Launching a new product is daunting. What do you build first? And what do you build straight after that? Our world is changing every day – in everything from tech to market expectations - how do you handle these changes?
In this article, I’ll discuss (among other things):
- what to build and what not to build at each stage of your product launch,
- go-live must-haves,
- realistic implementation timelines.
I tried to make this article accessible to just about any reader, but it’s especially suited to someone who is building a brand new software product and wants to ensure that they build the right thing at the right time, whether you’re a founder, an entrepreneur or on the development side.
While there is information here on launching B2C, this is also best suited to those looking to launch to a B2B market.
Getting Started - what to build, when to build it
One of the most challenging dilemmas when building a new product is knowing what to build. Almost as important is understanding when to build it – as your product matures, your roadmap should be constantly evolving in content, timelines and flexibility.
To help ensure that your roadmap is appropriate to the stage of product launch it’s useful to split the product evolution into three stages:
• Before your First Sale
• Before your First Go-Live
• Before General Availability
At each of these stages, your roadmap should be updated to reflect your new priorities.
This roadmap is generally going to be made up of features from three different themes:
• Sales Features and Differentiators
• Basic ‘Table-Stakes’ Features
• Technical and Internal Features
Remember to be flexible! Don’t be alarmed if the mix of these themes change at each stage of product evolution: that’s not uncommon.
Before your first sale
At this point in your product evolution you’re just starting out – your focus should be on discovering and proving your product value.
Necessity is the mother of invention, so you should know your product’s value.
Specifically, you need to know:
• What problem are we solving?
• Why will customers buy our product?
• What makes us better than our competitors?
Everything you build should be in service of answering these questions. The market is ever-changing. The past year especially has reminded us to continuously evaluate the situations and problems our customers face.
What To Build
Here, you want the majority of your roadmap to focus on Sales Features and Differentiators. In other words, your team should know what demonstrates the value of your product and get you those precious first customers.
We envision a future where the people who imagine and build technology mirror the people and societies for whom it is built; technology that improves lives, in other words.
At this point you need to get a semi-working demo of the product in front of potential customers as early as possible.
Any basic features that you build should only be ones that you know you’re going to need to demo to potential clients.
Timelines & Flexibility
Right now, your roadmap needs to be incredibly flexible.
Indeed, you could still be figuring out your market and potential clients, so you need to be able to change this at a moment's notice. It can also be very short-term, even a few weeks or months. Consider that in March 2020 many software companies had to totally pivot to serve their customers in a completely unexpected way.
Going further back, Amazon started as an online bookstore, Slack as a videogame communications tool, and several iconic companies and products began as something else.
Quick Tips: New vs Existing Software
If you’re in an existing software house, you may need to decide whether or not to use existing products and frameworks to create your product.
When deciding this you need to look at:
• Maturity of the market
• Flexibility required
• Size and Complexity of your organization
Quick Tips: Picking your Early Adopters
We all know what early adopters look like: they’re the first friends who recommended TikTok to you, the people who queue overnight for the new Apple product or those for whom learning a new product or system is a good thing.
Picking the right early adopter clients is critical in launching a successful product. If you’re in a position to choose there are a few things to keep in mind:
• Customer Size
• Customers’ Technology Risk Appetite
• Customer Problem & Existing Solution
• Credible References
Carefully choosing the right early adopters will have a positive impact on your product. For example you should avoid picking customers with advanced existing solutions (ie, who have been using the product in its older iteration for a long time) - they may try to rebuild their old functionality.
Remember also that these early adopters are going to be giving you a lot of feedback on your product. So, ensure that you select a diverse range of customers to get the best quality feedback.
Before your first go-live
Congratulations on your first sale!
You’ve picked some appropriate early adopters and now you need to prepare for your first customers to actually use your product.
Your roadmap is now going to have many basic, table stakes features in it; the priority is getting your customers using your product.
You still need to keep developing the differentiator features but they aren’t as dominant as before.
What to Build
Your roadmap is now going to be a mix of sales and table stakes features.
The first thing you need to do is figure out what your table-stakes features are: In other words, what exactly do your clients need to go live? What are the minimum requirements?
Depending on your industry, you should be thinking about things like SSO, auditing, purging, reporting and system monitoring. Also, consider accessibility requirements.
What Not To Build
At this point you (hopefully) won’t have any technical debt to work through and your internal features should still be minimal.
If you can, you should try to minimize the scope of basic features to what’s needed for customers to go live.
There are also a few specific features you don’t need yet:
• Usage Analytics: Right now you don’t have enough clients for these to be useful and you should work closely enough with your early adopters that you get all this data anyway.
• Performance and Scaling: Don’t worry too much about handling huge volumes – just what you need at this moment.
• Advanced Monitoring: Focus only on what you really need in terms of system monitoring.
Timelines + Flexibility
This is when your roadmap is going to get a bit less flexible than before – those go-live critical features need to be done.
However, the differentiators should remain subject to change. You’ll also see the roadmap timelines extend a bit to include your client’s planned implementation and go-live dates – you need to be planning to ensure that you meet these dates.
Quick Tips: How long do you really have before the go-live?
The amount of time between your customer signing the contracts and them actually going live can vary wildly.
In fact, you may have more time than you realise to build those final go-live critical features. At an absolute minimum, you are probably looking at least 6 – 8 weeks; but in reality, it could be much longer.
Many factors will play into this:
• Complexity of the software
• Size / Type of the client
• Customer effort needed
For example, in a previous workplace, the sales team promised a 3-month implementation time. We panicked in the product team! But in reality, by the time the first early adopters were ready to go live, it was more like 9 months.
Before General Availability
So, this next part is exciting: your early adopters are successfully live and now you’re ready to take on the world!
Your priority at this point should be getting your product ready to be used by as many customers as possible.
What To Build:
Now you’re going to see the technical and internal features taking up more room on the roadmap.
This will include:
• Performance and Scaling
• Technical Debt
• Advanced Monitoring
• Usage Analytics
At this stage, you should want to get rid of as much manual work on you and your team as possible. You’ll also want to look at implementation features for your clients – to make it as easy as possible for them to uptake your product.
At the same time, keep working on those differentiators! Ideally, you should be getting constant feedback from your early adopters on how to continue creating value with your product.
What Not To Build:
Though it might sound like a paradox based on the above, a big risk at this point is to blindly build whatever your early adopters ask for. You need to be mindful that you keep your product vision in mind at all times.
Keep sourcing feedback from the market, from your sales team and all relevant stakeholders.
Timelines + Flexibility
Again, this is when your roadmap becomes less flexible.
You’ll have clients who will likely be asking for commitments on features and you will need to ensure that you can handle the scalability requirements that come with (hopefully!) large numbers of customers.
You should also start looking at your longer term product strategy rather than planning for only weeks or months ahead.
After General Availability
Congratulations, you made it! You have an amazing product that is live with multiple customers and delivering value every day. Your roadmap is now a healthy mix of basic features, differentiators and technical and internal features, reflecting your long-term product strategy.
Creating and launching a product is a combination of imagination, planning and being able to adapt to radically changing circumstances. A strong team, effective communication and an open mind will be invaluable tools on this perilous, but potentially rewarding journey.
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