Practical Advice

Building a product culture of learning and continuous discovery

Practical Advice

Building a product culture of learning and continuous discovery

Words Serena Rizzo

March 26th 2024 / 8 min read

Humility is a great trait for founders.

These are the founders who are confident in their product but they know what they don’t know. They understand the fundamental truism about startups—”In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice; in practice, there is.”

We see many founders enter our Accelerator armed with expectations, visions of success, and a roadmap to their startup destination. But as they progress through the programme, a profound reality check awaits.

I want to look at what lies behind common misconceptions, particularly surrounding product development, shedding light on the stark differences between expectation and reality, and more importantly, to provide founders with tools to help them navigate this unpredictable terrain.

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Most common misconceptions around product development

These are some of the assumptions I all too often see around product, and where the reality really lies.

  1. “Everyone automatically shares the same vision.” Misalignment is common when you don’t visualise plans—even in the tightest of teams. So stop seeing visualisation as a designer’s task and embrace it. Drawing things forces you to keep them simple, and in logical order. Using a collaborative tool like Miro achieves two things: it makes the concept clearer in your head, and quickly reveals potential misalignment

  2. “Roadmaps are comprehensive and foolproof.” It’s rare at this stage to have hired a PM, which unfortunately means you won’t have a clear roadmap owner with a 360° view of your product. Try to ensure your roadmaps are outcome-based and flexible (e.g. what type of content resonates with which core segment), and use any unexpected changes as learning opportunities

  3. “The right hires will solve all our challenges.” Even the best hires struggle without effective leadership, especially when culture isn’t fully formed—leading to inevitable disappointment and frustration. Expectation setting can help establish a clear reality of your culture (i.e. don’t pretend to be something you’re not).

  4. “Feature parity (where two competing products have the same set of features) is the route to success.” Early stage startups can obsess over mirroring competitors—but what happens when growth stagnates, and your competitors thrive. Instead, you should talk to your customers in systematic ways to uncover new opportunities, and take your team’s suggestions and contributions into real consideration. Success comes from a combination of different brain power.

  5. “We don’t need processes or deadlines.” Processes shouldn’t be over engineered, but teams that use some form of process or framework, ideally within a cadence, perform better than teams who don’t. Find frameworks that resonate with what you need, adapt them to your organisation, and stick them in a diary

How to help founders overcome this

These common assumptions are easy to fall into—but are also relatively simple to avoid. If there are two key principles I want to impart, it’s this:

  1. Take a learning approach—having a continuous learning mentality means you don’t miss out on opportunities, you can prioritise what you need to learn about first, and you know how to run experiments that will confirm what you’ve learnt

  2. Visualise your thinking—don’t just tell me you’ve spoken to your customers; SHOW me. Show me what questions were asked, where you tracked the learnings, how much evidence there is, etc. Similarly, don’t let your vision live in your head; visualise them to a point where they become simple, powerful, and easily understood.

Here’s a process I often use to help founders put these in practice:

Continuous discovery

The more you grow, the more unknowns you will face. This is the beauty of a startup, not something to fear. So let’s embrace this as a learning opportunity.

A process I find particularly handy for this is Teresa Torres’ Continuous Discovery approach. In short:

  • Keep learning, never stop experimenting

  • Tackle one opportunity at a time, and move fast

1. Set a learning outcome

Your learning outcome will be dependent on two things: 1) what your business is trying to achieve, and 2) how much you already know.

I worked with Renbee, a company dedicated to simplifying home decarbonisation for homeowners and installers across the UK by connecting processes and systems. When Renbee joined our accelerator they were at a crossroad. They had managed to onboard an impressive amount of installers in their beta platform, but usage had never picked up. The installers would sign up after sales calls but failed to activate (i.e. take a key action within the product) and add projects onto Renbee. Needless to say this also meant they didn’t come back. The platform had been built based off initial conversations with customers, however the team didn’t have a structured approach to discovery. When I met with the team at that point, that resulted in:

  • Long and unproductive conversations between sales, management and engineering

  • No improvements in metrics

Instead, we took a step back and used those conversations to put their business outcomes in black and white. Once the main business outcome was prioritised, then we could tackle our product outcome (part of the product that influences that metric) and subsequent learning goal (what is it that we need to learn more about to achieve that product outcome?)

This process helps with:

  • Alignment on where the business is headed and giving key stakeholders a chance to express their views

  • Learning and iterative mentality

I’ve put together simple flow diagrams that you can use to come up with your learning outcome. When you’re just starting your discovery goal will be broader. As you learn more it will be more specific.

In Renbee’s case, the product outcome was to increase number of project uploads on the platform. Given there had not been a structured approach to discovery before, we kept the learning goal relatively broad “find out what stops installers from uploading more projects”.

2. Set your interview goals

Once we’d identified our learning goal, then we had to think about how to uncover it. There are a few things to consider here:

  • People often say something but don’t behave subsequently. i.e. somebody might say they care about the environment but might still shop at fast-fashion retailer

  • Different people, and thus different customer segments might have different needs

  • We interpret things based on our own bias

For this reason it’s important to do two things. First, look at how you ask a question. Teresa Torres suggests asking specific, story-like questions: “Thinking about the last time you bought clothing X, where did you shop, what did you think” instead of “do you care about the environment when shopping?”

Secondly, select segments carefully. If you are focusing on a very specific segment then it’s fine to have little variety. But at the beginning you might have a broader focus, to better understand different customers needs.

I suggest you design your interview script like this:

  • Thank them and asking for context about the person

  • 3 - 5 story like questions—where you listen and prompt the user to share more when stuck

  • Ask for any additional feedback they want to add

  • Gather consent for future interviews

Tips—DON’T suggest features; DON’t put words in their mouth (use an 80:20 rule, where interviewee speaks for 80% of the time, and interviewer for the other 20%); DO bring someone else so you can have a second point of view; DO take notes (use Teresa’s Snapshot format for ease).

3. Extracting insights, identifying opportunities (pains, needs, desires of customers)

Most people get stuck here! This step is really important and shouldn’t be skipped.

There’s no right number of customers to speak to, but I recommend speaking to a minimum of 5 customers per week, over a 2 week discovery sprint. More can always be better, but you want to keep it achievable and in line with the amount of time you can commit to as a founder.

From these interviews, ensure you write down the top insights, which should be formed by your customers' pains, needs, and desires. These should be written in the customers’ words vs your own, ie. for a meditation app “I can’t find a meditation topic I like” rather than “not enough meditation topics”. Why? The more true we are to the customer problems, the more open and targeted we can be with solutions. In the example above, there could be multiple reasons why they can’t find it. It might be that there are enough, but they aren’t properly indexed.

Build an opportunity solution tree—where the opportunities are customers pains, needs or desires, in their own words, and which then contain subpains, needs or desires.

In Renbee’s case, we discovered that, while installers were excited about Renbee, they were fatigued about having to change between different softwares, and this demotivated them from investing in Renbee. They also wished they could do certain things faster within the product.

4. Prioritise opportunities based on three things

We have to prioritise our opportunities. Teresa suggests prioritising at parent opportunity and then at ‘leaf’ opportunity. She looks at different factors you can consider:

  1. Customer: how many customers are affected?

  2. Impact: which opportunity is particularly painful/pressing/important vs just mildly annoying?

  3. Market: could you unlock something great for your business i.e. vs competition?

I tend to add a fourth factor:

4. Vision: which one is more in line with your business vision?

You can customise this and use your own criteria.

For Renbee, while customers wished they could do their DNO applications a bit faster though Renbee, they weren’t so annoyed about it and Renbee already made filling those forms much easier than the alternative. Switching between different platforms and making that first time investment on the other hand really did fatigue the customer and made them “give up”.

5. Generate potential solutions for those opportunities

Once you’ve identified your key opportunity, you can have an ideation session to generate potential solutions. Here's a Miro board that I tend to use for idea generation sessions.

Once you decide on a few solutions, make sure to validate their feasibility, desirability, and usability. Again, I like to use a Miro board to map these out.

Uncover any risky assumptions that you might need to run tests on. Prototype your solution(s) and put them in front of customers to validate them.

6. Go back to your sprint/roadmap

Document your learnings, and update your roadmap accordingly. I particularly like working with outcome based roadmaps. I really like this example by Itamar Gilad (and any of his content, which you should check out), but plenty more, like the Now, Next, Later Format, which I often use, can be found online.

Source: Itamar Gilad

7. Start again - or better, never stop

Consistently assess learning needs. Repeat the continuous discovery process. Renbee saw the real results of the process: “From onboarding to first project we had a 4 week lag and then a slow drip feed of projects. We shortened that to 24 hours with a 10x increase in project throughput!” says Renbee founder Tej Patel.

TLDR: The recipe for learning-first culture

  • Continuously engage in discovery sessions and learning goal planning.

  • Work using collaborative tools. Online tools like Miro give you the opportunity to collaborate and brainstorm remotely, and tools such as Notion or Coda allow you to to document your learnings

  • Schedule regular roadmap reviews, especially post-experiment tracking.

  • Integrate any findings into sprint planning and retrospectives. If you don’t have it already, ensure you have a form of sprint planning, even if it's very simple and not engineered

Final words of wisdom

Habits are the backbone of any thriving startup. Building good startups means embracing risks whilst finding and building on habits that work for you. Doing something new will prove hard at first, but as with anything you will reap the benefits of it once it’s in your muscle memory.

It doesn’t need to be costly—go as cheap and as fast as you can. Increase strength of conviction by running more than one experiment per assumption, so you can reduce uncertainty as much as you can, and help you define the who and where very clearly.

And remember, it’s acceptable not to agree on everything. Often visualising your thinking opens up the line for misalignment on priority or vision: the point is to have a healthy debate and remain open to other perspectives.

About Serena 

Serena Rizzo is a Product Coach at Founders Factory. She was on the founding team at Depop, managing their marketplace operations. She's held various product & customer success roles mostly at marketplace platforms, like Mercari and Lingumi.

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