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Product Management: Focus The Team

This is the first in a series of posts on product management.

Two Kinds of Focus

In a startup project, the ability to focus is an absolute prerequisite of success. There are two kinds of focus here, I’ll call them “Macro” and “Micro”. Macro Focus means what is it exactly that your team is going to build. Micro Focus is making sure that every action and task a team member does is focused correctly.

Macro Focus

By definition, a startup is under financed and under staffed vs. an older company. Also, a startup will be targeting a market that is not yet established and not well defined, with a “consumer need” that is not proved. A startup simply cannot be “stretched” to work on a task that is not very focused and well defined, nor on a problem that is “old” enough to have pretty good solutions already (though, there are exceptions to that). The job of the product manager here is to:

  1. Decide on and define a problem the product will solve, and how it will solve it.
  2. Communicate this clearly and often to the team.
  3. Constantly make sure that what the team is working on indeed helps solving that problem as defined.

Defining a Problem and a Solution

How to find and decide on the “right” problem and solution is going to be a separate post. For now let’s see some examples of bad and good definitions.

Bad: We will solve online shopping by building a better e-commerce website

This is definitely a great market to target in terms of size and the solution is “right”, but it’s not nearly narrow enough for a startup and will require competing with great established players. Real life example: Cuil trying to build a better general web search engine.

Bad: We will build a social shopping site where you can ask questions and post video reviews

This is better in terms of finding a more unique problem: no product is a good solution to none of the above. However, this is still not focused. You’re actually working on two distinct problems (“get an answer” and “see a video review”). Chances are there’s a bunch of other teams working at this very moment on each of the above separately. You’re giving them an unfair advantage.
You may say that my example is very artificial and you’re right, but almost every startup I’ve been at or heard of is actually working on 3-4 distinct problems while thinking they’re only working on one.

Good: We will solve the problem of finding the right product by creating a site with short and high-quality video reviews

The problem is well defined and so is the solution. This can now be communicated to the team and also used as a litmus test to see if a particular task gets you closer to delivering the solution or not. Note: you are still far from guaranteed to be successful because you may be working on the wrong problem or the wrong solution, but at least you know exactly what you’re working on. This way – if you fail, you will fail faster and be able to pivot quicker. Both are good because they increase your chances of being successful in the long run.

Communicating Focus to the Team

Now that you’ve defined the focus of the product, you need to communicate it to the rest of the team. There are two goals you’re trying to achieve: alignment and motivation.
Why do you need alignment? Once you know the focus – you will be able to make all your decisions as product manager. You’ll also be able to constantly make sure that a given action and task are right for building the product. However, for any team that’s larger than 2-3 members, you won’t be able to keep up with everything people do. This is where you need alignment. You need to communicate the focus clearly and specifically enough for the other team members to be able to make the necessary focus-related decisions correctly, on their own, and on a daily basis. How many such decisions are there? I’d say that an average programmer makes hundreds decisions affected by the focus of your product every day. Needless to say, the programmer will make the decisions anyhow. Now imagine how far astray can the team go if the people on it do not clearly understand the focus. Some examples:

Do I need to invest time in creating a smooth rating widget for the video display?

Definitely, because our solution is showing quality video reviews and how are we going to know which ones are good if people don’t rate the videos they watch?

Do we need to build a great commenting functionality on the video display?
Probably no (not now anyway), because we’re not solving the problem by letting people read others’ written opinions about products.

The second goal of communicating focus is motivation. When people know exactly what they’re working on they’re better motivated because:

  1. It’s easy to know where they stand in terms of reaching the goal – this is a powerful motivator. Just think about running up hill and not seeing where the hill ends compared to finally seeing the finish line.
  2. It’s easy to empathize with the user’s problem as opposed to working on something that is generic and “faceless”.
  3. Team members can decide for themselves whether the product is something they believe is going to be successful and whether they even want to be working on it.

The last point is worth an elaboration:
The world is full of good professionals who don’t really care what they’re working on. They are motivated by other things: getting paid, technical challenge, nice work environment. There is nothing wrong with that. However, in a startup, you should try very hard to have a different type of people on board. You want to have the people who truly believe in the exact focused problem and solution you’ll be working on. That’s because you will get into hard times where the progress will be slow and money will be running out. That’s where the extra belief and motivation of those team members who decided for themselves that the product is “right” to work on will come in handy. Almost every successful startup story mentions how there was this rough moment where it looked like the company is going under but somehow miraculously held on. Every time it was because the team members personally believed in what they were doing.

In the next post I’ll talk about “Micro” focus.

My company builds Delver – a website where you can discover great products that are interesting to you with the help of your friends. Check it out!

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