’re tackling the right thing to move forward.
Strategic clarity is about extracting the vision from the founder, and then communicating it widely to align everyone in the org. Tactically, clarity is about making sure that your teams have all the information they need to operate effectively as far down as the user story level.
This can be a tricky one to tackle strategically, as it effectively means understanding what the key user pain is. The catch is that it probably isn’t the pain the founder originally tried to solve, so you need to understand it better to be able to pivot effectively in the future. At a tactical level, this is about understanding what your users are actually doing with your product, whether that’s via analytics, ethnography, or your data collection method of choice.
How do we do These Things?
Handily, Taylor shares three tools that are extremely effective at help product managers hit the ground running – particularly when they join a startup:
This is grid and set of questions which are highly effective at getting the vision out of the founder’s head and into a format that the rest of the team can meaningfully consume and understand. It’s also fantastic at getting your founders to be customer-centric!
Most startups can’t afford full-time user researchers, so the customer council is an early way to gain continued access to insight from passionate users, as a way to help you guide your initial product decisions.
Dual Track Agile
Agile is a powerful way to develop working software, but its focus on shipping small units of value as quickly as possible can make designers – who typically focus on polished & smooth user experiences – very uncomfortable! Taylor has found that dual-track agile is an incredibly effective way of allowing your engineers to rapidly build value, while at the same time allowing your designers and researchers to be crafting clean customer experiences.
Although Taylor’s insights are particularly pertinent to product managers who are first-in-the-door at startups, the key principles are applicable no matter how mature your organisation is, so product managers from all walks of life should definitely chat out his ProductTank talk!