Weeks seven and eight: The Rise of the Lean Product Manager

Pitch practice has begun at StartFast along with the requisite preparation for Demo Day. Every team is creating a presentation as well as an online data room with the basics that an investor would need for due diligence after a term sheet is accepted. Starting with 30-second elevator pitches and working our way up to 8-minute demo-day pitches, each team is preparing to tell their story in a compelling, personal and factual manner. We also began weekly CEO conclaves every Monday morning to create another opportunity for sharing challenges, solutions and generally cross-pollinating. All these activities are in addition to teams continuing to write and debug code, launch applications and run marketing campaigns. As these challenges mount, the need for a new role has arisen in most if not all of the companies – the Product Manager.

Lean Product Management

Each of the StartFast 2012 companies has developed quickly using the Lean Startup principle of evolving towards Product/Market fit through the process of Customer Development. The primary tool of this process is iteration – testing each hypothesis and making fact-based decisions. The Product Manager is in charge of this process, determining which experiments to run as well as the criteria for success. Until now, the role of Product Manager role may have been spread across more than one person, but as the intensity and complexity of this activity rises, most of the companies have found that designating an explicit individual to manage the product is helpful. Typically the Product Manager owns product P&L, product marketing and the product roadmap (the timeline of releases, schedule of features and feature specifications).

In a lean startup, Product Managers only spec out the minimum necessary to demonstrate each feature and get early feedback about whether customers actually use it, like it or not. The two-fold benefit is saving time/money and retaining flexibility to adjust quickly if a feature proves not to work in the market. A Product Roadmap is the schedule of new features into releases. It is a living document maintained by the Product Manager and a useful tool in communicating plans with customers, developers and investors as long as the process is made clear – that it is subject to constant revision.

The relationship between the Product Manager and developers is a close one in a lean startup environment. Specifications of features, while written, may not be detailed enough to effectively outsource development. This means that the Product Manager should ideally sit close to the developers and should always be available to promptly respond to questions, even if by Skype or phone. The Lean Product Manager must know the skills and abilities of the developers and incorporate that knowledge when designing and spec’ing new features.

As important as knowing the developers, knowing customers is even more crucial. Product managers need to get out of the building and talk to customers often. Understanding the use case from the customer’s point of view is paramount to any product feature or function decision. Knowing individual customers is necessary but not sufficient. Product Managers also need to know the statistics of customer behavior so that they can prioritize features that the largest number of customers want and need. Surveys can help, but customers are notoriously bad at knowing and reporting accurately what they want. Trust what customers do over what they say. It is also the Product Manager’s job to devise quick experiments which can measure customer behavior without having to develop the entire feature first. Lean startups can test new features before writing code by offering the feature and performing the function manually until it’s clear that building it for real would be worthwhile. Having staff fulfill requests or perform functions (ala “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”) can yield valuable customer feedback needed to build the right product feature. Even paper mockups and fake prototypes can work to find out what customers really value.  The judicious application of these techniques allow prioritizing new features in the most productive manner.

Our teams regularly work 16-hour days during the StartFast program, but it’s also important to have breaks in such a demanding schedule. July 4th was an opportunity to relax, bond, celebrate and blow off a little steam with an evening of canoeing, tractor rides (with or without crop circles), trampoline, football, softball, Frisbee, bonfire (with or without s’mores), sliders, dogs, salads, sangria, beer, drumming, didgeridoo, and oh yes – fireworks.