Product prioritization techniques are broken for startups.
The stuff that works for big, established corporations won’t work for pre-product/market-fit (PMF) startups. Their way of doing things won’t help you to build a better product. In fact, if you try and do things their way, you might end up spending far too much time focusing on things that won’t make any difference to your growth. And startups simply cannot afford to waste any time.
So what product prioritization methods should you adopt if you’re a pre-PMF startup?
In this post I’ll share six of the best methods to help startups prioritize insanely well.
Prioritization Strategies to Avoid if You’re Pre-PMF
Here are some “traditional” prioritization strategies that have probably been recommended to you before:
- Collecting feedback – Talk to customers about what’s working, and what’s not working so well. This will give you some ideas on where you should focus your attention, as learning about customer pain points will tell you what needs fixing.
- Bucketing feedback – You sort the data you collect from your customers into different “buckets”, based on certain characteristics or parameters, to further pinpoint what to focus on. Through bucketing, you’ll learn what to prioritize to improve your product’s performance, your finances, your marketing, and so on.
- Apply some frameworks – You might apply the value/effort framework, where you choose which tasks to prioritize based on how much value they could bring to your business, and how much effort it will take to execute. Or you might choose the RICE framework, which involves prioritizing tasks based on their potential Reach, Impact, Confidence, and Effort.
I’m not here to bury these tried and tested techniques. Because they work. Of course they do!
…if you’re a later stage company.
But these prioritization strategies won’t be much help if you’re a pre-PMF startup.
Let me explain why.
Pre-PMF Startups Need To Do Things Differently
If you’re a pre-PMF startup, by far your most precious asset is your time.
You need to move fast. Very fast. You need to quickly uncover large pockets of value, and you need to break walls wherever you find them. If you don’t, you’ll never reach PMF, so you’ll never grow. And you know what happens to startups that never grow? They die.
The above prioritization strategies work. They get results. But the problem is that they’re very time consuming. And if you’re a pre-PMF startup, you simply cannot afford to waste any time.
You don’t have time to speak to your customers in any meaningful way, which means you won’t be able to gather enough insights to make bucketing worthwhile. And as for following a prioritization framework? Forget it. These things take time. And any time you spend plotting and planning would be better spent doing.
Pre-PMF startups need to do things differently. You need to make the best use of every second you have available, and every move you make has to count.
So with that in mind, here are the six best product prioritization methods for startups. At least, these are the strategies that have always worked for me…
🎯 Set One Goal
As a pre-PMF startup, your resources are severely limited. You’ll do your best work, and see your best results, if every member of your team pulls in the same direction.
So set one goal – one priority – so that you can align all of your initiatives to increase your chances of success.
But what if you set the wrong single goal? What if your whole organization pulls in the same direction, and it turns out to be the wrong direction?
Don’t worry. As we’ll see, there are ways to ensure you’re on the right track as early as possible.
🏺 Start With The Big Stones
Imagine your planning as an empty jar. You only have so much time to use, just as there’s only so much empty space in that jar.
Think of every initiative you could possibly do as a stone. The biggest tasks – the biggest bets – are large stones. Put those in your jar and it will soon fill up. But the smaller, everyday tasks – the low-hanging fruit? These are stones that are so small that they’re basically sand.
Just as it will take thousands of grains of sand to fill a jar, you might feel like you have endless capacity for these smaller tasks. But if you spend all your time on the sand, you’ll never have time to work on the stones.
You might feel a strong temptation to focus on the small stuff. Go for the low hanging fruit and you’ll get a sense of accomplishment with some quick and visible wins. But if you spend too much time playing in the sand, those big important tasks, the sort that could prove hugely impactful for your business, will never get done.
Fill your jar with stones, and then allow the sand to fill in the gaps between the stones. You don’t have much time to play with, so fill your days with the stuff that matters most.
⚾️ Aim For Big Swings
Fortune favors the bold!
Think of every task your startup undertakes as a bet. Some will pay off. Others won’t. But those that pay off will have the potential to skyrocket your growth.
Be as ambitious as you dare when picking your bets. Ask yourself:
“What’s the highest impact work we can do this week”?
Then do that work.
Don’t get bogged down in details, and don’t get distracted by minutiae. Aim for the big swings and you’ll be much more likely to knock it out the park.
⏰ Reduce Your Deadlines
I really cannot stress this enough: As a pre-PMF startup, you really don’t have much time. But don’t let this bring you down. Instead, let it drive you.
Challenge your product priorities as often as possible. Adopt the shortest delivery cadence you can. You need to move fast, so your planning processes should account for short deadlines and rapid turnarounds.
This could mean planning every four to six weeks, instead of every quarter. It could mean adopting one-week sprints instead of two-week sprints.
Moving at this speed can be stressful, but it can also be exhilarating. And think of it this way: If you’re reviewing things so regularly, then you’ll be better placed to abandon anything that’s not working as soon as you realize that it’s not working. You can shift your priorities as quickly as possible, and start working on something that will have an impact.
⚡️ Just In Time
The Just in Time way of working comes from the world of manufacturing. It basically means that parts arrive just in time for manufacturing, so manufacturing takes place just in time for purchase. It’s the opposite of the “Just in Case” model, in which parts are produced on a large scale just in case they are needed.
Doing things Just in Case takes a huge amount of time and resources. When you’re in your pre-PMF early days, you cannot afford to spend time or money on things you may need at some point. So abandon the Just in Case mindset, and start doing things Just in Time instead.
This means defining and estimating your engineering work so that you complete it just in time. You can achieve this through synchronizing your estimation and planning exercises. Identify the high-priority, detailed tasks to work on in the next sprint. And don’t worry about the low priority tasks. You’ll get to them eventually. In fact, work this way and you’ll find you complete them just in time.
🤑 10%-30% debt
Bugs and tech debt pile faster than you think. It’s important to address these issues, but you cannot get so mired in them that you stop developing anything new.
So be consistent. Dedicate a set amount of your resources to fixing bugs and working on your tech debt. Start with 10% of your resources, then gradually grow this proportion over time.
This way, you can rest assured that all of the issues plaguing your product development will be addressed eventually. But at the same time, you won’t feel swamped by too many problems. You can keep moving forward, and you can keep growing.
I hope these prioritization techniques help you as much as they’ve helped me. If you know of any other strategies that work well for early-stage startups, let me know in the comments.