Be Like In-N-Out

More businesses need to be like Chick-fil-A and In-n-Out. The menu is simple, the service is excellent, and the quality is high. Customers don’t have to learn a new menu each month, smile at apathetic employees, or brood over an incorrectly filled order. For those reasons, customers love them. 

 The lesson is clear: do less, do it well, and be consistent.  

How else do you explain their durability? Both In-n-Out and Chick-fil-A were started in the 1940s, but growth hasn’t plateaued nor has their cult-like following. Chick-fil-A’s revenue tripled between 2010 and 2019. Meanwhile, the rest of the fast-food industry has attempted to compete in the market by serving up one ludicrous menu item after another. Carl’s Junior created fruit loop donuts. Taco Bell sold us Kit Kat quesadillas. It’s like the fast-food industry conducts strategic planning using junk food mad libs. And McDonald’s? They tried to make us eat salad! 

As a product leader, you should strive to be like In-n-Out. If your customer cherishes you for beef, keep the beef coming. Don’t confuse them with lettuce topped with a paltry dose of carrot sticks and cucumbers. Resist the pressure to become something you’re not.

It’s unfortunate that most software companies, and the product leaders within them, don’t subscribe to the same ethos as these fast food icons. Successful software businesses begin as simple applications that succeed by delivering 10x greater value — relative to the alternatives on the market — with a limited set of features. Chrome won the browser wars because it is more secure, faster, and simpler than all other browsers on the market. Amazon became Amazon due to a multi-decade maniacal focus on selection, price, and convenience.

Being the best at a few things is a defensible strategy for building multi-billion dollar companies.

Myspace lost to Facebook because Facebook kept it simple. While Myspace layered on features, the product became slower, more difficult to use, and the primary value to the user — adding friends, sending them messages, and posting photos — was buried in an insidious medley known as “feature creep”.

Meanwhile, Facebook pulled off an opposing plan. New feature development was halted on several product lines and the bulk of the company turned its attention to a few initiatives — making the website fast and accessible from anywhere on the planet, ensuring users could easily find and add friends, and simplifying the user interface so that uploading photos and messaging others was trivial. 

Within 18 months, Myspace went from the dominant social network on the planet to a dying business and Facebook went on to become a once in a generation company worth several hundred billion dollars. The flip flop was shocking and I was there to witness it. 

Facebook’s focus on a few things that matter is what propelled it to the dominant social platform on the planet. However, their lack of focus in recent years has, ironically, turned it into a replica of a declining Myspace circa 2010. Users can donate to charity, find romantic partners, sell old furniture, play games, live stream video, send money, and find a job. But what happened to keep in touch with my closest friends and family? That was lost along the way. 

Your challenge as a product leader is to create more value for the customer without introducing the clutter that obfuscates what you stand for. 

What three things does your customer love you for? Is it speed, simplicity, and security? Convenience, low cost, and selection? Assuming you have this understanding, what plans do you have to enrich those values? And, most importantly, are you prepared to resist or kill the products that break your customer’s expectations of you? No, McDonald’s, I don’t want a salad. 

Just because you can serve your customer a salad doesn’t mean you should. Apparently, Burger King has decided that the way to survive in the hamburger market is to serve something that isn’t even a real hamburger. What clearer sign do you need that a company has lost its way? By rolling out a meatless patty they are willing to concede the market to any competitor willing to stick to what most people want, which is a good-tasting meat patty. 

Don’t be like Burger King. Don’t be like McDonald’s. Be like In-n-Out. Keep your product simple and its features aligned with the value your customers have come to know you for. Be fun. Be simple. Be consistent. Be convenient. Be low-cost. Be accessible. Be easy. Be a few of those things, but don’t try to be all of them. And no matter what, don’t be like Cheesecake Factory

Why Standups are Useless and How to Run Great Product Team Meetings

The majority of meetings are a waste of time. And in my opinion, one flavor of meeting that tops the charts in uselessness is the “status update” meeting. You know this meeting— the meeting where everyone gets together to share what they’ve been doing. It’s ironic that meetings like this exist because it gets in the way of people actually doing something productive. A cross-functional group of people (product, design, engineering, marketing and so on) working on a new product doesn’t greatly benefit from status updates.


“Standups” Won’t Save You

I don’t claim to know the perfect recipe for a cross-functional product team meeting, yet I can say with a stiffened spine that the worst breed of status update meeting is the “stand up”, which has been popularized in agile methodology. I’m not the first to say this as others have had similar observations and provided comical opinions

Most standups occur daily and some teams reduce the frequency to a few times a week. The majority of standups are short, yet often meander into casual conversation where people talk about things unrelated to work, like what they did over the weekend. None of this helps you build quality products at a fast pace. We’ve become so enamored with standups that popular tools like Slack even have a standup feature built into them.

But my stance on standups is the polar opposite of the trend. The only time in which a standup is truly beneficial is in the run up to a product launch. That’s when your troops are about to storm the beach and you want to make sure they are prepared. Are we ready to flip the switch on the A/B test? Is marketing ready to publish the blog post and push out the PR pieces? Does customer service have the scripts they need to answer customer questions that will come in right after launch? Do a standup when nearing launch to make sure the troops are ready to sack Normandy. That’s when it’s useful.

In any case prior to a launch, standups are mostly a waste of time. That’s because the bulk of the product development process centers around (1) building (2) making decisions. Point #1 is obvious (of course the team is busy creating stuff), but point #2 deserves a discussion, since that’s the meat and potatoes of the subject. 

Making Decisions

Hundreds of decisions need to be made during the development of a new product, like:

  • What’s making the cut for the MVP?
  • Who is the lead designer going to be?
  • How will we promote/merchandise this new feature?
  • Will we be A/B testing it? 
  • What are our goals and key metrics?

Those are the obvious big decisions that nearly every product team needs to make. But there are also a long list of mid-sized and bite-sized decisions that need to be made along the way  like:

  • Do we need to create a new UI component or can we use the one from our existing component library?
  • Is feature ‘X’ worth building since it balloons backend scope by 3 weeks?
  • Will this be a 50/50 A/B test or should we do a simple holdout group of 95/5?
  • Are we shipping on all three platforms in parallel across web, iOS, and Android?
  • Can we cut scope on Android since it’s only 5% of our users?

For anyone that’s built a product of reasonable scope/size, we all know that the set of decisions to make balloons as the project kicks off. It’s only then that you start to peel back the onion and realize the complexity of the task at hand, in addition to the set of decisions that must be made in order to unblock the project and keep it moving. 

The universe of decisions to make begins quite large. As the product team progresses through those decisions, the hard (i.e. big) decisions tend to be made earlier in the project (e.g. “What’s making it into the MVP?”) and the mid-sized and smaller decisions tend to come in later in the game (e.g. “Can we simplify UI component ‘X’ to reduce the backend scope by a few days?”). The total number of decisions to make also approaches zero as a team gets closer to launch. 

(Lots of big decisions to make early on with fewer and smaller decisions to make later)

But let’s recall the point I made a few seconds ago— the team is unblocked when decisions are made. “Unblock” is the magic word here.

Unanswered questions act as headwinds or speed bumps when building products. Using the classic example of MVP cutoff, a team must decide on which features will be included or excluded from an MVP. That’s a hard decision to make so product teams typically move slowly through this phase of development. This is one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Google Design Sprint methodology. As the methodology explains, you can use their design sprint method to “shortcut the endless debate cycle” to arrive at a few key decisions regarding what the first product prototype will be. Each unmade decision (i.e. each unanswered question) pumps the brakes on the development process as a whole. Protracted decision-making leads to protracted product development cycles, often by weeks or months (indicated by the red bars below). The Google Design Sprint method is one great example of how a team can make important decisions more quickly, which ushers them through the process of arriving at their first testable prototype.

(Answered questions lead to delays in development indicated by the red bars)

More on Standups

Before I share with you the meeting format that I’ve learned is most effective for product teams, I’ll harp a bit more on the ubiquitously popular “standup” meeting. 

Let’s take a closer look at the prescribed format of a stand per agile methodology. Members of a standup (i.e. everyone on the team) are asked to share the following:

  1. What did I work on yesterday?
  2. What am I working on today?
  3. What issues are blocking me?

There are several big issues with this format. 

First, why should I care about what everyone worked on yesterday? Most of the time, you don’t care, and you shouldn’t care what others work on day-to-day. The practical reality is that you only care about what another team member worked on yesterday if it enables you to do your job (i.e. it unblocks you). Anything shared that does not explicitly unblock you is meaningless noise.

For example, a product manager may share something like, “Yesterday, I did one interview, worked on some specs, and interviewed one customer. Today, I need to interview one more design candidate and then I’ll update some of the user stories in the spec based on the questions I received from design. I’m not currently blocked on anything.” This example of a typical standup update is useless in terms of what it does to enable a product team to build a higher quality product at a faster pace. 

Similarly, why should anyone care about what I’m working on today? Again, it only matters if what one person is doing today unblocks another person on the team. But if it’s really that important of a blocker, should that person wait until the following daily standup to make that known? Why not email that person or swing by their desk as soon as you’re running up against the roadblock and seek to remediate the issue as it arises? 

Now, let’s dissect the third bullet point, which is to share what you’re blocked on. A team member may be blocked on something in one of two use cases. The first is that the task they are blocked on simply takes a lot of time. An example would be backend engineering waiting for more clarity on frontend specs before they can finalize the engineering design docs for what they must implement. The second reason why someone may be blocked is that a decision hasn’t yet been made. It’s less useful to say “I’m blocked by X” than it is to say “Hey, why don’t we get together and make a decision on X, so that we can move forward?”

Standups don’t carve out time for decision-making, which is the ultimate blocker. Rather, standups are designed to simply make the blocker known, yet not resolve the blocker. Resolution matters more than awareness.

A Simple Agenda to Keep Things Moving

I’d like to propose a simpler alternative that leads to more productive product meetings and improved product development cycles. It’s something I learned through trial and error in my career. I’ve found it to be the simplest, most effective meeting format for any product team (and for most meetings in general). Here it is:

  1. Action items: who is handling what key action item and by what date?
  2. What decisions need to be made?

I would run this meeting one or two times a week depending on the volume of decisions to be made. Sometimes as much as three times a week. Early in the development of a product, when a team needs to make many decisions, I increase the frequency of these meetings. As development progresses, the volume of decisions to make decreases and the proportion of time spent on building increases. Similarly, the magnitude of the decision (i.e. how hard or important it is) tends to decrease as development progresses.

If the team is effective at surfacing key decisions and in driving towards decisions expeditiously, then you can cut out weeks or months of unnecessary delays in the product development lifecycle. So, how do you make sure this is done?

Collecting Open Questions

To prepare for running effective product team meetings (i.e. decision-making meetings), I would go to each function lead on the product team (design, engineering, marketing, etc.) and ask them what decisions they needed made. I would collect the open questions and pull them into the agenda. It’s a simple enough task so you can ask people as you swing by their desk, ping them over email or Slack. In parallel, I would maintain a set of action items that came up during the decision-making meetings. From the set of open questions and action items I would compose an agenda and it would look like the following:

Action Items

  1. (Josh) Share latest iOS designs with Tammy by 9/13
  2. (Deanna) Send marketing language for review to compliance by 9/15
  3. (Andy) Sync with data science on how to configure the A/B test buckets by 9/15
  4. Etc.

Decisions to Make

  1. Should we include the 3-5 days worth of UI design polish as part of the MVP launch or not?
  2. Should we ask executive staff for support to get one more backend engineer or is there no parallel processing that can be done with extra resources to bring in the launch date?
  3. Who is going to take the lead on starting customer development for the next milestone on our roadmap? Should we even start that yet or punt it by a week or two?
  4. Etc.

If I were leading the meeting, I would run through the set of action items to make sure we continue to execute on the critical tasks each of us signed up for and hold ourselves accountable to hitting our deadlines. Any new action items that came up during that portion of the discussion would then be added to the list in realtime. We would normally move through the action items portion of the agenda in less than 10 minutes. 

The remainder of the meeting (which we normally reserved 60 minutes for) would then be spent on making decisions as a group. In many cases, a side conversation had already happened by a few relevant members of the team (e.g. design chatting with engineering about a particular aspect of the designs) and they could walk the team through the context of the open question and their recommended answer. In those cases, decisions were typically made in a matter of seconds or a few minutes. In minority cases (I would estimate about 30% of the time), the decision required ample discussion and might be too complex for a group setting and/or the time allotted. 

In those cases, I would ask 2-3 of the most capable and relevant members of the team to form a quick working group either later that day or the following day to discuss the item and come up with a recommended decision. Their recommendation was then shared with the rest of the product team either over email, Slack, or in person at the next product team meeting. We effectively had multiple concurrent decision-making meetings going on in parallel, constantly driving towards reducing uncertainty and maintaining momentum. 

(Use team meetings and small breakout discussions to quickly eliminate unanswered questions)

The more we had these meetings, the more effective we became at making decisions as a team, or in forming the breakout group to drive towards a decision and then close the loop with the rest of the team. 

Decision Log

Something else to consider adopting is a decision log as part of this meeting format. I suggest using a single Google doc for maintaining a full record of all prior meeting agendas, as well as prior decisions made. That comes in handy when a post-mortem is run after the product has been launched to assess what the team did well or could have improved upon. Often, the full context of prior decisions made is lost, especially if those decisions are made in isolation by a few people and/or made several weeks or months in the past. 

Maintaining a record of all prior decisions makes it very easy to reflect on the project during a blameless post mortem and the ability to identify the root cause of issues that eventually come up. Or, better yet, the log of all prior decisions made may help the team identify root cause behind a failed product launch. To make things convenient, I’ve created a copy of the agenda format and decision log that I used to use with my product teams. It’s publicly available for you to copy and use yourself. It’s simple enough but thought I’d share nonetheless.

Wrap Up

The format for standups popularized in Agile methodology, unfortunately, isn’t well calibrated for driving efficient product development within a team. The root cause for long development cycles is that decisions weren’t made quickly and frequently. By replacing daily standups with less frequent decision-making meetings, product teams can save themselves lots of wasted time and build products much more quickly.

Part 1: A Single-Minded Perspective on Growth

“Our industry does not respect tradition— it only respects innovation.”

That’s what Satya Nadella wrote in his opening email to the company shortly after becoming Microsoft’s new CEO. It was a clear call to arms that Microsoft needed to reignite innovation in order to scale the company after roughly 15 years of stagnation. The price of Microsoft’s stock has increased ~3x since he came back because the market seems pleased with Microsoft’s sharpened focus, progress made in the cloud business, and willingness to change how it used to do things in order to compete in the future. Some of this could be window dressing or marketing speak, but the changes happening at Microsoft seem genuine.

Satya said nothing about doubling down on what’s already working in order to get more juice out of the squeeze. Rather, he ended the email by emphasizing the need for clarity of focus on new innovations and on changing the culture which, for the most part, was focused on preserving the status quo for over a decade. It’s not unheard of that a large company often forgets how to innovate.

I haven’t spent enough time at companies with 1,000+ employees to speak deeply about the dynamics of large company stagnation, but I can speak to it happening at early-stage startups. In particular, I find it interesting that the same two problems Satya outlined for Microsoft often appear within early stage startups as well: i.e. the culture becomes comfortable with the status quo and the company loses its ability to innovate.

How does it happen? When a startup becomes obsessed with and designed around data and optimization. Today, every 50 – 100+ person startup has multiple business intelligence tools, off-the-shelf A/B testing tools, a data science team, and product managers who know much more about writing SQL than they do about interviewing customers.

In fact, I kept score while interviewing PM candidates in 2017. I spoke with 67 product managers. About 50 of them were reasonably proficient in SQL and could write a few queries on the spot. Guess how many knew how to conduct customer development? Three. That’s it. Only three product managers could proficiently describe the purpose, process, and outcomes from customer development. 75% could write SQL, but only 4% knew how to properly interview a customer. It’s a small sample size, but the gap is large.

Here’s why that’s bad: Most startups, just like large companies, need to go through continuous phases of innovation in order to create 2x+ step changes in the potential for their business. The process of going from 0 to 1 with their first product is an innovation. It’s what allows the company to get off the ground. Sometimes, that original innovation is enough to carry them from seed to IPO. But that is incredibly rare. What’s more common is that startups need to innovate several times over in order to create step changes that help them scale from early stage to growth stage and from growth stage to a publicly traded company.

Over the last 10 years, there has been a massive overcorrection in the direction of optimization based on broad availability of data, leading me to find that most PMs are incapable of effectively deriving insights from customer conversations and most startups are incapable of producing new product innovations beyond the initial product that they take to market. They’re great at A/B testing, but not great at creating new features based on customer insights and a leap of faith.

To put it plainly, growing through data analysis and A/B testing isn’t the only path to future growth. While it seems obvious, I see very few startups designed for innovation, which may be the biggest driver to new growth for your business. Do you think Facebook would be at its current scale without innovations like News Feed? Community-driven translations to expand globally? Or the developers platform? The answer is obviously “no”. Take a look at MAU acceleration beginning in 2007 / 2008. That coincides with the launch of the international translations app, which allow Facebook users to crowdsource the translation of the product. It took several months to build and a few years of ongoing maintenance and development to mature the product. That innovation led to a boom in active user growth.

The point I’m making is that today’s startups very quickly fall into the optimization trap where they think future growth will largely come from optimizing their existing product. The better approach is finding the right balance between optimization and innovation since both methods can produce future growth.

By the time you’re done with this series of blog posts, you’ll have the knowledge and tools you need to do the following:

  1. Design a company-wide org chart that creates an explicit balance between optimization efforts and innovation efforts
  2. Wisely select the “right” types of experiments to run to increase your chances of improving growth through optimization
  3. Implement a repeatable product development process for creating new, innovative features

Optimization Versus Innovation

We should first start with a more detailed explanation of the difference between optimization and innovation. Optimization is when a startup iterates on its existing products or services to squeeze more juice out of the orange. Typically, the results of optimization are incremental in nature.

If they are incremental in nature, then why do them? Well, because many small optimizations can accrue into large long-term results when you allow those optimizations to compound.

Here’s a simple example. In the below graph, I compare the 12 month growth in monthly active users (MAUs) in 4 hypothetical cases. The blue line is the base case where the monthly growth rate is slowly declining, leading to flattening growth. The red line is for sustained 10% month-over-month growth (MoM), yellow is sustained 12% MoM, and green is sustained 14% MoM. If a startup can optimize its way towards a slightly higher and sustained rate of growth, the compounded outcome is very different relative to the base case. In fact, this is what we did in 2009 at Facebook. Our growth team focused on optimizing our way towards a sustained 2% week-over-week growth rate because we knew that we would grow from ~100 million MAUs to ~300 million MAUs in 12 months if we did so. This happened to be the company-wide goal for that year.

Innovation is when a company embarks on building entirely new products or services for existing customers or for a new segment of customers. Innovation can also involve expanding into an entirely new business line. However, this happens so rarely (hello, Amazon!) that I won’t focus on this definition for the time being. Additionally, innovation can create step change improvements in the trajectory of the company, although they are much more difficult to discover and successfully execute on.

I’ve taken the same scenario above, but added in a 5th option which is labeled as “with innovation” in the below graph. What this does is take the base growth rate scenario and applies a 2x multiplier to growth midway through the year (e.g. you build a new feature, such as Facebook’s News Feed and it leads to a step change in monthly active usage). This assumes no optimizations along the way.

The point isn’t that you should pick one approach to growth over the other. Rather, the ideal outcome (and most realistic) is a healthy combination of both optimization and innovation. In the below scenario, I assumed that a segment of the company is working on optimizing the existing products and services to sustain 10% MoM growth and another segment is working on new product innovation that leads to a 50% bump in MAUs midway through the year. This scenario is plotted as a black dashed line on the graph.

Picking a Path

The appropriate question to ask is, “For my company, should I be innovating or optimizing?”

For Seed and Series A startups the practical reality is that you are headcount constrained into picking one over the other because you’ll have less than 20 employees. Prior to establishing product market fit, you’ll be entirely focused on innovation because you’ve yet to figure out the new technology that delivers something better, faster, cheaper, and more convenient relative to the alternatives in the market. Consequently, you’ll have very little growth or customers to optimize on top of, so don’t waste your time optimizing if you don’t already have exponential organic growth.

As a company matures to the point of Series B and beyond (sometimes with a large Series A) it can hire enough people that it can contemplate doing more than one thing at a time. From my experience that’s at the point in which a consumer software company has 30 or more employees. On average, about half of the employees will be engineers, so that means you’ll have 15 people that can do the building. With 15 people doing the building you can divide them amongst 3-4 teams— e.g. 2 product teams, an infrastructure team, and a floating pool of engineers needed for miscellaneous tasks and on-call work.

When a company reaches 100 employees it can certainly multi-task. Its 50 engineers can be subdivided amongst 2-3 well-staffed product teams, 2-3 infrastructure teams, and still be able to manage on-call support and miscellaneous tasks.

Stocks and Bonds

Assuming a company is able to reach the scale of 30+ employees and is now capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time, the question becomes, “How do you allocate those people in terms of optimization versus innovation?” I like to use investing analogies when thinking through this decision.


Most investors should have an investment portfolio that maximizes their returns given the amount of risk that is appropriate for them to take (this concept is known as Modern Portfolio Theory). Put in simple terms, it stipulates that you’ll want a diversified portfolio comprised of a mix of higher risk, higher return investments (e.g. stocks) and lower risk, lower return investments (e.g. bonds). Depending on the level of risk you can afford to take, you’ll want to shift the allocation towards certain investments and away from others. For example, if I’m 70 and ready to retire, I should be taking very little risk and will want a portfolio weighted heavily towards low risk, low return investments (bonds). If I’m 30 and putting money into a retirement account that I’ll use  30 to 40 years from now, then I should be taking on more risk to generate more returns during that long time horizon (i.e. more stocks).

I hope you are starting to see how this investing analogy applies to your startup thinking. Innovation is your stocks and optimization is your bonds. The question to ask is, “What proportion of my company’s focus should be on optimization versus innovation?”

If you’re building a seed stage startup, then you’ll solely be focused on innovation (all stocks and no bonds) because you’re trying to build something new and innovative that finds product market fit. If you’re working on a series A or series B startup with clear indicators of product market fit (i.e. exponential organic growth), then you should be considering the trade-off between optimization and innovation.

Facebook is a good example of optimization and innovation at play. While I was at the company (2008-2010), we did a bit of both. The Growth Team was focused predominantly on optimization by improving sign up conversion rates, new user onboarding, reactivated user onboarding, getting people to add more friends, and a vast library of miscellaneous A/B tests for the sake of getting more users. Meanwhile, several of the core product teams were pushing out big innovations like the first smartphone app, various News Feed innovations, large enhancements to photos, and the developer’s platform.

In the next part in this series I’ll discuss how you can design an org chart and product teams that create an explicit balance between optimization and innovation. If you’re ready for that, go ahead and jump right in. And for broader context, here’s a list of all four parts in this series.

Part 4: Product Development for Innovation

Modern software companies follow a variety of common conventions to scale quickly and efficiently. For example, most software companies have a defined and documented approach for engineers when it comes to writing, reviewing, editing, and deploying new code. It’s important to settle on some standards and procedures for software development because it means a company can write code quicker, reduce mistakes that are inherent in writing code, and provide a better working environment for software developers. The end result is more and better products delivered to the customer, which in turn is good for the business.

However, standardization of a product development process is uncommon within startups. Most companies lack a clear procedure for taking an idea and turning it into a high quality, shippable product. What typically happens is product teams form and are left on their own to figure out how they want to drive new product development. For example, who is responsible for conducting customer research, when, and how should it be conducted? How does a team come up with an initial prototype for a new product? How do you iterate on it over time? In what ways can you maintain clear internal communication with key stakeholders as the product is being built? When and how do you come up with the go-to-market plan for the product? A well-designed product development process will have an answer for each of these questions and will help you ship more and better products to your customers. Without such standards, each product team will build products through different methods, leading to inconsistent product delivery timelines and inconsistent product quality. The last thing a startup needs is more unpredictability.

I created the following content to prevent unnecessary churn when trying to create new innovative products. It describes a product development process I’ve refined over the years and use on a day-to-day basis when building compelling products customers love. The process is described in a way that will make it clear and easy to implement within your company. It is specifically designed for building large customer-facing features where “large” is defined as a product that requires 1 month or more of engineering time to complete.

Common Product Development Issues

First, it’s useful to point out the ways in which product development is typically broken or inefficient at young technology companies. Here are the common issues that I tend to see at startups:

  1. The value you want to create for your customer has not been clearly articulated upfront.
  2. Projects get “blown up” late in development due to large communication gaps during development.
  3. Creating the first product prototype takes far too long, leading to a lull in the pace of development.
  4. Customers aren’t being talked to enough, leading to products that don’t adequately reflect customer wants and needs.
  5. The project team building the product doesn’t have a clear escalation path to get unblocked.

The below process has been designed to explicitly solve or greatly mitigate each of the above issues when developing new products.

Guiding Principles

In addition to solving common product development pitfalls, this method of developing products is rooted in a set of guiding principles which further prevents the above issues and gives product teams a common language to use when describing how they build product:

  1. “Work backwards” from the customer: Start with intense focus and clarity on the value the company wants to create for customers as opposed to thinking about the value the company wants to create for itself. The belief is that if a startup makes the customer very satisfied, customers will engage deeper with the product, which leads to an increase in the key business metrics. Amazon is the best example of a company that begins product development with an intense focus on value to the customer.
  2. Collaborative: All key functions (e.g. product, design, engineering, and customer support) are present from beginning to end since each function provides a unique and valuable perspective. That means everyone must own the outcome of the product— e.g. engineering should care just as much about the quality of the user experience as a designer should. I don’t believe in the “PM as the CEO of the product” idea because most PMs don’t have CEO quality judgement. Software development is best conducted as a team sport.
  3. Interactive prototypes: A product development process should aim towards creating interactive prototypes worthy of being tested on actual customers, as quickly as possible. The reason is that startups learn the most when testing an interactive prototype on customers. Interactive can mean working code or a high fidelity visual prototype using something like Framer, which strings together visual designs through clickable hotspots.
  4. Measure and learn: Once a product is shipped, you’ll want to measure the outcome to see if it created the expected impact. If not, you can investigate why that is the case and use those insights to either deprecate the product, improve it, or carry forward those learnings into future products that are built. Shipping products without understanding the impact is unacceptable.

A Repeatable Process for Innovation

First, I’ll describe the process. Following the description is a visual concept. The product development process follows these steps:

  1. Begin with conducting Customer Research as part of “working backwards from the customer”. It’s through this research that you will refine the product hypotheses— i.e. what the product should do and why it should do it, what specific problems you’ll be solving for the customer, and what forms of delight you can provide. Customer Research can either be conducted by a PM or a designer, if your company doesn’t have a full-time research lead. Each conversation is 30 – 60 minutes and follows an open-ended format that allows for spontaneous discovery of rich customer insights. These insights should eventually make its way into product requirements.  
  2. In parallel, the lead Product Manager begins drafting product requirements (which also includes an Amazon-style press release). A draft of the product requirements and press release must be finished before starting the design sprint, which is how a product team develops its first testable prototype. The initial draft should be reviewed by the design and engineering leads, so they are familiar with it and can provide useful feedback. You want all key team members to be versed in what value you intend to create for the customer.
  3. Once Customer Research is complete, and a first draft of product requirements and the press release have been drafted, the team will then run a design sprint to quickly design the first testable prototype of the product. I selected the Google Design sprint method since it was created with the time constraints of a technology company in mind. The issue with most traditional design processes is that they can take weeks to months to get to a testable prototype. That timeframe simply doesn’t work within a startup. The Google Design Sprint method is the most effective that I’ve seen when going from 0 to 1 within a software company. The design sprint takes 1 week, at most.
  4. Once the design sprint is complete, the team can finalize the product requirements and Amazon-style press release so that the requirements and customer value are crystal clear before full development begins.
  5. The results from customer research and the design sprint are brought into a kickoff meeting to get everyone on the same page prior to the development process ramping up to 100%. A kickoff meeting should be no longer than 45 minutes and should be conducted shortly after the design sprint is completed (e.g. within 1 week). You’ll want all primary decision-makers involved so that there are no surprises, which could lead to the project being derailed later in development. Feedback from primary stakeholders should then be taken into account and incorporated into the product plans.
  6. Once development begins, the project team will present the latest prototype(s) (across all platforms— e.g. web, iOS, Android) and overall status of the project during weekly or bi-weekly product reviews until the product is finished and launched to the public. Product reviews are also 45 minutes max and should take significantly less time (e.g. 20 – 30 minutes), if run efficiently. The purpose of product reviews is to maintain coordination throughout the project, give the project team a regular interface with the leadership so that they can ask for help or support when needed, and to incorporate feedback on the prototypes iteratively.

This is a conceptual diagram for the product development process from start to finish. It’s very useful for project leads (especially the product manager) to have this process memorized, so that they always know what should be coming next in the development process. If run well, it should only take 2-3 weeks to finish customer research, the design sprint, and have a kickoff meeting session. Keep in mind that this is for new, innovative products/features, so getting to the point of alignment on a medium fidelity prototype is impressive in such a short timeframe. From there, development starts to move quickly until the product is ready to launch.


Here’s the full list of templates that you can used in conjunction with the process laid out above. This will allow you to incorporate some or all aspects of this process into your own team or company.

Wrap Up

Thanks to an abundance of data storage, analysis, and visualization tools, startups today have the ability to make rapid improvements to nearly every aspect of their business. However, this overabundance has led to a significant bias in that startups now lean on structured data too much. So much so, in fact, that some of the fundamentals of building innovative products, such as rigorous customer development, have fallen by the wayside. One of the byproducts of this data obsession is that many startups try to optimize their way towards success through relentless A/B testing. This typically pulls them further away from essential insights and truths that they might discover, if they spent less time analyzing structured data from a database and more time collating the unstructured data that can be discovered when talking to customers.

The good news is that data over-reliance can be easily corrected with a shift in mindset and some of the tools and guides I provided in this four part series. In terms of next steps, I hope you take a few key steps from here. First, move forward with designing a company-wide org chart that creates an explicit balance between optimization efforts and innovation efforts. It’s also critical to make wise decisions with the types of experiments to run and avoid running tests that will never meaningfully improve your business. And finally, that you adopt some version of the repeatable product development process I shared, so that you can innovate much more effectively for the betterment of your customers and your business.

As reference, here are all posts in the series in case you’d like to read them again: