4 Tips for Product Teams

Last month at Twin Cities startup week, we gave five presentations aimed at helping product teams build better product businesses while avoiding common pitfalls. As part of a new series on our blog called the Business of Digital Innovation, I’ll be boiling these down into key takeaways that you can use in your product business today. 

For the first part of our series, I’m going to be giving some tips about managing business risk by picking (and sustaining) the right team.

Developing Products is Risky

As entrepreneurs, inventors, and internal innovators, the endeavor you are about to engage in is a risky one, both for your company and for you personally (if they aren’t one in the same). Most people go into this business with some knowledge of the risks, but we don’t often talk about the reasons why it’s so risky. Unfortunately, a list of all the reasons wouldn’t fit in any reasonable length post. I want to focus on what I think is the biggest contributor: if you’re innovating, by definition you’re doing something new, and doing new things is hard.

Doing new things is hard because it involves solving new problems, or solving existing problems in new ways. Building new products is research and development, and R&D is expensive and unpredictable. Along the journey of discovery, you learn new things, and often those things will invalidate key pieces of your roadmap. Sometimes, they’ll send you straight back to the drawing board entirely. That’s R&D at its finest, and it’s the road you’re on, whether you know it or not.

You’re about to do something entirely new. But you have a budget, deadlines, and competition, along with other real world issues like the need to eat and sleep and pay your rent. On top of that, it’s not really acceptable to respond to an investor with a shrug emoji when they ask you how much something will cost, or how long it will take. 

So what is an innovator to do? Well, I can’t tell you what to do with your product. That’s your domain. Your business will succeed or fail based on the fundamental bet you’re making: that your product will make someone’s life so much better that they’ll go through the Herculean effort of opening their wallet for you.

But here is the reality: most businesses fail long before they get to that point. They fail for common, standard, run-of-the-mill reasons that sneak up on you long before your product gets to market. They fail for the same reason 80% of all businesses fail. The next four tips (and the articles that follow), are good places to start so that, if you do fail, it’s for a reason that’s unique to you and your market, and not something you could have seen coming.

Let’s start with your team.

Tip #1: Hire an Experienced Team

Let’s say you’re building a new consumer product in the mobile space. You’ve managed to scrounge together enough cash (and the goodwill of your loved ones) to take off from your day job and take a shot at making this happen. Maybe you’ve even got an investor or two. Your experience at BigCo tells you that you’ll be solving a real problem for a market that has real money. So you convince one or two of your more technical friends to jump on board, and you get started.

The very first choice you have is: what technologies should you build this with? If you’re anything like everybody, you’ll make one of two choices: you’ll build it in the tech you’re familiar with, even if it doesn’t match the platform, or you’ll spend time learning something new and Doing It Right.

Both of these lines of thinking will kill your product.

Here’s the thing: this isn’t a binary choice, and there isn’t an easy choice. If you haven’t built something in the same space, on the same platform, you don’t know what you don’t know. You don’t have the context to make even this first decision. 

If you go with a web wrapper, is that going to deliver the user experience your consumers require? Maybe. Maybe not. If you go with a tech you don’t know, how long are you going to need to learn it? A month? Six? Longer?

You’re already trying to build something entirely new! Why would you increase your risk on day one by making guesses at how to build when there are other people that know what the right choice is?

So my first tip is this: go with a team that has already built in your space, and built on your platform. The easiest way to avoid rookie mistakes is by not hiring rookies at all.

But experience isn’t the only thing to look for in your team. 

Tip #2: The Best Teams are Pragmatic

The natural temptation of anyone with enough hubris to try and change the world, is to try and change it in a big way, all at once, and make a splash doing it. Good for you. I’m right there with you. But the world likes itself the way it is, thank you very much. And if you try to change too much, too fast, you end up consumed, constantly pushing, and never done.

Which comes to the second attribute to look for in your team: pragmatism. 

You want to pick a team that balances your natural drive to change the world. A team that’s done this before, and that isn’t afraid to help you make the hard choices. A team that will help you narrow your Big List to the 20% of the features that get 80% of the value for your customer. More importantly, that can (and will) tell you when what you’re asking for will kill your budget.

Don’t be like one project I worked on in the past, where the product owner insisted on spending $80,000 on a single animation.

Believe it or not, there are many software engineers that are happy to take your specifications, or designs, or prototype, and get to coding. It’s in our nature to want to build big, cool things. But when you’re innovating, you’re not looking for order takers: you’re looking for experienced guides that can help you get to where you need to be. You need a team that will take your design for that fancy animation and say, “sure, boss. But let’s do that later. Right now, our customers can’t log in.”

Tip #3: Trust Your Team

If you don’t trust your team, get a new team. If you do trust your team, listen to them. Before you get to market, before you even get in front of customers, your team will be giving you all sorts of signals. If you don’t listen carefully, it’s all too easy to hear what you want to hear instead of what is being said. Do this at your peril.

This is hardest when it’s bad news. For example, your lead comes to you on Monday and says “we can’t possibly get all these features in by April.” But your investors or boss wants it by March. You’ve made promises! It’s natural and human to respond in that moment with anger, or stress, to turn and say “this should be easy, they’re such small features” or (worse) “maybe you aren’t the right person for this job”. Ignore these urges. 

When the team comes to you with bad news, don’t question, collaborate. Engineers work within reality, and deal poorly with situations in which your hope outstrips their capabilities. But they love to solve problems. Instead ask “what can we cut?” or “is there another way to do this that gets us most of the way there?”. And if the answer is no, you’d better start making new plans. Because your pragmatic, experienced team isn’t lying to you when they say something can’t be done.

What you’re doing is hard enough. No one is served by ignoring the advice of the folks you are relying on to build your product. who know the most about what’s happening on the ground. 

But, what if they all just work harder?

Tip #4: Don’t Burn People Out

It’s a common myth in startup land that the best products were produced by people sleeping under their desks, writing code at midnight, who pulled out all the stops to get that one final feature in. It’s such a pervasive story that we mythologize it. I hear it all the time: “we just pulled all nighters, drank Red Bull, and got it done.” The startup founders whose stories we read say this with smiles, and we treat them like they’re heroes.

But there’s something going on here that you don’t see in the magazines, and that we don’t talk about enough in tech. Failure. Lots and lots of failure. Because when you’re watching Elon talk about sleeping on the factory floor, you’re missing the fact that he is running one of a dozen businesses in his industry alone, most of which failed using the exact same broken approach of overwork that he did.

Working harder is a lie. A fabrication. And if you buy into it, you’re much more likely to end up with a failed product than to be Elon or Steve or Bill. All of them were special cases, with huge advantages, and they still spent years struggling before they succeeded.

The business of product development and innovation is deeply creative. Don’t believe the word “engineering” that you see in ”software engineering”. The best solutions to problems often come when your lead engineer is in the shower, or out on a walk with their dog, or playing with their kids. Engineers do their best work when their minds are at rest, rested, and happy. This is the magic that allows engineers to solve hard problems with magically simple solutions.

If you try and push your folks beyond their limits, if they start losing sleep, if they cut meals and family time and cat time, the science tells us you’ll get less output, and worse output. Sure, you might get a short term feature or two, but you’re now building your business on sand, instead of bedrock. By taking this approach, you’ll expend the two most important assets in your business: creativity and goodwill. You can’t get these things back in your B round, or in the Q4 budget.

And this applies to you as well. Take care of yourself. Your sustained passion, and that of your team, are the keys to your success.

Looking for an experienced team?

Modern Logic has been building consumer software for over a decade, and our products are in the hands of hundreds of millions of people. We’ve worked with small startups, internal innovation teams, and Fortune 500s, and we love to talk about innovation and new products. If you think an agency might be the right approach for you, or are just curious to learn more, you can reach out to us at sales@modernlogic.io or to me personally at dustin@modernlogic.io.

This talk was originally delivered in front of a live audience at Twin Cities Startup Week 2022 by myself and fellow Modern Logic staff members Andy Rahn (Head of Engineering) and Chip Pedersen (Director of Client Services). All mistakes are mine, and the good ideas are Chip’s and Andy’s.

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