Why do I ask Questions? Whether I'm working with a founder to develop an estimate for their MVP, or advising on a strategic next step I always ask a few of the same questions to explore how to build product priorities. Hopefully these questions can help you refine where to start or even where to take your product next.
Questions are key to refined learnings. Do you need to do a root cause analysis? Use the 5 Whys. Are you trying to find truth in the midst of disagreement? Use the Socratic Method (a form of dialogue based learning built around questions). Do you want to find the most important focus of your startup? Ask these strategic prioritization questions.
In honor of the Lean Startup I always like to ask this question. Often founders think they need a whole digital product to validate their business. But finding a path to money forged through your blood, sweat, and tears with a little boost from extra automation will help you grow revenue, traction, and confidence before building the wrong thing. For example, we built a data importer tool that allowed a platform admin to bulk add/update user information. This greatly increased their velocity, freeing them up to focus on other priorities.
In a similar vein founders often think a product should be totally self serve, but even at scale many smart companies don’t follow this trap. If you have a handful of users that touch that feature it may be better to manually onboard them with a “personalized” experience, just so you can fudge the data on the backend without needing to make a fool-proof portal for those few to use. This will save you money in the early stage when you already want to be closest to the user. It’s easy to get distracted by “urgent” product requests. Being able to identify when a request fits into the roadmap is essential.
Seems straight forward? It’s not. So many founders will say “x is most important but we also really need y”. I won’t stop asking until you’ve only given me one. Maybe you’ve read The ONE Thing… I haven’t yet but I can still tell you focus is vital, especially starting out. This question, augmented with the others, quickly shows founders that their priorities are too divided, killing their focus, and keeping them from accomplishing anything.
If there’s nothing that differentiates you, your business will probably fail. If you think there’s nothing similar, you haven’t done enough research or been creative enough looking at the alternatives. Consider building your differentiated feature first, potentially even by itself. If it’s compelling enough: you will have a following before you do anything else… or you will learn no one actually cared.
There’s an obvious fad with startups offering something awesome for free and subsidizing it with Venture Capital. But cash flow is never optional in the end and if you can put a lot of focus on just that money maker you will give yourself a lot more runway on borrowed money and time. Consider this answer when you think back to your “most important capability”. If you are planning to sell user data, then maybe your data collection and data + cloud engineering/management are actually what you should put a bit more focus on from the beginning and get your buyers paying before you even have an app.
Having a clear understanding of data access is vital for preventing technical blockers. Often founders will build their whole concept around access to specific data, say for instance LinkedIn contact info. Sadly, sometimes those integrations don’t exist or are completely restricted. If you can do the research beforehand you may save yourself a world of pain. Plus when you’re prioritizing features and setting timelines, certain integrations can end up dominating your time and blowing up your release plan. Better be considering that beforehand.
How does this help you prioritize features? We like to say “We can build you a house for $50, $5,000 or $5,000,000 the only difference is what it’s made of”. Trite, but seriously… with a budget that only covers a portion of the features, which ones have the strongest chance together to make more money. Your goal is to build a useful and usable product that marketers, salespeople, developers, and ultimately customers will love. Whether you are VC financed, bootstrapping your venture, raising a community round, or exploring alternative forms of financing, you must align product development costs to your financial model.
I’m sure there are dozens of other questions to ask, but hopefully these help you create an MVP feature set that people will love. When it comes down to it, the moment you stop asking yourself questions about your product is the day you stop innovating. No one creates the perfect product the first time, and even if they do… the market will change out from under them. If you take nothing else from this, just remember: good questions are the key to good innovation. If you never ask yourself the questions your customers ask, you’ll only be “their answer” if you get lucky.
PS: If you’re wondering why there weren’t any market and founder focused questions, it’s because we’ve got another article in the works. There we’ll ask questions like “What makes you qualified to build this?”
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