Creating a Product Focused Startup Culture

by mikekarnj on February 21, 2011


A lot of people have asked me how to create a product focused culture and our product process at Skillshare. I’m happy to share but keep in mind that it’s different for each team. Whenever I work with new teams, I start by creating a custom process based on a product philosophy, and tweak/iterate over time. It’s never perfect, but it’s always improving, thus allowing us to move faster and innovate, which is necessary for product innovation.

My approach is really lean, iterative, and fast since I work in a startup. Most of what I’ve read online from UX architects don’t really work for me. Not because they’re not great, but because they’re way too slow for our team. Also, keep in mind that these articles are usually written from consultants who do not know anything about your company, problem, customers, etc. That’s why they have to do user interviews, storyboards, personas, etc. If you’re the founder/head of product/designer/etc at your company; this should be something you do every single day. You’re the expert at solving this huge problem, and there shouldn’t be anyone on this planet that has thought about the problem/talked to users more than you.

If that’s true, then all you need is  a little process to help you turn your idea and vision into reality. Disclaimer: this is our own custom process & philosophy which will work best at small startups. Rather than going into the details of how we execute (since each team is different), I’ll share the philosophy that drives our culture. As your company grows, you’ll have to implement more formal processes like those at Facebook (but that’s a good problem to have!)

To Start, the Head of Product Revolves Around Three Responsibilities:

1) Setting the overall product strategy and vision.
2) Coming up with simple and creative solutions to the most complex problems.
3) Getting things done and shipping product by saying no to 99% of feature ideas.

Here are My Tools:

1. Sketching: Muji Sketch Pad
2. Pens: Muji Gel-Ink Ballpoint Pen 0.5MM
3. User Flows: Omnigraffle
4. Wireframing: Adobe Keynote w/ Keynote Wireframing Toolkit
5. UI Design: Adobe Illustrator (much faster than Photoshop)
6. HTML/CSS: Textmate
7. Personal To-Do List: Omnifocus & Behance Action Runner
8. Product Notes: Evernote
9. Files: Dropbox
10. Computer: MacBook Air w/ wireless keyboard & mouse
11. Dual Monitor:  Asus 24-inch widescreen LCD
12. Team Project Management: Basecamp
13. Internal Team Messaging: Socialcast

I’m really old school. Whenever I start a project, I usually sketch everything out in one of my notebooks. It allows me to really clear my mind and start immediately without worrying about making it sure it aligns in Keynote or pixel perfect in Illustrator. I think all great ideas start from a simple sketch as you can see from this Twitter and Square sketch from Jack Dorsey.

Sometimes, I don’t even convert my sketches into Omnigraffle, Keynote, or Balsamiq. When I worked at Hot Potato, I would come up with quick ideas and sketch them out on the back of napkins, take a picture with my iPhone, and email it directly to our team. Not everything has to be perfectly designed when you’re moving fast. There is a difference between product design and UI/UX design. Spend time on the former, not the latter. In other words, don’t place too much value on making the wireframes look nice. When I worked at Behance, I never delivered a wireframe to the Chief Designer. I spent all my time on the product because delivering wireframes tainted his creative process. As you can see, each team is different, so find out what works for your team.

Our Product Philosophy:

1. Align product vision of team: This can be done through a strategic brief, interview questions, site map, brainstorming session, etc. Basically whatever you need to do to make sure your entire team is on the same page and working towards the same goal. But more importantly, it ensures that you don’t waste time executing the wrong thing. There’s nothing more powerful than a team moving cohesively in the right direction.

2. 3/1 process: I adopted this rule from the Apple 10/3/1 design-led process,  “Apple designers come up with 10 entirely different mock ups of any new feature. They’ll take ten, and give themselves room to design without restriction. Later they whittle that number to three, spend more months on those three and then finally end up with one strong decision.” Everyone on the Skillshare product team (including our CTO) sketches out features and wireframes. We simplified our process to 3/1 which can be done in 20 minutes. This allows us to take bits and pieces to create one stellar product innovation and involve everyone in the process.

3. Never Launch: Our team doesn’t believe in “launches” because we’re always iterating, improving and innovating on our product. We don’t follow “two-week sprints”  because the biggest cost to our company isn’t money, it’s time. Two weeks for our team is equivalent to 2 months in the corporate world. For that reason, we will be releasing daily and often for our product. For example, Etsy “did 204 product deployment in July 2010, about 30% more than June, and are ready to deploy at all times.” This allows us to fail faster, and invest less time in things that just don’t work.

4. Intrapreneurship: As our product team grows to additional developers, designers, and product managers; we have setup our culture and internal teams to run like mini-startups. This is the philosophy that Facebook embraces which allows them to innovate and move faster. As long as our team is aligned on the company and product vision, and focused on a few things; we don’t ever want to create a culture where “ideas have to be approved”. We believe this really stifles creativity and product innovation. We prevent this by having a flat organization and foster ownership in everything we do.

5. Solution Driven: Our team has one simple rule when we brainstorm new ideas and features: offer solutions. It’s really simple. Everyone on our team is a creative problem solver. No one is allowed to say why an idea is bad unless they offer how it can be fixed. It’s doesn’t even have to be a good idea/solution. This cuts out bullshit chatter and ego arguments when we are deep in our creative process.

6. Relentless Focus & Simplicity: This philosophy is based on a recent talk from Jack Dorsey (CEO of Square). The team at Square makes every detail perfect, but they limit the amount of details to perfect to a few (1-2 items). This is so important that I can’t stress it enough. The lead designer at Quora spent three months just designing and undesigning the question page. What you see on Quora right now is 20% of what it should be. Again, relentless focus on perfecting a few details and ignoring the other distractions.

Other Tips:

Keep a keynote file of UX/UI examples: I take screenshots of websites, features, UI design, etc that I almost always reference while we build our site. Here’s an example from Zach Klein. Your goal isn’t to copy other folks but have other folks copy you.

Continuous learning: If you’re really trying to break into being a good product person, I would read these books: Making Ideas Happen, Designing for the Social Web, and Designing Social Interfaces.  And the articles on 99% and Smashing Magazine.

At the end of the day, the secret sauce behind a product focused culture is getting things done and saying no to 99% of good ideas. Focusing is one of the most important things your entire team will ever do.

Lastly, do not worry about competitors. Even if someone copied your idea completely, there are three areas competitors can never copy: 1) your team; 2) speed of product innovation of your team; 3) community of passionate users. If you can nail down those three, your competitors will always be behind you.

This is a really simplified/tip-of-the-iceberg view of our product culture and philosophy. We can’t share all our secrets! But I’d love to hear the tips and product processes of other teams so please some thoughts and ideas in the comments.

If you want to disrupt education, and our culture excites you, join our team.

You can also view and vote for this article on Hacker News.

comments powered by Disqus