It is often said that a product manager is “CEO of the product.” But in smaller teams, the reverse is likely to be true. It is the CEO, or CTO, who handles guiding the product.
Understanding product management principles can help startup founders achieve success and save time. With that in mind, I organized a panel of product managers and entrepreneurs at Rise NY to share advice.
Here are a few of the tips gleaned from the panel, as well as from my own experience as a CTO and product manager.
1. Focus on the Idea First 💡
I asked Cody Musser, Product Lead of FounderTherapy.co, for his advice to aspiring entrepreneurs. “Don’t have a bad idea” was his response. It reads like a joke, but many entrepreneurs don’t spend enough time validating their idea.
One of the panelists, Andrew Cohen, CEO of Brainscape, remarked:
“Try to fail as hard as you can, as soon as you can, before writing a line of code. Try to disprove that this thing could ever work, as if you are hired to be the invalidator. And if you can’t, then start the company.”
In my experience as an engineer, my first instinct after having a new idea is to code up a prototype. But this isn’t necessary. With prototyping tools such as Balsamiq, Sketch, and Invision, you can validate an idea with just wireframes. And even easier than that is card sort.
My business partner John and I realized this a month ago. We were internally debating different feature sets and roadmaps for our product, Commandiv. We brought in a senior product manager, Nick, to help us make some critical decisions.
Nick’s advice surprised us. He asked us to write each possible feature on an index card, and display them to our users. We then instructed our users to select their top five picks. By aggregating the data across dozens of users, we gained insight into what our users valued.
And I didn’t have to write a single line of code.
2. Fall in love with the problem, not the solution 🤔
When working as a founding team or with a team of employees, you need buy-in from everyone. As Andrew put it, you need your team to “drink the Kool-aid.” If the team has ownership towards the long-term vision, then they will instinctively make the right medium- and short-term decisions.
Here’s another great quote from the panel:
“The most important thing is to fall in love with the problem and not the solution. The vision is, “We’re going to solve this problem.” [It’s] not, “We’re going to build this set of features to solve the problem.””
This is an important point to remember when it comes to hiring and planning for the future. If two people don’t agree on the problem, then they will never agree on a common solution. If both share the same understanding of the problem, then there will be more room for collaboration.
3. Get the most out of metrics 📈
Analytics are an entrepreneur’s best friend. What could be better than quantitative data for directing product development? Yet, as Cody Musser pointed out, founders can be led astray by unnecessary metrics. “I have seen the charm of metrics and analytics woo a lot of people into caring about things that don’t matter.”
Which metrics matter? In the early stages, startups should capture the essentials — user growth, revenue growth, churn and retention. This can later expand into a more granular view of acquisition and conversion funnels.
One way to leverage analytics effectively is to write down which metrics would be the most valuable to your company. Starting from a pen and pad is easier than from the dashboard of an analytics product. These can be overwhelming with the variety of data available.
Laney Caldwell, product manager at X.ai, says she faced the unique problem of having a product without traditional web metrics. Because X.ai is an intelligent agent, it doesn’t have an interface outside of a user’s emails. They started with the question, “What makes one conversation with Amy Ingram (short for A.I.) better than another?” From there, they were able to identity several metrics to focus on, such as the time it takes to schedule a meeting through Amy. “You have to make sure that the metrics you are looking at are the right [ones],” she says.
Startups might be too early-stage to have a dedicated product manager. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t leverage the tools of product management to improve iterations. The efforts of coding and designing are productive if the underlying assumptions behind them are validated. If not, founders risk landing where they started, instead of moving forwards.