Lessons from within my first year at Invoice2go: #1 Product Strategy Formation
After gaining experience in both corporate and smaller startup product teams I thought I had developed my product chops. In just the first few weeks at Invoice2go I realised how there is always a tonne more to learn. I’ve decided to share some key lessons I’ve experienced in my first 6 months at the company in a few blog posts.
This, the first post, will talk through some of the key lessons I learned after taking part in the formation of our 2021 product strategy.
Invoice2go is a company that started as an invoicing application and is now a platform that over 220k small businesses use to run their day to day operations from. These blogs are not meant to articulate how your company should do product, but rather articulate some of my key takeaways from the evolving product process at Invoice2go. A process that is still by no means perfect, and will be forever evolving.
Over the years I have read plenty about the merits of having a product strategy. A mystical doctrine that drives the product team (and supposedly the whole ‘product lead’ org) to an utopian vision. Everytime I read about the importance of a tight product strategy I noticed a bout of self assurance fall over me.
‘While we don’t have a product strategy per se’ our weekly product team debriefs surely make up for it?’
‘We are a high performing team, that one slide on ‘product strategy’ slide in the annual all hands was more than enough’
Only shortly after I joined Invoice2go did I realise how these thoughts stemmed from a deep seeded sense of denial. I started at Invoice2go during a time of significant change. A new CEO had arrived who completely shifted the company strategy. Along with a new corporate level strategy, the product team also experienced changes. The combination of fresh eyes and a new company strategy led the PMs to have many animated discussions about how best to achieve the new vision and ambitious objectives.
Marty Cagan Defines product strategy as ‘how do we make the product vision a reality, while meeting the needs of the company as we go?’ After going in circles for a few weeks it became abundantly clear that this was something we lacked.
Formulating the Strategy
Our new Head of Product soon invited all PMs to write a memo on their ideal product strategy. This gesture immediately outlined how our product strategy wouldn’t be just another policy dropped from above. Rather it was something management was taking seriously and wanted the product team to take part in.
The exercise of writing in memo format proved to be insanely valuable in itself. Jotting all your ideas on paper in a coherent manner has this incredibly knack of clarifying your jumbled thoughts and ideas. In addition, the knowledge of my new peers scrutinising my ideas was motivation enough to invest a decent amount of time and effort.
With my proposed strategy out there, it was great to read and compare each team member’s version. The similarity of the strategies proposed confirmed that as a product team we were broadly aligned on the path forward. However it was also clear that ‘broad alignment’ had, and would not be, good enough. If we really wanted to hit our vision the product team needed to be completely in sync.
Realising this, our Head of Product was able to synthesise our papers while adding his own perspective. This resulted in developing a concise two pager that outlined some critical points.
A Prioritisation Framework
If you’re building a product, you have to be great at saying no. Not “maybe” or “later”. The only word is no. Intercom Product
Every product team struggles and dedicates time to prioritising competing initiatives. Our strategy aimed to alleviate some of this burden by outlining a uniformed prioritisation matrix. This objective and transparent framework immediately aligned the company on how the product org prioritises work. Potential initiatives were able to be quickly assessed. Decisions that would’ve taken many a meeting, were ruled out in minutes.
What we will not do
The strategy also preemptively outlined what the team would not tackle. While the prioritisation framework was useful for the most part there are always initiatives that sit on the fence and had a habit of repeatedly popping up. Explicitly ruling these out saved time and more importantly enabled additional focus.
The How: A New Team Structure
To execute the strategy the paper proposed re-aligning the product engineering teams to the three pillars of the new strategy. This had the powerful effect of creating mission driven teams. Each newly formed team was empowered to devise their own means to hit their goal. This enabled team members to feel part of their team’s direction and destiny. As well as providing them clarity with how their work directly laddered up to the company’s vision.
Management’s appetite to reorientate the product org to align to the product strategy sent an extremely important message to the company. It conveyed that the strategy was not just another vanity exercise that would quickly lose relevance.
In practice it also meant that we were allocating resources towards our top priorities. Many companies do not have this same willingness for change. Without restructuring teams we would have continued to invest in lower value initiatives, effectively leaving the company no closer to meeting its vision.
Finite and Measurable Strategy
One final critical aspect of the strategy was that it was finite and measurable. The strategy contained goals that were to be achieved in 2021. This also sounds like a minor detail but it has proved vital. By assigning metric based goals to the strategy means there can be no ambiguity at the end of 2021 whether the strategy was met or not. This compelled the product team to critically assess performance and the strategy itself. Which in itself has acted as a forcing function for the team to start formulating the next product strategy.
Overall, having a concise and clear strategy has helped the team at Invoice2go take large steps in hitting our vision to “Empower anyone to start and run a business of their own”. The widely available and shared artefact communicates to the company what we are doing, what we will not do and why. This has resulted in more accountability, productivity and focus.
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