The Pre-PMF Guide to Product Management: How to Move Faster and Stop Throwing Away Your Roadmaps
December 5, 2023
Editor’s Note: This article, by June founder Enzo Avigo, first appeared in Kyle Poyar’s newsletter, Growth Unhinged, which explores the unexpected behind today’s fastest-growing startups. You can subscribe to get the latest from Kyle here.
For someone who had spent seven years as a Product Manager (PM), confidently stepping into the world of entrepreneurship, this turn of events was nothing short of a rude awakening. I had assumed that my extensive background in product management at companies like Intercom would seamlessly translate into success for my startup.
I was wrong.
In my first three months building June, I discarded not one, not two, but 10 roadmaps. The same happened with user stories. Features were being developed at a good speed, often before I could even finish drafting user stories.
It was during this time that I began to question the applicability of traditional product management principles in the volatile and unpredictable early-stage startup environment. The notion that I had nurtured for seven years seemed to crumble in the face of these new challenges. So I embarked on a mission to understand what truly works in the world of early-stage product management.
In this article, I’m sharing with you the six commandments of product management in the pre-Product-Market-Fit (pre-PMF) phase. Looking back, I can say with confidence this adapting product management to pre-PMF is what helped us reach our PMF.
First, it helped us develop a muscle to ship fast and increase our output. We started to ship insanely fast and never missed publishing a weekly changelog since then. We also understood how to prioritize better and build what people wanted. A few rewards acknowledged that: we won the Golden Kitty Award in Data and became the fastest growing app on Twilio Segment in 2022. All of that with a team of 8. A year and a half later we reached our PMF (we wrote more here).
Throughout this journey, pre-PMF product management was our secret. It’s what accelerated us, but it would not have been without these six principles:
- Unlearn traditional practices
- Start with the right MVP
- Prioritize insanely well
- Move insanely fast
- Set the right milestones
- Collect learnings
Step 1. Unlearn traditional practices
Traditional product management doesn’t fit early-stage startups. These methods are designed for late-stage corporations, ensuring user-centricity as they expand. Yet, for startups, these approaches introduce unnecessary friction, slowing delivery and reducing impact.
When you’re starting your product and not yet hitting big success, concentrate on getting things done. Don’t spend too much time on complicated ideas. Concentrate on finding answers to problems. This is fundamentally different from the post-PMF phase, where the biggest risk is losing sight of your customers and misalignment between teams.
Let me be even more specific with some DOs and DON’Ts for effective product management in the pre-PMF:
- Build a roadmap: Especially > 3 months. Your product changes too fast.
- Write user stories & epics: Abstraction will slow you down
- Do too much user research: Chances are you’ll get lost. Instead, get real.
- “Influence” people: If you have an opinion, say it loud and act on it.
- Set & forget: Building and releasing something is only the beginning.
- Listen to everyone. Find out who loves you and pick a niche.
- Don’t get stuck on strategy docs. Have a clear positioning and execute.
- Write problem statements. Make a prioritized list and only work on key customer problems.
- Get real and prototype live: Do everything you can to increase the delivery pace.
- Ship it: Just ship it, you’ll learn faster 😉
- Pick big swings: “What’s the highest impact work we can do this week”?
- Empower people: Centralized decisions slow you down.
- Get feedback on releases: Most things require an iteration.
- Start a community: Before your product is ready, you can start a community.
- Talk to users every day: Keep sharing these learnings with your team.
Step 2. Start with the right MVP
The common idea about the MVP is that you create a small solution, give it to people, and see if they find it useful. But in most cases, this first version doesn’t quite match what people need. So, you start to wonder:
- Are you solving a real problem?
- Is your solution the right one?
- Are you aiming at the right group of people?
If you’re in this situation, you’re in a tough spot, and it’s hard to get out of it. Each of these questions has 10 different possible answers. That’s 10 x 10 x 10 = 1000 combinations you need to test to find PMF. This would take a lifetime!
To get a chance to succeed you need to ship an MVP that helps you collect some learnings. And for that, you need to be accurate. You need to ship an MVP as close as possible to what your product will eventually look like.
Successful startups often get it right from the beginning:
Notion and Uber MVPs look very familiar no?
Here are a couple of tips to launch the right MVP from the get-go:
- Be organized when you launch your first version.
- Trust your gut feeling.
- Solve a problem that you’ve personally experienced.
- Keep learning from your launches and be ready to change if necessary.
You’ve probably heard that you should launch fast and improve quickly. That’s good advice, but don’t rush through your first version. It’s really important.
Step 3. Prioritize insanely well
For any small business trying to create a new product, picking the right things to work on is super important. However, the regular methods for doing this don’t work well for startups. Those methods involve gathering feedback from people, sorting it into groups, and then using fancy systems like “RICE.” These ways are good for bigger companies but not for startups that are just starting out.
Startups in the early stages need to be quick. They have to find the most valuable things to work on and break through barriers, or they might fail. To do that, startups need to choose what’s most important in a different way.
Here are six excellent ways to pick the most crucial things to work on pre-PMF.
- Set one priority: Your resources are limited. Set one goal and align your initiatives to increase your chance of success
- Start with stones: Your planning is like a jar. Fill it with stones first (big bets), then add sands (low-hanging fruits). Avoid starting with sand.
- Aim for big swings. Pick ambitious bets. To do so you should ask yourself: “What’s the highest impact work we can do this week”?
- Reduce deadlines: Challenge your product priorities frequently. Adopt the shortest delivery cadence you can. Plan every 6 weeks instead of every quarter. Adopt one-week sprints, instead of two-week ones.
- Just in time: Define and estimate engineering work just in time. Estimate too much ahead – or too late – and you’ll waste resources. To solve that challenge sync your estimation and planning exercises.
- 10%-30% debt: Bugs and tech debt pile faster than you think. Dedicate a consistent part of your resources to them. Start with 10% of your resources, then grow this number over time.
Step 4. Move insanely fast
Doing things slowly in startups doesn’t make startups any better. It just makes everything take more time. Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator, explains it well:
But going fast doesn’t mean making products in a hurry or putting out things that don’t matter. It means being smart and efficient when creating and releasing your product. It also means taking risks and working differently from the masses. You can’t be better and catch up if you use the same recipe.
Below are unique ways to give your users what they need as quickly as a flash of lightning.
- No staging: Any steps between the dev and production environment are a way to hold back (and here is how to survive without staging).
- Adopt feature flags. A feature flag is great to add users to a beta and iterate with them. You can do it yourself for QA, and you’re one click away from going live for everyone.
- Scope small. Think big, start small. It’s faster to break down a project into parts and ship them than to ship a project all at once.
- Write regular product releases. Publishing a changelog at a regular cadence is a forcing function to ship fast. A weekly changelog is like a superpower.
- QA immediately. When engineers wait for QA, they have to switch contexts. Context switching is a huge waste of time. QA right away.
- Create engineering ownership. Make it clear to engineers that they are responsible for solving the users’ problems. End to end. Avoid dragging.
Step 5. Set the right milestones
PMF isn’t binary, it’s a scale.
First, you have nothing, then some level of PMF, then a strong PMF. Many success stories will tell you how a startup moved from nothing to having a strong PMF. But that’s usually for the sake of making the story snappy and remarkable. Most of the time, it took years for a startup to reach its PMF.
Once you understand PMF is a spectrum, you understand the value of setting gradual goals, and progressively hitting them, until you reach a strong PMF.
Here are the milestones you should set yourself pre-revenue:
- You get < 10% acceptance rate in your user research requests
😃 Some sort of PMF
- You get > 20% acceptance rate in your user research requests
- People give you money for using your early product
- Customers share a list with you of what would it take to adopt your product on the company level
- Customers react sensitively when you have a sudden downtime
🎉 Strong PMF
- 40% of your users would be very disappointed if they couldn’t use your product anymore
- Organic inbound (word of mouth) picks up
🧰 Tools suggested: Gmail, Webflow, Tally
Quantitative milestones (more benchmarks here)
- Your website conversion rate is < 1%
- Less than 50 active users
- User retention below 20% at 6 months
😃 Some sort of PMF
- Your website conversion rate is > 2%
- B2B: 50 active accounts; B2C 500 WAU or DAU (depending on your desired frequency)
- Active users growing 3% week over week (WoW)
- User retention between 20% and 40% at 6 months
🎉 Strong PMF
- Active users growing 5-10% WoW
- User retention > 40% at 6 months
- 10k+ MRR
🧰 Tools suggested: June, Metabase
Step 6. Collect learnings
Pre-PMF, the smallest unit of product value that product management can generate is not signup, a piece of customer feedback, or a non-repeatable revenue. It’s a learning.
A learning can be anything that has a meaningful impact on your business, and how you run it. A learning can be:
- A value proposition that resonates more than others.
- A persona who couldn’t care less about your product.
- An acquisition channel where it seems most of your sign-ups came from.
- The technology you previously used is going to be discontinued.
- New technology that you may be leveraging in public beta.
Over time, whoever generates the most learnings and is able to act upon them, wins. Product management should help you collect as many learnings as possible, and then circulate them to make wise decisions.
Here are a couple of learnings that drastically impacted businesses you may know:
Product Management pre-PMF is broken, but it does not have to be. If you’re working at an early-stage startup, you can fix that.
Unlearn traditional practices, focus on solving real problems, and start with a precise MVP.
After that prioritize effectively, move swiftly, and set achievable goals through your journey. To make this journey efficient, collect insights and act accordingly.
Altogether these practices will make you move faster than anyone and more importantly, in the right direction. They will help you leverage product management to increase your chance of reaching PMF.
Last but not least: enjoy the ride. Product management in the early-stage is an incredible experience to live.
Hope this helps 💜
🤫 pssss! I’m writing a book called “The first Product Manager”
It’s about product management in early-stage startups. To be on the VIP list and receive the first chapter for free when it’s out please drop your email here.