What Does a Product Person Do Actually?

“Product” is a tricky notion in a startup, or any company new to the discipline. Who does it? What skills does it require? How do you know if you’re doing it right? It’s not like Marketing or Tech, which are (comparatively) well-understood, degree-backed disciplines with a large pool of talent at every rung of the ladder. Yet Product is just as critical to a startup, if not more so in the earliest stages, since if you don’t have a good Product, in most cases, none of the other stuff matters. We can all think of examples where a great idea just couldn’t get a very compelling Product developed, and it sort of whimpered out of business.  

Everyone has an intuition of what “Product” means, even if most people have never worked in an organisation where there was a formal “Product” function. Its something to do with the “vision” of the business, and something to do with the actual software “design” that users interact with.

Product operates both at a Strategic (What do we do/build?) and Tactical (How do we build/run it?) level, with the former being more important in the early stages of a company’s life, and at that stage largely overlapping with “business strategy”. For this reason, typically the founder(s) are responsible for Product for at least the first few years, though I have been seeing our startups hire Product specialists earlier and earlier.

 

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Whether it’s you the founder, a new product manager, or a whole team, here are some of the things you should expect your Product function to do a great job of delivering;

Prioritisation

How does it feel when it’s going well? Everyone in the company knows what you are working on, in what order. The things you work on align well with your business strategy. Leaders in the business feel heard and get their priorities addressed.

How do you get it? You’ve got a long-term roadmap laid out in general (not feature-level) terms. You’ve got a short-term (90 day) development roadmap locked in with only the highest priority metrics in focus. There’s a high-bar for any changes to this, meaning crazy new ideas have to be really amazing to get into the development queue, and most ideas simply get chucked into the “opportunity cloud” to be revisited later.

User Insight

How does it feel when it’s going well? You engage your users in discussion regularly and have a continued sense of their feedback, what they want, what they like/dislike. You also know what they are doing on your product and how that changes week on week. Both of these feed religiously into your planning process. Someone inside your business is really championing the needs of the User above all else.

How do you get it? You engage several different qualitative types of User Research, regularly, and summaries of these are distributed across the organisation. Perhaps a Customer Council? You have a culture of Validation before burning developer time on features. Analytics features prominently in your weekly meetings.

Clarity

How does it feel when it’s going well? Product acts as a bridge between most internal teams, giving them all a sense of what’s going on and how they can impact it.  Developers are happy with how clear their requirements are written. Everyone in delivery knows *why* they are working on each thing. Product performance is part of day-to-day vocabulary for everyone.

How do you get it? Product regularly updates the company on performance of recently launched features and progress toward goals. There is a dashboard, maybe even a Product Council? Product runs a well understood process for getting something from idea to delivery. Developers accept only clearly defined work.

 

So, if you feel like Prioritisation, Insight, and Clarity are solid in your startup, then you’re on the right track and you should congratulate whoever is performing the Product function. If it feels like you could use an upgrade in some or all of them, I’d be happy to recommend some of the wonderful resources out there, or talk with you about how to get you what you need (@twescoatt).  More of my Seedcamp writing is here http://seedcamp.com/eir-product-articles/

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