When our CPO Simon and I started up ProdPad, we quickly realized that the plans we’d carved out for our product didn’t matter. The path was always changing—whether it was because of new customer feedback, what our analytics were telling us, or some unexpected opportunity that popped out of nowhere.
Here’s an example from our early days:
A customer wanted to use ProdPad, but didn’t see how it would work with Trello. So 36 hours later, Simon built a Trello integration.
Well, kind of. We already had an API, and a Trello integration was sitting there on our roadmap, untouched. And then came this perfect storm: a potential customer who really wanted this integration, and Simon sitting with some free time, ready to put our API to the test.
It was the spark we needed. And it landed us a new customer.
But we had a choice, either stick to our blueprint—which was based on our imagination and a little market research—or adapt as we went along.
Had we stuck to the original plan, we would have missed many opportunities to win key customers in the early days. And as we’ve grown into a bigger team, we’ve kept that agile mindset alive across our company.
This is how we work. And this is the process we’d like to share.
Build a lean product roadmap
ProdPad’s center of gravity is our product roadmap.
It’s made up of three columns or “time horizons.” These help us see which problems we need to work on first and what’s coming up next.
This keeps everyone focused on solving one problem at a time.
Take a look:
Each roadmap card represents a problem, not a feature. This gives us room to test, iterate, and adjust our priorities to reflect what we’re learning.
Of course, our roadmap is only part of the story. But it helps us stay fast, responsive, and spontaneous.
Always start with the problem, not the features
Once you set a feature on your roadmap, it’s usually pretty much impossible to change or modify. But since our lean roadmap revolves around problems, it allows the way we define both the problem and the solution to evolve.
Here’s an example. We knew our new user onboarding was broken, so we tried three quick tests:
1. Turn our 30-day free trial into a 14-day trial.
2. Turn our 14-day trial into a 7-day trial. And build in a “magically extending” trial, where we reward new users with more free trial time for completing certain tasks in ProdPad.
3. Launch an email onboarding drip sequence that triggers different messages depending on behaviors taken in ProdPad. This encourages users to engage with us.
What started out as a small experiment soon expanded into a much bigger user onboarding initiative. And it ended up doubling our conversion rate.
And often, you start out with one thing that ends up somewhere totally different. A theme-based roadmap gives us freedom to follow our nose and solve the entire problem.
Open the roadmap to customers
“Why keep your vision a secret when you can collaborate so beautifully with your customers?”
Keeping our product roadmap public is the roux to our secret sauce.
There’s always an up-to-date, high-level version of our roadmap available online that anyone can look at—including customers, leads, and potential partners.
Our public-facing roadmap—which an early customer requested—is an open invitation for customers to share their feature requests and suggestions. It opens up a line conversation that we would never have otherwise.
We use it as an opportunity to find out what they’re looking for and what problem they’re trying to solve.
Sometimes, we can work up a solution within our existing product. Other times, their feedback helps us shape product features in our pipeline.
For example, when we first put Single Sign On (SSO) on our public roadmap, we didn’t know what we were going to build. But customers could see that it was coming, and they let us know how they thought it should work.
From this feedback, we learned that the Google Apps SSO integration would have a much bigger impact than other solutions we were considering. With that kind of intel, we were confident about where to start and the impact we could expect.
Nothing about building a product is straightforward—it’s what you do with customer feedback that makes all the difference. The clues are there, but what should you do with them?
Use customer feedback
“There’s always a kernel of truth in something if someone puts the time into saying it.”
All feedback is good feedback, even an angry ALL-CAPS RANT!
But not all customer feedback is equal. Some customers are able to give you really strong insights that end up shaping a feature’s future. Maybe they present a compelling use case you hadn’t considered, or perhaps they’re willing to pay upfront for functionality you planned to build anyway.
“Customer requests aren’t something to be accepted or denied. It’s insight into what people need, whatever form it comes in.”
Like our impromptu Trello integration, sometimes feedback and timing work together to create a golden opportunity.
Keep your eyes open for those gems. There’s nothing wrong with veering a little off course to make a customer happy, especially if it will benefit other customers too.
Act fast to meet market demand
Last summer we ended up building the thing we said we would never build: a customer feedback portal.
Our plan was to stick to product management tools. And then this project bubbled up to the top of our customer requests. When we first looked closely at the market, we saw that customer feedback portals were prohibitively expensive and none of them were quite right for product managers.
One customer even sent us mockups of the customer feedback portal he wanted. If it was that important to him, it had to be important to others. And that meant it was an opportunity for us.
So we turned it into a hackathon project for our team offsite. In a few days, we built a portal and then launched it as a free tool.
Now some of our most profitable accounts begin through a tool that we almost never built.
Never promise launch dates or deadlines
“Wouldn’t it be awkward if you spent a lot of time and money marketing a new product and then didn’t have anything to deliver on launch day?”
Don’t promise launch dates anywhere. We tell customers we’re working on their problem, but those are the only expectations we set. We show our roadmap, we invite their feedback, and we use it to shape our solution.
Our experience tells us that setting scope and deadlines, and then scrambling to make it happen, isn’t good for anyone.
Make space for weird, exciting, and ridiculous ideas
“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”
Never say never. The best things were unheard of before someone dreamed them up, right?
We’re always validating and prioritizing product ideas for upcoming roadmap initiatives. But we make space for even the most ridiculous ideas.
If we have an opening in our schedule, a little spark of inspiration, and an opportunity to delight a customer, then why not do it?
Plus, it makes it much easier to communicate what we’re working on, and lets the team respond quickly to change. And if our priorities change—as they often do—we just move our cards around to reflect our new objectives. So in practice, it’s more like “a plan for the plan.”
Trust your gut
“Your gut has to pick up where your data drops off.”
When we started rewriting our emails for our new user onboarding, we knew our existing emails weren’t working. Our open rates were decreasing with each email in the sequence.
Our Head of Customer Success put her finger on it immediately: “It’s the marketing voice. Product managers don’t like to be marketed to. We’re putting them off completely with our tone.” That was instinct.
So when we drafted our new onboarding emails, we replaced the “marketing speak” Andrea had identified with a direct and functional voice. Her gut was right.
Now, if a user signs up to ProdPad and then leaves, they get this email:
The personal and authentic nature of our emails gets users to respond. We’ve received responses like, “Oh god, I was eaten by a bear…” and “RELAX! I was changing my kid’s diaper!”
But these emails also help us win back the attention of customers who may have otherwise disappeared, never to return.
“Your data will take you on a whirlwind journey, but your gut will get you to your final destination.”
It’s one thing to keep things flexible, but another to have no real vision. At ProdPad, it’s a strong product vision that makes our spontaneous product culture possible. Without that, we’d be lost.
Our vision is the thing we can point to and say, “This is what we’re doing, this is what we stand for, and this is what we want to help our customers achieve.”
When a vision is big and ambitious enough, there’ll never be a shortage of ways to work towards it. Stay flexible, get comfortable with the unexpected, and you can be spontaneous too.
Janna Bastow is cofounder of ProdPad, product management software that helps teams quickly build and share product roadmaps. She also organizes ProductTank and Mind The Product, a global community of product managers. She likes to inspire great product conversations by asking: “What problem are you trying to solve?”