After I started mentoring on Plato HQ, I realized how many companies forget why they exist. If I ask mentees to describe their company’s vision, many product leaders respond with something along the lines of “we provide software to companies to make their job easier”. That statement could come from literally every SaaS company in the world.
Being product-led means having a strong vision that you are tirelessly making a reality, one step at a time. It means you are building a product that has a broader ambition, an almost unreachable one, to change an industry – or the whole world.
Remembering your product origin story
If the product leaders I’m mentoring are company founders, I take them a step back in our sessions by asking them why they started their company. And suddenly they realize they had an idea that sparked a vision, and they built an initial product to solve a problem and get closer to that vision.
Once they found a market to go to with that initial product, these product leaders started scaling and entered the stage of their company where they grow by winning the next deal. While you don’t want to be doing this for too long, and every product book will discourage you from doing so, I think this is a very valid stage for every startup, when they prove their product/market fit. But this is also a stage that you need to keep watching closely, to ensure that you only do things that are aligned with your vision. At some point, you need to say “enough” and manage your product in a way that leads the whole company towards the vision.
Are you really customer-centric?
If you keep going where customers ask you to go, you can win a lot of customers, that’s for sure. But your customers will often ask you to adjust your dream based on their previous solution and their immediate needs. While still aligned with your vision, these are small detours from it, a little like death by 1,000 paper cuts. Before you know it, you won’t be delivering on your vision. You'll have broken your promise to your customers. They’ll be disappointed and they will churn, regardless of whether you have listened to them and built what they needed.
In companies like these, plans revolve around upcoming customers, which sounds good – in theory. It sounds like a customer-centric approach. But in practice, the roadmap and strategy have been reverse-engineered by the needs of customers. What’s the chance that a random set of customers will create a roadmap that really leads to your vision? Ultimately, your vision promise will become false because you won’t actually be building that vision.
In practical terms, this means that you need to be leading the entire company into new customer segments, repeating what you did when you started: creating a product for that new segment, making sure it fits and then letting the customer-facing part of the organization follow. This sequence of segments is your product strategy. It’s vital to clearly state what your steps are so that the rest of the company knows where you are going. Otherwise, they may find their own path and you’ll be back at square one.
Being product-led simply means that you’re navigating towards your vision and making sure you don’t get lost along the way.
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