The Definitive Guide to Building a Product Roadmap for Startups



Just by being here reading this article, you have made a huge leap towards success that many startups today fail to do – that is to even think about creating a product roadmap.


In this article, we will not just discuss what a product roadmap is and why having one is key to your future success, but also provide you with a step by step guide to create your first startup product roadmap.

So without further ado…


What is a Product Roadmap?


Put simply, a product roadmap is a shared document that outlines the vision for your product over time, and the steps that need to be taken to make that a reality.


A great product roadmap doesn’t just share what you are making, who is responsible for what, and in what timeframe it will be completed. It also shares why you are making your product, for who, how it matches your startup’s aims and principles, and (perhaps most importantly) gives each member of your team a clearly identifiable role and purpose behind their work.


For these reasons, a product roadmap helps you to achieve the following:

  • To effectively describe the vision and strategy behind your product and it’s development to everyone in your company, as well as investors and customers.

  • To provide a realistic guide on how to execute the plan.

  • To keep all those involved in the product aligned and working in unison.

  • To allow everyone involved to discuss ideas and options, and to plan for possible difficulties.

  • To keep investors and customers up to date with your progress and what to expect in the short to long term future.

A product roadmap shouldn’t just show the strategy for the product you are developing, but also how this ties in with the strategy of your startup as a whole. What are the aims, goals, and principles of your startup, and how will this product help you achieve this?


Your product roadmap will be the guiding light for your product. It will take your long term vision for your company, and link it to your product and the day to day work of your team. Turning a vision into actionable daily goals. And, ultimately, the products and startup that you dream of.


Why You Need One?


Having a dream is easy. Most of us have a picture in our heads of where we would like our lives to go, where we will be, who we will be with, and what we will have. The sad thing is, for almost all of us, we don’t make a plan of how we will get there. Ultimately, keeping our dreams just as dreams, and leaving us with regrets of the things we could and should have done.


You wouldn’t have created your startup without a dream. Maybe you had an idea for a new and innovative product, a way to disrupt the market, or to make yours and other lives easier. What a product roadmap does is take that vision and turn it into yearly, monthly, weekly and daily goals. Not just for you, but for everyone in your company.


Creating a product roadmap also gives everyone in your organisation work that is meaningful and important, because everyone can clearly see their role in making the product and helping the company grow. This provides so much more purpose and drive to employees than being given tasks by a supervisor, not knowing what they are for, how important it is for the company, or even if the work will be used.


In Captain Michael Abrashoff’s bestselling book, It's Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy. He speaks how he took crew retention from 28% to 100% in just one year. He did this by talking to the crew and carefully listening to their ideas and implementing them. This is exactly what creating a roadmap with your team does. It gives everyone a chance to generate and discuss ideas, and figure out how to implement them. Giving your employees, even more, ownership and purpose in their work. Helping you to keep your best staff on board for the long haul, and to attract better quality recruits because of an increased reputation.


The last reason why having a roadmap is so important is that it helps you to communicate clearly with investors and customers. Potential investors will be able to clearly see what you are working on, why, and when you will deliver your product. This kind of information can mean the difference between getting the investment you need and not. Likewise, sharing a product map with customers lets them know what products and features to expect and when building excitement and anticipation.


Now you know what a product roadmap is and why you need one. The following 7 steps will help you to create a product roadmap for your startup:


Step 1 - The Bigger Picture


Before you sit down to start creating your roadmap, there are 3 main questions you need to ask yourself:

  • Why are you making the product?

  • Who is it for?

  • What is the end goal?

If you can’t answer these questions, with data to back you up, then this is the first task that you need to complete. Asking additional questions like why are you building this product at this time? And, in this way? Will also help you to further understand the ‘why’ behind your product.


It is all too easy to have a product in mind and a list of features you would like it to have, but missing this crucial first simple step could cost you big time in the future:

  • Failure to have why’s backed with data could cost you investment and prevent you from even getting you’re your product off the starting blocks.

  • Not knowing who the product is for makes it much more likely that you will launch a product that the market does not really want or need.

  • Not having an end goal makes it much more likely that you will go off course, get caught up in small details, and hold back from releasing the product till it is perfect – if you even get that far.

Being able to answer these questions, with data to back you up, will help you and your team to focus on what’s most important. Enabling you to create a solid base on which to grow your product idea and your roadmap.


Answering these why’s will also give you more focus on which features to include and omit, where to prioritise and where not, and help you to answer investor questions more competently and confidently.


Step 2 - Different Roadmaps for Different Audiences


Yes, the title of this section is correct. You need to have more than one product roadmap, and here is why:

  • When you share your product roadmap with investors, you have a different objective to when you share it with your engineers or customers.

Investors will want to know why you are making your product, the basic features, potential/current market share, etc. Whereas engineers will want to know what you are asking them to make, using what software, and in what timeframe. Investors do not want to see every feature in detail that you are working on, At the same time, market share isn’t important for your engineers.


Therefore, it is important that you are able to develop different views/versions of the roadmap, depending on who you are presenting it to. Below you will find a shortlist of the main groups you may need to share your product roadmap with and what information you will need to focus on with each:

  • Engineers/developers – You want your engineers or developers to know exactly what you want from them and why their work matters in the bigger picture of the product and the company.

  • Sales - You want your sales teams to have a roadmap that will help them to convince potential clients that the product will meet their needs. Therefore, the focus should be on the benefits of the product and current/future features.

  • Investors – You want your investors to know why you are making the product, the main features, and the goals/milestones in terms of sales and market share.

  • Customers – You want to your customer roadmap to be simple and easy to understand and focused entirely on the benefits of the product, its features, and new functionality.

Producing tailored roadmaps for each group may seem like a lot of work. However, the benefits far outweigh the time taken to make them. A specific roadmap for investors that is clear, simple, and covers their needs specifically, makes you appear much more prepared and more likely to gain investment. Likewise, a specific roadmap for engineers enables them to focus on what they do best, without needless distractions, saving countless hours and money.


Step 3 - Creating an Outline


The big question now is, where should you start? And, what should you put on your startup’s product roadmap first?


The simple and straightforward answer here is your why’s from Step 1. These don’t just tell you why you are making the product, for who, and what your end goal is. They provide the base from which every other task – no matter how big or small – is created, and judged against.


The first task you will have after putting down your answers to Step 1, is to determine your main themes. Themes are the goals you have for the product and the problems it will solve for users. These will help you to better explain to investors the problems you are aiming to solve and in what timeframe. These themes become like swim lanes, with features and tasks below them.


The answers to these questions, as well as the themes, will help you to understand and determine the base functionality needed for your product. This is incredibly useful when it comes to creating an MVP that is both effective and useable for clients, and has minimal outlay for your startup in terms of cost and man-hours. This functionality and major features become the Epic level of your roadmap.


This is a top-down structure, your why’s become your mission, with the themes below, and the epics below these. With each level answering the one above, ensuring that all tasks, regardless of size, are always working towards the same goals for the same reasons.


The question now is, what should you put on your roadmap outline, and what should you omit? The answer here is to be ruthless, very ruthless. You must only put items on your roadmap if they are truly needed. To help you determine what should go on your roadmap, always ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does this idea, feature, etc., provide value to the customer? If no, or this cannot be proved with hard facts (no I thinks, or hunches), then give this space to something that does.

  • Does this idea or feature fit your overall aims? If it is not playing an integral role in helping you to achieve these aims, then let go.

There is a reason we started with the why’s and then the themes. They give you a purpose and keep you on track. Saving you countless time and money in the long run.


Step 4 - Prioritising


This step is where your hard work so far starts to pay dividends. By having your why’s, main themes, key features, and tasks on paper, you now have a clear set of objectives. These will help you greatly in prioritising certain tasks and features over others, as well as setting timeframes.


There are a few methods you can use to help prioritise items on your roadmap and better understand your progress. The best of these are probably OKR’s. OKR stands for Objectives and Key Results. Because your themes are essential objectives for your product, all you need to determine are the key results required to fulfil this objective. These key results will also help you to populate the Epic level (your features) of your roadmap and create tasks for your various teams.


What these OKR’s create are measurable results that will help you to track progress from the development of a certain feature all the way up to the company’s long term goals. This also enables all parties, from engineers to investors, to see that progress is being made regularly. Seeing regular progress is a huge morale boost for staff because they can clearly see that their actions have played a role in the team’s achievements and the company moving forward as a whole.


When it comes to setting timeframes on your startup product roadmap, it is very wise to leave a little extra time than that projected by your team to account for potential unforeseen circumstances, bugs, and other delays. It is not just about leaving extra time, having a little extra capacity is also sensible too for the same reasons. Many agile experts even go as far as to recommend leaving 20% extra capacity and time for these unforeseen events.


Step 5 - Be Ready for Changes


If there is one thing we can guarantee, it’s change. Changes in the market, customer demand, law, and economic downturns can all potentially derail not just a startup product roadmap, but an entire company.


Therefore, it is essential to keep in mind that nothing on your roadmap is set in stone. I know that sounds disheartening, especially after all your hard work so far. However, what it does show is that you have to be flexible and adjust to changes quickly when needed.


The best way to see these inevitable changes to your roadmap is the evolution of your product over time. Starting from your initial goal of an MVP, you will see your product become ever more complex over time as you gain traction, adapt to customer demands, and integrate more features, products, and services.


The business landscape today is soo faced-paced that the average timeframe for a company roadmap in 2020 is just nine months, with only 10% of businesses roadmapping more than three years into the future.


Because your roadmap is based on data and facts from top to bottom, you will be better positioned to identify these market changes and adapt more effectively. Leaving a little room on your roadmap for these inevitable tweaks and changes in course will help you yet further.


Step 6 - Keep it Up to Date


This may sound obvious, but almost one-third of all product managers (those tasked with being in charge of a product roadmap) update their roadmaps less than once a month. As you can understand, having a product roadmap that is not up to date leads to confusion at best, and hundreds or thousands of wasted work hours worst.


Therefore, whenever you are speaking with certain groups and teams, and changes are agreed, the product roadmap must be immediately updated. If you discuss changes with one group that will affect another, it is essential to discuss this with all the groups affected. For example, if your developers are planning to pull a certain feature, it is important to discuss this with your sales team so that they can inform potential and current clients if required.


Discussing potential changes with all the parties involved adds further to the crucial role that each individual has in the development of the product and the success of the company, giving each member of your team equal ownership of changes.


Talking about the roadmap daily and keeping it up to date ensures that everyone continues to work in unison towards the longer-term vision of the product and the company.


Step 7 - Adding More Products


For those of you that have followed these steps, you now have an effective roadmap that is ready for anything. But what if you are a startup that is working on multiple products, or you are beginning to expand your product portfolio. How can you incorporate all of these products onto the same roadmap?


Let’s be honest, accommodating multiple products onto a single roadmap is not an easy task, and can lead to the occasional bout of head-scratching and the odd headache. However, your mentality and process for creating the roadmap for your first product will hold you in fine stead. This is because the starting point is again the vision and goals of the company and how this additional product will play an integral role in achieving these.


Accommodating all of this new information is tricky in terms of space (another reason why it is best to be ruthless when choosing what makes it onto the roadmap). However, the most important thing you need to do is remain consistent. All the way from how the main themes match the company vision and goals, all the way down to the style, colour, and font of your roadmap. Consistency is key.


Conclusion


How many meetings could you have avoided if you’d had a roadmap in the past? How much money could you have saved? How many good staff you could have kept onboard? And, how many more products could you have sold?


An effective product roadmap becomes your key to success and guiding light because it takes your vision for your startup and turns it into more than just actionable tasks and goals. It gives everyone meaning behind their work, helps you understand your customers better, and gain investment more easily.


Beyond this, a great roadmap helps you to prioritise only on essential tasks, and to quickly and effectively adapt to changes in the market, customer demand, laws, and economic downturns should they arise. This is because everything you do is driven by why’s backed with data. When this data changes, you are able to change with it. Helping you to adapt more quickly than your competitors and established companies.


The only thing you need to do now is start making your product roadmap…


If you would like more help creating a product roadmap for your startup, get in touch.