Busting Myths about Startup Success in Product

Your startup’s product is your brainchild and parents know best, right? Maybe not! Your instincts about how to develop your nascent product could be leading you down the well-trodden path of startup failure. Early-stage companies can learn from the startup boneyard and avoid making the kind of crippling product mistakes that have brought down many promising ventures.

So take a deep breath and read on. If you identify with any of these myths, you need to pivot your product development approach:

Myth: Your big vision should guide your MVP definition and development.

Reality: Over-indexing on advancing your vision can result in over-investing in your MVP and not delivering a compelling value proposition to early customers. Don’t try to boil the ocean.

Many startups get so excited about the vision that they sell to their investors that they try to advance on multiple value propositions to realize their vision as fast as possible. By all means, architect with your vision in mind and be very deliberate if you need to take shortcuts to get to the MVP in a timely way. Those short-term architectural shortcuts can be very painful if you don’t handle them very deliberately. You also need to be thoughtful about focusing on a specific value proposition for your MVP that allows you to sequence product development and deliver value ASAP. Finding your first customers and delighting them with your focused MVP is the key to taking the next step toward your big vision. Investors care about huge markets and want to understand your path to them, but don’t need to see you do everything out of the gate.

Myth: Focus on the end user and the money will follow.

Reality: Your go-to-market approach will shape whether your top priority should be the end user or the buyer. Don’t forget: your solution has to provide value for buyers to be market viable.

If the buyer is the end user (B2C), or if you are pursuing a grassroots land-and-expand approach, then it makes sense to prioritize the end user first. But if you are selling top-down to execs via a direct sales team, there is almost always a significant gap between what the buyer needs and what the end user needs. Unless your proven go-to-market is primarily high-velocity/self-serve, focusing on the end user alone will result in a solution that doesn’t meet your target customers’ core needs. You have to understand your buyers’ goals and needs, and provide an MVP solution to meet those needs — along with the differentiating end user experience. Buyer happiness is key for the initial purchase, but user happiness is key for sustained customer happiness, especially if your MVP knowingly falls short of a great user experience.

Myth: Looks don’t matter in B2B — that’s a B2C thing.

Reality: B2B customers absolutely care about user experience and usability. Web and mobile-first SaaS products are setting an increasingly high bar. Clunky isn’t cool.

Looks and usability matter massively — and in fact, they matter even more to early-stage companies than to mature/established companies. It’s a way to compete, stand out, generate excitement — and, in some cases, simply meet expectations of what modern software should be.

Myth: Support tools can wait.

Reality: Don’t use your engineering team for first-line support of basic setup tasks and configuration changes. Your eng team will be more productive by building tools to enable your support team.

Once you have your first customers up and running, you need internal tools to manage changes and support of the product. Once in production, customers aren’t tolerant of configuration mistakes because somebody needed to make a change using the command line or by executing a script. Make sure the tools are growing appropriately along with the customer scale and company so that your engineering team’s time doesn’t get eaten up with routine support tasks. The people responsible for working with customers to get the product deployed and configured just so–whether that is the Customer Success team, Implementation Managers or Customer Support team– will thank you for giving them the tools to serve the customer quickly and effectively.

Myth: We’re agile; product strategy can wait.

Reality: Your product team will move faster after clarifying your product strategy and key customer needs vs. myopically evaluating each item in the backlog from sprint to sprint.

Product strategy ≠ an organized backlog of features in Trello/Jira/Asana. Too often, product teams have an endless backlog of features, but without clarifying their broader strategy and priorities, they often can’t see the forest through the trees. “We don’t need to do longer-term product planning because we use an agile model.” This is a poor excuse for not establishing a strategic framework for your product. If your product plan is “deliver XYZ projects,” you’ve got some work to do.

Take time to answer the basic questions: Who, specifically, is my product for? What are their key needs? What outcomes should my product achieve for customers? How will I measure those outcomes? With answers to those questions in place, your team will have a firm foundation on which to develop, deliver and innovate the product. Without these answers, your product team will not be confident in their prioritization and will be more likely to get pulled off the target zone, resulting in lower-velocity product development.

One more thing: In your eagerness and haste to build your product, do not shortchange cross-functional alignment on all of the above. Without concerted effort, even the smallest teams can get out of alignment and become dysfunctional. Make sure your product team (PM, design, eng) is getting feedback from the right customer-facing team members (sales, marketing, customer success, support, partnerships) and keeping them apprised of the product plan, strategy and roadmap.

Thanks to my fellow Costanoa Product EIRs John Dawes and Jonathan Hodge for their help identifying these product myth busters.

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