Building a Product Development Team

For startups this is hard. It all depends on where you are in the product development cycle and what you’re aiming to achieve; build an MVP, get to proof-of-concept or something that helps raise capital. For established companies rolling out their first digital product, more budget may be available, but you’ve still got to justify people count.

Thing is, there’s no single rule. No standard template to call upon. We’ve worked with startups boot strapping it and multinational corporations with big budgets. They’re all very different. The only common factor? Culture. And even company cultures vary. Startups tend towards people wearing many hats, doing many different things. Corporations prefer defined roles that reflect their hierarchy models. Both are right. And wrong.

Bit all digital products have similar things that need getting done. UX design is critical. If it looks horrid, no one will use it. Marketing folks need to be able to tell stories about the problem or problems, being solved for in a compelling way. DevOps folks need to know what design wants and they need to know what engineering needs to do to ensure efficient and scalable delivery. That brings in the fact that most of all, a product team needs to be highly collaborative. Silos simply cannot exit with digital product teams. If they do, the product will fail. Maybe not right away, but it will. Guaranteed. In fact, we’ll over USD$10,000 to the first company that can prove to us that they have a siloed digital product team that works effectively. This excludes government. That’s a whole other mess.

Autonomy in product teams is also critical. They’ll be deeply ensconced in data and design elements, conducting experiments and more. They need room to breathe. Management outside the product team needs to be sure they can trust what is happening and step in at a strategic level when needed.

The size of a product team will vary. With a startup, it will likely be quite small and the founder(s) may be more involved. For larger companies, a product team may report to a director or VP. This is where clarity of a product, initial UX research and a solid UX strategy come into play. If that work is not done up front, a product team is pretty much guaranteed to fail.

You’ll need product management, DevOps folks for the coding parts and delivery, engineering to keep things running, marketing to tell people your product exists and get them to try and buy and analysts to look at the data and share insights. Good UX designers to make the UX experience awesome and a researcher to help look at competitors and the market to be aware of the product roadmap. The smallest, successful team we’ve seen is 5 people.

If you’re outsourcing the initial product, that’s fine. No problem. But at some point, you’ll need to bring it in house. No, you cannot scale a digital product with outsourcing. We’ve worked with over 30 companies across North America and Europe and not once has this been successful. If you think you can do it, you’d be the first company / startup out of many thousands to do so. At some point, you’ll need to bring it in-house. Prepare for that time. When and how is for another post. More than nine members of a product team is, usually, too many. It seems to be the sweet spot. Amazon has the “two pizzas” rule…one team should be small enough to be fed with two pizzas according to Jeff Bezos. If that helps for sizing.

Much comes down to the business model and how you want to scale. If you want to save your way to growth, that won’t happen. Be sure to assign an appropriate budget and if you’re a startup, your product time is your life blood. Skimping means a poor product. If you’re a corporation launching a digital product, the same goes.

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