Creating a roadmap for your company.
One of the first exercises that I go through with early-stage startups is creating a robust roadmap for their product. Where my method differs from a typical product roadmap is that I pair new features with milestones found in other areas of your business. The goal is to maximize the development time leading up to new features by improving other aspects of the business for a more stratigic releases (this is where I point to the projector slide emphasizing "SYNERGY").
There are four essential elements of a company that I like to focus on. I'm not saying that there are only four, or that there isn't any overlap between these elements, but I think that most of the things concerning small startups can be boiled down to:
Out of all four elements, Growth is the one you will have the least amount of control over. You can't choose how quickly you gain users, but you can still identify key phases in your growth to pair with development and outreach phases.
These growth phases can be defined in whatever way makes the most sense for the project, but I always start by defining the first phase as the beta testing phase. During this phase, user growth will only happen through direct outreach and personal asks ("Will you use my product and tell me what you think of it?"). As the rest of the company matures, the userbase will expand as well, requiring a focus on different user acquisition methods.
The next phase of growth that occurs is the "early adoptor", or "public beta" phase. This occurs once the product is stable enough that using it is no longer an "ask", it starts to attract new users. These users will give the most constructive feedback, if asked, but are also likely also lose interest at the drop of a hat. Acquiring these users will be a blend of outreach, and releasing attractive features to keep users engaged.
Along the way, there will be opportinities to add "growth hacking" features. Theses are features that may not be essential to the core of the business, but get users excited enough to reengage or invite their friends to join them. An example of this might be to add photo sharing within a messaging platform, or to add messaging to a photo platform. When Instagram introduced their direct messaging feature, it created a huge buzz in the industry, increased the ways for their users to engage within the app, yet at hte end of the day, Instagram is still Instagram with or without direct messaging.
A combination of good outreach and well-timed feature releases can bump your growth up to hit your next milestone, labeled "mass adoption". Most startups never make it this far, as mass adoption relies on too many variable to count. Reaching mass adoption will require a solid plan for outreach, a creative mix of "growth hacking" features, and enough luck to fill in the inevitable gaps.
This is the constant "hum" that should always be heard in the background. The key to good outreach is an opportunistic approach. Starting out, attend as many relevent community events as you can find, and talk to everyone. You never know who you will meet, and giving your company a presence in your area or field, even if you don't have a product yet, is pivotal.
Whitney Wolfe, cofounder of the dating app Tinder, trippled the size of their userbase with a simple outreach strategy. She toured college campuses around the US, visiting different chapters of her sorority and getting all the girls to download the app. She would then go to the brother fraternity, show the guys all the cute girls who were already on the app, and let it grow from there. By tapping into networks that already existed within their target market, Wolfe stimulated massive growth for the price of a few plane tickets and frequent flier miles.
Wolfe's outreach is an example of the sort of opportunistic plan that, when timed right, can bring a company into their next stage of growth. As the company grows, however, it will require greater impact to see the same results. A good way to acheive this is by focusing on finding industry leaders who can bring in unique opportunities. Such opportunities could include presenting at an industry-relevant event, providing connections to high-profile customers, advisors or investors. Basically the same thing that Wolfe did with her sororities, but with a larger impact in mind for a larger company.
As these opportunities start to build up, you should think about features that could be stratigically paired up with. Giving a talk at a convention? Maybe you should release and demo a feature that will speak to that crowd. "I'm very excited to announce a new features that you can all try out today..." Be creative. This is why Google releases new developer products at their Google I/O conference every year: all eyes are on them, so more eyes on the new announcements, which in turn put more eyes back on the conference. Outreach scales all the way past the IPO.
On its own, the features roadmap is pretty straight forward. There are find books and blogs that will go over this in way more detail than I will right now, but I'll make a few key points to keep in mind.
In my years of working with different development teams, it has become apparent that it is near impossible to set specific deadlines far in advance. To make this strategy work, just focus on identifying what the key features will be, and approximately how long they will take to develop (leave the exact release dates to the project managers to figure out). When planning out what the first year of development looks like, Knowing if a feature will take 6 months or 6 weeks to develop will help you decide which should be launch features, and which ones will take more time to bring to market. From there, its a matter of working with the rest of the team to figure out what the release dates should be, and making sure that the development team can hit them.
The last aspect, and the one that people like to focus on first, is the one that I always save for last. It's important to have a general monetization strategy from the start. However, usually it isn't something that can be implemented until your company is much further along in its growth.
Typically, planning not to implement a monetization strategy until after the company gets its first early adopters is ideal. First off, trying to monetize a product when its user-base is too small won't generate any significant income. Trying to monetize too early can also alienate early adopters (remember how important that type of user is). The time is better spent focusing the team's energy on building out the other elements of the business, and releasing a fine-tuned monitization strategy at a later date.
It's a good idea to have several different monetization strategies in mind from the start, and a general idea of how each of those strategies will evolve as the company grows. Based on user feedback and the changing market, some monetization strategies will become more viable than others, and having those sketched out, even in the rough, will reduce the stress of a pivot when it happens.
This is where all four aspects really start to work together. You may release a growth feature that starts to gain you traction, which means it makes sense to implement Stage 2 of your monetization strategy. Or, a great connection in a new industry could mean a pivot to a new strategy.