People + Vision: The Secret To Building High-Growth Product Teams In Startups
To build, measure and iterate at a fast pace, a startup can't work in silos where different product functions are insulated from one another
For BigBasket's product head Tejas Vyas the biggest challenges come from product leaders not spending time to solidify a vision for the product owners
While the team is undoubtedly important, product makers believe startups need to avoid the common pitfall of looking inward more than outward in the product-building journey
This article is part of The Product Summit 2020, India's largest virtual product conference, to be held on October 10, 2020. Click here to know more!
"Growth was not about hiring 10 people per country and putting them in the 20 most important countries and expecting it to grow. Growth was about engineering systems of scale and enabling our users to grow the product for us," reminisced Andy Johns, former product manager at Facebook, in a Quora post.
Johns was a part of the early team at the social media giant hacking growth and attracting new users and keeping them hooked. Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg would later describe this small group as the tech giant's "most important product feature" which helped it scale to 2 Bn users today.
What attracts product mavericks and entrepreneurs to technology is this inherent ability to scale up at an exponential rate and building a massive company in a matter of a few years. It's the driving factor behind every startup and this hunger to 'move fast and break things' as Zuckerberg once put it, is encoded into every tech product.
Like Facebook did, it's imperative for startups to engineer the right product teams with the growth mentality to scale up at a fast clip right from the point where the product-market fit becomes clearer.
Steering The Product Team Towards A Vision
Perhaps the most important job for a product team in an early-stage startup is to create the minimum viable product to go to market as soon as possible and drive adoption.
It is especially critical to be right with the timing when in a crowded market. Snehil Khanor, CEO and founder of dating platform TrulyMadly believes that agility is the key to product success in many ways.
"I think cultivating a data-driven and agile mindset are the two sure shot ways for product teams to steer towards PMF. The BMI (Build. Measure. Iterate ) approach is what we follow and it has really worked well for us," said Khanor.
To build, measure and iterate at a fast pace, a startup can't work in silos where different product functions are insulated from one another. This is why tech startups have been experimenting with setting up small teams that have different compositions of engineers, designers and product managers (PM).
Snehal Patel, product head at Browserstack who will be a speaker at the Inc42 and The Product Folks' The Product Summit on October 10, 2020, told Inc42, "For each of our product teams, we have multiple squads and every squad has 1 or more PM(s), 1 engineering manager, 4-5 engineers, 1 quality assurance member and a designer. They all have the same Squad level impact based OKRs (objective key results) that they are all working towards."
So in order to achieve growth, the product function identifies that product-market fit is the major problem to solve. They would formulate the OKRs focussing on this PMF which will then be given to multiple teams to own, said Patel elaborating on how it works at Browserstack.
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"It's often said that a startup needs a thousand days to get to product-market fit. Those thousand days are like a bus-ride on a bus with no windows. Only you have a view of what the scenery on the outside is and you need to keep sharing it with your team through those thousand days," Sameer Ramesh, cofounder and the product head of edtech startup MyCaptain, said, backing Patel's assertion.
The Failure Points In Product Teams
According to Aditya Sengupta, cofounder and CTO of Instamojo, the single most important reason for failure is not putting in the time and effort to understand the market. He believes the first step is to understand the end-users, their needs, and constraints. For many other startup founders and product owners too, this approach is how the MVP can be made in an informed manner and in line with the product-market fit.
Of course, there are always exceptions and if a startup raises too much money in the early stages, instead of keeping a tight team, it might focus on a large ship. The product team in such a company may not understand the PMF concept since there are so many stakeholders and keep meandering all over the place, said MoneyTap CEO and cofounder Bala Parthasarathy.
Many a time, the original idea for a product might be good but even then it might require significant modifications to drive adoption. If a product team doesn't listen to market feedback and change course accordingly it is bound to fail.
"Product teams should not be scaled in the PMF stage - keeping a small team and getting PMF on one product is hypercritical," added Parthasarathy.
Steadying The Ship In Growth Stage
When a startup enters the growth phase after gaining the initial traction, some key things begin to change as funding and cash flow scenarios start to look up. With the teams getting bigger, the founders and the very first staffers assume different leadership roles and work on different problems.
Abhishek Poddar, cofounder of insurance tech startup PlumHQ and a former product manager at Google, said, "As you scale, it is a common pitfall to become more inward-looking than outward-looking. You begin designing the product to appease your managers and leaders rather than your customers."
This pitfall can be extremely tough on consumer-facing startups, which need sizeable word-of-mouth publicity in the early days to sustain momentum.
Paavan Nanda, cofounder of WinZO Games, told Inc42 , "For any growing organization irrespective of the space, the companies usually follow a path of 0 to 1, 1 to 10, and 10 to 100 and so on. It should be made amply clear across the board that whatever skills and practices got us from 0 to 1, will not take you to a 100."
He added a product role often outgrows an individual's capabilities, and some people in the startup world find it difficult to let go of the reins and onboard experienced hands that can handle the responsibility.
For BigBasket's product head Tejas Vyas, who will be speaking at The Product Summit on October 10th , most challenges come up when leaders don't spend time providing a vision or play the role of a connector across multiple PMs. Other mistakes that product leaders often make are not defining clear ownership areas for product managers, failing to also guide PMs, or take accountability of a PM's work, he emphasised.
Hacking The Growth Mindset
The challenge for any product owner in a tech startup is to walk the tightrope of taking risks to innovate while also quickly shifting gears in line with customer expectations.
Khilan Haria, who heads the product function at Razorpay, said "The first and foremost piece in building great product teams is to change the mindset of product managers from the common perception of ideators or builders to problem solvers."
Once PMs start thinking backward from a customer outcome and deep-dive into customer problems, half the battle is won. According to Haria, it's crucial for product leaders to give PMs the freedom that they can act as mini-entrepreneurs while also understanding that the buck stops at them.
However, the entrepreneurial instinct doesn't come easily to everyone - a product leader needs to inculcate the growth mindset in his team to break the status quo and constantly innovate. Focus on data, willingness to experiment, and inclination to do counterintuitive things are some of the factors that make or break the development process.
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Does Culture Determine Product Success?
While the growth mindset could even be imbibed at a later stage, the culture of a company - which defines the trajectory of a product team to a large extent - is usually one of the toughest things to modify.
Noted author Malcolm Gladwell talked about growth mindset theory in an article and linked it to the collapse of petrochemical giant Enron, whose executives thought they were "the smartest guys in the room".
In actuality, it was a collection of diverse products and the leaders lost track of these varied products. Enron was also embroiled in allegations of deception and greed, which complicated matters further.
Haria said that setting a culture where failures are somewhat celebrated and learnings from failures are derived to raise the game is equally essential. While product managers are accountable and responsible for making a product successful, there are often things that are external in nature that could result in a failure.
"Product management is a decision making role, and allowing managers to fail is equally important. If there is a fear of failure, they might get into analysis paralysis and unnecessary research mode," he added.
Tejas Vyas, Khilan Haria and Snehal Patel will be speaking at Inc42 & TPF's The Product Summit - India's First And Largest Virtual Product Conference, supported by Amplitude and AWS. Register Now.