Here at Polar Hedgehog we are honored to have the opportunity to witness the birth of new startups, to take part in their growth and see them become successful companies. In the past 7 years we accompanied countless startups in this journey and experienced first hand the myriad of challenges these companies face.
In this post, I’d like to focus on the challenge of early stage product leadership that’s been a recurring problem since we started working with tech startups.
Our collaboration on the startup’s product starts at the kick-off meeting. This is the opportunity to introduce our team members and their roles in the project and to get to know our partners on the other side. As we are currently discussing early stage startups, the folk meeting us are usually the 2 or 3 co-founders. In most cases at this stage the new company is still too small to hire a VP Product or other professional product lead, therefore the co-founders are the ones taking upon themselves this role. The best case scenario is if one of the founders has a strong product background and skill set to lead this process and it will be their main role. If this is the case at your company feel free to skip to the next article. If not, keep reading.
Experience tells us that at most startups the best case scenario is unfortunately not available. Instead we see one or more of these formats:
- One of the founders has the right product leadership skills but another one takes the product lead instead.
- None of the founders has strong enough product leadership experience, nevertheless one of them takes the lead because someone has to.
- More than one of the founders is trying to lead at once regardless of who is the right person for the job.
- There is a designated product lead, who might also have the necessary skills, however the other co-founders don’t respect that ownership. The voice of the product lead is drowned among all the inputs provided by the rest of the founding team.
- The designated lead regards their product responsibilities as no more than that thing at the bottom of the priorities.
In all of the formats listed above, we see a negative effect on the startup’s ability to deliver a focused and valuable early product or MVP, while the baseline is the earlier definition of the best case scenario.
This has a very high price, as even though the MVP (or any initial version) is a simple and crude early materialization of the vision it does have a strong impact on the future of the company. It can’t be regarded as merely an item that needs to be checked off the to-do list. The MVP is the newborn that the startup will show its design partners and investors. It will be the main tool to tell everyone the story and test the value proposition. Furthermore each subsequent version will be affected by feedback collected from the previous version and have a major impact on the direction the company is taking. In other words, this baby product will be the guiding light for the startup to find the right market fit, to solve the right problem for the right people and answer their needs just how it needs to be answered.
What can be done if you find yourself in one of these far from ideal situations?
First and foremost is to be aware of the issue. Pushing forward without recognizing the problem, even with the best development and design teams might put your company at a disadvantage and it can catch you later in the blind spot. If it is possible, try to bring in another co-founder who will complement the existing founding team with the necessary product skills. Alternatively, hire a product lead as early as you can. If none of these is possible, select the best person for this task from the founding team, make sure he or she has the actual ownership and sufficient time to invest in it.