Alex Medick

March 30, 2023

So you want to build a tech product? Start here first.

QUICK NOTE: This is a more detailed write up on building a product for startups. If this isn't your jam, feel free to ignore. I wrote this presentation for Startup NV and am sharing here as well. 

Building and launching a new product can be daunting for even the most seasoned PM (Product Manager). With so many moving pieces and x-factors, it’s important to have a game plan when you go into product development to 1) optimize efficiency, 2) manage budgets, and 3) know where to grow! 

In the following lesson, you’ll see the 5 Primary Phases of Product Roadmap and Development Planning, along with a brief overview of the top Product Development methodologies used by Small Businesses and Venture-backed tech companies alike. 

For this lesson, we’re going to assume that you have a product in mind, a team in place, and funding in the bank. 

With those 3 major milestones checked off the list, we need to start building. Ready? Let’s build! 

Phase 1: Define Your Problem and the Audience

Having a product idea alone isn’t enough. The world is filled with great ideas that could make a quick buck. But you, dear entrepreneur, are looking for something bigger and longer-lasting than the other ideas floating around out there. You want to make an impact and grow a real business - not just a shooting star. You want to shake things up. I don’t blame you. If you’re an entrepreneur, creating something great and disruptive is in your soul. You’re a dreamer, and that’s incredible! Don’t fight your DNA. 

As a dreamer, you think big… and I mean BIG. That’s wonderful, but you have to crawl before you can run. 

The biggest mistake I see entrepreneurs make with a new product is building something for everyone. 

Well, until you reach product-market-pull, if you build for everyone, you’re building for no one. 

You have to have an initial audience to connect with and serve with your product. You have to get those 100 true fans - the ones that will start the journey with you and become an advocate for your business/product as you continue your growth journey.

But how do you do this? Let’s start with some basic qualifying questions to define. 

  1. What problem is your product solving? 
  2. Is this problem a nice-to-have or must-have issue that needs to be solved?
  3. Who would benefit most from this product? 
  4. Can you uncover early adopters from your defined audience? 

Remember, this is just the beginning. Start lean, add value, build trust, generate advocacy from your starting audience, and expand from there!

Now that you’ve answered the questions above and have defined your starting audience, it’s time to move on to Phase 2: Discovering Your MVP. 

Phase 2: Discovering Your MVP

What the hell is an MVP? Well, let me nerd out for a second here. MVP stands for Minimum Viable Product. This idea was introduced in the legendary book for founders, The Lean Startup. 

The purpose of an MVP is to have a real product get into the hands of your users, study how folks are using it, incorporate feedback, then roll it into the next version.

In other words, using an MVP is a way to test the market and product idea by blowing through a pile of money just to find out folks don’t want what you’re building.

Side Note: An MVP isn’t just an option for products. It can be used for any idea you want to test and validate.

For example: You want to throw a party. Instead of hiring the DJ, renting decorations, getting catering, and stocking up on booze just to find out no one can make it, start with the MVP to see if the market reacts to your idea. Before you do all of the work above, toss together a quick Google Form to say, “I want to throw a party on January 1. You in? Check ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ Then send that form to those you planned on inviting.

If folks say yes, you know it’s safe to move forward. If you see a resounding NO across your survey results, you now know that you shouldn’t throw this party and if you do, don’t expect stellar results.

The MVP is fast and provides data. Setting up the doomed event is timely and expensive.

Now that we know what an MVP is, we need to figure out how to craft it. This is where art and data collide - aka, where the fun begins. 

When looking at how to turn your idea into an MVP, I want you to think about the core functionality of your product. At its very basic form of life, what does it do and what is the easiest way to accomplish the goal?

While the term is a little cliche at this point, it still holds true: how can you hack your way into the basics of what you’re trying to get done?

Can you mimic your end result with a landing page and form? What about a text message? Truthfully, It doesn’t matter how it looks - that comes into play later. What matters is understanding if it helps your users and does they actually want to use your solution to their problem. 

Before you start to feel like a crazy person building hacky products to get into the hands of users, do yourself a favor and Google early versions of Facebook, Air BnB, Twitter, and the iPhone. You won’t feel so crazy after seeing where these giants started. 

Phase 3: Analytics and User Research

Well, well, well. Look at you! You’ve built out your MVP and you’ve found an audience to serve. Your product is now in the hands of early adopters and folks are starting to get an idea of the value you’re adding to the world. 

What next? Now it’s time to put on your smarty-pants hat and start doing some user research and studying the data. 

Don’t be afraid to talk to your customers. Find out what they like and don’t like about your solution. What would they like to see on the V1 of the product? How would they describe your product to others? 

Not only do you want to digest the feedback your users are giving you, but you also want to see how they’re using your product and make correlations between what your users are saying in doing. 

My advice, look for the patterns. Everything has a pattern. You just have to look hard enough to make it unveil itself. 

A great way to get started with user interviews is by conducting a “Must-Have” survey. Here’s an example of one you could start with –>  Survey template

Phase 4: Refine

You have everything you need to start absolutely knocking your V1 (initial product) out of the park! So let’s start building, shall we?!

Let’s polish your initial offering into a nice interface using what the data and user feedback have told you. 

Take your MVP and make it the main thing. Build out the UX and functionality to be user-friendly and frictionless. 

There’s no need to get too vast in your offerings right out of the gate. You don’t need to do it all in V1. As I said earlier, crawl then walk. 

Look at the iPhone for example. Do you remember the first iPhone? Probably not as well as you think you did. iPhone 1 was released in the time of 3g. But why did the iPhone only support 2G, giving it the slowest internet of the devices available at that time? 

It’s because they knew they could update and expand as they built.

A product is a living, breathing thing. It’s not just one-and-done. The product can grow over time, creating stronger user experiences. Don’t let perfection get in the way of progress. 

Remember, we want to release really good work, but perfect might take too long and too much time. Especially when 99% of the time, the perfect ‘feeling’ you're going for doesn’t actually exist or matter to those that will be using your product. 

Phase 5: Prioritize What Comes Next

Pop that champagne friend, because you just got your first product out the door! Users are happy and, most importantly, they’re actually using what you dreamt up. That’s a really big deal! Be proud of yourself. 

The work isn’t over though. In fact, it’s only just begun. Buckle up, because it’s time to ride! 

Where to start next? That’s where you have to start learning to prioritize. In product land, most of us use a simple prioritization format: P1, P2, and P3. 

  • P1 is a major priority. You have to get this done. It really makes an impact. 
  • P2s are features that need to be done, but the house isn’t going to burn down if they aren’t handled right away. 
  • P3s are nice-to-haves that surprise and delight your users, but the world isn’t affected one way or another if it doesn’t get done soon. 

To determine what’s a P1 and P2, you need to focus on two main areas: Does this add value to the user? And What is the ICE Score?

You can learn more about ICE Scoring here.

For reference on how to organize and prioritize features, I took a screenshot of a product roadmap I’m actually using at this time.

As you can see, I have my product features placed into columns and am prioritizing them. I also track what stage features are in during the development process. 

  • Column 1 = Not Shaped: These are all of my ideas in no particular order. They aren’t thought out or “shaped” into a formal scope of work. Just ideas. 
  • Column 2 = Shaping:​​ These are ideas that I’m formalizing into a real scope of work. It’s going from just a basic thought to figuring out the user flow, technical details, and outcomes I’m looking to achieve. 
  • Column 3 = LET’S BUILD: The feature is “shaped” and ready for the design and development team to start taking a look at things. 
  • Column 4 = In Design: These are features currently in design that have not had the approval to move over to the development side of things yet. 
  • Column 5 = In Development:  These are features that have been shaped and designed, not it’s time to build it! 
  • Column 6 = In Testing: I test every feature on a testing server before it goes live to the public. Features in this column are ready to start playing with on a real virtual environment to make sure there are no hiccups or real-usage change discoveries before you roll it out. Please Note: If in testing, I find an error in design or a technical fix, it’s okay to send the feature back to a different stage to get corrected. It happens all of the time, don’t stress! Just be glad you caught it in testing and one of your users didn’t experience it first. 
  • Column 7 = Complete: The feature is out in the world and ready to be experienced by your users. 

Choosing Your Product Development Style

There are many styles of Product Management and Development out there in the world. Every blog you read or YouTube video that you watch will tell you why their version is the best. 

To be honest, none are perfect, but they all have something to admire and incorporate into your company’s workflow. 

Here are 3 of the most widely-used product methodologies that you should know. 

To give you a real-life example, I personally have my products built using a combination of the Shape Up and Lean methodologies.  

  • Agile Product Methodology

    Agile methodology is a flexible approach to product development that involves multiple development cycles, called sprints. This method emphasizes the human aspect of product development, making it a popular choice for many companies. In fact, it has become the default approach for software product development.

    Companies that follow agile methodology start by formulating hypotheses about user requirements. These hypotheses are then validated through user interviews, and product features and functionality are iterated based on the results. This process is repeated several times, even after the product is released.

    Agile methodology allows for changes to be incorporated during sprints, ensuring that the final product meets the user's needs. With this method, there are fewer chances of significant changes after the final release since the requirements have been verified from the earlier stages.

    Agile methodology is best suited for projects with uncertainties because it allows for quick iterations based on user validation. However, to succeed with this approach, you need to keep an open mind, be adaptable to change, and assess the risks involved. With the right mindset, you can attain the best results from agile methods.

  • Shape Up Methodology

    The Shape Up Method helps product teams think more deeply about the right problems much earlier in the development process and start shipping meaningful products on time.

    Product leaders shape – or define – a project concretely enough so that the team gets moving in the right direction. However, they need to work abstractly enough so that the team maintains its autonomy to develop its own solutions. Shape Up’s six-week work cycle gives teams sufficient time to build a product from start to finish. Since the option of bumping out a deadline isn’t part of the Shape Up approach, the team must work efficiently within the given timeframe.

  • Lean Methodology

    The lean methodology originated from the Toyota Production System (TPS), which focuses on reducing waste, improving the process, and encouraging innovation. It is not a new concept but has been evolving outside the manufacturing boundaries in the business world today. 

    There are two main pillars of lean methodology:

    a. Continuous improvement
    b. Respect for people

    By strongly following the two, we try to streamline the process that reduces the noise and provides value to the user while aligning the business goals. The concept of lean methodology is applied in the product development lifecycle in close relation to the agile methodology. Both these methodologies work best in projects with uncertainties.

Closing Notes

There are no shortcuts to building great products. All you can do is test, study, and iterate. At the heart of all of this, that’s what product development is all about. 

Make sure when you’re building, you never lose sight of the end goal - adding value to your users. 

I hope this lesson helped kickstart your product development roadmap and execution journey. 

About Alex Medick

Dad, Entrepreneur // Building INSIDE