6 Lessons for Building and Scaling Your First Product

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Working on a start-up is one of the most self-fulfilling experiences you’ll ever encounter. Nothing ever goes as planned, you’ll fail numerous times, and you may experience some of the hardest moments in your life, but you learn at such a rapid pace that you either keep up, or be left behind. I’ve worked on a myriad of opportunities over my career, some with lackluster results, and others with resounding success, but I wouldn’t trade a single experience as each have helped shape and build my perspective on building the best product.

Product Management isn’t very dissimilar from being an Entrepreneur. You need to identify your customers, establish product-market fit, identify trade-offs, and go to market with a vision. Over the past several years, I’ve built Product as a founder within my own company, identified product strategy for large aerospace and defense companies, worked as a Product Manager for a Drone Cloud Analytics firm, and built a team of solutions engineers at one of the largest Drone Cloud companies in the world. While many of these roles had different outcomes, they shared similar objectives. Here are 6 lessons I’ve learned throughout my career that have allowed me to build and scale my first products:

1. Product Management requires more than just energy, it requires insight and timing

Listen to the market, it always wins. Never let your own passions and beliefs lead you down the wrong path. You may have the greatest idea and a solid product, but if the timing or market isn’t right, you’re sure to fail. If you can’t find a market for it, it’s either not the time, or a market doesn’t exist. Iterate on the market, not the product to find your first customers. We came in early to drone industry. 

silhouette of quadcopter drone hovering near the city

2. Sell, Design, Build, in that order

NOT Build, Design, Sell. Before you ever start building, evaluate your market. If you can’t sell your product before you’ve ever built it, there is no market for it. Engineers tend to build before selling. You think you have the next big idea, put in months of work, release the product, only to realize you’re the only one with that problem. Sell before you build! Test your assumptions, then go build what customers will love and recommend. Your product is 80% vision and 20% reality. Spend more time on that vision, figure out the real problem you’re solving, and once you’ve sold your product, that’s when you begin to design and build. Before we ever wrote a single line of code for FreeSkies, we interviewed hundreds of potential clients to see if we were solving a problem they truly had. We iterated on designs to help solve those challenges, and only then started developing the product.

3. Only desperate people buy from startups

Go find desperate customers, win them over, and make them your chief evangelists. Find your niche market, and pursue it voraciously. If your end-user isn’t willing to use an 80% product, they’re not your desperate market segment. Your desperate users are those who are willing to use your product no matter how many bugs or issues it may have. It doesn’t need to be complete, it just needs to solve a desperate problem. A great example of this is Cisco. When they first came out with their telecom system, half of the products they shipped arrived dead on delivery. What happened? Their customers bought another one. Cisco was solving a desperate problem that hadn’t been solved, and people were paying an arm and a leg to solve it.

4. Value before Growth Hypothesis, but not together

The value hypothesis tests whether a product or service really delivers value to customers once they start using it. The growth hypothesis tests how new customers will discover a product or service. Before you think about your growth, ensure you’re delivering value. Don’t try to scale too quickly, have some patience and make sure you are deliver real value to your customers before anything else, growth will follow.

5. Double down on what’s working, and don’t worry about what isn’t

It’s inconsequential. It’s important to learn from your mistakes, but stop dwelling on the past. If a certain plan doesn’t work, learn from it, and move on. Find what’s working, whether it’s speaking with certain customers, marketing on a specific medium, or speaking with investors, find what works and double down. When we attempted to contact potential users through blogs and forums for FreeSkies, we generated more response on certain forums, and less on others. Instead of spending time on why we weren’t generating leads from certain forums, we doubled down on the ones that were. A few other teams during our fellowship catered to very few clients, solving only the problems that they had. By the end of the fellowship, they realized they weren’t their real customers, and had built a product with no market. Double down on what’s working, and leave the rest.

6. Embrace that you are a stumbler

We all are. We all make mistakes. Recognize your mistakes, hold yourself accountable, and be honest. The biggest mistake you can make as a PM, is inaction. You may be wrong, but at least you’re not confused. At FreeSkies, we’ve made many mistakes when developing our product. We recognized them and learned from them, but always held each other accountable. If you make a mistake admit it and learn from it. Heroism comes from empathy.

About the Author

Jay Mulakala

Jay Mulakala currently leads the Global Solutions Engineering team at DroneDeploy, a fast-growing startup working to make drone data accessible to anyone, anywhere. Prior to joining DroneDeploy, Jay has worked in a variety of roles across product, user experience, engineering, and marketing. Jay was the Product Manager at Kespry, working to help build the next generation of cloud applications within Aggregates and Mining, Construction, and Insurance. Jay has also co-founded FreeSkies, a Bay-area drone startup that revolutionized consumer drones for use in professional photography and videography.

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