On the way to building a hugely successful company, most startups will need to expand from their initial product-market fit to a portfolio of successful products. Executives often tap senior product managers to lead these new product initiatives – initiatives that are as exciting as they are daunting. Even a product manager with many successful projects under their belt might look at a new product initiative and wonder, “Where do I even begin?”

Having been through this experience a handful of times – and after committing countless mistakes along the way – I wanted to share a concrete, opinionated guide for kicking off a new product initiative at an existing company. Part one will focus on aligning with internal teams. Part two will delve into idea exploration and customer development.

Step 1: Understand the motivation

By the time a product manager is tapped to explore a new product direction, the idea has likely been bouncing around the company for a while. Your first task should be to dig into that existing knowledge base – this will give you initial context on the space as well as insight into the motivations, pet ideas, and concerns of the stakeholders you’ll be managing through the process. Is the CEO excited about this project because she thinks it will increase LTV? Does the head of marketing think the project needs to be mobile first? Does the CTO think the CEO is wrong and that this project is more about new-user acquisition? All of this information is vital to shepherd the project successfully.

Action Items:

Identify the executive sponsor for this initiative (it’s probably the person who asked you to take on this work)

☐ Make a list with the executive sponsor of all the internal stakeholders who might have opinions about this initiative

☐ For each stakeholder, ask them:

      • Why are we doing this?
      • How should we be measuring success?
      • What’s your best guess for what a winning product here looks like?
      • Any major concerns I should look out for?
      • Is there anyone else you think I should talk to about this?

☐ Write up your findings in a document for later. Make a particular note of any disagreements or contradictions between key stakeholders

Step 2: Assemble your team

Product managers are used to wearing a lot of hats, but if you are going to build a successful new product – your second step should be putting together a small band of enthusiastic, full-time partners who are eager to do new product development and committed to finding success. Most founders will say that they could never have achieved success without strong cofounders, yet for some reason executives will staff internal new product initiatives executives with only a single full-time member. Don’t do this!

The ideal team is two people: a “maker” and a “business generalist”, both full time. As the PM, your role could be either depending on your individual skills and the specific space. You may end up being the “business generalist” who partners with an engineer or designer. Or you might be better off as the “maker” who partners with a great salesperson or marketer. It is crucial that everyone is full time: you will make dramatically more progress if everyone is fully immersed in the problem and thinking about it while they brush their teeth at night.

Action Items:

☐ Ask the executive sponsor for a “co-founder.” If they protest, push back – would they advise a startup with only a single full-time founder to go it alone?

☐ Identify the skill sets you think you’ll need to explore the space, and which ones you need a partner to fill: are you better off as the maker or the business generalist?

☐ Work with the executive sponsor to make a short list of interested, available people with appropriate skill sets – if there are any that you haven’t worked with before, consider doing a mini 2-day “hackathon” together to get a feel for how you work together.

☐ Once you’ve found the right partner or set of partners, come up with a team name, and create your operating rhythm.

Step 3: Create your operating rhythm

With a startup, you’re only in business as long as you’ve got money in the bank. For a new product initiative, you’re only in business as long as your executive sponsor considers the initiative a worthwhile investment. It’s not ideal, but it’s reality, so you should consider upwards management an important part of the job and plan accordingly.

The best way to set yourself up for success is to create an operating rhythm with your sponsor and other stakeholders so they know how to track progress and contribute productively. At a minimum, you should define an initial set of milestones to hit and a cadence of meetings (and/or status updates) for keeping stakeholders up to date.

For a new SaaS product, some good milestones are:

  1. A clearly defined product idea and 30-second pitch that resonates with potential customers
  2. Five pilot customers that have agreed to pay after an initial trial period
  3. Product-market fit, as evidenced by at least two-thirds of pilot customers renewing (at least one that is an enthusiastic reference), and the ability to close five more non-pilot deals

As a default operating rhythm, I recommend starting with short weekly status emails complimented with a monthly “board meeting” to dig into progress and problems in greater depth. This helps sponsors and stakeholders stay informed and gives them a clear space to ask questions and offer suggestions.

As a final tip, you should clarify the guardrails and/or “API”s for working with more established teams at the company. For example:

    • You’re going to want to talk to customers. Do you need to get permission before you reach out? How do you get it?
    • Will you need approval from legal at any stage? Are there any marketing constraints you need to be aware of? What happens when a beta customer reaches out to support?
    • Are you going to build off existing code/infrastructure? If so, do you need to do code reviews? Performance or security audits?

Ideally, you want an agreed-upon “sandbox” to work in where you can run fast without needing permission at each step of the way, plus points of contact in different departments when you need additional support or resources.

Action Items:

☐ Define with your sponsor a set of milestones to help you focus your efforts and measure progress

☐ Establish a cadence of status updates to keep your stakeholders informed about progress and mechanisms for them to provide input and advice

☐ Clarify when you will need permission from other teams and how to get it

Step 4 and beyond: Talk to users & build a product!

If you’ve followed this guide, you should now have a clear understanding about why the company is sponsoring this work, a small and focused team, and an operating rhythm that will let you run fast while keeping sponsors engaged. This might seem like a lot of work just to get the initiative off the ground, but the internal work you do now will provide you the solid foundation you need to succeed through all the highs and lows ahead. In Part 2, we’ll go into concrete steps for identifying user needs, validating desirability, and creating buy-in around a product strategy. 

About the Author

Brett van Zuiden is a Product Manager at Outschool.com, where he focuses on new products that inspire a love of learning. He's been building product for 9 years, likes to surf and play guitar, and lives in Oakland, CA. On the web at https://brettcvz.com.