Part 1 | Mastering Product Management Basics: Vision & Roadmap

Insights, News

7th September 2022

Good product management is one of the most underappreciated parts of scaling a business. That may sound counterintuitive at first – shouldn’t the product be absolutely fundamental to any startup’s mission? Yes, of course! But building a MVP that appeals to early customers is not the same as ensuring a product can grow and adapt at scale. Understanding the basics of product management can help founders put their business on a much more solid foundation. 

 

1. Develop a Vision and a Plan First

Developing a long-term product vision and a roadmap for getting there are the most important steps. The product vision defines where the product should be 3-5 years from now and is the north star for the entire product team, and in many cases, for the entire company. The planning process should follow a multi-step cycle that operates on different time horizons.

 

A good framework for the planning process looks like this:

 

A strong roadmap process is essential for several reasons, the foremost being: 1.) it forces you to set strategic priorities and make hard trade-offs early on; 2.) it enables capacity planning for staffing and infrastructure; 3.) it provides a sense of reliability and predictability to key customers 4.) it allows you to plan revenue impact for relevant key features.

But be warned: jumping directly from a long-term vision right into the nitty-gritty of sprint deliverables without fleshing out the middle layers first is a common mistake. If you fail to get the roadmap right, it can lead to a growing disconnect between long-term planning and what the product team is working on at any given moment.

 

2. Crafting A North Star Metric and Product Vision

Product management involves so many different things it’s easy to get sidetracked. A broad product vision, often understood as a north star, helps to maintain focus. It answers the fundamental question of “why”. Why are you building this product? What are you trying to achieve? That should be your north star – literally the brightest object in the sky that illuminates all that you see and do. Many companies operationalize this into a “north star metric”, which as Sean Ellis writes, is “the single metric that best captures the core value that your product delivers to customers.”  For Airbnb, its north star metric has been the number of nights booked, which drives value to both guests and hosts. On this basis, the product team built new features and reduced all kinds of friction for guests and hosts, from making discovery easier and more transparent to reducing risks such as fraud, all while not losing sight of servicing the ultimate northstar metric, getting more people to book more nights. 

 

3. So how do you get started? Consider the following:

  • Define the product vision in terms of the customer problem — before and after.
  • Avoid abstract or technology-driven product visions that ignore the customer problem (for example “We want to apply smart contracts on the ETH blockchain to the pet food industry”).  
  • The product vision should be understandable for everybody in the organization, as well as customers.
  • Ignore your competitors when developing the product vision. This is all about customer value that your product will create, not what your competitors may be doing.

 

Example of a before-and-after product vision visualization:

BEFORE

AFTER

For more information have a look at our startup resources page on product vision.

 

4. Creating a Roadmap

A roadmap serves a number of important purposes:

  • They enable the planning of the engineering delivery process on a more granular level, including capacity planning
  • They provide predictability to the rest of the company, in particular, sales and marketing (“When can we promote and sell X?”), customer success (“From when on do we need to support X?”) and finance (“When can we expect revenue from X?”).
  • Roadmaps provide insights into dependencies inside engineering, but also in relationship to other departments and even external partners

Planning horizons

Going back to our initial graphic, there are four layers you need to plan out below the overarching product vision.

Strategic priorities

This level has a time horizon of 2-3 years. It covers major deliverables, such as an entirely new product family or major features that add value for the customer. For early-stage startups that focus on a single product, this level refers to the primary functionality clusters that you want to deliver within this planning horizon.

Initiatives

Product initiatives typically have a time horizon of about one year. They describe major functionality improvements that should be delivered within this horizon. It is important to identify dependencies between different initiatives early. If initiative B can’t start before initiative A is delivered, this has to be accounted for, planned out and clearly communicated. Initiatives should be planned based on their business value (how much do they contribute towards solving the customer problem and/or generating revenue for the startup?) as well as expected effort.

 

 

Quarterly Goals

Planning specific high-level deliverables on a quarterly basis, about one year in advance, is useful to align the organization towards specific outputs.

It is important to communicate to everybody in the company (and outside parties such as the board of directors or key customers) that the planning gets more probabilistic the further out it is in time. For example, the roadmap items for the immediate next quarter should have a high degree of certainty, while the items four quarters out are assumptions based on today’s information and will likely change.

 

 

Sprint Planning

Typical sprint lengths of 2-3 weeks are still best practice in the industry. The engineering team should be fully in charge of shaping these sprints and deciding which outputs they can deliver to move the product forward to the overall goal.

 

5. Find the right owners

Product management plays a key role in breaking out high-level goals into more detailed pieces, so the roadmap planning should have ownership at a high level.  The overall plan should be owned by the VP of Product, Chief Product Officer or similar function. The owner should solicit frequent input from the rest of the organization to shape this plan towards the needs of the business. Engineering should be involved early on in the planning process to provide feedback on effort and feasibility and also provide input on technically required work packages (such as reducing technical debt or building out infrastructure). 

 

6. Set up clear communication channels

Developing new products and features often takes more time than initially anticipated and the status of many of these layers in the product management cycle needs to be clearly communicated within the organization on a regular basis. The longer a product lives out in the wild and the more features you develop, the more necessary it becomes to align internally and prepare the entire organization for an upcoming release. This can have positive externalities – it puts pressure on teams to perform: the product team knows it needs to deliver on that new feature, while the marketing team is hotly anticipating how it can create attention for something new. And the entire company can celebrate when it happens and reap the benefits of delivering more value to its customers.

For more information see our startup resources page on roadmaps.

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You can find guidance such as this, as well as many other similar documents about startup topics on our page btov Startup Resources.

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