The voice of the customer and user research skills.
Someone in your company must spend time understanding and getting to know your customers and feeding information into the product team. They must have skills in user research, asking open questions and running user testing sessions. In the beginning this should be the founding team and then as you scale you might want to bring someone in to take on that role. Whoever wears this hat should also ensure that all team members have contact with the customers. This can be achieved through inviting them to user testing sessions, encouraging them to respond to customer service requests, sharing user testing reports or sharing videos. All of these will help the whole team make better product decisions.
Whoever performs this role should ensure there is a continuous system of constant feedback from customers, through NPS feedback, user testing, customer interviews and usability tests.
Product design and UX.
The bar on product design is constantly increasing, especially for consumer products (and increasingly for enterprise as well). Not only must your product make your customers’ lives significantly better, you must also build trust quickly through strong visual design and branding. Your product must be consistently intuitive to use, across all devices and marketing touchpoints.
In order to achieve this you must have someone on your team that has strong product design and UX skills.
A good product designer will understand how fonts, logos, colour, calls to action, iconography, animation, transitions and images all contribute to making a product look and feel great.
In order to be efficient and avoid product engineers building the wrong thing they should how to rapidly sketch, prototype and test various solutions with users before the product engineers invest time in building. They should know how and when to use design sprints to work together to develop new ideas quickly and get rapid feedback.
A fast and flexible tech stack.
Startups thrive on speed. Speed to market, speed of learning and speed of iteration. We have seen time and again that your tech stack, architecture and deployment processes can slow a startup down, especially as it starts to scale.
Your team should feel able to launch substantial product changes to a subset of users to assess their impact without affecting the overall business metrics in the case the changes are not positive. You should strive for continuous deployment and realise that as the product grows and gets more complex you will need to dedicate more time and resource to ensuring that your tech stays fast and flexible.
Even for mobile companies where the app store dynamics make it harder to push out new versions of the product, the best companies spend upfront time building dynamic content and tooling that allow updates to be made server side which allow them to A/B test content, variables and messaging without needing a new release.
Your engineers must have the time to maintain to maintain this level of flexibility while the complexity of the product and business increases. Without this investment, product development will get slower and slower and ultimately lead to a poorer performing team and frustration.
Great data analysis tools.
Your product team should be like a fighter pilot. Fast and nimble. In order to be a great pilot you need a lot of data and feedback to understand the current situation and be able to react appropriately. Your team needs to be able to course correct based on the changes they introduce. That means they need lots of data, easily available and quick to digest.
So every great product team must have a data layer that lets them ask the right questions about their product’s performance. They need this data for two reasons, one to know if the changes they are making are having a positive effect on the metrics you were trying to change and two, for surfacing new opportunities based on behaviours of your customers.
In order to achieve this you must invest in capturing useful data from day one and have easy to access analysis tools for the whole team.
Focussed on outcomes.
Great product teams work best when they can focus on outcomes rather than be judged solely on output. For example, an outcome might be to increase the conversion of users signing up to your product in the next month. The team can then work together to figure out the best ways that this can be achieved and take responsibility for the outcome. The solution might be to add Facebook login, or it may be the opposite and to simplify the signup options as users find it too confusing.
An outcome based organisation gives clear responsibility to the team, forces them to stay close to the customer, creates team buy-in and avoids a top-down structure.
An appropriate development process.
As the team grows they need to have a process that allows the team to be aligned and know what each individual needs to get done in order to achieve the current and upcoming goals.
It is important to keep things as lightweight as possible so that process doesn’t slow the team down. You should use software to facilitate communication (especially if you have remote teams) but recognise that face-to-face communication is better than writing complex requirements documents.
In practice, some form agile software development with a regular weekly or bi-weekly cadence, regular retrospectives and a clear 1-2 month development plan is a sufficient amount of process for a growing startup moving towards their Series A.