Product Management 101

What I’ve learned about designing and building products at early stage technology startups

Shawn Zvinis
May 24, 2014 · 4 min read

Follow @shawnzvinis for more on product and startups.

I spoke about product earlier this week at Seedcamp with new startups joining the European accelerator programme. As a founder of a Seedcamp company and now working on product inside a larger startup organisation, I have learned a lot about the mystical “product management” role.

Product is the sum of all your team’s efforts. If you’re working on product, you need to know what’s going on in every corner of your company. You need to have your hands in a lot of metaphoric cookie jars at the same time.

You need to proactively interact with each and every part of your company on a daily basis, so you can make data-driven product decisions. If the rubbish needs to be thrown out, throw it out; you may learn something.

Dreaming is done at night. Keep a simple, high-level, collaborative (by the entire company) product roadmap, rather than verbose specifications for something that may or may not ever be built.

Trello is a fantastic tool to move product features along in the design and development process. Try using the following lists on a board to get started: “Idea”, “In Discussion”, “Being Defined” and “In Progress”.

You can sketch, prototype and collaborate on ideas early on, but be careful defining user stories right away, as they may end up completely stale before they actually get pulled into a sprint — this wastes everyone’s time.

If you are working in sprints, user stories should not be written more than one sprint ahead of the current sprint. If product can not be defined in this amount of time, try breaking things down into smaller chunks.

Starting with a convention or an existing approach and trying to improve it will only ever deliver an incremental user experience. Start with the best user experience you can imagine, even if you think it can not be done.

If you start with what you think is impossible and try to make it possible, you will end up with an experience far greater than what you could come up with by trying to make something just incrementally better.

You will build features no one will use — we all have. To get to the features you should be building faster, build small experiments to test the water and only if they pass, dedicate resources to building those features properly.

For example: if you are about to build a bunch of sharing functionality, simply add a share button to the page first and track if anyone clicks. If they don’t you can focus on something that actually makes a difference.

The best products are easy to use and intuitive. Rather than thinking about adding features to your product, try and improve the existing product. You should be reactive to your product and your users.

For example: focusing on improving your registration process or on-boarding could make a much larger impact on the success of your product, especially in the early days of your startup.

We always think we know what we are doing, but until we put our product in someone else’s hands, we have no idea. Start in-person or hallway usability testing early on and do it regularly to make the right product decisions.

You don’t need a polished product to do usability testing. You can start with a pencil and a peice of paper. You can then move on to prototyping tools and building-in usability testing in to your product itself.

A product is never finished; it’s an iterative process. “Talk to your customers and iterate your product” is something I am always thinking about. There is always something you can do better or simplify. The best products have been designed by and with their end-users.

If you want to download or flip through the actual deck, it’s at:

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Shawn Zvinis

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