Top 6 mistakes founders and product managers should learn to avoid

Published Sept. 25, 2020

I’ve started several startups, worked in companies as Senior Product Manager and as a Business Development Manager. Due to my various roles, I understand well that a product has a job to do, there should be product-market fit, customers have to understand the value and strategies should be in place to help scale the company’s growth.

Top 6 mistakes founders and product managers should learn to avoid

In this article, I’d like to share 6 mistakes I’ve made along the way. These are common pitfalls that take awareness to avoid.

My notes are short and to the point. I want you to read them quickly, and apply them to your work.

This article is aimed at Founders and Product Managers. Founders will typically be the first product manager in their own companies and at some point, they usually hire product managers to handle parts of their product or service.

Not knowing who your customer is

Every founder should know their customer and so should the Product Manager. Building your product or service for “Everyone” is impossible. “Everyone” is NOT your customer. “Everyone” is not going to use your tool/service/product.

What you are building is most likely for a specific type of issue/problem, group, or community. Your product does something to solve a problem or help perform something better than the current solutions in the market. That’s your customer, so focus on them. When developing your product over time, talk to them, and keep providing them solutions.

There will be a point where you will enter new verticals, expand your customer base, at that point your customer is changing, and again you’ll need to focus on them.

If you are struggling to understand who your customer is. Stop coding. Start answering that question first. I’ve mentored many founders who get excited about their idea and jump into coding. Don’t do that.

Living inside your Jira and Airtable

It’s very easy to get overloaded with the number of issues inside your project management tool. It almost feels safe and positive to know you are tackling everything reported into the tool.

Mistakes that product managers make

But as a Product Manager, you should be spending a portion of your time with your customers. That can be done by sitting in on trouble ticket phone calls, client recap meetings, or visiting them in person to see & hear how they use your product and learning about issues they face.

Doing the above adds the human element to your work and helps you empathize with your end-user.

I’ve made this mistake plenty of times. Sometimes, I can spend days inside Jira or Trello before I have to slap myself out of it and refocus.

Developing a feature only you love

Founders come up with product ideas, features and upgrades. They fall in love with something they came up with and automatically assume their customers will love it too..... Wrong!

I’ve launched features that I thought would delight the shit out of my customers. Most of these ended up as failures. I spend way too much engineering effort and funds launching features no one wanted.

It took me a while to realize that the product is no longer for me, I have real customers using it who pay me. I need to ensure I build solutions that make their lives better, make their job’s more efficient.

Yes, you can innovate and come up with new features to delight customers. But you should make sure your current customers are loving your product. For new features, roll out rough implementations to validate your ideas in the wild against customers. Adding to the point above, talking to customers is another great way to ensure you find good ideas to work on.

Not prioritizing your work

I’ve heard of teams that have a full excel list of issues. Engineers pick the items they want to work on as they wish. This is a bad idea, especially when you have limited resources.

Engineers are (most likely) not speaking directly to customers. They don’t know how many people that particular issue impacts, or the scale of it. They don’t know if a customer churned last week because a particular item was not resolved.

The founder, product manager or someone close to the customer and business should balance the priority roadmap and associated backlog.

Focusing on the competition

This is tricky. You could be building a competitive product and need to be at least at par with the competition to gain customers. At the same time, you have customer requests coming in, defects to handle, and are trying to innovate to beat the competition.

How do you balance all of this? Depending on your development resources the balance would change.

For example – and take this with a grain of salt, as things change depending on your business – if you are a startup with a tiny/small team, then build your MVP and get your first few customers to start using it. Focus on beating their expectations and making them say “wow”. This is called a minimum lovable product (MLP).

Then start looking out at the competition and see where they have weak points. Sites like G2Crowd are great for this. They have recommendations and feedback that you can learn from. Start building better solutions for those problems and going after more customers or more customers with more advanced needs/expectations.

If you are a mid-sized team, have an MVP proven product, the product is a bit more mature and your customer base is growing, then I’d suggest the following.

You will have business requirements (product expectations set by management to grow the company), customer tickets with bugs, customer feature requests, marketing team demands and specs to solve for the customer things that your competitors are getting wrong/not doing.

Mistakes that founders make

At this point, you’ve got a lot on your plate. It’s a good time to take inventory of your development resources. This includes your various tech developers, QA, and graphics. Then bring in your founder, or senior folks to help them understand the resources you have versus the demands for development on your list.

What will result is the founder gets clarity on your limits. Which in turn could mean a) he gets you more resources b) he helps you prioritize what to develop c) you work with him to create a more doable release schedule and d) he can work with other teams to curb their requests.

For large/enterprise teams, though you have more customers and more money, you also have business requirements (product expectations set by management to grow the company), customer tickets with bugs, customer feature requests, marketing team demands and specs to solve for the customer things that your competitors are getting wrong/not doing.

If you are financially doing well, you have money to bring in full-time staff, consultant, contracts to start supporting these needs. However, at the same time because of your size, you may start working on projects that don’t move your KPI needles. You also will tend to have longer release cycles, charters, or projects that aren’t prioritized well.

This is a good time to have the right product managers in place. These are folks who are mini-CEOs of a piece of the product. Their job is to ensure their project is a winner for the customer, the team is working on the right projects and the projects are meeting business team requirements.

Waiting to build a “perfect” product

Your product is a growing & evolving thing. It’s going to have new demands, issues, growth in every phase, and technical issues. Your customers are going to use it in ways you never imagined and break your product. So, knowing all this, think about it, are you ever going to be able to build a perfect product?

PMs or founders who focus on perfection risk delaying the launch of their product and risk product/company growth in general.

Why are you looking for perfection? Don’t let it be your pride. Don’t worry about losing a few demanding customers, you will get more later. You can’t please everyone.

I hope you found this article helpful. Please share it to help others who may be struggling with similar issues.

About the Author

Lloyd Jacob

Lloyd Jacob is a professional mentor on MentorCruise and 5x Founder, Y Combinator Alumni, Product & Marketing expert, Failed many times and had successes! at BigEngage.

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