How to Get Product Thinking Right at Your Startup

I’ve had a rollercoaster ride with the startup I’ve been running for a while now. I’ve played several roles here. I started with building the image recognition algorithms with my co-founder in our early days and setting up our servers. Then I moved to different roles including product, sales and marketing throughout our journey. Of all the things I did, I found product management to be the hardest.

Product management is hard because it’s vague in the beginning. And in early stage startups, it’s very easy to get distracted and not focus on what matters the most. Since startups are about growth, you are under pressure from people around you to show fast growth. Some get it right but for others it’s not unusual to get early customers or users by over-spending on marketing and PR after raising huge early rounds before getting their product right. Those rounds and PR cannot overcome the fundamental problems with your product. And that’s why we see so many startups burning in just 2–3 years even after raising multiple rounds and building huge teams across engineering, product and sales.

So, how should you approach product management in early stage startups? When you haven’t reached product market fit, building the right product is the only thing that should matter. Still that’s what most founders fail to do and is one of the leading causes of high failure rate of tech startups. Some start focusing on business too early and some on tech so much that they think tech is their product which is hardly the case.

When the guy at the top - usually a founder - couldn’t figure out the product, it’s not expected to have your PMs fix it for you. A bad product development and management culture travels from top to bottom. You see so many companies which keep launching product after product without getting their core product right. On the other hand, there are also a good number of companies such as Airbnb, Uber or Apple, which take several iterations to get the core product experience right before they do anything new.

As a founder, the focus should be on building a product that people love. If they love your product, they will talk about it, recommend it to their friends and network, and might become your evangelists. Until you can build such a product to solve the problem you deeply care for, avoid the focus on growing for the sake of it. It might take longer to get that product ready in some circumstances, but the growth after that can be exponential and will make up for your time gone into getting it right.

Here are some of my observations from my experiments :

  1. Becoming a great product leader for a startup founder in a tech startup has much less to do with tech or even design expertise and much more to do with psychological attributes of the founder.
  2. One must be able to avoid all the distractions, say no to some customers who want you to do everything, get just a few customers who love your product.
  3. Align the whole team to deliver only on the original promise of the product . This can be done with a very small team consisting of a couple of engineers and designers.
  4. When in doubt, go back to your product. That’s where the problems are. It’s somewhat working for us. We spent more than a year slogging with our earlier product which got us some early adopters, revenue, even investors but not enough clarity.

I realized in recent months why product centric thinking is hard to implement, specially for the first time founders. My understanding comes from talking to a huge number of early stage founders, investors and startup employees since starting my own company. When funding comes easy in a booming market, entrepreneurs often tend to overlook the problems with their own product and get swayed away by some early revenue or users and start focusing on growth way too early. It becomes harder and harder to fix the fundamental problems with your product after you have grown. And so fixing it early on is definitely the right strategy for startup founders looking to build a scalable product and business.

P.S. I’m not an expert on product management or building companies. I’ve been doing lots of experiments and learning from them to be able to build a good tech startup. Just sharing some of my learnings here.