Pre-Product Market Fit Product Management content sucks.
But there’s a reason for this:
99% of PM theory comes from post-PMF companies.
If you’re Google, Facebook, or Intercom you have the experience, time, resources, and influence to develop a science that trickles down into other companies. So it’s often the Post-PMF experience that gets shared.
The learnings from these big companies are valuable, yes, but the battlefield is very different when you’ve yet to reach product-market fit. And if you pick up the wrong tools, you might not even get across that line.
I’ve had first-hand experience with using the wrong tools and knowledge.
I started to work in product management because, at some point in his career, Steve Jobs was a product manager, and I thought it was a great way for me to start my own business later on.
So I worked in product and across different companies and industries, and I gained a ton of knowledge. Then, when I left Intercom in 2020, equipped with all this knowledge, I thought building June would be easy.
The first thing I did was build a roadmap, but after two weeks we threw my entire roadmap away and I had to build another one. Over the next three months, I would throw away more than ten roadmaps for June - which led me to just stop building roadmaps altogether.
I remember thinking: How is it possible that one of the main tools of product management isn't relevant at this stage?
I realized that a lot of the practices I read in the best product management books, from Marty Cagan, Martin Eriksson, and all these great authors, were just not relevant at the early stage. Product Management content is not labeled correctly.
So I started to write about that publicly. It turns out that I was not alone. I received dozens of these messages. 💜
Today’s post is a collection of Do’s & Don’ts for Product Management pre-Product-Market Fit.
This list could probably be 10x bigger, but I’ll focus on the classic traps that founders and product leaders will fall for, based on the mainstream knowledge that is out there.
Before we deep dive into the Do’s and Don’ts, let’s take a quick look at the differences in roles in pre-PMF and Post-PMF leadership.
Pre-PMF & Post-PMF Leadership: The Connector vs The Explorer
When it comes to product management, the roles and responsibilities shift depending on the stage of the company.
🚀 In a post-PMF environment, the focus is on iterating and refining the product based on customer needs that are already understood. In this phase, the product manager acts as a connector, ensuring that the organization stays connected to its customers and their evolving requirements.
🌱 In a pre-PMF company, however, the product manager needs to be a explorer, anticipating the market needs that are yet to be established. They must possess a deep understanding of the industry, market, and customers, and make significant leaps in value propositions to resonate with the market.
Understanding differences in the philosophy and attitudes in Pre and Post-PMF can help you make better decisions as a leader.
And now that that’s out of the way, let’s deep dive into the Do’s and Don’ts of pre-PMF!
1) Don’t build a roadmap, write problem statements
Roadmaps are a waste of time in early-stage companies.
When things change all of the time, the more you delay a decision the better choices you can make.
Instead, Identify problems - and don't stop working on the most important ones until they're solved. You may use cycles (e.g., 2, 4, or 6 weeks) to fin the right cadence between challenging your priorities, and getting into execution mode.
But how can you plan your work effectively without a roadmap? By writing problem statements.
Write detailed problem statements to identify and prioritize important problems for users and the market. This prioritized list of problems becomes your company's focus, giving you the best chance of achieving product-market fit.
By shifting your focus from building a roadmap to writing problem statements, and adopting the principles above, you can create a dynamic approach that allows your organization to adapt quickly, prioritize effectively, and increase your chances of success.
2) Don't write stories and epics, get real and prototype
Another trap in product management before PMF is writing user stories, epics, and tickets.
These abstracted tasks can slow down the actual delivery process and limit the creativity of your team.
While user stories are useful in later-stage companies to manage overhead and accelerate delivery, in early-stage companies, they can hinder your delivery team's progress.
Abstraction always slows you down, and speed is key to reaching product-market fit.
So what can you do instead? Get real.
This concept, inspired by the book "Getting Real" by Basecamp, involves doing things that closely resemble the actual delivery for your customers. This includes prototyping, performing quick quality assurance (QA), and other activities that increase the delivery pace.
For example, you can use prototyping tools like Figma to visually represent your ideas instead of writing lengthy documents. Or you can conduct a short QA session once a feature is pushed to staging to identify any critical issues.
Another effective approach is live prototyping. Rather than going through a traditional prototyping phase on paper, you can write code, push it to a staging environment, and give it a raw prototype-like appearance.
By prioritizing real-world implementation, prototyping, QA, and live prototyping, you can increase your team's productivity and minimize time spent on unnecessary translation and abstraction. You are ultimately accelerating your progress toward product-market fit.
Basecamp's Ryan Singer talks about live prototyping and a better process for building products (from idea to launch) on The June Podcast:
3) Don't do in-depth user research, just ship it
This one usually triggers people.
It does not mean shipping buggy features, or something useless fast. There isn’t any value in that. This means you shouldn’t do excessive user research.
Yes, user research is essential for pre-product market fit.
Yes, it’s important to have strong initial user research to know where you're going and what's missing in the world. But there's a risk of going overboard with it because this exercise has no limits.
There are countless ways to interpret and package problems. Early-stage companies often find one problem, then shift focus to another tangential problem without being sure which one to solve.
Instead of excessive research, the best approach is to "ship it."
Paul Graham, one of the Y Combinator founders, tweeted about the correlation between the speed of product delivery and the chances of achieving product-market fit.
As much as it can be counterintuitive. This is true.
By rapidly releasing your product, you increase the likelihood of finding the right fit. Shipping frequently also helps you build the muscle of collecting feedback, iterating, and adjusting your direction.
Over time, this muscle strengthens, giving you a better understanding of your ideal customer and what they want.
So, my advice is to ship quickly. Even the best user research cannot survive the reality of the market and people's actual usage of your product.
4) Don’t influence your team, empower them
In late-stage companies, product managers are often taught how to influence and lead others to make collective decisions. They act as the hub between design, engineering, and marketing teams, gathering inputs to make informed choices.
While this is valuable in established organizations with layers and departments, it's not necessary for early-stage, pre-PMF companies.
In the early stages, if you have an opinion, express it clearly and take action.
Of course, listen to others and consider their perspectives, but avoid getting caught up in complex decision-making processes. The goal is to make great decisions quickly, ship them, and then learn from user feedback. Iterate based on that feedback and keep moving forward.
Instead, in a pre-PMF startup, empower people.
Delegate decision-making authority and decentralize the process. The more decision power you can give to individuals, the better.
Some effective processes I've seen involve collecting engineers' input in planning exercises. In more radical cases, engineers can even propose new items to build without extensive prioritization exercises. If the feedback is relevant and compelling, they can explain to the PM why they want to work on it and proceed to build and ship it.
This level of empowerment may seem extreme, but it has proven successful for a lot of companies.
Cron, the Calendar app, has embraced this approach, allowing engineers to make last-minute decisions that have been game-changers. Nira - the real-time access control system - is doing the same. I strongly believe that this approach - which I call “extreme engineering ownership” - will develop in the coming years.
For pre-PMF product managers, this may feel unsettling, as it moves away from traditional roadmaps and challenges even weekly planning. But it's worth considering, as some great companies have found success with this approach.
5) Don't set and forget, get feedback on releases!
Building a great product requires continuous iteration and improvement. This is why it's important to avoid the mindset of shipping and then moving on.
In the pre-PMF stage, it's highly unlikely that your initial release will hit the mark perfectly.
Instead of setting and forgetting, gather feedback on your releases and iterate while the product is still fresh.
Establish a process for following up on each release.
For example, you can create a dedicated feedback channel in Slack or any other communication platform to centralize feedback from users.
Stripe uses a Slack channel to receive notifications whenever a user adopts a new feature. This allows the engineering team to track feature usage and enables designers and product marketers to engage with users directly.
If you have acquisition or adoption targets, involve relevant team members in the feedback loop.
Based on the feedback received, decide whether you should iterate on the feature or determine if it's time to move on. Remember, constant feedback and iteration are key to developing a successful product.
The list of do's and don'ts above is just a glimpse into some of the common traps of product management in the pre-product market fit stage.
A lot of the items above might make you uncomfortable.
No extensive user research?
It goes against everything we’ve learned!
But in my experience building products (big, small, pre, and post-PMF) and speaking to hundreds of product leaders, you have to go against the grain on a lot of these common tropes if you want your product to succeed.
Pre and post-PMF are vastly different environments, so it's crucial to approach them with a different mindset and strategy. In fact, I'm considering writing an entire book on this subject.
The product management principles and methodologies created by companies like Google, Facebook, and other big names can’t be replicated for pre-PMF and 99% of the business and product management books out there are made for post-PMF.
If we don’t call it out, the collective waste of time and money pre-PMF companies will face will just continue to grow.
I absolutely love digging into the secrets of building fantastic products and sharing what I learn. You can listen to The June Podcast to hear my interviews with top-notch product experts like Scott Belsky (Chief Product Officer at Adobe) and Ryan Singer (Author of "Shape Up").
You can watch the full episode with Ryan Singer, where we touched on a few of the topics mentioned here:
If you want to know what's on my mind right now, I post daily ideas and lessons on LinkedIn!