Three product tactics large co’s can borrow from startups

9 Jan 2017 // Product management

I have worked in both large, established companies and small, scrappy startups. Here are three of my favourite product management tactics large companies can learn from startups.

Product development within startups takes place within a somewhat unique environment. Often time and budget are not only constrained, but the survival of the company hinges on achieving tangible milestones within a specific timeframe and budget. Teams tend to be small, responsive and have the autonomy to use whichever tech stack they think best fits the job.

This set of constraints and characteristics has led to the emergence of particular practice of product development which I think larger companies can learn from. Here are three product management tactics which company of any size can put to use.

1. The Ultra Lean MVP Startups typically operate in an extreme time scarce environment. As a result they look for ways to validate new products in the quickest, most efficient way possible. I term this the “ultra lean MVP”.

The aim with this tactic is to dramatically reduce the time and cost of validating a new product idea.

Large companies often have UX designers, frontend devs and backend devs all at their disposal. Rather than doing starting a full blown project to test out an idea, try thinking of what the most minimal of minimal viable products could be.

For example:

  • Set up a product description page with a “Get Started” form at the bottom. The form simply collects user details. Drive traffic towards this page and monitor the results. Not only does this let you gauge interest but it also gives you a list of early users.
  • Use a tool like Sketch to create a set of linked UI mockups, give them to some beta users and observe their reactions to the product.
  • Manually provide a service that will eventually be replaced by an automated process such as a two-sided marketplace or algorithm.

2. Embrace “good enough” Large companies love process and everything that goes along with them like rigorous standards compliance and elegant code.

Startups know that many features will change dramatically or get dropped and that therefore making everything perfect is a waste of precious time.

This is tactic not excuse to don a 10 gallon hat and go full-cowboy, rather differentiate between features which are business critical and those which are experiments / tweaks / trials. 

Business critical features (e.g. backups, authentication, hosting) should be planned, developed and reviewed with the utmost rigour.

Unproven, non-critical features however can be implemented with a two step approach:

  • Step one: Build the feature in a way that appears polished to the end user but is rough and ready behind the scenes. This could be because the code is not completely DRY, perhaps there are only basic tests (or none at all) or you could implement the feature in a simplified way.
  • Step two: Once the feature has been validated go back, smooth the edges, improve test coverage and cater to more edge cases. If the new feature turned out not to be popular or required significant change, congratulations! You just saved at least 50% of the time it would have taken to build it “right” first time.

This approach requires discipline and technically sophisticated leadership. The temptation to do everything “rough and ready” is strong and must be avoided at all costs.

3. Listen to customers not HIPPOs Large companies always have a HIPPO (highest paid person’s opinion) and often it belongs to a person who the product team want to keep happy. 

Startups live and die by customer satisfaction. Unless founders have a bad case of “the next Steve Jobs” product decisions tend to be driven by customer demand.

When making product decisions consider how you can listen to customers rather to help inform you. Some ways you can “listen” to customers include: feedback emails, analytics, crash reports, focus groups, guerrilla testing and, of course, focus groups.

For some true Product Management kung fu, present the results of your customer listening to the HIPP in order to bring their HIPPO into line with customer demand.

Finishing up What other product tips and hacks can large companies learn from startups? Let me know what has and has not worked for you in the comments below.


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