At Aster, we believe product management plays a crucial role in the long-term success of a startup. Having partnered with more than 70 startups, we have seen firsthand how founders and product managers can face hurdles in deciding how to allocate resources to:

  • Ensure a continuous alignment between ideas added into products and the overarching company strategy
  • Optimize or launch new products based on usage data and customer feedback
  • Build and scale product teams as the company grows

To help founders and early-stage product managers tackle these challenges, Aster decided to host a webinar with three product experts who shared their insights on how to become more product-focused:

This webinar was our first AsterOps workshop, an initiative at Aster to support early-stage startups both in our portfolio and across the broader ecosystem. AsterOps provides a platform to learn from experts on how to approach and address the common operational challenges that startups face.

Here are the key takeaways in case you missed the webinar!

 

1. There is no recipe for success when it comes to building a product roadmap!

I believe there is no recipe for success for building a product roadmap,” says Meredith. “If there was a recipe, then there would be many more successful startups out there,” Meredith adds.

Many would define a roadmap as a set of features to get from A to B, but Meredith highlighted that a roadmap can be viewed as a “path to an imagined destination”, which should adapt over time with market validation. Meredith also prefers to think of a product roadmap as an investment map, as it is mostly a set of actions a team will invest time on.

Meredith also shared a “Hows and Whys” framework, which borrows from the 5 Whys for root cause analysis, to help startups align their product investment map with their overarching company vision. At Swiftly, Meredith implements this framework across two processes: first, by setting a top-down vision of what the company wants to realize and addressing the “hows” – using the Objectives and Key Results (OKR) method – and then, asking the “whys” of what you are doing using a bottom-up approach.

2. Don’t trust your users.

Asking is good, but shadowing is better,” said Marc, highlighted the importance of supporting qualitative user interviews with actual quantitative data on how the product is used to help eliminate bias. Pre-market fit, he typically suggests spending days taking inventory on all user actions to understand their real pains.

 Marc provided valuable advice on how to use product data from inception to product-market fit, and shared additional lessons he has learned at Kraaft on how to become more data-driven in product management. Marc stressed the importance of quickly bootstrapping a first ‘hacky version’ of the product to put it in the hands of the user and see how it is used.

Once product-market fit is achieved, Marc suggested that product teams should then track “one simple success metric and have weekly interactions with customers about this metric” to help prioritize product initiatives. At Kraaft, Marc tracks Net Promoter Scores, and has calls with users on a regular basis to gather feedback about product releases and determine their overall satisfaction.

Marc also strongly recommends other founders and product managers to read about How Superhuman Built an Engine to Find Product/Market Fit, which highlights how product leaders can analyze customer feedback and optimize their product/market fit accordingly.

3. You should hire your first product manager when product management becomes the bottleneck of the company.

Sarah highlighted three of the four stages in a startup’s product lifecycle, and addressed the different objectives and required product profiles for each stage:

  • The creation of a product: The first product managers are generally the founders at this stage, and are responsible for testing hypotheses, recruiting beta testers, designing interfaces, and overseeing the recruitment of developers and technical members of the company.
  • The pre-product/market fit phase: A minimum viable product MVP has been developed. The appropriate profile to recruit at this stage is a full-stack product manager who can manage strategic and tactical aspects of the product. In other words, this product hire should blend expertise in business (market knowledge, monitoring customer data, creating business plans), UX (design pattern knowledge, user research, prototyping tools) and technical dimensions (architecture, data models, APIs, etc.).
  • The post-product/market fit phase: The product has achieved market fit and strong user traction, and now requires more development to innovate and address user issues. Product managers needed at this stage are generally passionate about optimization, analytics and growth marketing, and are more specialized on the part of the product they are in charge of.

Sarah also warned the audience about scaling, which can sometimes give the impression of diluting ownership and accountability, leading to a negative impact on employee motivation and retention.

 

Sign up for our next AsterOps workshop!

Interested in learning from founders and experts on how to approach and address the common operational challenges that startups face? Then come join our next AsterOps workshop! To join, please sign up here.

 

About Aster

Aster is a leading European venture capital firm based in Paris with offices in London, San Francisco, Tel Aviv and Nairobi. Aster has raised €520 million through multiple funds with major corporations and institutional players. Specialized in digital transformation and new industrial models, we fund companies that are transforming the way we consume and move around, how industries manufacture, and how people work together.

Seeing Through the Lens of Customers

Placing your customer in the center of your business and product development strategy is crucial for long-term success. It can truly become a key differentiator — now, more than ever. In search of advice and answers, Speedinvest and Aster Capital brought together an expert panel to discuss strategies that will help you build products your customers love.

Moderated by Heinrich Gröller, Partner of the Speedinvest Industrial Tech investment team, and Raphaëlle Martin-Neuville, Senior Associate at Aster Capital, the panel discussion included:

You can listen to the full discussion below. But if you’re short on time, here are the top three hacks you need to know!

#1: Differentiate Between your User and Buyer Personas

“Users and customers are often not the same,” states Charlotte Nizieux, CMO at Finalcad. “They don’t have the same needs and expectations,” she continues. This is often true, especially in Industrial Tech or, as for Finalcad, Construction Tech, where the customer is often only the buyer of a product which is then, in turn, used by the people on the factory floor or construction site. Hence, focusing on the user is just as important as focusing on the customer. By being obsessed with usage-metrics, building empathy around users and even linking team compensation to user NPS, enables you to build a deeper understanding of your buyer, as well as reap the benefits of a more customer-centric design and development process. The end result is greater product adoption and happier customers. Listen in below at 8:00 min.

#2: Think About How you can Charge your Customer (not How Much)

“How much can I charge for it?” is a question that Othmar Schwarz, Partner at Simon-Kucher & Partners, frequently gets asked. However, for innovative companies, it is more important to know in what way you can charge your customer rather than how much you can charge. For this, Othmar presents several examples of innovative, customer-centric pricing models. One of which is a German wind-turbine manufacturer. Usually their maintenance service for sold wind-turbines was paid on a per-instance basis or annual fee. However, to increase customer value, the company started offering a shared value pricing model; if the wind blows strong, service costs are higher and vice versa. So more wind, higher yield, higher prices. This model was not just aligned with the customer value, but was also aligned with the costs of the company. Listen in below at 20:00 min.

#3: Start with the Problem not the Solution

“The biggest risk of a product is that you build something that no one needs,” emphasizes Markus Müller, former Head of Product at N26 and Circ. And with many companies building a key without a door, there is the need for an important paradigm shift in thinking. First, it is crucial to understand your customer and their problem before building a solution for it. In order to do so, you should ask and listen to your customers, and actually start to believe in qualitative research. For Markus, Henry Ford was wrong when he said, “If I would have asked people what they want, they would have wished for faster horses.”. In fact, you are responsible for translating your customer answers into actionable insights. Thus, doing user interviews, writing down the user quotes, and mapping them to core problems can be an effective way to build a solution that your customers will love. Listen in below at 30:00 min.

Our baseline scenario

Phase 1: Quarantine period — Fighting through the sanitary crisis

The quarantine period will end when the number of infected patients is sufficiently low and when secondary peaks can be managed by measures other than quarantine. In Wuhan, the quarantine period lasted 10 weeks. So, we can say that the best-case scenario for the EU is 10–12 — we expect quarantine to end beginning of June in France and 2–3 weeks later in the UK. Partial quarantine measures may allow to lift lockdown earlier, with specific business activities resuming as early as the end of April, but there is little visibility on that for now ; it could increase the risk of future epidemic peaks. Currently, France and the UK do not plan to partially reopen until the second week of May.

Phase 2: Safe-mode period — Learning to co-exist with Covid-19

Once lockdown is lifted, the world will go through a “safe-mode” period during which the economy will operate at limited capacity. People will return to work, many business activities will resume (with the exception of the travel, tourism and event industries) with the risk of a second epidemic peak.

Phase 3: Period of recovery — Development and distribution of a vaccine at large-scale

It is difficult to determine when exactly the period of recovery will begin. It depends primarily on the distribution of an effective vaccine, which is best done after 12 to 18 months (i.e., until 2021). By that time, the trends emerging in phase 2 will have become the new “normal”.

What it means for startups

 

Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash

Phase 1

We are well into Phase 1, so many of these measures and actions should already be in place.

  • Communicate regularly with your customers and existing investors, they will both provide you with essential information on what’s next
  • If you can afford it, transition parts of your business to support the war economy to keep the country’s economy going while addressing the health crisis. If you can’t afford it, freeze your activities for three months with minimum service or furlough.
  • How can I help them restart their business as soon as possible?
  • Who are the people least affected by the crisis?
  • Can my existing product be useful to other customer segments? To other markets?
  • Are there features I had planned to release in the future that suddenly become more relevant now?
  • Can my product be useful to a completely different industry?

Phase 2

  • Keep focusing on cash, strict health and safety guidelines and transparent communication with your team
  • Constantly reassess your customers’ priorities in order to turn to new products, new features and new customers if needed
  • Secure your value chain, ease the work of your partners, customers, suppliers and employees. The goal is to stabilize operations in the light of the ever-present virus. Keep in mind that one of the major challenges will be the refusal of people to go back to work because they don’t feel safe enough. There will also be undisciplined people wo will behave in a risky manner, as if everything was over.
  • Consolidate and implement the pivots identified in phase 1, whilst relaunching the “old activities” if any remain
  • Develop a Business Continuity Plan with even more levels of contingency than usual

Phase 3 (Conclusion)

If Phases 1 and 2 are well managed, this will be the new golden age for surviving startups and VCs:

  • Startups have the opportunity to follow and create new trends in a context of weaker competition
For the startups and VCs who will survive, as well as for those that will emerge, a golden age full of new opportunities and challenges lies ahead.

1. Target the right companies — it’s NOT a numbers game

1. There must be an identified use case

2. The timing must be right

3. There must be an existing budget

2. Dissect the corporate black box: map out the organization, decode and understand your stakeholders’ interest

Source: Aster Capital

3. Once you have a foot inside the corporate door, focus on delivering a strong value proposition

1. Be clear and specific

2. Talk about results, not aspects

3. Demonstrate customer-specific value

But it is essential to remember that you are not a PoC company. Your endgame is to sell valuable, scalable and reputable products to your customers, and you are subject to financial and time constraints in this process.

1. Before signing the terms, check your potential client’s interest in a post-PoC relationship

2. During the PoC show that the pre-established KPIs are being met

3. At the end of the PoC provide the company with a brief summary that highlights the benefits of the PoC — quantitative and qualitative — and help the customer plan a large-scale deployment

But by carefully pre-selecting the customers that fit closely with your product/VP, mapping their formal & informal decision processes/criteria, and helping your customer in the post-PoC relationship, you might improve your chances to sell your solution at scale.

May the force be with you!

In this article, I will try to bring some rationale to this question by explaining the VC approach as well as the choices faced by founders.

Staying small is perfectly fine

First, it is important to mention that growth is primarily a matter of choice for many business owners. In fact, running a small, profitable business with or without growth ambition is not just perfectly fine, it is also fundamental. SMEs represent the vast majority of our economy and are absolutely critical to the economic fabric of our countries.

Is “scaling” the same as “growing”?

So, scaling is critical to VCs but interestingly, not many entrepreneurs address this aspect in a convincing manner when pitching. Even more interesting, not many VCs can explain what they mean by “scale” in simple terms.

Bigger doesn’t mean better

At a later funding stage, companies usually use multi-million funding rounds to grow, expand or conquer new markets and countries. With a war chest in the bank, many of those soon-to-be unicorns are tempted by a “growth-first” strategy in order to preempt market shares. This is also often encouraged by their own investors. The consequence of this strategy is that it does not address scaling, which can lead to big pain points that might backfire down the line if the growth is not sustainable.

So, in the end, what are VCs looking for?

The theoretical answer is quite obvious. VCs are looking for both scale and growth. The reason is extremely simple. Although growth is what drives the exit valuation, companies with a scalable model will progress faster and with less pain (always good to take!) as soon as funds are invested. The reality is obviously less straightforward, and some VCs can prioritize growth for several reasons.

Ultimately, making sure that the model scales is the win-win situation. The company grows faster and in a sustainable manner. Investors get their unicorn and founders stay in the driving seat of the rocket instead of having the feeling of sitting on a shaky firecracker that can blow up anytime.

The less money the company raises the lower the dilutions that the founders will suffer until an exit. According to some stats, founders on average will suffer 55% dilution from seed to Series D/Exit, mostly due to fund raising. Imagine if you — as a founder — could reduce by 5% such a dilution: for an exit at $500 [2] m it would mean ca. $25m more in your bank account at the end. Moreover, the less the need of raising money, the bigger the negotiation power founders could command when setting the valuation each funding round, further reducing their dilution.

Second is more capacity to make key hires

The lower the founders’ dilution, the more the equity that can be awarded to key hires the company will need to make down the road. This can have a positive effect on the capability to grow and to yield to a successful exit.

Third is value creation

If you are pretty sure about your product/market fit and you master your channel and your growth quite well, then probably this can apply less to you. But at the early stage, you don’t know how much value each dollar spent would turn in terms of margin or other relevant metrics of value creation. However, this is a metric that is key for an investor and would penalize the company that will fail to deliver that. A mastered burn rate will help you achieve that and will make it easier to raise at an up-round valuation next time.

Fourth is the capability to navigate risk

While in these days you see a lot of liquidity in the market and relative easiness to finance private early stage companies, a downturn, especially with global capital markets at all time high, can always be around the corner. And if the market dries up, then it will be much more complicated to raise the next planned fundraising. What a controlled burn rate would allow you to do is at least: 1/ extend your runaway to push further down the road your next capital increase and give you more time to demonstrate the worth of the company; 2/ demonstrate capacity of founders to care about money and hence to be able to navigate well into downturn times, 3/ it gives more flexibility and higher chances to be able to survive if things don’t go well in some periods, which is a risk any startup might face.

Your customers

Especially in the early days, you might be tempted to spend for engineering the product, build the sales team, create a smart marketing campaign and a distinguished positioning. These are all good things to think about, but you need to make sure that what you have already in hands really works. Before looking inside your company and look for the resources to make things happen, make sure you look outside your company first!

Recruiting

Clearly most of the burn rate of a startup will be dedicated to people, so as a founder you need to manage the evolution of your organization well. Some founders might be tempted to hire long time professional managers early on, but in reality, you don’t necessarily need managers until you reach a certain critical mass. Founders should manage people for as long as it is practical. Certainly, your employees will be continuously asking for more people, it is an instinct to pretend more people below. Yet keep firm and don’t give up on this until it becomes essential.

Therefore, make sure you start today to see every dollar going out of your organization as little as possible to prove that you are building something that has increasing chances to become a successful story.