Over the last many years, I’ve been experimenting with applying Lean Startup and Customer Development concepts to product management. I first wrote about this here. Some time ago, I wrote about the challenges I and other product professionals have faced with the traditional approach of writing a business case.
One area where I had always struggled with was finding a simple and quick way to sketch out my product ideas. I used PowerPoint, Word, Google Docs, but they never really worked effectively. Often times my original notes would grow into a bloated morass of detailed thoughts about features, customers, marketing, partnerships, technologies, etc. There was no structure. Worst of all, if I wanted to share them with someone, I’d have to spend time figuring out how to translate them into something readable, since no one would be able to decipher my chicken scratch.
Before writing a requirements doc or business case, what I really wanted was a way to not only quickly capture a product idea in a structured manner, but also use the same format to share it with others to elicit feedback.
So you can imagine my delight when I came across Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas several years ago.
What’s great about it is since it’s a single page, one can quickly jot down the basics of any business model, and it’s easy to share and more likely to get read than a PowerPoint deck or a Word doc. The single page also forces brevity: there isn’t a lot of space for a laundry list of features – you need to distil down your idea to its most essential building blocks.
Love at first sight, I started trying to use it for my products. But I ran into a few challenges. I found that while it does a good job capturing the key elements of a business, it’s not as customer focused as I would have liked because there was no place to capture the customer problems I was trying to solve or identify potential early adopters. There was also no place to capture my envisioned solution, and I often got confused between Channels and Customer Relationships.
That’s when I came across Ash Maurya’s Lean Canvas, an adaptation of the Business Model Canvas he created for his web startups.
Ash has correctly put the focus on customers and their problems. I also like that he calls out Unfair Advantage, which to me means competitive differentiation. This is especially true for a startup that may be fighting bigger, more established players.
So I started using his Lean Canvas, but ran into a new set of problems as a product manager:
Resources: Ash has left this out from Alex’s original version. I can understand this with respect to startups, but as a product manager working in an organization, it was important to me to identify which resources – platforms, systems, departments, vendors, etc. – I would need to make my product idea a reality.
Readability: When walking someone through a product or business idea, my inclination is always to start with the market opportunity, which means customers, their problems, and how we can solve them. I found neither of the above two canvases easily lend themselves to that flow. I’d have to start at the right-most column and then jump back left. This is non-intuitive to most English-speaking readers, and I found I’d quickly lose my audience as I criss-crossed columns.
Two other challenges I ran into as a product manager:
Stakeholders: Product Managers have to deal with internal stakeholders. The larger the org, the more. Often times a new product idea needs an executive sponsor. In my experience, I’ve found that the more I’m mindful of who are my key stakeholders, the greater the chance of internal support for my product.
Non-Revenue “Products”: Some products managers are responsible for initiatives that aren’t directly revenue generating, but do provide tangible business value, like improving CSAT, driving referrals, etc. I’ve lead several like that.
So I decided to create my own iteration that I felt was more suitable to me as a product manager, that I call the Product Canvas:
This version puts the customer and market on the left-hand side, which not only addresses the readability issue but also supports more intuitively how I think through a product opportunity. I can start with the customer and their problems on the left, and work my way toward the right to ultimately figure out how I’m going to deliver on the solution.
Here’s a brief description of each block and the order in which I typically approach them:
1. Customer Segment: Who is the target customer of our proposed product? This could be the company’s entire customer base, a segment, or a new market or vertical. Ash recommends using a separate Lean Canvas for each segment where one has multiple segments in mind, and I think that’s good advice as a starting point.
1a. Early Adopters: For any new product opportunity, it’s important to identify early adopters. There is already a ton written about this. While identifying early adopters is implied in the Lean Canvas, I wanted it called out explicitly, as I’ve found even in existing organizations there is a tendency to think any new product idea is applicable to all customers.
2. Problem: A brief description of the top problems we’re addressing. I try to limit this to at most 3.
2a. Existing Alternatives: How is the customer solving this problem today? This may not be just direct competitors. For example, in the early days, Quicken’s competition was not only other accounting software, but also checkbooks, and pen and paper.
3. Unique Value Proposition: How are we uniquely going to solve our customers’ problem(s)? This is the elevator pitch: the one sentence that clearly states the value we’re providing to our target customers.
4. Solution: What are the most essential features of our solution that will deliver on our UVP? This is not an exhaustive feature list. I try to limit it to the top 3 elements of my proposed solution.
5. Channels: How will we get (acquire), keep (retain), and grow (sell more to existing) customers? What is the marketing and sales strategy?
6. Revenue Streams/Business Value: How will we make money? What’s our pricing strategy? If this is not a revenue generating product, what other business value is it providing? Improving customer satisfaction? Customer lifetime value? Market positioning? Competitive differentiation? Operational efficiencies?
7. Key Metrics or Success Factors: What are the most important metrics that will tell us that we’re successful? Signups? Conversions? Referrals? CSAT? NPS? These are the metrics that are driving #6 above.
8. Key Resources: What are the most critical internal resources we need? These could be platforms, systems, business processes, departments. Are there external partners we need to rely on?
9. Cost Structure: What are the key cost drivers? Software/IT development? Customer acquisition? Account management? Hiring and talent development? This is also a good place to capture a back-of-the-envelope break-even calculation.
10. Unfair Advantage: This is the distinctive competence or advantage that your product has over other solutions in the marketplace. It’s something your product does better than any other, something that can’t be easily copied. It could be intimate knowledge of an industry, personal authority or brand, a business process or competence, a patent, or some other intellectual property.
After experimenting with using this Product Canvas as a product manager, I started sharing it with folks, asking them to use it, and the feedback has been very encouraging.
Feel free to download it here.