Product strategy is the combination of a high-level vision of what your company is going to accomplish and the steps you’re going to take to get there. Basically, you’re turning your product vision into your product roadmap. It’s something of a transitional step in the top-down process of transforming your grand vision for your startup into an actual, profitable product.
Most companies have more than one product strategy. In addition to an overarching product strategy that applies to the direction the whole company is headed, if your company has more than more product, then each one is going to need its own product strategy.
For many startups, the overarching product strategy and the specific product strategy overlap, because they only have one product. And that’s totally fine! But make sure that your product strategy is flexible enough to expand as your company expands.
While product strategy and product roadmap are often conflated — and they do have things in common and are often used together — they’re actually two separate parts of product planning.
A product roadmap is an illustration of how you get from your company’s big-picture, high-level goals to the actual actions you need to take to achieve those goals. It not only shows what you’re building, but why you’re building it.
While product roadmap and product strategy are certainly similar, it helps to think of your product strategy as the top-level planning that leads to the more detailed planning of your product roadmap. Do you have to have both? No. But it certainly makes things clearer, for both your internal and external stakeholders.
There’s also another perspective on the relationship between product roadmap and product strategy. And while it’s not as popular or common as the top-down approach we’ve outlined here, it’s worth thinking about.
Entrepreneur Melissa Perri argues in her article What is Good Product Strategy? that product strategy is not “something that is dictated from top to bottom” but rather “something that is uncovered as we learn what will help us achieve our objectives.” Her method is to develop a product strategy through experimentation as your work to meet your goals. It’s an interesting approach melds well with the Lean Startup methodology, so if that’s a philosophy you’re already following, it’s definitely work taking a look.
While each company’s product strategy is going to be slightly different, here are some elements you should consider including in your product strategy.
While it’s obviously important to have a lot of internal conversation about your product strategy, don’t forget the most important person: The user. Getting user feedback before and during the development of your product strategy is essential to creating a product strategy that actually works.
One way to get that information is by conducting market research. You can conduct this research to find out what your customer wants, what isn’t working for them currently, and how your company could potentially fill those gaps.
Example: Let’s use Twitter as an example. (Disclaimer: Other than the fact that Twitter is a company that everyone knows about generally, the rest of this is hypothetical and pulled from searchable information about Twitter. We are not, in fact, Twitter employees.)
Twitter’s original market research and user feedback could have uncovered the fact that people wanted a way to quickly communicate with a group of people via text message. It also could have uncovered the fact that current group messaging wasn’t working effectively for a lot of early cellphone users.
Your vision for your product strategy is the high-level thinking part. This is your ultimate goal — what your startup will achieve, in your wildest dreams. Think big! But also think specific. Another way to think of “vision” is “mission statement,” if that helps makes things clearer for you.
So, for example, the now cliché “We’re going to change the world through…” isn’t going to cut it anymore. (Unless you want your company to be a joke — and somehow we don’t think that’s your product vision?) Instead, set a vision that’s aspirational, but not grandiose. Something like “We aim to be the best website for startups-related educational content on the internet.” It’s concise, it’s clear, and it sets a big vision for what the company will be.
“Failing to provide a vision reveals the pilot himself doesn’t know where the plane is going,” project manager and entrepreneur Samuel Athan writes. “Even when the startup doesn’t know how to generate money, every person working there has to know the reason of his work commute each morning, he has to know where each actions are taking him.”
Example: Twitter’s mission statement is: “To give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.”
The goals section of your product strategy is the first transition section that connects it with your product roadmap. Here is where you set either the specific goals that you’re planning on meeting and/or more generic goals. Think of your goals as milestones or stepping stones toward achieving your larger vision.
The goals section of your product strategy can also be used to start your product roadmap. It’s a good way to connect the higher level stuff to the nitty gritty of getting there, which is what your product roadmap will focus on.
Example: A goal for Twitter could be to allow users to communicate more complex thought than is possible in 140 characters.
Initiatives are the next step down from goals — and they’re how you’re going to achieve those goals. They’re not specific steps, however, but rather high-level concepts that you’re going to need to fufill in order to meet your goals.
Example: A Twitter initiative to meet the goal of helping people communicate more complex thoughts could be expanding the character limit allowed on the website.
We’ve talked throughout this guide about the fact that your product strategy is going to connect with your product roadmap. And while we’ve highlighted some ways that can happen as we’ve been going, we wanted to point out two specific ways that the product strategy and product roadmap can relate to each other: “Epics” in your product roadmap can be linked with “goals” on your product strategy, while “stories” can be linked with “initiatives.”
In a product roadmap, an “epic” is a grouping stories, which is itself a grouping of specific steps that you’re going to take to reach your goal. This is one of the most detailed sections of your product roadmap, where you outline exactly what’s going to be done. You can use the goals outlined in your product strategy to inform the epic in your product roadmap. And the initiatives in your product strategy should directly inform the stories in your product roadmap.
Your product strategy, like the US Constitution, should be an ever-evolving, living document. As your startup grows and expands — and you learn, learn, learn — you’re going to need to shift your product strategy.
For example, in the early stages of Twitter, the product strategy may have been focused on the big vision of helping people communicate to multiple people at once via SMS text messages. Then, after going to market, their vision could have been a company that connects even more people worldwide. Now that they have such a far reach, it could be how to create a website where people are not only communicating, but feel a sense of (positive) community.
A flexible, living product strategy also melds with the Lean Startup method of Build-Measure-Learn, in which you create something, bring it to market quickly, measure the results, and then repeat the process, all with the goal of refining your product. If you’re following Lean Startup, you need to be able to rework your product strategy as you uncover and follow each new insight.
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