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Product leadership: Startup challenges, guiding principles

Startups face myriad challenges, especially when they seek to participate in, or utilize technology from, fast-moving markets like Generative AI. Hype is often at a premium, so  delivering products that provide real value to customers, while managing agile development processes and scaling GTM teams, requires a combination of strategic vision, technical insight, market understanding, and high EQ. And because sufficient data is often absent in real-time to make decisions, our ability to recognize patterns, and the guiding principles we follow based on our experience, underlies how effective we are.

In this blog we will cover 5 principles (which are by no means inclusive), with illustrative examples, for startup Product teams.

  1. Build value-based technology solutions

  2. Maintain strategic focus

  3. Act decisively to achieve market fit

  4. Share ownership for whole product 

  5. Accelerate learning velocity

1. Build value-based technology solutions

Cool basic technology itself does not solve real business problems. Organizations purchase and value technology-based solutions that deliver concrete benefits/results. By combining deep customer understanding with insight into technological possibilities, we can perceive opportunities that may extend beyond current familiar use cases, to deliver new, unexpected  forms of automation or analytics with practical business impact.

To think out of the box, to push boundaries, to create novel differentiation is the basis for high-impact solutions. “Light bulb”  moments, when customers recognize the value that is possible, are for me the most satisfying moments in business.

Attorneys were astonished when for the first time they automatically could see the structure of large discovery sets and access relevant documents using the classification capabilities of the first-to-market intelligent SaaS eDiscovery solution.

Likewise, American and Japanese General Counsel and CIOs were incredulous when shown the automated identification and extraction of critical data, section by section, from large-scale contracts, bidding and regulatory documents, using multilingual semantic NLP technology as part of an end-to-end content intelligence solution focused on the contract analytics and management market.

2. Maintain strategic focus 

For startups that operate in emerging technology markets the noise to signal ratio is incredibly high. This is especially true for the chaotic Gen AI market and its accelerated pace of innovation. Every day there is a new algorithm, methodology, etc. that demands attention and inclusion in the tech stack and solution. At the same time, startups and early stage companies who build new products using this technology face time-to-market, and time-to-revenue pressure from investors. 

This can create the perfect storm that often leads to fast moving tactical decisions and changes of direction that make it extremely difficult to build and deliver products consistently and with high quality. 


An incubated startup within a mature company often confronts push back from legacy point product teams and elements of executive management who may actively lobby against, and raise roadblocks to, a new product and/or architecture. To bring the product to market successfully requires navigating this high stress and turbulent environment, maintaining laser focus for the team on the strategic end goal – to build and successfully launch the product that will modernize the company’s portfolio and GTM, and avoid the downward spiral of legacy products.

Certain core elements come into play when confronting these types of turbulent if not chaotic situations. 

First, high EQ coupled with intellectual acuity. Manage and deal with tactical or political distractions while maintaining a strategic perspective, stay centered emotionally, always create a path forward that stays focused on the goal.

Second, explicit and transparent prioritization, coupled with shared ownership of the results. Plan priorities, considering resource requirements and constraints, and taking input from all teams, to drive a consensus decision mitigates against out-of-band demands that can create havoc and loss of focus. 

Third, clear communication and collaboration. Clearly communicate to leadership and the company at large, and collaborate with teams to ensure alignment and shared ownership of priorities. This enables functional business teams to plan GTM and CS around the prioritized features and delivery.

3. Act decisively to achieve market fit

Startups and early stage companies are innovation laboratories. New products are market experiments, with customer feedback as confirming or invalidating data. Products that customers are willing to buy because they effectively solve pain, needs, and even desires, are developing product-market fit. But all too often, market signals are negative, with insufficient revenue to run the business, or ambiguous in the absence of strong positive signals.

Taking data that challenges current strategy seriously is one of the biggest challenges startups confront. Too often belief in, and commitment to, a market, strategy and/or product, coupled with group think and confirmation bias, prevents teams from taking a critical step back to assess the data, own the implications, and make the hard decisions to recalibrate or pivot.

A trailblazing startup was first to market with an email cybersecurity product. The initial product design and go-to-market strategy targeted enterprise B2B clients, and the company became addicted to high-value, high-margin enterprise deals. Emerging competition put downward pressure on ACV and margins at the high end while also eviscerating the mid-market. CAC was too high, and the enterprise CS-led model could not be sustained. Confronting an existential crisis, the company made the hard decision to create the industry’s first automated, self-service SaaS offering, shift to a Product-led Growth model, and realign the organization to the new business model, leading to renewed growth.

4. Share ownership for whole product 

Under enormous pressure to deliver product and revenue, startup teams can overlook important whole product requirements that extend beyond code and product infrastructure for a successful GTM. Operating under a whole product framework is difficult if there are functional silos and a “throw it over the wall” culture.  Establishing a culture and programmatic framework that (1) coordinates these functions and ensures their readiness and delivery (2) focuses on alignment across the product lifecycle and customer journey, and (3) frames individual team roles and responsibilities vis a vis the product/portfolio and larger GTM process, is critical for success. 

This requires close collaboration between product management and product marketing. Strategic product narratives, developed use cases, articulated product roadmap/vision, and clear positioning/messaging frameworks, supplemented later with playbooks for launches, roll-outs, and campaigns, are foundational elements for CS, Growth, Enablement and Sales. These foundations empower each team to develop content and scale. But even more importantly, they enable market facing teams to understand the context for GTM launches and campaigns so that they can tailor their actions to the GTM objectives vis a vis targeted persona and ICPs.

In a Series B API company the GTM strategy targeted developers, initially by API point product functionality. In response to a significant drop in revenue, a matrix overlay based on vertical target markets was established to create more focused campaigns. The voice of the customer for each vertical was different, as were the value propositions for vertically specific use cases. Product and Product Marketing collaborated with Enablement to develop playbooks for each vertical that enabled Sales, from BDRs to enterprise AEs, to understand each campaign, the pains of specific vertical customers, and how the specific API products directly addressed their needs. Instead of a generic sales conversation Sales was able to establish rapport with prospects by speaking their language, with a direct impact on close rates. 

5. Accelerate learning velocity

At the scale of “6 guys in a garage” almost everyone has direct interaction with customers. However, as the organization starts to grow (often very quickly) and as the customer base expands, barriers can start to emerge for product managers. Sales and Customer Success (CS) become primary contacts with customers, making it more difficult for Product personnel, whether technical product managers or product marketing managers, to gain direct input, feedback from customers. While Product can and does reach out to customers for input on use cases, new features, workflow modifications, or even system performance, these are conversations with clear objectives, and not more open discovery conversations. 

These types of discovery conversations more often occur with Sales and CS. For Product to keep its thumb on the pulse of the market via customer feedback it is imperative that they create a feedback loop based on frequent interactions with the Sales and CS teams to listen and learn from their customer conversations. The current trend to utilize audio recordings and/or transcripts provides one point of entry, but being able to drill down with Sales/CS into their perceptions and customer dissatisfaction or desires is critical. This data enables a truly agile Product team.

6. Conclusion

Product occupies a central place within high tech startups. It is responsible for creating products that solve real problems for customers, who as a result recognize their value and purchase them. To get there, Product needs to make the right decisions that define strategy, functionality, usability and GTM elements, by combining insight into technical possibility with their understanding of customer pain, needs and desires.

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