How to Build and Manage the First Product Roadmap for a Startup
19 January, 2022
Challenges of a First Roadmap
Recently I faced the challenge of having to create the very first product roadmap for a startup. Without a clear direction (which is common in the early stages of validating Product/Market fit), a product roadmap changes often, and the Product Manager is forced to pivot. This is not necessarily a problem, as long as people understand that roadmaps aren’t static, and even less so in such scenarios. Another challenge that is often controversial is that individuals love dates being incorporated into roadmaps. Generally it’s best to make roadmaps without specific deadlines, but a more traditional and “project-management led” approach says the opposite, which often triggers friction between Product Managers and stakeholders.
When I created our first product roadmap, there was a conflict of priorities due to the company trying to validate many things at once. The ideas were not the problem, rather the prioritization of those ideas and choosing the right ones. Prioritization goes hand in hand with the formatting of the roadmap and how it’s displayed. Looking for examples and best practices, I noticed that many roadmaps looked very static and priorities didn’t evolve with the customers and business needs, potentially increasing the risk for the company.
Managing the Product Roadmap
It’s important to structure priorities based on customer and business needs, but also the lifecycle stage of the product. If I am trying to address Product/Market fit first, investing 100% of resources in an unclear direction could be risky. Instead, I like to work with a portfolio of bets, dedicating more resources to the problems that look more promising to solve. To delve deeper into each idea, assessing its worth and time commitment it’s essential doing a thorough prioritization of problems (not solutions) first. Ensuring focus on the biggest user problems will increase the likelihood of a product’s success.
Formatting a Roadmap:
In any company, but especially startups, product roadmaps tend to change direction often. It’s necessary to align the key players and stakeholders with the aptitude for change. The team needs to understand that a roadmap is not set in stone. The direction and exit route are two different concepts, and it’s best to format a roadmap in a fashion that makes it come to life.
A roadmap is ultimately a strategic tool to help set direction. At the highest strategic level, you have the vision, so you know where you want to end up, and you may have an approximate idea of what could get you there. At a tactical level, you have to define and advance through a path, which may change. The roadmap indicates that path, and so it changes. A format reflecting such flexibility is essential.
For example, a roadmap formatted in Excel tends to appear more static than a roadmap formatted in Miro or Figma. Specifically, visualizing it with sticky notes gives the roadmap a more dynamic feeling than a static document. A Miro board allows a document to be visual, flexible and mimics physical reality – pushing away the idea that the roadmap is a fixed plan.
Something I like to do while working on a roadmap is to indicate clearly what are the strategic priorities. Above the “timeline” (independently of how strictly you want to be giving dates), I would add a section indicating what is the strategic priority. These focuses aren’t specifically time-boxed, but whatever comes next usually depends on them. Think of them as milestones - points in a map where you stop and reassess direction. Underneath them, I would indicate the tactical input that will help advance or validate if we move in that direction. For example, I would add a strategic priority on validating Product/Market fit, then a mid-term goal on experimenting with growth initiatives. Finally, my long-term focus may be to experiment with different monetization strategies. Under each of them, I would create the tactical pieces that populate the roadmap and help move towards these strategic bets. This makes it clear to teams that the items they are delivering follow higher-level objectives.
Strategic goals aren’t always linear. For example, we could see growth when we are experimenting with monetization avenues, therefore these priorities can sometimes cross and overlap. It’s also important that the tactical initiatives in the roadmap aren’t too prescriptive, since you don't want to block new outlets of discovery. They are made for direction and should allow the team to easily depict what to focus on, but not to lock it.
Mission and vision statements are always at the top of my roadmap. By doing so, I allow anyone viewing the map to understand the ultimate “why”, rather than jumping straight onto specific strategic and tactical bets.
Establish Frequent TouchPoints:
Something that has helped me a lot is to regularly touch on my roadmap. Many companies tend to review and update their roadmaps once every quarter, half a year, or even yearly, minimizing the relevance and increasing risk in case of being on the wrong path. Once these organizations finally check the roadmap, they may find that they have deviated from the initial goal or expected results and may need to pivot too late. To avoid this, I like to schedule a bi-weekly catch-up with the key stakeholders, in which I update everyone on any changes, check results, and review the upcoming steps. Creating this meeting ensures alignment company-wide and minimizes the risk of any surprises around pivots.
Increasing the Success of a Product Roadmap
- Acknowledge that there is inherent uncertainty in any roadmap, and make that clear to everyone with whom you share it. There are many unknowns that will only become visible once products/prototypes are put in front of customers.
- Make sure to include Learning and Discovery initiatives, and not only Delivery. The homework that comes before code execution is crucial. You want to ensure you build “the right thing” and not just “something right.”
- My preferred tool is Miro. I have created roadmaps using many tools, but Miro is the most straightforward. As mentioned before, it mimics reality, makes discussions simple, and allows you to move items around easily.
- Many product managers dislike working with timelines. I believe that timelines can be beneficial, even if they are rather vague and simply specify a month or quarter. I normally include monthly timeframes in my roadmap, depicting when an objective should be worked on. As long as everybody is clear that things move and change, timeframes will help you have a better picture of what you want to achieve by when.
- Include marketing and sales activities in the roadmap. Especially in startups, if you are dependent on growth, it can be tied to its marketing efforts. For example, if you are planning on releasing a product in a new country, it may be necessary to support the launch with marketing initiatives. Unless you are very lucky and have a viral product, the growth of a product is contingent on sales and marketing, meaning that these vital activities should be considered and included in the roadmap.
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