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Doing Product as a Founder
One of the things that's stood out to me since sitting on the VC side of the table is how we use "product" to mean several distinct jobs.
If you're a software engineer, you're probably writing code regardless of the size of company you're at. Sure, other things changes, and your responsibilities may change as you grow in your career, but there's a commonality. Likewise an early stage marketer might be a generalist and a larger company might separate out brand marketing, performance marketing, content marketing, etc, but the same activities are marketing.
"Product" means completely different tasks depending on the stage of company. This week I’m going to write about what it means for a founder to be doing product, and how that can go wrong.
Founders doing Product
This is where the most confusion happens. Investors will say a founder is a "product person," without thinking which pieces they are good at, or how this differs from a Product Manager. On the flip side, founders will get the feedback they need to learn how to do "product," without clarifying what the real skill they need to learn is.
At the earliest stages “doing product” is very simple:
An internal sense of the vision/dent you are trying to make in the world. Being able to share the reason you started the company (you can see how this would align to a VC saying someone was “good at product”…)
Ability to spend time with the right early users and customers and internalize what you're hearing from them. Keep yourself grounded in reality, without reacting too much to the whims of each user.
Slicing the vision into steps that are small enough for teammates to build, ship, and measure. Each slice should align to the bigger vision, and the founder should clarify as needed.
Set a numerical goal (or a few) to help you know if you're tracking towards success.
As long as you are doing those things, you're doing well. It doesn't matter if you have agile, dual-track agile, planning points, specs, or anything else. Product trends will come and go, but if a small team is moving towards product-market fit by building, you've got it down. The person doing this is often the CEO cofounder, but it can be any founder as long as they have the vision and the ability to interact with users.
When it’s not working, I see three primary failure paths at this stage:
🪄 Vision only. Sometimes a founder will hear that people believe in their vision, and over-rely on it. It's necessary but not sufficient. This pattern makes it hard to listen to customers and change fast enough to get to something that's working. Often in this failure mode, any customer who agrees is "right" and one who disagrees is "wrong" (vs. defining a target upfront). The founder will specify down to extreme detail instead of distilling into goals the team can work from. Often when these founders are asked to "add product" they add superficial process.
😵💫 Over-listening. The opposite of the first problem, sometimes a founder will try to react to exactly what every user says. Not every user is the right user, and you need to decide who to hone in on! Listening to everyone results in thrash where there isn't a coherent direction for the product. It can also result in a lack of decision making because the everyone is always waiting for “more information.” Another variation of this would be listening too much to what a VC wants vs. what you know you need to build.
😶🌫️ Over-process. On the other hand, some founders really want to "get it right." This often happens when they came from a company that was later stage and struggled with product. They immediately go read six books, talk to everyone, and end up adding way too many rules to do the right thing. The focus becomes more on the processes rather than the output (everyone knowing what to build to align to the vision and what's needed next). People spend more time optimizing the process ("playing house") than building product.