Startup Product Building 101

A product-building guide for startup founders

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Photo by David Travis on Unsplash

Last Updated: Monday, February 8th 2021

🤷‍♂️ What is this?

My advice for startup founders who are building web and mobile applications and could use some pointers on how to approach the world of product, design, and software engineering. This isn’t an in-depth guide on how to build a product without software. It also doesn’t touch on the intricacies of building hardware (simply not my specialty). It is a collection of the lessons I’ve given to founders countlessly over the years and I hope it helps you start down the path of building products for yourself.

Who am I?

I’m Chip Kennedy: a product builder, software engineer, and entrepreneur. I’ve spent 7+ years consulting, advising, building, and architecting software for startups. I love working in startup communities and helping entrepreneurs take on the challenge of building software products. This guide is some of the best practices I’ve picked up along the way. It’s best for startup founders embarking on building their next tech product.

Disclaimer, of sorts

This is an overview of many different product building, and company building, lessons I’ve learned over the years. I purposely don’t dive deep on all of the individual topics below, but instead want to give advice to start you, a founder, down the right path. If you want to find me to dig deeper or disagree with anything below — please do! (@chippykennedy | codesleep.run)

Enjoy!

🔍 Some Definitions (to get us on the same page)

I have a full appendix below👇, but here are some terms I use heavily in this guide:

  • Product Market Fit — the measure of how the thing your startup provides is wanted by the people you’re providing it to. Often measured simply by how many paying customers you can attract.
  • Product People — professionals that work in the web and mobile software fields. This primarily means software developers, product designers, and product managers; but can also include marketers, data scientists and engineers, and professionals with many other specific and relevant skillsets.
  • Scope — the relative “size” of the product you’re trying to build.

✏️ Lesson 1: Building Products is Hard (but we knew that)

Whether this is your first time creating a company or your tenth, there are some constants that exist in the startup world. One of them — building products is hard. It’s not for lack of talent — there is no shortage of intelligent and innovative software engineers, product designers, data scientists, marketers, and product managers out there.

Not really, but’s let’s dive in anyway (via giphy.com)

It’s not usually due to complexity of the technology itself— most startup tech isn’t as proprietary and cutting-edge as founders think it is (and that’s ok). It’s also not for lack of effort — startup events, accelerators, and communities are filled with resources on how to build tech products.

So why is building products so hard?

Well, building products is complicated (everyone’s favorite non-answer). But don’t worry, I’ll do my best to start uncomplicating things shortly. To start, something that gets in a founder’s way early on is the fallacy of composition, or the assumptions we make about simple things being made of simple parts.

👇Let me break it down.

The software products we like using are most often the simplest to use. The user interfaces of google search or twitter, for example, are dead simple. The rules of usage are intuitive and the clear presentation matches our expectations. But just because these products are simple to use doesn’t mean they were simple to build.

Product building is like an onion (via giphy.com)

Right now, Twitter and Google respectively employ thousands and tens of thousands of product-minded people — researches, designers, engineers, marketers — all focused on wildly different components that come together to give you the simple interface you expect. Not to mention that the product you see is the result of thousands of iterations of itself — all taking account of user feedback, data, research, and so much more. The fallacy of composition lets us take for granted the cross-disciplinary, complex process that is building products.

But complicated doesn’t mean impossible.

Tech entrepreneurs are expected to creatively solve problems that established tech companies have yet to, can’t, or won’t take on themselves. A founder’s advantage isn’t resources, but the abilities to pivot quickly, take on a different perspective, and work in ways that larger teams simply can’t. This is core to innovation itself. Product building is no different: founders should approach the technology and product challenges of their company like they do everything else: by thinking creatively, using community, and iterating.

The Takeaway: Building good products is hard. Just like you do in every part of your business, lean on your community, think creatively and iteratively, and create a process that works for you.

✏️ Lesson 2: You Don’t Need a CTO

It’s a long-running startup adage that a Chief Technology Officer is the necessary counterpart to any startup founder CEO. They’re supposed to be the technical brain that accompanies any good founder’s business brain.

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The internet telling you how necessary it is to find a CTO (you don’t have to listen)

I’ve often heard entrepreneurs quote Rei Inamoto’s, chief creative officer at the well-known design firm AKQA, who famously said that a startup only needs “a Hipster, a Hacker, and a Hustler.” The term “hacker” stands in for a CTO, specifically the TV-version of a programmer: a somewhat antisocial, superprogrammer that somehow types faster than you and I can read.

Now I don’t advocate for founders without technical background to embark on building technology alone (remember lesson 1: it’s hard). I do recommend that founders research all their options, including but far from limited to recruiting a CTO. There are many options I’ve seen startups successfully use:

  • Bring on a Product, Design, or Development Agency
  • Hire a Part Time or Full Time Developer with Startup Experience
  • Hire Various Product Freelancers
  • Learning Product Skills Yourself
  • Various Hybrids of the Above Approaches

My advice, take your time and research the different approaches. Once you are settled on a good approach for your business, always research your potential product partners. Approach bringing on product talent as if you’re hiring — don’t be afraid to interview agencies or freelancers, ask for references, and carefully set expectations.

👇Let’s break down those options further:

Working With Agencies

Agencies exist for a reason. I ran my own agency for two years and really believe that they’re a core part of the startup ecosystem. It can be hard to get objective information on which agencies are right for you, however.

There are countless development agencies across the world, all with varying but similar promises, descriptions, sales pitches, and approaches. Some will cater directly toward startup communities and some will even offer services for your equity. Given the diversity of services, prices, and approaches, it’s hard to generalize too much; but there are truths to agency work I’ve found to be constant. An agency will cost the most money of all your product building options. In return, a good agency will handle most of the product building process.

When to Use an Agency

  • You have a sense of product market fit
  • You know the general scope of what you want to build
  • Your time is better spent on other parts of your business
  • You’re not confident in your product management skills

When Not to Use an Agency

  • You don’t yet have a sense of product market fit
  • You don’t have the funding or resources for an agency

How to Find an Agency

  • Ask your local startup community for agencies that other entrepreneurs have used in the past
  • Find startup projects that you like and look up the agency that built their applications

How to Do it Right

  • Make sure you understand everything in a proposal/contract. If you don’t ask questions and get second opinions
  • Don’t pay for services you don’t think you need. Keep scope of service small and add on as necessary.

Hiring Full-Time and Part-Time Product People (with Startup Experience)

Hiring full-time or part-time product people is a natural alternative to hiring a CTO. Startup CTOs might be hard to come by, but qualified product professionals aren’t. Looking for a CTO is setting a very high bar: someone with professional startup, tech, business, and management experience. Looking for a software developer or product designer is much more reasonable. Hiring product professionals will cost less money than an agency, but still require an interview process, investment and good management from you. In return, good product people will work closely with you and handle pivots well.

When to Use a Hire a Product Person

  • You don’t yet have a sense of product market fit
  • You’re confident in your product management skills

When to Not Hire a Product Person

  • You don’t have the funding or resources for a hire
  • Your company doesn’t need complicated technology right now

How to Find a Product Person

How to Do it Right

Hiring Product Freelancers

The world is more connected than ever and there are no shortage of online marketplaces that will connect you to talented product people. And it’s not just entrepreneurs: big tech companies and billion-dollar startups companies use Upwork when it makes sense for their process. Hiring freelancers is a viable option for founders, and often an under-appreciated one. To do it right, you’ll have to know or learn best practices of product management and be sure you can communicate your product goals clearly. Hiring freelancers is usually your least expensive option and comes with a varying sense of reliability. In return, you take the smallest financial risk and have product people that you don’t need long term contacts with.

When to Use Freelancers

  • You don’t yet have a sense of product market fit
  • Your budget is limited
  • You’re confident in your product management skills

When to Not Use Freelancers

  • You’re not ready (or don’t have time) to tightly manage your product building process
  • You’re not confident in your product management skills

How to Find a Freelances

How to Do it Right

The Takeaway: Whether you have a CTO, work with an agency, hire professionals, or work with freelancers — you’re still the owner of your company and your product. Getting better at product management will bring you a long way in understanding how to approach product building, hiring, and contracts — all skills you can use in lieu of finding the perfect CTO.

✏️ Lesson 3: Start Small and Iterate

It’s a cliché, but a foundational truth of company building: you should test, learn, iterate, and repeat. Thinking big is important, and outlining the perfect version of a product that solves your user’s challenge is a great place to start. From there, thinking small is critical. Finding the minimal version of your product is key. You’ve probably heard of the term, Minimal Viable Concept (MVP).

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Lean Startup by Eric Ries

Coined in Lean Startup by Eric Ries, it’s the idea that startups should start by building the smallest version of a product that solves their users’ problem. I won’t prescribe that you (or any startup) needs to follow a strict methodology, but believe in the principle. I won’t prescribe that you (or any startup) needs to follow a strict methodology, but believe in the principle. It helps to break your product down into features and then challenge yourself to only focus on one or two of them. You should also think creatively about how to build each iteration — ask yourself “can this feature be hacked together using existing technology?”. Entire startups will build, get funding, expand, and successfully exit using existing technology. The beauty of small iterations is that you increase the number of opportunities to get feedback on your product.

The traditional idea that a tech startup needs to invent completely new technology is no longer true, and in reality never truly has been. Some founders will now debate the value of the opposite side of the spectrum: no-code products. I won’t argue for against them because I think that misses the point. I’ve never built software for startups that didn’t utilize both custom-built technology and creative no-code services and automations. Rather than decide that you’re using one specific approach, pull on ideas from everywhere to come up with the thing that accomplishes your goal for the version of your product.

Minimizing the size of your next iteration minimizes the size of your scope. With a smaller focus, you’ll have a much easier time describing features to and product people you hire. In some cases, you’ll eliminate the need to hire product people in the short term — finding you can hack the next iteration of your product yourself.

The Takeaway: Think big and start small. There is always a smaller version of the product you want — a version that will cost less to build and get you a launched version of your product much sooner.

✏️ Lesson 4: Your Business Goals == Your Product Goals (and they should be simple)

Fist off, if you’re wondering, “==” is a programming operator that simply defines equality — congrats on becoming a more technical startup founder!

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When you know you’ve got the right analytics for your company (via giphy.com)

You’re building a business and you have goals. Those goals (hopefully) translate to core metrics or KPIs. Your product is no different, but the part that I’ve seen many founders get wrong is focusing on too many and too specific KPIs.

Having data on the performance of your product is important, don’t get me wrong. But at the end of the day you’re building a product to solve a problem for your users. That product shares the same goals as your overall business.

Over time, if and when you hire an in-house team of engineers, designers, and data scientists, they will (and you will) care about hyper-specific product metrics. As you start out, however, keep things simple. A smaller number of core, clear metrics will help you make decisions, guide your product iterations, and help you clearly communicate what you’re building and why it matters.

The Takeaway: Core, simple metrics are good for your business. Those same metrics should define your product.

✏️ Lesson 5: Stick With Your Gut

Of all the clichés I’ve promoted, I tell founders this one the most. Yes, it’s a cop-out answer. But it’s also a critical thing to remember. Being the founder of a startup means that a lot of people are putting their trust in you: users and customers trust the products you build, your team trusts you to constantly define and execute a vision, investors trust you with their money, and (most importantly) you trust yourself. You may not wake up every day and have full confidence in the things you do (and that’s allowed), but you should always remember that people trust you for a reason — they believe that you’re the right person for the job.

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Sometimes running a startup comes down to trusting the process (via giphy.com)

Trusting your gut in product building means following through on inclinations you have. If you’re unsure about a contract with an agency or freelancer — get more information or call more references. If you think there is a piece of technology that would improve your product — learn more and ask your product team how they would go about integrating it. If you think someone’s hourly rate is too high or too low — it probably is.

Trusting your gut also means using communities around you to better understand and validate your inclinations. Founders don’t succeed alone, and there are lots of communities of founders and product people who can give you important context as you come to these decisions and inflection points.

The Takeaway: Product building can feel foreign to those who haven’t done it before. Software development, product design, and product management are complicated, but necessary parts of many startups. You won’t be an expert, but can still apply much of the same approach.

👋 What Comes Next?

You’re a startup founder. You’ve got a product to build. You’ve got this.

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If you’re excited, so am I (via giphy.com)

If any of the topics above got you thinking, keep on educating yourself. 👇Here are some go-to resources for startup product building:

  • Lean Startup by Eric Ries — the original (and still relevant) definition of learn startup methodology
  • Sprint by Jake Knapp — playbook for running product design sprints
  • Running Lean by Ash Maurya — deeper dive on startups, product, and product market fit

🗺 Appendix

Freelancer References: A freelancer’s previous clients. It’s not unreasonable to ask a freelancer to provide previous contacts, and it’s a good exercise to learn more about how the freelancer works with clients. Good questions to ask:

  • How did they handle cost or time overages? Did they communicate them well?
  • Were they open and willing to go along with pivots and changes?
  • Did they handle push back well? Did they push back professionally when necessary?

Product Interviewing: The all important process of finding the right people to help you build things. Interviewing is just as important when hiring an agency or freelancer as it is when hiring someone internally. Even without a technical background, don’t shy away from asking a potential product hire to explain technical concepts — you’ll get an insight to how they communicate and break down important concepts.

  • Walk me through your last client project. Explain the technical concepts.
  • What do you think is different about working with startup teams? How do you handle those challenges / parameters?
  • Explain something to me in your field that I’ve never heard of.

Professional References: A professional’s previous clients, managers, and/or coworkers. It’s common practice to talk with references before hiring, but many founders skip this step when bringing on freelancers. I’ve seen time and time again: it’s always a good idea. Good questions to ask references:

  • What was their role on the team? Be specific.
  • How did they handle changes to scope and project?

Professional Network: A group of like-minded professionals helping each other toward a common goal. In the product world, there are a lot of role-specific professional communities. Personally, I engage with other software engineers on Reddit, in Slack groups, and at networking events daily. There are large and small networks of designers, engineers, and data people in almost every city and across the internet. Tuning into these networks is a great way to source talent for a potential hire. Always check with a professional community’s guidelines about how and where to place job postings — many are very particular about postings and some disallow it all together.

Large Freelance Marketplaces: These are the online marketplaces connecting to talent. There are the large, wide-open ones like Fiverr and Upwork. There are also countless, more tailored, marketplaces like Toptal, Lemon.io, and the list goes on. My best advice: learn about what’s out there from freelancer marketplaces, but go looking in other places. Behance and Dribble include millions of designer portfolios — many who will contract work to startups. Believe it or not, I source product people on Instagram and Twitter regularly. It’s a great way to find developers or designers who are engaged on a set of topics in their field and then check out their portfolios from there — a DM also leads to a much less stressful and easier introduction than bidding through a marketplace.

Local Startup Community: We’re all on LinkedIn, but there are huge benefits in participating in smaller, local startup communities or professional communities. I’ve belonged to many different startup communities over the years and find the advice and network to be invaluable. There are different ways to join. Many co-working space a do a great job of curating startup communities among their in-person and digital members. Other, virtual communities do a great job of creating forums for entrepreneurs to lean on each other and get answers to questions we all have along the way.

Industry Network: These are communities that work to advance ideas and professionals within a specific industry. Many communities are born out of corporate innovation partnerships or industry-specific accelerators. There are communities that exist for travel startups, AI startups, consumer tech, lawtech, education tech, and so many more.

Software engineer, entrepreneur, and technologist advising founders and diving deep on projects that support ideas, community, and democracy.

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