Product Vision, Strategy, and Management Are Not the Same

Enjoy The Work Blog. Product, vision, strategy.

I keep seeing the same mistake.

A founder with a worthy idea brings new technology into the world. The early generation of the technology wins some early customers, which leads to first revenue, which leads to first capital. The company begins to grow.

The company is well-run with milestones, a financial plan, clear goals, timely communications, and regular dashboards. There is a rhythm. For every department, there is clear accountability… except one.

The product team is always late. And no one really seems to know why.

We know the leads we need to generate, the sales we need to close, and the cash we need to manage. If we’re behind on leads, failing to drive revenue, or seeing expenses rise, the founder will turn to the respective functional owner and ask two simple questions:

  1. Why is there a gap between expected and actual?

  2. What are the actions we can take to close the gap?

But if the product org is behind schedule? Here come the excuses.

“We’re building this for the first time.”

“We’re agile and therefore can’t predict when we’ll be fully ready.”

“There are too many variables; no way to accurately predict when we’ll ship.”

“Fast, Cheap, and Good…pick two.”


Artists don’t want to be rushed. They want perfection. They want to be left alone to contemplate, dream, and add one more brushstroke until the feeling is just right. Only then will they be comfortable showing their work to the world.

Too often CEOs are product artists, not product leaders.

What’s the impact?

Product features are delivered late, which leads to missed promises to existing customers, which lowers the quality of early references. The diminishing reference quality lowers sales conversion, which knocks the company off of revenue targets. And, of course, the lower sales performance provides the double whammy of reducing runway while decreasing the probability of fundraising success.

Said differently — if your product organization isn’t reliable, the entire foundation of your startup crumbles.

So what to do about all of this… it starts with a better definition of product leadership. A quality product org sets a vision, crafts a strategy, and manages the delivery.

Let’s tell a brief story to illustrate the three components…

Brilliant, ambitious founder sees something the world needs. Something no one else sees. She can describe it; she might even be able to write the initial code. After many long hours over many long months, the first version of her art enters the world.

If the market is intrigued, what will follow are first customers, employees, and capital. Before long, a young company is taking its first awkward steps. The artist stared at a blank canvas and gave life to a masterpiece. The goal is to solve a worthy problem.

That is Product Vision.

As her startup matures from infancy to young adulthood, the founder starts to take notice of her surroundings. There are different customers to be served. There are various use cases to consider. There are competitors of many shapes and sizes with offerings that vary in effectiveness, price, and scope. She gathers her team, studies the market, and sets a course. The goal is to find a way to win.

That is Product Strategy.

The course is a bumpy one. Each marketing lead, won customer, industry review, competitive study, and new hire elicits new data. The intel is synthesized and analyzed. The feedback loop is rapid. Structured KPIs and unstructured feedback are exhaustively reviewed. New product features are ruthlessly prioritized. The team writes stories, tests the market, documents the design, and collaborates with those who write code. The goal is to ship a consistently great product.

That is Product Management.

Is your company good across all three dimensions?

When we see a startup that consistently fails to ship quality products on time, far too often, there is a founder with a beautiful vision who under-nourishes both strategy and management. The result is an ambitious product poorly planned for the market where every release is late and/or suboptimal.

What to do about it? Four simple rules to get you back on a path toward product competence.

  1. Be a savant. That means going deep into the competition. Take their demos. Interview their talent. Learn from your customers why you were chosen and (if possible) learn from the ones who got away. Don’t stop at a cursory understanding of the market. Master the market. Know the white spaces. Develop a thesis about the future progressions for your enemies and the evolving needs of the customers. Nurture a deeply considered opinion on where in the market you sustainably can win. Imagine a 1–10 scale where 1 = a shallow understanding of the landscape and 10 = unimpeachable expertise. How can you earn a 10?
  2. Don’t be a hypocrite. I’ve met founders who hold the marketing team accountable for leads. The sales team is accountable for sales. HR is accountable for new hires. And Finance is accountable for collections. Yet when a product feature is late… deflections galore. Every department can define success, have goals, report on KPIs, and share wins and failures. The product is no different.
  3. Let managers manage. Imagine an artist holding himself accountable when a work of art needs to be finished. The response is easy to imagine — “It will be done when it’s done.” That doesn’t work in startup life. Move fast or die, and the heart of a startup is the product. Get the person responsible for vision the hell out of the way. There are those who maniacally keep the trains running on time. I’m reminded of the Shinkansen operators in Japan. They know when the trains leave the station, the speed at which they’re running, and the time they are supposed to arrive at their destination. Any deviation is noted in real time, communicated to all relevant parties, and corrective action is taken. Is that how your product org operates?
  4. Bring in professionals early. Product management is a discipline. To find an expert. There is a lot of great material on precisely when to bring on your first PM and the specific experience for which to hunt. Start reading. You might dream of building your own house one day, but more than likely, you’ll still hire an architect and a structural engineer to make sure that it doesn’t fall down after you move in.

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