We're shipping rafts this year, not boats
Eight principles to build a product team around in 2023
We had a good run, didn’t we? I remember just 18 months ago Product Led Growth seemed to be de rigueur at all the best startups. We had budget for fancy product conferences, and a whole host of product specific tools came out of nowhere (suddenly Excel and Powerpoint weren’t good enough anymore!)
We got fooled. I think for many of us it was less about expecting zero interest rates forever, and more about a naive hope that organizations had finally learned that Product Management wasn’t just about shipping the next Jira ticket. It was about putting the right big bets on the table to drive step change growth in the market.
We had hopes. And we were wrong. These days, every product team I know is focused on what they can deliver that moves the needle on revenue in the short-term. The pressure for OG profits from board rooms is being felt across the business, but in product it feels worse than the usual cut and focus mantra. We’re not sales. We weren’t always operating on an expectation that we hit monthly numbers. We’re not marketing. We didn’t have quarterly lead numbers.
We’re supposed to be the team in the business that delivers on evolving the existing product while placing the right transformative bets on the table to build the business of tomorrow. In that sense, product and tech orgs in startups today are the spiritual successors of the Bell and IBM research labs of the 60’s. We were supposed to be the long-term thinkers that delivered on the promise of startup innovation.
Yes, there were always short-term concerns. There was always the million dollar client with a feature request. There was always tech debt (I swear before a SAFE is done and a company is formed tech debt exists!) There were always production bugs.
But here’s the thing: we had jokes as product managers about those. We thought it was funny because even though we had to do the short-term stuff we knew that in spirit we were the long-term team. And for awhile, everyone agreed with us. We got to try real innovative stuff on the OKR’s. Investors were pushing for table-grabbing growth from CEO’s, and CEO’s were increasingly looking to product to power movement against big business objectives: move into a new TAM, scale to Enterprise by end of year. We liked those challenges a lot more than: say goodbye to your colleagues, and then deliver on the reduced Q1 revenue number or there will be more goodbyes.
And here’s the thing: we really do get it. We get the short-term pressure just like the rest of the business. We’re all bending over backwards to help our businesses as much as we can. This newsletter doesn’t argue that we should not be helping out wherever we can in the short-term, on the principle that a living business is generally better than a dead one.
But in the background most of us in product are trying to reset our compass, I think. We’re trying to reframe what we know about our craft in light of a new reality that is not short-term, and that may last for years.
Are we still the long-term team? Is it still our job to deliver game-changing innovation? Will it ever be? Am I willing to wait for years until it is again? Is there somewhere else in the startup world where innovation is still valued? I’ve felt that question in my bones, and so have most of the product folks I’ve talked to this year.
We want to know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. And right now I think we’re afraid that if we see a light at the end of that tunnel we’re just seeing the headlamp on the Cornish Express rather than good clean daylight.
I’m not a despair guy. There’s room for grief, but I’m not going to leave this post without some thinking about how we cobble together a path forward for frankly exhausted product teams. With that in mind, let me lay out the principles sticking with me in my conversations and work.
Call them the new rules for product in 2023 if you like. Rules for building rafts not boats. But they’re more than that: they’re an attempt to acknowledge that as a product team we are a long-term innovation wing for the business. And with that in mind to articulate ways for teams to keep hope alive: to both dive in on the here and now and also keep that little flame of innovation flickering.
Let’s call them Raft Rules: eight principles to build a product team around in 2023.
The Raft Rules
Welcome to product. We’re building rafts not boats this year.
It’s not like it used to be, and that doesn’t have to be ok. Product is different now. The rules of the game have changed. Acknowledge what was so you can have clear eyes for the new world around you.
If it drives or retains revenue in the next 90 days, we build it. Anything else would be product malpractice at most businesses in 2023. Short-term revenue potential has moved from being a question mark (“Are you thinking big enough?”) to being a standalone business case in a one pager.
Fast is better than smooth. It doesn’t have to be smooth to work. This is one of those truisms of early stage YC companies. The difference is that expectation has moved from pre-seed and seed stage companies all the way up to Microsoft, which just slapped massive AI innovations into market in the last 90 days, none of which are polished to the usual Microsoft standard of perfection.
This is a “Yes Year” for Sales. Product managers used to be graded on their ability to have some backbone and push back on sales requests. The idea being that they could better focus on innovation for the whole company if they didn’t get stuck in a sales responsiveness cycle. While there will always be customization limits, the fundamental bias has shifted from “it’s in the backlog” to “I’ll see what I can do by Tuesday.”
It’s long-term if it’s short-term. This two principles for the price of one. First, realize that building to keep the business going today is long-term. That can help product teams recognize they have a long-term role to play. Second, any product plays with long-term payoff have to also include short-term revenue potential. You need both-and this year to innovate.
Double the value of motion in your roadmaps. In product we think of velocity or product delivery motion as having its own value. Double it. Maybe triple it this year. This isn’t just about going fast (#3), nor is it just restating Agile principles. This works regardless of your tech development approach. This is fundamentally about chunking and weighting your product roadmap so your business is in market regularly with something hot off the presses. Before, two of the right big bets a year were worth more than ten smallish releases. Now: take the ten, because they put more short-term revenue optionality on the table and fundamentally show momentum and life to the market.
2024 thinking is closed-door until Q4. Yes, take time to think about next year and down the road. Dream of those big bets. But this is not the year to involve the rest of the business in coming up with larger plays. 2024 and long-term thinking is product only this year, and I wouldn’t even try to socialize a 2024 roadmap until late in 2023. Anything else is going to look like product distracting the business.
When it sucks, remember that innovation is only mostly dead. Hat tip to Miracle Max for that one (yes, I’m a child of the 80’s.) Interest rates won’t rise forever. And humans have a great 200,000 year track record of thinking up cool new stuff to do with our brains. The problem set for tech is as rich as it’s ever been, and even in a downturn no one is saying that tech doesn’t need product managers. Product will be just fine, long-term. We just need to build the short-term tracks to that long-term future this year.
That’s it. Those are the eight principles I’m keeping top of mind for this year.
What about you? What’s missing here that’s working for you?
Good luck out there,
You can subscribe for free below and get more newsletters like this one.