A playful way to look at what apps/startups need to do to thrive in the next business cycle. Based on a talk I gave this April at Industry: The Product Conference in Dublin. (Note: this is not religious, but meant to be a fun, perhaps useful, thought exercise.)
Last fall I was remembering my college days as a Badger at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In particular, I was remembering my Philosophy 101 class. In this class we were studying enlightenment philosophers such a David Hume, George Berkeley, and John Locke. They were attempting to solve a big problem of the day: proving or disproving the existence of the Judeo-Christian God through logic. As I recall (and it’s a bit hazy, it was college after all), they converged on four distinct qualities of God.
At the time I was enjoying this memory, I was going through a product roadmap process and helping put together Varo’s Series B fundraising pitch. The college memory and the work situation intertwined in my mind. This led to a little epiphany, namely–those same qualities that God must have (according to those philosophers) are the same qualities that a startup must possess in this coming business cycle. Behold, a new product management framework!
Using Maslow’s famous framework for product planning
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is one of the most well known frameworks of all time. Famously, Maslow draws the pyramid of human needs where lower layers of the pyramid represent the more basic needs (for example, physiological and safety needs) while each level above moves towards transcendence and self actualization. As the theory goes, one can only satisfy the needs at a certain level after satisfying the needs of the levels beneath it. If the lower need has not been met the person will not have the motivation, focus or capability to work on a higher need. For example, you won’t be bothered to worry about your social standing if you are starving, naked, and sick.
Appropriating Maslow’s model and applying it to something I am working on has been an interesting exercise over the years. Most recently, we did this at Varo Money to help us think differently about our product roadmap and 2018 strategy. Here’s how we thought about it in regards to our business. I think it can be applied broadly as a simple, useful framework for startups.
No, it’s not an Eastern European carmaker. That was Yugo. And yeah, it’s not an Italian restaurant in SOMA either. That’s Buca. I’m not a big fan of either of those, but I am a huge fan of VUCA.
VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Any startup or anyone going to work at a startup needs to index high on their comfort level with each of these. Trust me: it’s VUCA out there.
Excuse the rant, but I am tired of getting this question. Every couple of months somebody seems to ask it. It’s always someone outside of the product development team. Usually, it’s somebody from Operations or Marketing (no offense!) who is anxiously awaiting for their pet project to be finished.
It plays out like this… The co-worker walks over to tech side of the office one day at 6pm, sees some empty desks, and then assumes the team is not working hard enough. Okay, I get it. From your perspective, “butts in seats” has been a good proxy for productivity. Here’s why it doesn’t quite work that way for the technical team.
Every company needs to be smart when setting their priorities. Startups need to be ruthless.
Tick. Tock. That’s the clock counting down to the moment when your startup runs out of money. Whether your goal is profitability or hitting some proof point in order to raise the next round of fundraising, make no doubt about it, each moment is precious. Every feature you build, every a/b test you start, every customer acquisition strategy you implement, and every single question you ask your users is important. You are making a choice at the expense of something else you could be doing. It’s a zero-sum game.
I remember how that nagging feeling just underneath the surface of my thoughts turned into a full blown problem. At first it was just some white noise in the back of my head that followed me from meeting to meeting. Then the issue graduated into conscious thought. “I really need to figure that out,” I would think but then do nothing about it. Finally, it began keeping me up at night, invading my thoughts during family time, and generally occupying every available space in my mind. It was now a problem I could no longer ignore.
I spent some time in the problem space, exploring options and tinkering with possible solutions. I talked to a few of my peers on the management team. It turns out they had been seeing the same issues and feeling the same way. We got together and compared notes, riffed on ideas, and came up with an action plan. It was going to be a big change for our company, but it was a good plan and we were actually getting kind of excited about it. My anxiety had turned to optimism. I might have even felt a little bit of, ahem, pride.
For 10 of the last 12 years, I served on the executive teams at TaskRabbit, Say Media and Dogster, Inc. While these teams have been extremely different, in some interesting ways they are very similar.
You’ve just been promoted to the Executive Team at your startup. Congratulations! I’m certain you deserved it. But hang on, there’s something you should know.
You Are Entering the Sausage-Making Factory
Being promoted to the Executive Team is an exciting milestone in anyone’s career, however it can also be somewhat shocking if you haven’t been in that position before. Here is how it usually plays out. After plenty of the congratulatory slaps on the back, you find yourself sitting in a room with a handful of other execs, the Executive Meeting. Pastries and coffee appear. Small talk and chit chat fades and the meeting starts. For the first 60 seconds of reviewing the agenda all seems good. However, as the meeting continues an ominous shadow of doubt darkens your psyche as you begin to think, these people have no idea what they are doing.