Startup Product Building 101

A product-building guide for startup founders

Photo by David Travis on Unsplash

🤷‍♂️ 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.

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

✏️ 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.

The internet telling you how necessary it is to find a CTO (you don’t have to listen)
  • 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
  • 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
  • You don’t have the funding or resources for an agency
  • Find startup projects that you like and look up the agency that built their applications
  • Don’t pay for services you don’t think you need. Keep scope of service small and add on as necessary.
  • You’re confident in your product management skills
  • Your company doesn’t need complicated technology right now
  • Your budget is limited
  • You’re confident in your product management skills
  • You’re not confident in your product management skills

✏️ 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).

Lean Startup by Eric Ries

✏️ 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!

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

✏️ 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.

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

👋 What Comes Next?

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

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

  • 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?
  • 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.
  • How did they handle changes to scope and project?

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

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