Product Planning

There have been a number of great posts lately on the importance of creating an excellent user experience with your product. While a detailed look at a product planning cycle would be a full article I thought touching on the main points may be helpful.
Peter over at Tech Capital Partners in KW has a good post on the topic where he articulates thoughts on “The experience IS the product” and the importance of establishing and maintaining a superior user interface.
Mark MacLeod over at StartUpCFO does a great job at nailing the importance of staying focussed on the product at ALL stages of a startup (early-late) and how it is a critical component of company growth.
As your company grows and the footprint of your product becomes larger and larger it is critical that you have a process in place (Product Planning Process) that allows you to:
  1. Capture all the required data to build a plan.
  2. Ensure that you are considering your architecture in lock step with the plans for the product. (A lesson Twitter has been learning)
  3. Validate with Market and document requirements.
  4. Plan timelines and resources required to complete

Capture all the required data to build a plan

There are many inputs into what the next shiny thing is for your product or what the next new product should be and it is important to collect data from various different sources so you have perspective and as close to full information as you can get. Any decision related to your product must come with input from customers and prospects. Get the good the bad the ugly. Don’t wait for this info to pour in, go out and get it. User groups, web 2.0 tools, hosted onsite sessions, webex’s, basically any way you can make it easy for the customer to provide their thoughts, suggestions and feedback…..just make sure you get it. In addition to customers talk to your sales people, your technical support group, your call centre, your development group. Get as much data as possible. Lastly make sure you are looking at what your competition is doing and what new entrants to the market that may be on the periphery of your product are doing.

All of this data collection is not event based. This is a continuous process that must be working every day in your organization. Make it part of everyone’s job to collect this info and have a formal central repository where it is easy for people to dump their info as it is collected.

Ensure your underlying architecture will continue to support your plans

This seems to go without saying but it doesn’t. Time and time again I see companies whose product evolves to a point they never imagined it would and it creates significant problems if the platform is not supportive of the type and pace of new product releases you want and need to do. Validating this regularly will allow you to not get too far down the path before having to make a possible switch. No one wants to have to switch something significant midstream but the reality is that with the best forethought and planning things can change in the marketplace so fast that you may eventually have no choice.

Validate with the Market and Document Requirements

Once you have defined a roadmap for the product validate it with the group you collect data from. When building the roadmap and communicating back to your group it is best if you can lay out for them your thoughts (based on what you know today) for the next 2-4 releases and where you see the product going, with the caveat that there may be a fair amount of change given the time horizon you are presenting is long.

Plan the Timeline and Resources

Now the execution. Build the plan to deliver what has been scoped, look at resource gaps and ensure you have a plan to secure the help required and that timelines are built for delivery to customer that are reasonable with a fair amount of buffer in them for….well…you know.

Summary

Everyone agrees that customer experience and the continued velocity of product development is critical for early startups and for more established companies with a start up culture. To successfully manage this it is important that you build a process to inform you and allow you to plan your way through to improving the experience. the above contains a brief example of the major requirements and this process will be very different depending on the size and scope of your company and product. the important message is HAVE a process that is part of your company’s daily pulse and you will stay in tune with your customers, the market and success.

Drive Process, Be a Data Gatherer

One of the things I have struggled with at small startups is process and the collection of data to create business intelligence and knowledge. There are certain areas where I think it is important to try to establish process so that a company can gather data, analyze data, build intelligence and then use that to improve internal processes, go to market strategies, product planning, etc. THIS IS IMPORTANT but all my fellow startup and small company members will appreciate that there are oh…….about 500 other competing priorities that seem equally or more important at any given point in any given day! I will use sales process as an example below to try to demostrate why YOU MUST make the time early on to build these processes.
The most important thing to remember about building and implementing process and knowledge is that in a growing company, implementing process will always be easier to do today than it is tomorrow. The bigger you are and the more entrenched you are the harder it is implement so START NOW!!!
Spending the time to build some rudimentary processes to collect data will save you time in the future and will provide you with more than just a gut feel when it comes time to review why something is or isn’t working in the future.
Sales process is a good example. Building a sale process and utilizing a simple CRM like Salesforce.com, Maximizer, SugarCRM, (insert your favorite here) will allow you to start to build a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t.
From a Sales Ops perspective (a few examples):
-What are the five key questions/pieces of data that you need to get from a prospect on a first call?
-What program or partner is generating the majority of your leads?
-Had the customer heard of us beforehand? If so from where?
-this list is endless and should be customized for your needs
From a CFO perspective:
-how long from first call to to demo and what % get there?
-how long from demo to meeting and what %?
-how long from demo/meeting to formal proposal and what %?
-how long from proposal to draft contract and what %?
-how long to close and how many?
This is neither complete nor perfect and is just an example to make my point that by starting to track data and building a database of this type of info you will have a data driven basis for assessing a pipeline and providing a historical fact based position on what the forecast may look like moving out. This can provide the straw man and starting point for your sales calls, forecasts and budget conversations with sales.
After time you start to link this data to certain verticals, certain geographies, certain partners and look for patterns. Now you are putting the pieces together that will really help the business.
Over time you can build a significant amount of internal knowledge (that is not just gut feel) that will help qualify prospects, pipelines, etc. When modelling revenue growth you can link the growth back directly to the volume of activities (demo’s, meetings, first calls) that are required to drive that level of growth and ensure that you are modelling a cost base that will support the level of activity required to drive the required growth.

Summary
Building process and collecting data for analysis allows us to create a learning organization. A learning organization is critical to us in our startup world because we have neither the resources nor the time to repeat our mistakes. We as CFO’s need to support our organizations and drive improvement through learning from what works and what doesn’t work. This can be applied in almost every functional areas our business. Start tomorrow, don’t wait it will only get harder.

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