I sometimes look back fondly on my career as a journalist and the muscle memory of having been an expert reporter. The well-honed instinct of what story to follow and which one to let pass me by is still clear in my memory.
Running a digital content business now, I still draw on those skills every day. But as the head of an ed-tech startup who does not have a background in software development, the product development process is not quite as comfortable for me.
It’s hard to prioritize what gets done first.
It’s not the pace of change that is the problem, although that can be tough to keep up with. The difficulty is around the recognition that there isn’t anything on our feature backlog that we don’t think is a good–if not a great–idea. However, even if you have a web development team in-house or you contract it out, there’s no company out there that can do everything it wants to do in the amount of time and with the money to get it done. And so tradeoffs are made.
When I come back from a meeting with customers, I’m often energized by their ideas to improve our site. The beauty is that we can respond really quickly. When you’re a start-up you don’t have the baggage of fear about changing a feature, since you’re actively evolving everything you do. But I’m reminded to think hard, if I really think this feature is more important than that feature, then we can make a change. Now I’m building my new instincts about how to make the important tradeoffs. It’s not just about being important, it’s about being fast and being affordable too.
Our COO coaches us to listen really hard to the problem the user is articulating and separate that from their “feature request.” Sometimes a simpler solution will solve the problem for almost everyone. Sometimes the feature request is the tip of the iceberg related to a much bigger opportunity. If you never build that often-requested feature because you eliminated the need for it, your customers will still thank you. And if you discover a new business opportunity in the process of prioritizing your backlog, it can fund the next stage of your growth.