Great founders lead with product strategy.
In the beginning, it was just you and your founders. In order to raise capital, you had to not just know the problem you were solving intimately but you also had to be deeply passionate about it. You are the expert. You are the solution. You are the vision for the future.
The wonder of this early entrepreneurial environment is that it’s easy to respond to new information and bring expertise to every problem that comes up. But it doesn’t stay this way forever.
If you’re really onto something, you will need to scale fast. Scaling means bringing people onto your team with expertise in other areas. They’re not like you. They don’t know your problem inside and out. Instead, they maintain functional expertise. Your new hires might be God’s gift to DevOps or data science… but they’re not going to be steeped with your passion and background in whatever problem you’re taking on.
And that’s the point of stress. Until this point, you never needed to make your product strategy explicit. You and your cofounders could maintain a level of shared understanding. You could argue about the minutiae of a feature and how it was implemented. You didn’t argue over the general direction of the whole product.
That shared understanding starts to disappear as you start to expand. And I’ve seen this as a make or break moment many times for young teams. For the founders who are able to confer their wisdom, passion, and product strategy onto their team, the sky is the limit. For the founders who struggle to create that common ground, the struggle to keep everyone aligned can be insurmountable.
This might be confusing. After all, you’re the founders. Not everyone on the team needs to have all the pieces of the puzzle. As long as they trust you and you know your stuff, you should be good to go.
Your Role Changes as You Scale
Things change as your business scales. More than anything, you’re not always accessible. Sometimes you have customer meetings and escalations that take precedence. Sometimes you find yourself in endless cycles with board members and investors. Sometimes you simply can’t find enough time in the day to meet with all the members of your team that are interested.
As your business scales, you’re not as accessible. And you have a few options. Your first option is to stay the course; ask your team to rely on your expertise. Now you go from being the rockstar savant on solving your problem to being the single point of failure. You’re the insurmountable bottleneck that is keeping your wonderful business from having the impact it could have on the world. This option sucks.
Your second option is to trust your team to figure it out. You hired great people. You know that they can’t come to you to answer every question. You empower them to make their own decisions. And you let them execute. You’re the type of boss you’d want. One filled with implicit trust. Unfortunately, this option isn’t much better than the first. You can’t win a relay race if everyone is running a different track. It doesn’t matter how fast your sprinters are. Regardless of how smart your team is, unless they have a shared understanding about what they’re trying to accomplish, they won’t be able to make uniform enough decisions to deliver an earth shattering business. This option also sucks.
Your third option is the tough one. You hired great people. But you now understand your job is to lead them towards solving your big, hairy, audacious problem. And that means spending less time doing the problem solving yourself and spending more time educating your team. Every hour you spend getting your team running in the same direction is an hour that you multiply their effectiveness. You save them from having to backtrack. You improve the quality of their conversations. You keep them motivated and empowered. You arm them with the tools to make the right decisions — quickly.
Your best option requires you to put your product strategy on paper, and talk about it regularly.
Your New Job: Chief Strategist
If you’re able to clearly articulate three things, you’ll be forever benefited by it. First, you need to articulate a clear understanding of your customer and how your customer uses your product today. What are the features that they require? What are the features that delight? If they weren’t using your product, what would they be using? This is a humbling exercise. At the beginning of any journey, you can’t do everything. Be open about that. Where are you starting and what problem can you solve today.
Then, you need to offer a clear vision for how your addressable customers and users evolve over time with the addition of new features and capabilities. What is it that you’re going to start building into your product to grow access, usability, and use cases? This articulation should be staged over time. Your product will have to evolve over time — your strategy has to take that evolution into account.
Finally, you need to give your team an understanding of why your solution is differentiated from a field of competitors. With that clear differentiation in tow, your brilliant team will be able to prioritize the features and functions that they want to concentrate on building. They’ll know the things that help drive them towards parity but don’t ultimately fit in with your positioning. And they’ll also know those capabilities that will reinforce the differentiation that you’re aspiring towards.
The way you get leverage as you scale is by codifying your vision and sharing it. As your team grows, you can’t assume that they’ll understand each other and the problem you’re addressing the same way you and your fellow founders did. To get everyone moving in the same direction, your product strategy needs to become your teams holy document — and you need to be its chief evangelist. Without it, you’ll be wasting your time and your team’s brainpower.