Product Development


February 16, 2023

Our Product-Building Principles

Our Product-Building Principles

Our Product-Building Principles

Andy Powell

Chief Business Officer

Building products is hard. Product managers, engineers, and designers are making choices every day that can affect the success of their product and their startup. Navigating through a sea of user feedback, stakeholder requests, and technical challenges can make decision-making itself challenging. As I mentioned in my previous article introducing the OAK’S LAB WAY, if building a product was as easy as following a set of predefined steps and processes, then anyone could do it. 

When re-documenting and re-defining our product development methodology, I wanted to start by providing our team with a framework for how to apply the processes and techniques within the OAK’S LAB WAY. The result is our product principles

What are Product Principles? 

Product principles are statements of core guidelines or rules that guide decision-making in a product organization. These are values that should underly every action or move that a cross-functional product team makes. To Marty Cagan in Inspired, product principles are synonymous with “deciding what’s important.” 

We wanted to create product principles at OAK’S LAB to provide direction and guidance to the entire team through a clear framework to make decisions, whilst also helping to reduce any conflict that might arise though the different opinions our product managers, designers, and engineers might have on certain topics. 

Choosing our Principles

Before choosing our principles with our leadership team, I reviewed the principles of companies with a track record of building world-class products to understand what goes into creating great product principles. From this, I was able to create some guidelines for what I wanted our own principles to look like:

  • They should align with company values. As a company that has a larger cross-functional team outside of product, we have 5 core company values that guide our behavior. It was important to make sure that our principles complimented and were aligned with these values.
  • They should illicit an emotional response. I wanted to create memorable principles that resonated with our team and inspired them when making decisions on our projects. 
  • Keep it simple! The cardinal rule for values or principles is that they should be easy to remember. I wanted to create simple concepts that could be easily understood, and I limited the number to five core principles.
  • They should focus on the customer needs. Although we work with a wide range of businesses at OAK’S LAB, we almost exclusively work with early-stage startups. Companies at this stage have specific needs and limitations, and it was important that our principles reflected these. 

OAK’S LAB Product Principles

These are the principles which guide our product development teams at OAK’S LAB: 

1. User obsession

Building products for startups means you’re usually yet to reach the elusive “product-market fit.” At OAK’S LAB, we typically work with non-technical founders who are strong product visionaries but don’t always have a background in product management or design. In this environment, it’s vital that we put users at the center of our decisions. This means we always ensure we have a path to gain customer insights quickly and leverage these insights when building products. In practice, this means building analytics into every product and getting access to potential users early to get qualitative feedback and test iterations and features in a fast and lean way. 

2. Success equals outcomes, not outputs

It can be easy in the world of product development to focus on the form, rather than the function, of a product or feature. In reality, building a new feature or releasing a product is pointless unless it drives a positive outcome for a startup. This means we are laser-focused on building what is necessary to help our startups achieve their business goals. At seed-stage, the average runway for a company is fifteen months, so very often this goal will be tied to generating revenue or enough traction to secure the next round of funding. In practice, this means our team needs to understand the business inside-out and set clear objectives with our founders. We then prioritize features ruthlessly depending on how they can help us meet those objectives.

3. Stay lean & don’t reinvent the wheel

Startups have limited resources. When we begin working with a founder, a countdown starts. We need to get to product-market fit and help the founder meet their goals before the startup runs out of money. This means we must be lean and run as fast as possible without sacrificing long-term scalability. We do this by leveraging reusability and component-based development where possible, alongside proven technologies and methodologies. In practice this means often taking the lean approach to a task or feature and asking ourselves the question, “Why not sooner?”

4. Relentless focus

Having met and worked with hundreds of startups over the last decade, I strongly believe that a lack of focus is one of the primary killers of startups. One of my favorite quotes from Stephen Covey is “The main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing.” Although we need to thrive in an agile environment and we embrace the natural change that comes from working with startups, we use goals as our north star keeping us focused and prioritize ruthlessly in order to achieve them. In practice, this will sometimes mean saying no to our founders and challenging them on ideas that don’t necessarily move us towards our objectives.

5. Discipline fosters innovation

Working with startups requires creativity and innovation. Our principles and methodology are designed to make the simple things even simpler or more efficient. Being disciplined in our activities allows us to be innovative when it matters. By leveraging component libraries to design, with minimal effort, a simple admin portal used by 3 people, we can spend more time discovering, wireframing, and usability testing a mobile app potentially used by thousands. This means our team needs to have the strategic and analytical thinking to align on something simple: deciding what is important. 

Implement and Evolve

Principles are only as good as their implementation. They need to be understood by the team and implemented company-wide. This starts with the management team and means designating clear checkpoints to assess if our work is aligned with the principles we’ve created. Alongside this, we’ll be consistently talking about our principles in All Hands meetings, 1:1s, and product syncs, alongside all of our agile ceremonies.

At the same time, just like a product, principles are a work in progress and should never be static. We’ll continue to review the relevance of our principles based on our startups’ needs, get feedback from the team, and update them accordingly. At the end of the day, the more they’re discussed and utilized, the more effective they’ll become. 

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