Many of my product help calls are from folks frustrated with being able to pursue a new product in an existing company. They complain about how difficult it is to secure resources and garner internal stakeholder buy-in.
If you find yourself in this position, congratulations! As painful and frustrating as it is, many successful product people I’ve met have gone through exactly what you’re experiencing — including me!
The problem is the way we’ve been taught to pursue this — to first write a business case, business plan or MRD — just doesn’t work. The fact is, people think writing a business case is a waste of time and hate it.
And no where are we taught how to cultivate stakeholder support. Like it or not, every project in an existing company, regardless of the size of the company, needs an internal champion or sponsor. Lack of stakeholder buy-in can kill any product endeavor not matter how good your product idea may be.
So it’s no surprise really that product people are frustrated.
So here’s a new process I’ve tried recently that worked much better for me:
Bootstrapping My Product Using Validated Learning Milestones
That’s right, I bootstrapped it. I deferred asking for major dollars and resources until I absolutely needed to. Here’s what I did:
- I quickly sketched out my product strategy. The Product Canvas works perfectly for this. No wasting time writing a multi-page document no one is going to read.
- I decomposed the product strategy into critical learning milestones meant to answer the most important questions in my product strategy:
- How does our target customer describe the problem?
- How are they solving it today?
- Why is that solution not working for them? In other words, why is the problem still a pain for them?
- How can we know before we invest a lot in development, sales and marketing that the solution we’re thinking of building really solves the problem?
- How quickly can we get our first customer?
- What are the most important features we need to have in our go-to-market product?
- I figured out what’s the least amount of work I need to do to maximize my learning for each milestone.
- I broke down my investment need into these milestones, showing how ROI could be tangibly achieved based on measurable results.
Here’s what the investment plan looked like:
So where’s the bootstrapping part?
Well, in the past, I would have asked to spend money on 3rd party market research (four to five figures), a design agency to craft the user experience (five to — I’m ashamed to admit — six figures), a usability study (five figures), and a large development team (many figures). This would be costly and take a long time before I would have delivered the product to a single customer. And it’s a tough business case to make.
Instead, because I had broken down the plan into these learning milestones, I was able to easily accomplish the first two milestones by spending little to no money at all. The first is simply my time, so requires no money. To validate our solution hypotheses, I used Balsamiq to sketch a handful of the key screens of our solution. Total cost was $79 for the tool and my time.
When we were ready to design the user experience, since we didn’t have an in-house designer, we commissioned a cracker-jack freelance designer — way cheaper than hiring an expensive design agency, and way faster. It got the job done. If you happen to have an in-house designer, even better, since your investment “ask” may only be some of their time.
This is classic bootstrapping — using the resources you have at your disposal for as long as you can to create traction.
This approach not only allowed me to conserve precious funds and resources, but also allowed me to be less assumptive and more data-driven in identifying my investment ask at subsequent stages. It also enabled me to not only build early traction with customers, but also have them help me define the minimum feature set we’d need to develop to go to market — labeled as the Minimum Sellable Product (MSP) in the picture above.
Here are the benefits that resulted:
- Instead of writing a massive business case based largely on guesswork, I needed only to sell a bunch of mini-business cases. Way quicker and easier to do.
- Each mini-business case was informed by the learnings from the previous stage, making each subsequent mini-business case better informed, more robust, and an easier sell.
- The product strategy was informed by real market insights. (What a product manager needs to do anyway!)
- I had a customer driven product roadmap that was tough for anyone to dispute as it was informed directly by tangible customer insights, which defined what went in our MVP vs. MSP vs. roadmap vs. nice-to-have.
- This enabled our product development efforts to be more focused, as I had all the ammunition I needed to fend off arbitrary new feature requests that risked derailing our product development.
- Because of our “co-innovation” approach with our customers, we were able to get “earlyvangelists” that we are leveraging to generate momentum for our broader market launch. Customer Development in concert with Product Development!
- All of this made it much easier for me to garner, maintain and accelerate buy-in from my internal stakeholders, because:
- My plan showed a clear milestone-based investment plan with the ROI to be gained at each phase.
- Smaller continual investments are easier to digest and support than a large upfront one.
- Each investment stage was grounded in real customer data, increasing confidence in pursuing the product.
- My stakeholders felt involved in the process, as I made sure to keep them informed and provide them an opportunity to provide feedback.
- This, in turn, kept me one step ahead of any potential concerns they may have had, and I could make sure to address them at a future stage.
Need someone to talk to about pursuing a new product at your company? Just pick a slot on my FREE product help time, and I’ll be happy to chat!
Note: Customer/Problem Fit and Problem/Solution Fit were first defined by Ash Maurya in his book “Running Lean”. Minimum Viable Product was coined by Eric Ries. The first I had come across the term Minimum Sellable Product was in this Slideshare presentation.