It is quite different to lead a product team at a startup than in an established enterprise. Mixpanel was founded in its early years. I have been with Mixpanel for almost a decade. It has taught me that priorities can change as you grow from a startup to a scale-up and then to an enterprise.
Startups are in a stage where they are continually experimenting to find the right product-market fit. The importance of product-market fit isn’t something to brush off — a 2019 CB Insights study found that “no market need” was the top reason why startups don’t succeed.
This is critical for product teams. You need to prioritize product differentiations that enable you to solve users’ problems in a way your competitors don’t or can’t.
Your customers will be your most loyal when you provide a product that delivers. Your product will be valued by them, and this will compensate for any areas that you might have been a little rough.
This was in the early days of Mixpanel.
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When your business is growing, you can shift your focus to matching innovation with follow-through. This is when you need to get rid of any kinks.
Mixpanel was so much ahead of everyone else at this point. We made a mistake by branching out into other things when we should have been focusing on improving our product and solving existing problems. Instead of focusing on more, innovate on what you already do well.
As you grow, your customers become your most valuable asset. Your customers are invaluable information sources that can inform your product strategy. Listen to your customers and learn how they use the product.
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What happens to an established player? The other side of that fence will be you. You’ll find yourself on the other side of the fence.
It’s crucial to remain agile and innovating even as you grow. This can be done by dividing your teams into smaller units that can work efficiently. It’s almost like they are little startups within your company.
Amazon, for example, tries to divide its engineering teams into “two pizza” teams. This means that you will only need two pizzas per person to feed the whole team.
My experience with software development has shown that a unit made up of a product manager and a designer works well. This unit can make its own decisions and does not need to be coordinated with others.
This autonomy will need to be balanced with the larger corporate vision. An example of this is how Netflix aims for “context, not control” (you can take a look at their culture deck here). This balance is achieved by instilling a sense of purpose.
Your teams will be able to make their own decisions, but still stay connected to the company’s goals, if they understand why they do what they do. It is important to avoid falling into the trap of interminable meetings, check-ins, and red tape that can make your company slow and bureaucratic.
Nothing is more satisfying than watching your product team or business grow from a startup to scaling up and moving on to being an established company. Mixpanel has been an inspiring and creatively fulfilling experience.
As product leaders, we need to maintain the same agile, one-team environment and focus that drove our growth, while also learning to delegate responsibilities to our teams, so that they can build on what was created.
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