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Top 5 Priorities for Startup Founders and Why Product Development Isn’t One

Open office with people working at computers

Building a business around a brand new product is a monumental job. In fact, it’s really two jobs. For startup founders, doing both just comes naturally with the territory. But should it? 

Starting a business and building a product, while related, are two very different propositions. Both take considerable attention. But each requires a different skill set.

Many developer founders spend more time on refining their product ideas than all other business priorities put together. This makes it hard to do both jobs effectively — even if they do possess both sets of skills — no matter how many hours they spend “at the office.” Because most entrepreneurs burn the candle at both ends at this early stage of a venture, it’s a challenge to figure out how to apply their considerable personal expertise (but limited attention) most effectively. 

Building a product is more than a one- or two-person job. In many cases, an experienced product team with an established track record of development success is a much faster, efficient and cost-effective way to bring your product concept to life. Knowing when to hire the right help, at the right time, is a skill and a sense most would do well to develop. 

And it’s much more important for founders to tailor a suitable environment for this product development work to take place. They should prioritize articulating and communicating the processes, guidelines, constraints and values that everyone will use to drive the mission forward. 

Unfortunately, most inexperienced startup owners don’t focus on building the business enough. At least, not when they should. Instead, they do what comes naturally… tinker with the product. 

The Product Is Not the Business

It’s easy for startups to think that the product is the business. Of course, we know it’s not. 

First of all — most of all — a business is the people. People who ideate and concept solutions to other’s problems. People who design and build those solutions. And, yes, ultimately, the people who buy your solution to make their lives easier, better and more convenient. 

If as a founder you lose sight of that, you will focus on the wrong priorities. And this can lead to problems — for your product and your business.  

Possessive Product Development

Many startup founders are developers or product designers. It’s not unusual for people with a professional background in product development to pursue business opportunities they’ve identified through personal experience and insight. And it’s a safe bet for these entrepreneurs to be intimately involved with the product development process. 

Often the founder’s insights are responsible for the ultimate success of the product concept. However, it’s easy for founders to take a too-active role in product development. With founder-led product development, there is a very real danger of unwittingly creating an overly-possessive process — where the founder’s subjective opinion reigns supreme, even over product dev best practices and standards. This hinders rather than helps your cause. 

No Testing or Validation 

When founders feel like the product is their baby, they are prone to over-valuing their own ideas. It’s natural to feel protective of your creations and want to prevent outside tinkering from “ruining” that special quality. It’s important to not indulge in that feeling, however. 

With full ownership of the product concept, founders can easily get bogged down and lost in the weeds. With no one to challenge them, they frequently end up spending time on the wrong details or traveling down unproductive rabbit holes. 

Your concept may, indeed, be brilliant. But you still need to test your idea and validate your approach. Outside perspectives are very important to making a product that will actually resonate with your intended audience. 

Roadblocks to Innovation

Outside opinions are also helpful in advancing and evolving the design of your product idea. Making digital products that resonate with savvy consumers requires a quick pace of innovation and iteration. The first prototypes are just a starting point for feedback. 

However, many developer-founders want to flesh out their product concept with a fully-functioning prototype. They strive to hit the home run their first time at bat. And they don’t let anyone step to the plate before they’re done swinging. 

This approach is not ideal, to say the least. Keeping product design under lock-and-key slows down the innovation process. Instead of fostering fast-moving, creative product development, founders exercising excessive product design control become roadblocks to innovation and success. 

Warning Signs 

The truth is, if you have to be involved in every aspect of your product development, that’s a red, flashing warning sign. A thriving business model requires the exact opposite. There should be no reason for product design and development to stall out because you’re not there to drive the process. 

This thought can be a scary one. Especially for founders who’ve dreamt about bringing their idea to the masses. 

Again, recognize that the success of your future product will depend on many people. And there are a million steps between creating your winning product concept and its broad adoption in the marketplace. 

So, if it’s not building the product, what should founders focus on? 

Work On the Business More, In the Business Less

Setting your company up for success means putting into place the elements necessary for manageable growth down the road. You’ll hire many smart, talented people to help you get your product off the ground. But they won’t just automatically become a cohesive group. They’ll need a common vision around which to align their efforts. 

And that’s where your leadership and management abilities must shine. 

Top 5 Priorities for Startup Founders 

If your product is to succeed, it’s going to need a great support system. Building that support system is your primary job. And that means focusing on these five organizational priorities: 

1. Define Company Values 

Values play a big role in the success of your business. They provide a standard by which to measure accomplishments. They guide your team in the pursuit of their interconnected goals. In times of ambiguity, you can lean on your values to chart the path forward. 

How do you define your company values? Think about what you want to accomplish with your product and why. What problem is your product going to solve? Then, try to understand why this problem is important to you, and what might be noble and valuable about trying to solve it. Then consider the type of environment and culture required to bring that vision to life (trust, freedom of expression, creativity, etc.). Then describe these ideas fully in the context of your budding operation. It’s rare that a company value can be captured with just a word or two. Take time to refine your thoughts to create meaningful, easy-to-understand statements of value. 

2. Articulate Your Vision

Your values will help you and your team understand how you’ll get where you want  to go. But you also need to describe where you’re going. Which means, you’ll need to come up with clear mission and vision statements. Your mission statement should outline your company’s purpose and goals. The vision statement should provide an understanding of how your solution will impact the marketplace. 

Finalizing these statements and articulating them as much as possible in conversations, both internally and externally, is imperative to growth.

3. Expand and Nurture Company Culture

Your defined company values and mission/vision statements form a solid foundation from which to grow your company culture. But culture is more than words on a page. Culture is a set of behaviors. 

As a founder and the most visible example of the company culture in action, you have to take the lead in establishing, growing and nurturing that culture. You must put those values into practice every day, modeling the behavior you want your team to adopt. And you must be the biggest cheerleader to encourage your entire team to participate. 

4. Develop and Document Processes

Developing and documenting processes is one of the best ways to align and standardize your efforts. When you find something that works, you have to leave specific instructions so someone else can replicate the process. That’s the best way to guarantee that you don’t have to be in the room for all the right things to happen. 

Process documentation isn’t a one-time thing, either. Your company will change as it grows. You have to allow —  encourage, even — processes to be continuously refined and part of your regular evaluation of company performance. 

5. Delegate and Empower 

Growth is impossible without people. You’ll need to continue to find smart, energetic, like-minded individuals to help you build your company. The best advice we can offer is to hire people who are better than you. You need people who possess skill sets that you don’t. And you need people who are equal or better at the skills you do possess even more. 

But it’s also good advice to apply when hiring external expertise. At some point, you’ll need to hand off product development to a trusted outside group. Building out that expertise can take time. And in many ways, outsourcing development to a product team with extensive knowledge and experience is the safer, faster and more productive way to go. 

Additionally, doing so can make you more attractive to financial investors. Instead of VCs betting on two things — your product idea and your ability to actually build it — you can give them a near-guaranteed, sure thing on at least one. 

A Founder’s Role is Bigger Than the Product  

Startup founders work extremely hard to bring their product solutions and ideas to life. You have to. But devoting too much attention to product development pulls your focus away from building and maintaining the support systems your venture needs to succeed. 

Work smarter, not harder. Your job is to lead others to do what’s important. An experienced product team can bring your product to life with your input and guidance. It’s much more difficult to replicate your unique vision and ability to define the values, culture and organizational structure of your business. 

Ready to let someone help with the heavy lifting of product development? Crush & Lovely’s holistic product team combines strategy, analytics, design, and technology to build user-focused digital products. Let’s talk about your breakthrough solutions