The Product Leader’s Book of Problems — Problem III: The Uncertain World of Startups

Problem III: The Uncertain World of Startups


Curtis Savage

3 years ago | 7 min read

TL;DR: The primary problem facing a startup is one of uncertainty. Product Leaders need to choose a lean product approach that emphasizes learning and discovery, supports fast iterations, and helps validate product-market-fit as quickly and as possible.

Welcome to the third chapter of the Product Leader’s Book of Problems. Based on over a decade of experience managing and leading product teams, I’ve put together an ordered list of the big problems you will invariably encounter as you progress through your career.

Starting with universal problems that exist at every organization to stage-specific problems that rear their ugly heads as a company evolves from startup to enterprise, I walk you through a snapshot — a crystal ball of sorts — of the problems your future-self will be dealing with as a Product Leader. I help you stay one step ahead as you pursue your product vision, navigating treacherous waters, slaying dragons, evoking awe, disbelief, respect and glory from developers to CEOs alike. Ok, now on to brass tax.

As discussed in last week’s post, no single product approach fits all situations so you must treat your organization as you would a customer and spend time discovering its unique needs and problems before selecting the right approach.

This week is a continuation of that topic. Arguably, the single most important thing to consider when determining what type of product approach your organization needs is the stage of the organization. In other words, are you leading a team at a startup, growth-stage, or enterprise company?

The type of product management and leadership needed for early-stage companies looks a lot different than what is needed for later-stage companies. This is because you need to solve very different problems as a company evolves.

In fact, as a company evolves, the primary organizational problem evolves from one of uncertainty to one of growth to one of complacency. A startup needs to solve for uncertainty by determining product-market fit. Meanwhile, a growth-stage company needs to solve for growth by figuring out how to scale without imploding. And finally, an enterprise company needs to solve for complacency by protecting against status quo and disruption.

Each situation requires a very different product approach — and as a Product Leader — it’s your job to choose the appropriate one. In other words, ask yourself whether you are helping your organization solve an uncertainty, growth, or complacency problem with your product approach?

This week we are are looking at how to choose a product approach to help solve the problem of uncertainty at startups.

Problem: The Uncertain World of Startups

As mentioned, the biggest problem for any startup is uncertainty. The lack of product-market-fit at this stage makes it extremely difficult to know how to plan for the future.

As a Product Leader, you are faced with what may seem to be an infinite number of questions and almost no answers. However, there are three key questions you must ask and answer at this stage to solve your problem of uncertainty so that the company can become profitable and keep the lights on.

  1. Are you solving the right customer problem?
  2. Are customers willing to pay for the solution?
  3. Is there a viable and sustainable business model?


De-risking is a huge part of a Product Leader’s job at any stage, but it is absolutely paramount at the startup stage. With limited resources and a very real runway, many startups have only one shot at getting product-market-fit right. You need to choose a product approach that facilitates getting answers to the three key questions above as effectively and efficiently as possible.
As such, your product approach should be lean, executed by a nimble team, and rooted in customer discovery to make sure you’re solving the right problems and building the right solutions as fast as possible.

A Lean Process

Early assumptions are almost always incorrect. At early-stage startups, the goal is to learn as quickly as you can. You are trying to debunk assumptions and remove uncertainty as quickly as possible. Now is not the time for heavy-duty process. You want your process light and your team nimble. By reducing the time spent between learnings, you will have more opportunities to pivot and hence improve your chances of success.

However, it’s important to note that a lean approach does not mean disregarding data in the name of speed. In fact, it means the opposite. Data should be used to validate your assumptions and should guide all decisions to prevent the team from going down a rabbit-hole that could be fatal given your limited resources and runway.

A Nimble Team

As the Product Leader, it’s your job to curate the right team. The ambiguous environment of a startup requires a special kind of team. Everyone needs to wear a lot of hats and everyone needs to be comfortable with a certain degree of chaos. Hire people who are resilient, flexible, and comfortable with uncertainty and change.

They should be adaptable, well-rounded, and multi-disciplinary — meaning they can take on roles and are eager to expand beyond their original job description. Respect and empathy are also very important. With so many tensions in an early-stage company, respect and empathy are a key part of creating a space where the team can be productive and supportive. Fostering a team that is respectful of team members’ needs and challenges helps get a product out the door.

Finally, hire people who are user-centric by default; people who immerse themselves in the user’s world to truly understand their pain.

How should teams be structured? Ideally, teams should be small, cross-functional, autonomous, and co-located to ensure they can move as quickly as possible. That said, the word autonomous can make senior management somewhat nervous. Rest assured, teams should be guided by some concrete guardrails, namely a strong product vision, well-defined product principles (like customer-centricity), and strategic goals.

With these guardrails in place, the user-centric team (which you were sure to hire) can be entrusted with any vision, strategy, or idea because they know how sacred it is to respect and deliver something truly meaningful to the user. The goal is to remove layers of red-tape and get them started on validating the customer problem, solution, and business model so that can start removing uncertainty as quickly as possible.

Discovery, Discovery, Discovery

Without a doubt, the biggest challenge for a startup is whether or not they are solving the right problem. Will people be willing to pay for the solution and is there long-term value? Many Product Leaders don’t spend enough time understanding the problem before they start trying to solve it. And this can be the beginning of the end.

The pressure to jump right into delivery may be coming from an overconfident executive team or from overzealous investors. Regardless, it’s your responsibility as the Product Leader to educate everyone on the importance of discovery and understanding the customer problem before trying to build a solution.

After you’ve secured buy-in for a customer-centric and discovery-based product approach, your next task is choosing a solid discovery framework like Directed Discovery or Design Sprints.

There are various frameworks out there. Which one you choose is less important than simply having one as it helps cement Product Discovery into the fabric of the organization, ensuring your team can avoid rabbit holes and start removing uncertainty as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Great product leaders spend the majority of their time focusing on the discovery process. Focus on understanding the customer, discovering the real reasons customers use your product, and getting to the core of why users think it’s valuable. Take more time to make sure you’re asking the right questions.

The best conversations focus on thoroughly understanding the problem that you’re trying to solve and whether that problem is worth solving. Will your users exchange something of value (time, money, energy) to have it solved?

Research, gather data, and prototype until you understand the problem and can articulate a solution clearly and without doubt. If you’re getting pushback from executives or investors, remind them that spending more time upfront gathering customer feedback and validating solutions saves money in the long run.

The real cost of a feature is not only what it cost to design and develop, but also what it costs to support after launch. And one of the reasons developing a roadmap is so difficult is because teams don’t spend enough time with their end-users. A lack of discovery leaves gaps in the knowledge required to craft a clear path forward.

Finally, given the limited runway at a startup, you don’t want to try to boil the ocean. It’s important to narrow your customer segment so you can target your prospects and talk to them more pointedly. Brutally focusing on a small segment gives you a target for your limited time and resources. And talking to the core user group provides the product-market-fit feedback you need to make confident decisions about what will work in the future.

Final Thoughts:

When determining what type of product approach your organization needs, remember to consider the stage of the organization. Startups are facing much different problems than high-growth or enterprise companies.

For startups, the primary problem is uncertainty and determining product-market-fit. As a Product Leader, choosing a product approach that helps you and your team validate the customer problem, solution, and business model as quickly as possible while leaving flexibility to pivot is absolutely critical. A lean process, data-driven approach, nimble team, and focus on discovery all help remove uncertainty and pave the way to product-market-fit, profitability, rainbows, unicorns, and sunshine!

Further Reading

Problem I: You Have No Authority

Problem II: One Product Approach Does Not Fit All

Problem III: The Uncertain World of Startups

Problem IV: Scaling Without Imploding

Problem V: The Complacent World of Enterprise

This article was originally published by Curtis savage on medium.


Created by

Curtis Savage

Product Leader based in Toronto, Canada







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