Guest Post by: Elly Lin (Mentee, Session 8, The Product Mentor) [Paired with Mentor, Alberto Simon]
When I first joined, the startup I work at had often been stuck with a backlog of products and services to create. Our startup’s sales team is incredibly talented and sells successfully – but does not necessarily sell products that have already been developed. With that, our product team and developers would often be found scrambling to create all these promised features to make sure our clients were happy. Everything I was going to work on in the next few months was on a jumbled list of tasks with no specific order, only rough deadlines that our clients expected the feature by. This cycle brought a lot of issues in terms of the company lacking innovation initiatives and extensive backlogs, in addition to causing huge amounts of stress for everyone involved.
There are many issues with having clients drive the roadmap. Firstly, it is impossible to be an industry leader when other people are telling you what you should build. By the time the client asks for something “new”, all your competitors probably already have it too. It is much better to think ahead and innovate to create products that fit into the bigger vision of the company. In the long run, you want to be accounting for and solving multiple problems a client will have in the future. With every feature that is built, the long game needs to be considered. Secondly, waiting for clients to drive the roadmap tends to puts companies in a situation where the backlog becomes too large to practically handle. Over time, as more clients demand more, the product teams will most likely fall behind since there are now more products to manage and on a timeline. You will just end up doing what people tell you to do, instead of figuring it out yourself. It takes all of the fun out of product management!
Step 1: Conduct a Competitive Analysis
When taking the reins and driving the innovation of your company, it is important to first understand the industry and competitive market. Heck, understanding the competitive landscape is important even if you are just starting out or trying to stay afloat. Who are the most competitive players in your industry? What are your competitors focusing on? What kind of products will they be developing next? What should you be building in order to stay relevant and competitive? Is there some niche that your product could fill and get ahead with in the market? What are some trends in the market or in other markets you see that can be applied to your company?
Building a thoughtful roadmap requires full understanding of what your competitors are developing, which can be uncovered by reading press releases and blog posts, using their product, and tracking down what they are demonstrating at conferences. A good competitive analysis can be in the form of a SWOT matrix, feature comparison table, or a combination of all of these. For example, a gantt chart of competitors’ products over time is a great visual way to analyze what features/products a competitor already has and what features they are likely to launch next. Creating time to talk about competitor news periodically (for example, at the end of each roadmap or product meeting) is a good way to make these discussions a habit, to keep your product team informed, and to encourage team members to keep their eyes peeled for any news.
Step 2: Understanding Client Needs
Once you have analyzed the competition, you can start to map your clients’ needs towards some innovative recommendations. Understanding the client needs and drawing the bigger picture from these needs is essential when planning out a roadmap. Understanding client needs can involve looking through Request For Proposals, reaching out through email or phone calls, performing surveys, or even just conversing with them. Every few months, create a list of client needs and draw some bigger picture recommendations from them. For example, if Client A is asking for multiple marketplace categories to be changed and Client B is asking for a bunch of product filters in the marketplace to be hidden, then you know your company should have considered building an internal admin page for the marketplace page that the clients themselves can access and edit. Consider how the next product you create for this client can solve another client’s needs. When creating the recommendations, keep innovative and technological trends in mind as well, and potentially at third party tools that could help you solve your pain points more efficiently.
Step 3: Creating the Roadmap
Taking the competitive analyses and user research, you can then prioritize the most important features and create a long-term product roadmap to execute your ideas. Which features make more sense to build first (does another feature depend on completing a certain one)? Which ones are more urgent to keep your organization competitive? Is there a trend in the market that needs to be considered and acted upon now?
Effective roadmaps can come in the form of a powerpoint slide by month, a timeline, a table, or a gantt chart. A detailed roadmap should clearly states what the feature is, how it ties into the overall goals of the company, explain its significance, and a general timeframe. As a whole, the roadmap should tell a story of where the product is going and the direction of growth. A good roadmap is realistic and knows its audience. A roadmap is also a living, ever-changing collaborative plan, agreed upon by stakeholders and all the teams involved per feature. In roadmapping meetings, everyone should be engaged in refining it. Once the roadmap is completed, there should be at least one person responsible for each feature and ensuring progress for an on-time launch.
For startups, client-driven roadmaps can be common and things can turn out fine. While it is important to do what is necessary to get funding, conducting a competitive analysis, looking at the bigger picture, and creating a thoughtful plan is essential in the long-term.
Elly is a product manager at an energy tech company in San Francisco. She has been there for two years and was previously studying at UC Berkeley. She specializes in new product development and product strategy.
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The Product Guy