Tag Archives: product features

The Startup Product Manager’s Dilemma: Getting the Right Product by Ignoring Some of Your Customers

By:  Andrew Johnson, Ph.D.

swiss army knife

Make sure that your product offering has all of the features that it needs to be successful but no more than that.

Figuring out what you first product or service is going to look like, how it will be priced and how you will sell it is at the top of the ‘to-do’ list for the Product Manager of a startup.  As an experienced startup product manager, you have been very careful to balance the enthusiastic advice and suggestions of the founding team with the wealth of feedback that you have gotten from potential customers in the field.  After getting all of this input, you will rarely have an obvious answer to the ‘What is it?, Who wants it? and How much would they be willing to pay for it?’ questions.

Don’t listen (only) to your Sales or Operations colleagues
Everyone on the team wants what is best for the company but you should be wary of your Sales and Operations team members.  From an operations stand point, the fewer the options the better for them.  They are looking to provide the best product at the lowest manufacturing cost with the highest quality.  Every different version of a product or additional set of features introduces complexity into meeting their goals.  On the other hand, your Sales team, as good representatives of your customers and their wants and needs, will want to have as many versions as possible so that they have the ‘perfect’ solution for every one of their customers.  Simply stated, you need to consider both viewpoints as you determine the final feature set or version options of your initial product offering.  The correct answer, of course, is somewhere between 1 and 100 versions or feature sets.

Determining the right number
You may not get this exactly right but you need to be close.  This is why you need to lean toward determining the smallest feature set of your offering that will be compelling to a large enough number of customers.  Another way of looking at this is that you need to determine what product your development team will most easily and quickly be able to produce that is commercially viable.  Running a well-managed alpha evaluation (see ‘Alpha Evaluations: Going from Great Science to Great Products’) will help you to know if you have got the right offering for your launch or if you will need to make changes.  Steve Blank defines this as the High-Fidelity Minimum Viable Product.

“Minimum Viable Product:  (The) simplest minimum viable product (i.e. a website with the core features implemented, a demo version of a physical product)…”   Steve Blank – The Startup Owner’s Manual

Why go small?
Until you have your first sales with paying customers (free or hugely discounted placements don’t count), you will not know if you have got the right product.  The best feedback that you will ever get is from paying customers.  If everybody tells you that you have a great product but nobody will actually buy it, you have the wrong product.  If only a few people will buy your product or after an initial burst of enthusiasm from ‘early adopters’ you find it difficult to grow your sales, you do not have the right product for the customers that you are targeting.  Going small at the beginning will allow you to get valuable feedback from paying customers as early as possible and limits the amount of effort and resources that could be wasted if your first product to market is not quite right.  This allows you and the team to make changes and/or additional features that will allow you to start winning the sales that your great product deserves.  By keeping the initial offering limited, you will still have the resources to make the changes you need to end up with a winning product.

Selected Tips for Getting the Right Product

  • When talking with potential customers, be sure to determine which of their suggestions for your product or service are ‘needs’ and which are ‘wants’.  Your first product should include the smallest configuration or feature set that will satisfy the majority of the consensus ‘needs’ you learned from this group.
  • Use the ‘wants’ and ‘nice to haves’ from your outside feedback to help you to develop a ‘Product Roadmap’ to guide you with future releases of your offering.
  • Make sure that the issue that your product or service aims to fix is compelling enough for people to want to ‘pay to have it go away’.  A product that is just more convenient may not be seen as worth the additional cost by your future customers.  Your discussions with them should focus as much or more on the problem you aim to fix as you do about your proposed ‘fix’.
  • Have an upgrade strategy worked out in advance of your first product launch.  You need to make sure that your earliest customers will have access to the latest versions of your offering that still makes sense for your Revenue Model.  This will help you to deal with any push back from your first customers who may wish to see your product proven by others first.  Being able to offer the chance to be the first one on the block with a viable path for access to future upgrades and releases will significantly help you to deal with this sales issue.

Highly Suggested Reading:

The Startup Owner’s Manual: The Step-by-Step Guide for Building a Great Company’, By Steve Blank and Bob Dorf, K&S Ranch Publishing Division, 2012.

Picture Credit:  © IbanMontero | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

The Power of Story: 3 Key Steps to Connecting Your Vision with Commercial Success

By:  Andrew Johnson, Ph.D.

open book with watch on it

Take the time to craft the ‘story’ of how your offering will impact your customers to provide a focus and direction to your commercialization efforts

There are a million things to do to get your new ideas and discoveries into a finished product that will delight your customers.  This can be a very overwhelming experience as you are not only trying to determine what your product will be like when you launch but also how to talk about it to your investors, your prospects, partners and your team.  One unifying principal that can help here is to use the power of story to guide you through this process.  Think of the story you would like people to tell about your company and its product(s) years after its success.  When you take the time to do this, the path to success will seem a bit less treacherous.

Easier said than done
The key here is to focus on the interests of your target audience and realize that the narrative will be different for each of your stakeholders.  This is kind of like trying to come up with a story that will appeal to both children and adults (perhaps using a comic book version for kids and a novel for adults).  However, as challenging as this might seem to be, the process that you will follow to create the story of your company will ultimately provide you with the insights and focus you will need to move your company forward.

Step 1:  Start with Your Future Customers
Your new product will provide some new outcomes for your future customers.  This could be a new diagnostic test to guide medical treatment, a new tool or kit that will allow researches access to new information or perhaps even a significantly improved version of an existing product or service.  In each case, you need to find out how badly your customers would wish to overcome a particular issue and ultimately if they can envision your solution to it to be compelling.  From this effort you will know what your product or service needs to do for your customers (not just what it can do but what it must do).  This is the most critical story to get right.  You will be basically retelling this story of how your product or service impacts customers to your other stakeholders in the following steps.

Step 2:  Delight your Board and Investors
Use the insights that you gained from the previous step to build enthusiasm on your Board of Directors.  Being able to share testimonials from future customers, and statistics like, “90 percent of the people we targeted in our initial outreach said that they would pay $$$ today for our offering to fulfill this critical unmet need.”  Testimonials like this go a lot further than statistics from market reports that have been shoehorned to fit your business case with these stakeholders.  Remember your ‘audience’ prefers non-fiction over fiction here.

Step 3: Putting It All Together with Your Team
The feedback from your future customers in Step 1 will become the minimal set of performance and pricing characteristics for your first product(s).    Your development team can use this to produce the first prototype for alpha evaluations.  Your commercial team will have key insight into what will be a compelling value proposition to use to reach and win new customers.  If your board and investors liked your ‘story’ so far, they will have validated it with their approval and perhaps even some additional funding.

In Summary:

  • As early as possible, find out who will buy your products and for how much and why (what impact will your offering have on your customers).  – The Customer Needs and Solution Story.
  • Use real prospective customer feedback to further convince your stakeholders (Board of Directors and investors) to support your team.  – The Rags to Riches Story –non-fiction version
  • Provide your team with real outside feedback to guide your development efforts towards making the right product for the right customer at the right price at the right time.  – The Life Science Idea to Successful Biotechnology Company Story

Picture Credit:  © Tomloel | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos