Startup Strategy: The Product

I have combined the fourth and fifth startup building blocks in this series (team and product) into one, mainly because either could come first. At a Startup Weekend, ideas are pitched – usually by the founder – on the first day. Before the evening is over, teams have formed to start researching, validating and executing on the idea, even before the product has been built.

More often, however, some kind of product already exists when team members are added. After all it’s hard to convince somebody to join you when there is little to show but your idea. Even if nothing is built, being able to show good-looking designs or mockups makes the vision for the product feel real and represents a reachable goal for the team. This is very important when hiring new team members.

When the team grows, it’s essential to understand that aligning ideas and having a convincing strategy are very different from building a product backed by the entire team. People may share the same ideas and strategies, but often would not translate them into the same product.

In comparison to the idea, which can usually be explained in a sentence, a product is much harder to explain, especially if the market isn’t quite ready for it. A product has various components such as design, functionality and usability. There is considerable complexity in bringing those parts together to build a product that matches the expectations behind the idea.

The importance of the team when building the product

So no matter whether the product or the team comes first, it’s the team’s alignment and fully getting behind the product which is important. If staff don’t love the product, customers never will.

If the product has already taken shape and it’s clear specific skills are needed to build it further, you can look for team members with prior experience in that skill set.

If the product isn’t clearly formed, looking for specific skills while adding new team members is often the wrong approach. In that case, it’s better to hire a bright and positive person with some startup experience, who has a broader general view.

Ask new team members to give lots of feedback on your product – they give fresh eyes on what’s been built and are more objective. Those new team members provide a reality check for those in charge of the product roadmap and with their feedback being considered, the product always becomes the result of a team effort. This leads to more love and passion for the product internally.

Product or service, or both?

There are significant differences between a product and a service. For instance, software-as-a-service (SaaS) has the word service in it, but I still consider the building process to be very product-like.

In the case of SaaS, you can sell more licenses or scale up by adding more servers. But if you’re developing a service such as a specific consulting method, that often requires time and human resources. Those are much harder to scale than if you’re just making more products or adding more servers. So if you’re working on a consulting program, take a step back and see if you can come up with a product that you can sell along with the services rendered. A good example is the consulting firm Results – for years they’ve been doing excellent consulting work, but the real breakthrough for them was their new Business Execution Software which is at the heart of their consulting work, but also marketable independent of the reach of their organization’s locally available consultants!

Needless to say that independent of whether you’re focusing on building a product or a service, the entire team should think of every sold product as a service rendered to the customer. So in the end: product = service, and, ideally, service = product.

A visionary idea needs a product with many iterations

Ideas should be visionary, but products need to be considered for market readiness. They will have many short and long term iterations. Following lean startup principles, the strategy of a minimum viable product (MVP) and having regular iterations that fit the validation process are an immense help when building products and services.

One of the best examples out there is @FAKEGRIMLOCK, who has not only applied these principles to products, but even to the creation of his own (fake) online personality. The video posted in this article is well worth a watch because of what he says about minimum viable personality – and it’s applicable to product development.

The product is the key to long-term, sustainable success

While it may be possible to build a team and raise funds based on a big idea, finding great customers and being able to retain them over the longer term without having an exceptional product that tells a story is simply impossible. In Grimlock’s words, ‘it’s the product, stupid’.

3 thoughts on “Startup Strategy: The Product

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