Building a great product is hard. A glimpse into the product challenges of the P9 portfolio

In the last couple of months I spoke to many Product Managers from the P9 portfolio, as well as external ones about their challenges in Product Management. Thanks again for all your valuable input at this point.

A few weeks ago, I organized a roundtable with some of our portfolio companies to discuss various topics around Product Management. The idea is that one person starts the discussion by introducing the topic quickly, talking about the biggest challenges and how they have tackled these challenges and what they have learned along the way. Then, the discussion between the participants opens up and other people share their lessons learned and experiences.

When preparing the roundtable, I asked all of the participants upfront to select their top 3 out of the following 10 topics. The results are quite interesting because there are in particular 2 topics most of the participants wanted to discuss — Product Metrics and Roadmap Design:

Survey Results: Number of responses per topic

In the end, we discussed three topics in total and I wanted to give a short summary about some findings and observations:

I) Product Metrics

  • Tracking the user behavior in the frontend of the product is a big challenge, especially for enterprise products such as Mambu which are selling to banks and financial institutions. Growth investors often get excited if they see sticky users and very high product usage, so it’s better to track this as early as possible.
  • Seasonality: Most of the companies are working very KPI-driven with clear defined goals. How can you define measurable goals and extrapolate the numbers in the right way if your business has strong seasonality? On a yearly basis it is probably feasible but throughout the year it gets difficult, especially the younger the company is. This is an example in the case for Helpling or Thalamed where doctors buy more medical devices when it’s rainy outside.
  • Another big challenge is how to measure product metrics with low traffic at a very early stage. Olivia Teich’s article about product metrics for pre-product/market fit gives you a good start on how to think about this. Focusing on qualitative customer interviews and customer shadowing rather than data can be another way to tackle that.
  • I think one of the most interesting parts during the discussion about product metrics was that everybody also shared the tools they are using and the metrics they are tracking. This gave everybody not only a very good overview of the different toolsets of the participants, but it was also important for a more in-depth knowledge exchange after the discussions. Among others, many PMs mentioned Google Analytics, Amplitude, Mixpanel or Segment.
  • Our portfolio company Contactaully offers a free template which they use in their all-hands meetings to inform everybody of how they are doing. In addition, by using Chartmogul you can keep track of your metrics.

II) Product Roadmap

  • One of the hardest parts as a PM is that you often have to “say no” to new feature requests. Intercom’s CEO Des Traynor usually highlights that product strategy means saying no. Especially in B2B, customers often ask you about the product roadmap and what kind of features you want to build in the future. Some companies share their product roadmap publicly on Trello (e.g. Front’s public roadmap) and I think it can make sense — especially for self-service SaaS companies. Some only share it with current customers and some only share it internally.
  • According to the feedback from participants, sharing the product roadmap internally makes it easier for PMs to manage expectations and align everybody on how the product will develop. It can also make internal communication more efficient.
  • One of the PMs mentioned that if you share your product roadmap, be careful that you don’t fall in the trap of over-promising and under-delivering. It is better you don’t have specific dates on the roadmap, but rather something like “short-term, mid-term and long-term” instead of “3 months, 6 months, 12 months”.

III) Feature selection

  • Especially in the very early stages, there are so many problems you can solve which makes it so difficult to pick the “right“ ones. In that case, our advisor Michael Wolfe emphasis the role of the product picker in this blogpost.
  • If you build your product together with a small subset of customers — be careful that you don’t build a product only for those specific customers. Otherwise, it can be very hard for you to tap into different industries or scale the product to a broader set of different companies.
  • Listen to customer feedback, understand their problems but don’t let your customers dictate your roadmap either. Hiten Shah’s blogpost Why Trello failed to build a $1bn business is a bit related to that in which he mentions that instead of keeping track of its paying customers to build the right product for them — they focused maybe too much on rapid customer growth.

IV) Bonus — HR

  • Sometimes it is quite difficult for founders to define the role they need related to a product. Do you need a Product Manager, a Product Engineer or a UX person? Some PMs mentioned using a scorecard which helps them a lot in defining exactly what they need before creating the job description. Geoff Smart’s “The A method of Hiring” offers a good example in case you are interested in that — it comes also recommended by Jenny Buch, our Head of Talent.
  • How do you structure processes and ensure efficient communication when your company scales? We heard this question several times during the roundtable. Especially, PMs suck in so much information from sales, customer services and engineers that efficient communication plays a key role in their daily business — and there is no silver bullet for that.

I hope this short summary gives not only the participants but also other people a good overview of challenges early stage companies face in Product Management.

I’m more than happy for more input or any other ideas you may have. Feel free to ping me anytime!