4 Product Leadership Frameworks for Startups

Valuable takeaways from the front lines

Ha Nguyen
Ha Nguyen
Sep 10, 2020 · 7 min read
Credit: Daria Nepriakhina, Unsplash

Across 16 years, I’ve worked as a product leader at 5 companies in Silicon Valley (including eBay, Stella & Dot, and Betfair). In that time, I’ve seen true hyper-growth unfold: I was a director-level product leader at eBay when it scaled from $500M to $5B+ in 5 years, and I was VP Product when Stella & Dot scaled from $30M to $220M in 4 years. I’ve also seen the dark side — the colossal failures that happen when startups mismanage their products.

Recently, I shared some of my most useful frameworks at a Wharton alumnae event. Afterwards, the enthusiasm was so overwhelming that I felt inspired to write this post, which summarizes the core ideas for anyone who might be curious. I hope you enjoy!

The #1 Product Pitfall at a Startup

This first framework is designed to help you avoid the #1 biggest product pitfall I’ve seen startups face. For an established enterprise, it’s a bad mistake, but for a startup, it can be a complete disaster. The mistake is not spending enough time in the problem space.

Image: Food Integrity studio

The problem space is the whole landscape of problems and pain points your customers are facing. You might be aware of some of them, but there are many you might not have seen or noticed yet.

The solution space is where you conceptualize, build, and refine products and features. It’s where you respond to the problems you discovered in the problem space.

When I start working with startups and their product teams for the first time, a mistake I often see is that many of them spend the bulk of their time in the solution space.

It’s understandable. Founders and product teams have great ideas around what they should be building for their customers, and they want to start working on those ideas ASAP. But a result, teams end up making important product decisions based on the input of four, maybe five customers. They don’t dig deep into their customers’ world — and the blind spots come back to bite them later.

Instead of sprinting into the solution space, I encourage teams to spend as much time, if not more, in the problem space. That means going out and talking to as many customers as possible within your target market, to really understand and observe their world. That’s how you’ll unearth the needs no other product is meeting. That’s how you’ll stand the greatest chance of lasting success.

Case Study: ClassDojo

Here’s one example of a team that did this exceptionally well: ClassDojo. Today, ClassDojo provides a centralized hub for millions of teachers, students, and parents to connect inside and outside the classroom.

At first, co-founders Sam and Liam, both teachers, conceived of an ed tech company that would deliver lesson plans to help teachers prepare for each day. But instead of building that solution right away, they decided to spend the whole summer in the problem space, interviewing fellow teachers.

After talking to over 100 teachers, Sam and Liam realized that the biggest pain point for teachers wasn’t lesson planning: it was the culture of the classroom. In every class, there was always at least one disruptive student who’d break everyone’s concentration. After the disruption, teachers often spent 10–15 minutes settling the class down before getting into the lesson. With that key insight, Liam and Sam came up with a behavioral recognition tool that made it easy for teachers to reward and recognize students for great behaviors (active listening, teamwork, etc). When they shared this solution with the teachers they’d interviewed, the teachers loved it so much that they started using it themselves AND spreading the word to others.

Sam and Liam present a great example of living in the problem space before going into the solution space, and I highly recommend taking their story to heart. Take every opportunity to understand your customers’ problems deeply before narrowing your field of view to a specific solution.

4 questions every founder and PM should answer

Image by Ha Nguyen

You’ve likely seen some version of these questions — but do you have these memorized? In every product-related meeting, I suggest touching on these questions, at least briefly. That’s for two reasons. First, it helps keep everyone focused on what should really be top of mind. Second, the answers to these questions are constantly evolving, especially at a startup. It can never hurt to keep them on your mind, but it can hurt to lose sight of them.

Guiding Product Principles

Image by Ha Nguyen

Here’s another way to visualize your priorities and responsibilities when it comes to product: you’ve got six high-level principles.

First, obsess over customers. Nothing surprising there, right? Yet, sometimes, I see teams obsessing over their competition instead. They look at what competitors just launched, and they want to go and copy that. I think that’s the wrong approach — after all, your competitors’ solution might not be the right one for your customers. You’ll get further by obsessing over your customers and their needs.

Second, of course, bring products to market that are valuable and usable. The only way to know whether you’re doing this is to test with customers before launching.

Third, you’re going to have to say no. You’ll have to say it a lot, to lots of things. Just remember that your job is not to do 100 things right; it’s to do three or four things right and knock those out of the park.

“Focus means saying no to the hundred good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud as the things we haven’t done as the things we have done.” — Steve Jobs

Fourth — and I’ve learned this many times — design really is the difference. It’s not good enough to have a working or functional product. That product also has to be delightful; it has to be elegant. It has to be simple to use, and that’s where design is a key differentiator.

Fifth, I’m a strong believer in lean product discipline. It’s all about hypotheses, testing, and iteration. We form hypotheses about what our customers are going to love, but we don’t know. We need to go and test it, and hopefully iterate based on what they’re telling us before sending it over to engineers to build. You can accomplish this with clickable prototypes and lots of user testing.

“You can be bad at so many things, but as long as you stay focused on how you’re providing value to your users, you get through all that stuff.” — Mark Zuckerberg

Finally, prioritize outcomes over output. To me, that’s what this Mark Zuckerberg quote is all about. Too many product teams define success based on output, saying, “I shipped this app” or “I worked on these six features that we committed to on the roadmap.” But the reality is, it doesn’t matter what you shipped or how many features you delivered. What outcomes did you achieve? Did you deliver a product that customers loved, and then did it move the needle for the business? What was the outcome of your work? The answers to those questions are the ones that matter above all.

The North Star Metric

Your North Star metric is the metric you’ll rally your team around, whether it’s this month, this quarter, or this year.

Early on, responsible founders keep a close eye on all of their metrics, and that’s a good practice. But the more you grow, the more you need to focus on a North Star metric.

Image by Ha Nguyen

Having a North Star metric is important because it represents signal amid the noise of numbers that inevitably flood in as you scale. That signal is what makes leadership possible: it allows you to clearly communicate what you need your team to do, and it makes it possible for everyone to work together in a focused, goal-oriented way.

Maybe you’ll need to prioritize acquisition above all; for another company, it might be customer satisfaction. For early stage companies, I believe it’s retention that matters most — for example, customers might be enthusiastic and happy at the start of their journey with you, but you find they start dropping off around day 14 or day 38. In that case, you want to bring your team together around maximizing retention before focusing on growth — you don’t want a leaky bucket through your funnel. Use a North Star metric to rally your team and drive the business outcomes you want.

Watch my full talk on product management and startups where I share other valuable product lessons including product strategy, the role of a PM, and what founders should look for when hiring their first Head of Product.

Ha Nguyen’s talk at a recent Wharton Alumnae Founders & Funders Association (WAFFA) event

Thanks for reading! I’m a founding partner at Spero Ventures, an early-stage VC firm investing in the things that make life worth living, within the areas of wellbeing, work & purpose, and human connection. If you’re a mission-driven founder with a revolutionary product that solves a true customer pain point, get in touch via ha@spero.vc.

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