5 Steps For Ensuring Product Success
As CTO and co-founder of Place, I am in charge of product development - and I am also in charge of customer success. Here I explain how we develop our product in ways that are focused on delivering values as quickly as possible and ultimately customer love.
Like Place CEO Brandon Metcalf, I was involved in building and scaling a software solution on the Salesforce Platform at a previous business - Talent Rover. Talent Rover grew to have offices in 8 countries and customers in more than 40. It was also ranked as the 9th fastest growing software company in America by Inc. 500.
Managing a global software company with that rate of growth is a challenge. Just like other SaaS companies we had to focus on sales, marketing, product development and customer support, while also managing the challenges of financial forecasting, cash planning, revenue management, cost controls, and workforce planning. Most of this we had to do with multiple software solutions that were disconnected and an endless amount of spreadsheets.
We decided there had to be an easier and more effective way of managing a software company. As I see it, Place uncovers the financial aspects of people’s jobs. In a few years, I think people from top to bottom of organizations will take for granted that they can see that and manage that.
We took a couple of years to ensure we built a foundation that was not only stable, and secure, but most critical for a financial product - accurate. We built a strong platform that works well and we are continuing to develop the functionality, enhancing it in line with what works for our customers. Below, I explain the steps we follow to ensure that our product develops in the right direction.
1. Define the outcomes
The first step is defining how enhancements to the product will drive outcomes. How will the proposed new features or improvements provide value to customers? Which will provide quantifiable benefit in the shortest time scale?
If we had unlimited time and resources, we could do everything that anybody asked for - but we don’t. We take suggestions for enhancements from everyone - customers, investors, people within the company. We use Place to run our own business so that means we have a good idea ourselves where we can add value. Then we have to consider the options and prioritize the ones that will drive positive outcomes.
2. Validate proposed enhancements by establishing use cases and checking them with customers
With every suggested new feature, we validate, we verify it. We come up with use cases and go out to customers to see if that would be something that will add value. If a customer comes up with a suggestion and then other customers ask for something similar - that will go up the priority list. Each addition has to be something that fits with the roadmap of the product.
Equally, if we have a big new feature on the road map but we find that customers are more interested in building up some more basic functionality first, we will adjust and bring forward what the customers need. We constantly adjust our priorities - we have a planning meeting every week where we arrange the schedule and also tweak it daily.
3. Storyboard new features
We brought in UI design from day one. That saves a lot of discussion of concepts - it means that we put the storyboard of the proposed feature in front of the development team and say - “this is what we want to build”. The development team can then see exactly what we mean, and give an idea of how difficult that is or what resources might be required.
That is different from how we worked at Talent Rover. We have learned that having this clarity at the start of the process helps to ensure we make the best possible use of our resources and keep the process running smoothly.
4. Start work on testing early
We also have really robust quality assurance and we bring that in at the beginning of the process too. If you don’t have your testing team involved until the end, then stuff can get thrown over the wall. We have QA from the start, so they are aware of the use cases that we are looking at. They can start to build the testing early.
Nothing gets signed off until we have proved that the product feature or enhancement we have built fits the use cases we started with. Our QA process is quite large - this has more to do with how our customers will use the product than with how it's built. We test that it will work in the different Salesforce environments that our customers use.
Because Salesforce is a highly configurable environment it means that there are extra checks we have to do to make sure that our new feature or enhancement is compatible with different setups and that it won’t break anything.
5. Work at a fast, but sustainable pace
At Talent Rover, we tended to introduce too much of the work we had done with specific customers into the product, and although that was valuable, at times it slowed us down. It could mean that a lot of resources got diverted into a feature that was too specific to one customer and it could be challenging to make that flexible and broad enough to meet a range of use cases. We also tended to want to make sure everything was perfect.
This time around, we work much more closely with our customers. We bring new enhancements and features out more quickly and in a more agile way - we push things out to our closest customers and ask for their feedback. They know that it is not perfect and that they are effectively co-creating it. When they start using it, we all get a better understanding of how it works in practice. Then we can immediately start perfecting it - although we accept that we won’t ever achieve perfection.
Having that mutual understanding with our customers means that we can push out releases on different cadences - we might push out an element every couple of weeks and iterate that for a period, and then for something else, it might take a few months until we release the new feature. But we are not bound by a rigid timetable of updating the product twice a year.
Working at a start-up is exciting because you are creating something that didn’t exist before. But the stage we are at now of starting to scale up is even more rewarding. We are helping our customers to succeed in a competitive and changing market.