Advice for Product Builders
There some things I have learned over the years building products and scaling teams. Many of these things I’ve observed or experienced directly, but I’m also pointing to external examples when helpful. You may notice that this advice isn’t internally consistent – some things contradict others. Take the bits and pieces that resonate with you and leave the rest.
Ship & iterate
Get your work in front of real customers as quick as you can. See what works and what doesn’t. Double down on the stuff that works and drop what doesn’t. Keep stripping down your “must have” feature list until the smallest possible useful thing remains. Get it out the door and in to your customers hands as quickly as possible.
Now it’s time to listen. Listen to what your customers are saying. Listen to what they’re not saying. The next thing to do will make itself obvious. Listen for themes. It’s important not to just do exactly what your customers are asking for in order. Often doing one thing well can address multiple pieces of feedback. You also have to balance feasibility and time to market. Going radio silent to work on the “most important” thing is less helpful than knocking out items 2 through 5 at a rapid pace.
Sweat the details
You can tell when someone has obsessed over even the smallest details in a product. Not because they guessed correctly the first time, but because they tried 50 other things that didn’t work. They shipped the thing that made sense, that works the way it should work. No detail is too small to overlook – whether it’s layout, color palette, UI/UX, animation, typeface, packaging, delivery, receipt or communication.
This can be a trap if you chase perfection. This must be balanced with Ship & iterate and perfect is the enemy of good.
Just get started
Be more like Andrew Gazdecki and his team at Acquire.com. If you listen to him on the internet, you can hear him say “We’re just getting started” several times a day. He means it. This singular rallying cry keeps him and his team focused, and gives them an incredible amount of energy that has helped them solve major problems in a relatively short amount of time.
You have to get started in order to ship something. You have to ship something to be successful. Stop procrastinating. Get started.
Listen to your customers
Talk to your customers. every day if you can. Listen to them. Learn from them. Don’t just copy and paste their feature requests to your backlog though. Listen to what they say and ask for, and look for patterns. Look for the thing that they want or need that they don’t even know about. Often what they’re asking for addresses symptoms. You can build the cure.
Do the work
Paul Graham and Y Combinator tell early startups to “Do things that don’t scale”. Jacob Kaplan-Moss has a great essay called Embrace the Grind which exposes the secret of pulling off seemingly impossible tasks: do the work.
Begin with the end in mind
Before you get started on a new project, ask yourself what your desired end goal is. This helps you make lots of small decisions and take intermediary actions that all vector to where you want to go.
Constraints force creative problem solving. Want to launch something in a week? Keep cutting features until you can ship something in that time frame. Need a product to fit within a physical size or virtual limit? Figure out a way to visualize that and keep it close by while you build your thing.
Classic examples of embracing constraints include the original iPod fitting comfortably in the front pocket of a pair of jeans or the original MacBook Air sliding out from inside an inter-office envelope.
Prototype to de-risk
If you’re building products and haven’t read the Silicon Valley Product Group books Empowered and Inspired by Marty Cagan, you really should. One of my favorite takeaways from these books is the use of prototypes to de-risk feasibility, viability, usability, and value.
Reduce mean time to delight
Overnight success is a myth
Stop. Demo time.
Get to minimum lovable product
Perfect is the enemy of good
Trust, but verify
People over process
I’m not a fan of process. I strive for the minimal amount of process that gets the job done. But people? They’re the best. Find good people. Find the best people you can. Find the people that belong on your team, or in your organization. Actively recruit them. Find them where they hang out. Find them amongst your customers.
Invest in tools and training
It’s easy to fall in to the trap of using free or extremely cheap tools, especially early on. I urge you to consider spending, sometimes uncomfortably, on tools that make your team 5x or 10x more productive. Look around at what the best teams your size and larger are using. What is state of the art or best in class?
For teams this means tools like collaboration and communication. For individual contributors it’s the best equipment, extra monitors, the best software and services, whatever increases their impact. You’ll find that having best-in-class tools for individual contributors helps with hiring as well.
Don’t skimp on training either. Invest in a solid reference library (whether physical or virtual) so that your team can answer tough questions when they have them. Is the team tackling a new problem or shifting between languages or platforms? Find the best training or reference material on the topic. Is there an expert paving the way? Reach out and see if you can engage them for focused training of the team.
Eat your dogfood
Do you use the product that you’re building on a daily basis? If not, why not? Are you building something that you yourself wouldn’t use? That’s probably an uphill battle.
Execution is everything
Ideas are easy. Execution is everything.
Coffee is for closers
Always be closing. “If you build it they will come” is a myth. If you’re an introvert, it’s time to get out of your comfort zone. YC’s Startup School has a solid intro to How To Get Your First Customers aimed at early stage startups.
Sell what you have
As a product builder, you’re probably super focused on the next thing, but don’t neglect what you already have. Are you selling it? Can you sell it better? Should you revisit pricing or packaging? What’s your go to market strategy?
Build for your perfect customer
Leverage your superpowers
Succeed as a team, fail as a team
Get in the same room
Especially early on, a day spent in the same room – shoulder to shoulder, scribbling on whiteboards, banging out prototypes, getting immediate feedback – is a lot more productive than a day where the team works from their homes or a coffee shop. If you’re trying to move fast and get something to market, the more time you spend together the better.
That said, your whole team may not be in the same office or the same city. My advice in that case is to pick a cadence, whether it’s monthly or quarterly or something else, and get together. Do your planning. Sync up. Solve those hard architectural problems that you’ve been struggling with on remote meetings. Make sure you reserve time to goof off together and gel as a team.
Also always be on the lookout for when you’re struggling to make a hard decision or get started on something. I’ve seen some of the best teams have a keen eye for identifying this early and getting the team together quickly to knock out a solution.
Go to market
Ride platform shifts
Be on the lookout for platform shifts and ask yourself if you’re positioned to take advantage of them. Some major platform shifts over the last few decades include the Internet, web publishing, lots of mobile (PDAs, smartphones, iPhone/Android, iPad/Tablets, wearables) and others like social media and AI/ML/LLMs.
Always be looking for these platform shifts, and position your product or company to be on the forefront of them if it makes sense. This can pay huge dividends if it’s a major platform shift but be a distraction if it’s not.
Never be complacent
“No one can afford to be complacent as there always is someone who can come into town and beat you at your own business if you do not remain alert and strong.” –Dolph Simons Jr
Early in my career I was privileged to be a part of a small but innovative team at the Lawrence Journal-World. We thought up ideas at lunch and shipped them later that afternoon. We did things that didn’t scale. We were a small little startup in the basement of a hundred year old media company that was ahead of the mainstream with cable, home internet, and publishing on the web. Complacency was the enemy, and moving quickly was the antidote.