Early on in my career, I decided to play a hand at entrepreneurial poker. I launched an online retail startup called ChampMobile.com. It was an online marketplace for cellphones. Today, I can tell you that this was a commodity business with few barriers to entry and a saturated market. However, at the time, cellphones were just picking up traction and rarely sold online (and never by carriers themselves). The opportunity to monopolize this market early on with an accessible, simple storefront inclusive of all major carriers had an undebatable value proposition.
I embarked on this journey alone. I could write code, I could understand the business, and I had a keen eye for design. From a lens shaded by naivety and hubris, I thought I had everything it would take to build a successful company, alone. I built the product from the ground up, the business plan, the design, development, affiliate partnerships, online marketing, search engine optimization, the whole nine yards. The launch and first few months thereafter surprisingly coincided with my ambitions. ChampMobile.com was initially a success; it drove traffic and sales at a rising growth rate over the first six months. The downside was that the rise in usage led to a variety of maintenance and operations issues. This balance between growth and maintenance became a key challenge. Operations took away time to focus on business partnerships, marketing, and growth. But without operational reliability, attrition would have risen, creating a sizable offset to growth.
The site remained reliable but growth began to plateau. Before long, other players entered the cellphone retail market, some with significant financial backing. As the competition grew, the threshold of relevancy quadrupled over night; it became a race. To keep up with venture-backed small-to-mid-sized competitors, I was working nearly twenty hours a day. It got to a point where, as an individual, I was stretched thin and losing focus. I was forced to choose between development, design, partnerships, marketing, and seo – a choice no product or company owner should ever have to make. While I could have done them all individually, it was not possible to do them all at the same time. This was the first grand epiphany of my professional career. Speed is a critical constraint inherently present in product development, and to mitigate this constraint, one needs to have a team surrounding a product or idea.
These learnings led to my formation of The Product Loop (or ‘the product circle’ or ‘the product wheel’): a perpetual set of product organization guidelines that have taken me nearly twelve years to refine. If you’ve worked in my org before, you’ve heard ad nauseam about the product circle. The loop represents the cross-functional roles needed in a healthy product development environment. While these roles are not necessary in every stage of a product, they are all critical across the full lifecycle of a product. Without further adieu …
Starting from the top, clockwise:
PO – Product Owner (Product Manager) – responsible for defining product vision, roadmap, customer relationships, cross-functional management, and accountability for the success of the product
PA – Product Analytics – responsible for checking the pulse of the product and enabling data-driven decision making
TL – Test & Learn/Experimentation – responsible for enabling live A/B and multivariate testing to allow rapid decision-making on product/feature ideas
BE+ – Back-end/Platform Engineering – responsible for non-customer facing architecture, infrastructure, and behind-the-scenes engineering that powers the client
FE+ – Front-end/UI Engineering – responsible for customer-facing architecture, infrastructure, and UI/UX driven engineering that powers the customer’s experience
EM – Engagement Management – responsible for the request pipeline from partners and key stakeholders across the company and organizing/aligning the requests to product priorities, eliminating misaligned requests early on, and passing on relevant requests to the product owners for prioritization
PM – Program Management – responsible for streamlining the execution of the product development, including but not limited to facilitating scrum ceremonies, legal/compliance approval requests, capacity, velocity, and reporting
UI – User Interface – responsible for the converting functional applications into polished, easy to use visual design for the customer’s experience
UX – User Experience – responsible for converting business requirements and user requirements into simple experiences for the customer
UXr – User Experience Research – responsible for qualitative testing of customers to determine wants and needs and validate concepts and prototypes, responsible for confirming user requirements
MK – Marketing – responsible for cross-channel marketing and streamlining content within the product
A key footnote here is that all of these roles may not be required in your organization. Some roles are only needed in large organizations, some in small, some can be dual roles, some are only needed for mature products, and some for early stage products. These roles are meant to be a benchmark or even a bank that you can withdraw from when the need arises (which it inevitably will). These roles will materialize throughout the shifting contexts and phases of your products, and a key lesson you can take away is to evolve with the product and try to hire the right team to surround your product. Without appropriate resourcing and planning, time and velocity will catch up, as I reluctantly learned.
While I did end up bringing on a small team of folks at ChampMobile.com, the market had already crowned market share to two of the competitors. The required onboarding process and the rapid growth of the competition solidified the fate of ChampMobile.com. While it was time to let that product go, these lessons have stayed with me through the many products and companies throughout my career. As you look to build a product or product organization, it’s critical to keep the product loop in mind to leverage a balanced team of experts to best position yourself in a constantly evolving, high velocity market.