5 Product Management Mistakes That Kill Startups

5 Product Management Mistakes That Kill Startups

5 Product Management Mistakes That Kill Startups Tech startups dream of launching the next great app. One that shakes up the status quo. That one piece of code that turns heads and redefines the new normal. It’s this vision of the future that powers entrepreneurs through the many obstacles that threaten to kill their great idea. But in their eagerness to succeed, many entrepreneurs fall into a few common traps that spell disaster. If you’re the product owner for your startup, avoiding these mistakes can dramatically increase the likelihood that your app will flourish and grow.

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Mistake #1 - Death by Feature Overkill

Death by feature overkill is one of the most common mistakes that tech startup product owners make. In their bid to make the biggest bang and turn the most heads, they overbuild their apps. They add every conceivable feature that they feel will make their app irresistible. They add so many features that it takes them forever to get their app to market. By the time they do launch, they are often frustrated because their competitors got to market first. Very often many of the features they built into their apps are not well-received by customers. That means they have to go back to the drawing board and spend more time and effort catching up. This is an expensive recipe for failure. Successful tech startups take a much more measured approach. They build what’s called a minimally viable product (MVP) first. An MVP includes only the absolute must-have features that address the most important aspects of the problem that they are trying to solve. They launch this MVP into market quickly, and then work very hard to gather feedback and introduce features based on that feedback. They do this over and over again, opting for shorter release cycles with fewer features. Slowly, surely and over time they end up building a killer app that customers really want to use.

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Mistake #2 - Death by Documentation

Most product owners think it’s important to document every last detail of their app before they engage a development team to build it. They feel that if they don’t have everything documented to the last detail, the development project will take longer to complete and the associated development costs will be much higher. So they spend a lot of time and effort developing complex requirements documents that define every last feature of their app. Unfortunately by the time they hand their requirements documents over to the dev team, the market has shifted. So much so that their requirements documents need to be revisited. So they spend more time updating their requirements documentation. Ultimately, they spend so much time on documentation that one of two things happens. They either never make it to market with a viable product, or they end up launching an app that no one is interested in using. Successful startups recognize that documentation is a necessary evil that must be constrained. So they provide the minimal documentation necessary to get their ideas across. Those documents also focus more on describing the customer and their problems instead of describing the functionality of their apps. They also engage their dev teams as early as possible. They work with them to develop an MVP that they can get into customers’ hands quickly. They listen to what their customers tell them about what they like and don’t like and adjust their plans accordingly. They repeat this process over and over again as quickly and as often as possible. In doing so they ultimately feel their way to best set of features and end up developing the best app for their customers.

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Mistake #3 - Death by Telephone

Developers are often viewed as a precious and expensive resource that must be focused exclusively on coding. So very often startups will erect gatekeepers between their developers, customers and those coworkers on the business side that interact the most with customers. The gatekeepers are responsible for collecting feedback from these subject matter experts and translating this feedback into something that developers can work with. This approach is also very often used by development consulting companies. Dev shops typically assign an account manager as a primary contact between their developers and the startup’s subject matter experts.

This approach works well some of the time, especially if your market requirements and app aren’t technically complicated. If they are complicated it can lead to trouble quickly. That’s because very often the gatekeeper lacks the in-depth technical expertise to grasp these complexities. So feedback is misunderstood and key insights are overlooked. It’s like a vicious game of telephone, where every mistranslation leads to a weaker and weaker app. Successful startups interrupt this deadly game of telephone. They take every opportunity to directly expose their developers to subject matter experts. This close collaboration leads to fewer misses and to deeper and richer discoveries that lead to more compelling apps.

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Mistake #4 - Death by No Meetings

The view that developers are a precious resource leads to another common mistake. Meetings are often viewed as a complete waste of time. Great effort is made to limit the time that developers spend in meetings of any type. When meetings do occur, they are limited to quick tactical exchanges of status, priority and obstacles. This approach further isolates development teams from important subject matter experts, which in turn leads to more misunderstandings, more misses and less valuable apps.

Successful startups recognize the need to have their development teams participate in more of the right kinds of meetings. So along with the quick tactical exchanges, they ensure that developers also meet with subject matter experts often. These direct interactions lead to a deeper and richer understanding of the market and customer needs. This in turn leads to the types of collaboration and insights that deliver remarkable customer experiences and remarkable apps.

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Mistake #5 - Death by DIY

Startups often cultivate what we call a culture of DIY. In this view, every feature that’s developed must be built by in-house developers. The idea of outsourcing development projects is anathema. This view often stems from outsourcing challenges experienced on other projects. Most founders have heard or even shared the tale of an offshoring nightmare that led to wasted money and lost opportunity.

Inevitably, however, the need for more and more features outstrips the bandwidth of internal development teams. The typical response is to try and hire more developers. This process is time consuming and expensive, and largely falls on the very team that is overstretched. The net effect is a drag on the startup’s ability to introduce new features. If this state of affairs continues for too long, the startup can stall. It begins to lose momentum and market share. In extreme cases it can lead to the exodus of development talent, further accelerating this downward spiral.

Successful startups realize the need to leverage external development resources to accomplish their objectives. They also have a very different view of the objectives of outsourcing. Rather than focusing on cost savings, they focus on developing a quality source of external talent that they can tap into as needed to speed feature delivery. They outsources smartly, meaning that they pick and choose the projects that they outsource with care and with an eye toward cultivating a longer term relationship with their outsourcing partner. Finally, they treat these outsourcing partners like they treat their own internal developers. They remove barriers between these external teams and subject matter experts. They provide them with the type of frequent and direct contact that leads to insights, inspiration and remarkable apps.

So do yourself, your investors and your customers a favor. Avoid these five mistakes at all costs. If you do, you’ll find that your startup will be more nimble and responsive. Your team will be more engaged and motivated. Your app will be more remarkable and useful. And slowly but surely you will overturn the status quo, disrupt markets and reap the rewards.

Portrait photo for David Geada David Geada

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