4 Tips For Startup Product Management

I have been a CEO of a small company for over two years now. In a small company, you need to constantly jump from one role to another. You have to get out of the building and keep the ship in its course at the same time, or sometimes also change the course. Jumping between tasks is even more evident when a key member of your team decides to leave the company.

By Ilmari Kontulainen, CEO of Deveo

This is exactly what happened to us about one year ago. Our CTO announced his departure and exactly in 30 days we were without that one person who had done most of the co-ordination of tasks in the backlog as well as prioritizing the customer needs.

I’m a big fan of systems thinking, which is based on the presumption that a system always finds its balance. This is what happened in this case as well. Naturally, in the beginning, I had to personally take most of the responsibilities of our CTO, but along the coming months, the system which in this case is our company found its balance with the co-operation of our proactive team. The responsibility that was originally held by a single person was gradually transferred to the whole team.

The aforementioned chain of events taught me a lot. It actually taught me so much that one blog post wouldn’t be enough to cover all of the learnings. The one learning I’m going to cover is however the different views you need to take into account when doing product management. This reflects both to the planning of the next release of your product as well as planning in the long-term. In this post, I’m going to cover four different views we use at Deveo when assessing both what to do next as well as what to do in the long term.

New Features

Let’s start off with the easiest one. Customers are always requesting new features and naturally adding that new feature might make it or break it for your product. Adding features itself does not, however, contribute to the success of your product unless the features you add, benefit your customers. Adding new features is essential, but you need to keep the right balance and know exactly which features are those that bring the most meaningful impact to your customers.

I’m an avid fan of impact mapping which is a technique introduced by Gojko Adzic. Impact mapping is a strategic planning technique that prevents organizations from getting lost while building products and delivering projects, by clearly communicating assumptions, helping teams align their activities with overall business objectives and make better roadmap decisions. It has taught me that whenever you consider adding a new feature to the backlog, consider how it contributes towards the impact you wish to accomplish with your product.

User experience enhancements and fine tuning

Here’s where the magic happens. Customer experience and user experience are buzzwords that are thrown around widely nowadays. Companies that focus on doing one thing as well as possible are typically those that strive. Fine tuning and enhancing your product’s core functionalities, and making them as streamlined as possible should be one of the key priorities when deciding what to do next. The difference between a good functionality and a great functionality is typically the user experience.

When doing user experience enhancements and fine tuning, dogfooding your own product, if possible, is essential. We at Deveo use our product for most of the tasks throughout the day, and thus, constantly find ways to enhance the workflows and functionalities up to the perfection.

Paying technical debt

When to upgrade the underlying tools you are using or when to concentrate on improving test coverage are probably some of the hardest decisions to make in a fast-paced business environment. Potential and existing customers are constantly wanting new functionalities, and it would seem like a good idea to concentrate only on bringing the new stuff to the market. What I have found out during the last couple years is that in order to think not just for the short tail, but also for the long one, you need to keep your stack together.

Keeping your stack together means basically upgrading the underlying tools from time to time and using some time to paying off technical debt that accumulates. I’m not going to go into specifics on how often or how much is sufficient, but if you neglect to upgrade the underlying technology stack you are building on top of, or if you neglect automated testing, you will face severe problems in the long term. Ever heard of the word ‘technical debt’? Well, that’s the thing you start to accumulate once you start neglecting it.

Something cool

To be able to be out there and offer something new that benefits both your new and potential customers, you should always include ‘something cool’ to every release you are making. If you are delivering continuously, “every release” can be replaced with “from time to time”.

That something cool is something you define yourself and it should be targetted towards your main audience. That something cool can be a disruptive way or simply a well thought-out workflow for accomplishing something that yields benefits to your target audience. Base most of your marketing efforts showing off that cool stuff you have and get that attraction you desire.


The four things I presented above are the things we live by at Deveo. We concentrate on the impacts rather on the features. We keep our building blocks in order and find the time to keep them up to date. And last but not least we always try to include something cool to the mix.

Naturally this is all just a scratch on the surface for how we work, but it gives some insights on the decision making we use to plan our releases. I would be interested to hear how you plan your releases and what things do you consider important? Leave a comment below.