Career SkillsEntrepreneurship

Why Founders Must Adopt a Product Mindset

By Monica Rozenfeld

There is one non-negotiable trait I look for when selecting applicants for the incubator program I run, or sourcing startups for venture capital funding – and that is working with founders who have a product mindset.

This doesn’t mean that the founder has a background in product management, or development even. It means they think about their venture as if they do. While startups fail for many reasons, there are many avoidable mistakes that can be prevented along the way by adopting a certain way of thinking. Here’s what I mean.

  1. Let go of ego.
    One of the questions I ask every founder I talk to is whether they’ve considered an alternative direction or customer base for their product. It’s not because I think I know better. It’s to see how they respond to feedback and new perspectives. Those who are too in love with their original idea may miss important opportunities where they can pivot or grow. As any successful founder knows, an idea is just a starting point. Don’t get too attached because it could become your Achilles heel.
  2. Stay away from the solution, for now.
    Having a product mindset means focusing on the problem; not the solution. This may be more challenging for those with technical backgrounds because you know what’s possible to build. But a product mindset stays away from the how, and drills down on the why. An exercise you can work on is asking yourself a simple question: why does this venture need to exist? With every answer, keep asking yourself why until you get to the root of the problem. Then, and only then, question: what is the best way to solve for it?
  3. Be a good listener (and ask lots of questions).
    In my opinion, at least 30 percent of launching a successful startup is collecting customer feedback and insights – and then applying them in meaningful ways. This work up front can save so much time and money when it comes to building, fundraising, and marketing. Conducting insightful interviews with customers and truly listening to their pain points, and how they go about their day, can be priceless (and oftentimes doesn’t cost anything at all), leading you to developing a product or service that is user friendly, intuitive, and is an actual need that people are willing to pay for and recommend to others. Don’t underestimate the value of qualitative research. It paints a much brighter picture than data and market research alone.
  4. Be okay with being imperfect.
    As internet entrepreneur, venture capitalist and author Reid Hoffman stated: “If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” What this means is once you have something to show people, show it! It is never too soon to start collecting feedback on your product, whether it’s a prototype of your website or mobile app, an outline of potential features that need prioritizing, or a first draft of your deck. The more feedback you can collect from the early days along the way toward launch, the more successful your launch will be. And remain agile. Continue to circle back, iterate, and pivot on an ongoing basis to ensure your product is still meeting customer needs and in the best way possible.
  5. See competitors as an opportunity.
    In the tech industry, particularly, there is this notion that your venture should be the first or only on the market to be wildly successful. But that’s simply untrue. Yours has to be the best from the customer point of view. If you don’t believe me, watch this TED Talk with Adam Grant, who passed on the opportunity to invest in Warby Parker pre-launch because he felt the founders were procrastinating, while other e-commerce eyeglass stores started to pop up.

What the founders were actually doing was their homework – they were paying attention to what didn’t work about their competitors’ experience. By the time Warby Parker did go to market, they were still perceived as the first because they were the ones being talked about and recommended to others. Don’t rush the process to be first or worry about competitors. Create something your customers are delighted by and the rest will be history.

Do you agree? Which traits do you believe are necessary for founders to succeed? Leave your comments below…

Monica Rozenfeld is a freelance journalist who works in digital product and venture capital. She cofounded Her Product Lab, a global community and incubator program for women in product.


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