You and your friends have this great product idea.
Bigger than Instagram! Bigger than Twitter! Bigger than Facebook! Bigger than Google!
Okay, maybe not. Still, it’s going to be huge. You’ve raised a little money (if you’re lucky), and you want to build a MVP, known as a minimum viable product. That’s the bare minimum you need to get a product out the door and so you can test your concept against customers.
Sounds easy, right?
Even for a MVP, it takes a village to build a product.
The village has several roles, and selecting the right team early can make or break your idea. Your village will never be of an ideal size, but understanding what you need from your townsfolk can help you make some hard decisions on how to staff the team. Early on, flexibility is the key. You may also have to split up the work if it’s a side project and everyone has a day job.
Even for a MVP, it takes a village to build a product. The village has several roles, and selecting the right team early can make or break your idea.
The composition of the ideal team has been a question that’s been on Quora, and great advice can be traced to a simple model that Dave McClure of 500 Startups advocates — Hustler, Hacker, and Designer — but it has to be viewed within the context of what you’re building. This article covers all the roles that go into building a product, and places where you can “cheat”, i.e. fill in with people that are in other roles. Minimum viable product projects are about building something to a level that gets you started, within extreme constraints.
When building the MVP, everyone’s favorite word should be “No.” As in, “No, we aren’t going to build a big product. We’re going to build something simple so that we can test our idea and see if it’s viable.”
Zappos did it that way. So did Groupon. CarsDirect launched over a weekend. You can too.
And remember, it’s just not about the MVP, but planning for something bigger: use team members that can play multiple roles now, so you can grow and expand later. If your friends can’t perform the vital tasks of Sales, Marketing and/or Business Development, they might not be a good fit. The team will also vary depending on your idea — the roles needed for a tech-heavy idea differ significantly from something like Groupon or Uber, which are more sales driven.
Following are the typical roles of any software development team.
Each is essential to the success of a product. Each is priced pretty close to the others, depending on experience level. And each needs to be filled by someone who can perform that task. For example, if you don’t have someone in the role of UX Designer or Product Manager you’re still doing the tasks associated with that role — you’re just doing them poorly.
A Product Manager is exactly how it reads: they manage the development and the feature set of the product.
It’s the ultimate jack of all trades position: they play several roles, but never have time to do any of them at an expert level.
They should be competent at a lot of things, like writing copy and distilling customer feedback. They own tasks that are pure strategy, like pricing, product roadmap, and product marketing. There are also tasks that are tactical, like day-to-day program management, and making sure everyone is marching in the same direction. That means having a lot of diplomatic skills, because everyone feels like they own the product with an MVP.
Great product managers have to understand technology, the business and the user — at the same time. If they don’t, they will be thrown to the wolves quickly, unmercilessly, and rightfully so. A product manager that doesn’t gain the trust and respect of the team is in trouble from day one. The ultimate test: being able to speak to the business, to the user, and to the technical solution at the same time, and lead without having direct reports. That’s hard.
Product managers should know how to prioritize their time and to delegate appropriately. If they’re working 60 hours a week, they probably aren’t very good at their job.
Product managers should know how to prioritize their time and to delegate appropriately. If they’re working 60 hours a week, they probably aren’t very good at their job.
What job titles should I look for? Product Manager, Program Manager, Project Manager. Some project managers have skillsets that are too narrow for Product Management.
Should I outsource it? Absolutely not — this is the idea role. If your idea is about user acquisition early on, you can skip some of the business modeling or hire someone else to do it. However, understanding your market is essential to the success of your MVP, because it’s going to change, a lot.
Who else can perform the role? A good Interaction Designer can cover 60 to 70 percent of any product manager’s role, so someone with that background can do it. One of the founders, possibly the idea guy, should be this person because they’ll care the most. The hustler can also bring ideas from the customers — the key is mining those ideas for great product features.
When should I hire this as a full time position? It depends. Early on, they should be playing other roles, like business development. In some organizations, a designer or engineer might also be acting as a product manager. They act as project management, and with the interaction designer, should be the hub of activity. The best staffing model is one product manager for every three to six developers.
What keywords should I look for in resumes? Most product managers should have a portfolio of products they can point to at being successful at. Look for the following keywords: Research, product marketing, product roadmap, copywriting, pricing models.
What’s a great interview question to ask? “If Dave McClure gives you a million dollars to build a product and a team, what does your product development process look like?”
Interaction Designers are the people who design a product that will encourage adoption, engagement, and hopefully profitability. They are essentially the product architects — someone that describes the structure of what you are doing so everyone else can fill in the blanks.
Great User Experience designers are OCD about developing products, because the user is who matters most.
Great User Experience designers are OCD about developing products, because the user is who matters most. No engagement and no adoption means no startup, right?
They are trained to build usable products within established constraints, and usually are more familiar with the development process than most product managers. A good interaction designer will save you time and money because they’ll test features quickly with prototypes and say yea or nay. Getting actionable data early and often is invaluable for MVPs.
What job titles should I look for? Interaction Designer, User Experience Designer, Product Designer, User Researcher.
Should I outsource it? Risky, but it can be done under the right circumstances. This tends to be the hardest role to fill because good Interaction Designers are hard to find, and they like getting paid. This can also be the most essential role in a design-led organization, so depending on your needs you might be better off hiring a designer that can manage product than vice versa.
Who else can perform this role? You can hire a Visual Designer to do interaction design — many visual designers also claim interaction design as a skillset — but there might be an early emphasis on pretty over functional in the product, and this can mean death. The floors of the startup world are littered with the very pretty corpses of non-functional ideas. Or you can learn to do this yourself (This Triptrotting story is an example of founders that learned how to wireframe), but it’s really, really risky. Would you trust your open heart surgery to your cousin?
When should I hire this as a full time position? It depends. A great part time interaction design consultant can dramatically improve the product, but this also means they have no skin in the game. If they are acting as the product manager (many go this route), one interaction designer for every four to eight developers seems to work best. Pairing up an interaction designer with a product manager is ideal.
What keywords should I look for in resumes? Most interaction designers have an online portfolio, and should be able to explain their projects well. Look for the following keywords: Wireframing, Prototyping, User Research, Omnigraffle, Indesign, HTML, CSS, jQuery and Prototyping.
What’s a great interview question to ask? “What’s the best story you have to tell about building a product, soup to nuts, and how you created a great user experience?”
Visual Designers create the look and feel of the product, and are sometimes called upon to establish the the brand voice. They select the colors, the icons, and define the look and feel that will be implemented by developers.
Visual Design is the trickiest skillset to define because it is the most in flux in today’s responsive design environment. Whether we like it or not, visual designers are being called on to do more of their work in HTML and CSS than Photoshop. The workflow from interaction design to final product should contain the fewest steps possible, and a visual designer that can’t function in HTML creates delays.
Most MVPs can survive without a visual designer early on. Resources like 99 Designs can be used, the front end engineer can hack together something. Remember, it’s about testing the idea with a controlled audience.
That initial pretty design you think is so important for the first version — it just isn’t, because you’ll be changing it over and over again.
Some websites have gone strictly with a design that looked like wireframes and launched that way, learning and designing as they went. That initial pretty design you think is so important for the first version — it just isn’t, because you’ll be changing it over and over again. Trust me.
What job titles should I look for? Visual Designer, User Interface Designer, Web Designer, Graphic Designer.
Should I outsource it? Maybe. With an interaction designer or product manager that’s solid, they can manage an outside visual designer to come up with some great work. If you’re really strapped, you can go the 99 Designs route, but this may take more time than if you’d done it yourself.
Who else can perform the role? In smaller teams, Interaction Designers perform the Visual Design role. Some are opting for generalists with a visual and interaction design background. Many don’t need a full-time designer until late in the game. However, if you’re a consumer product, this should be one of the first hires. The best ratio is one visual designer for every four to eight developers.
What should I look for in resumes? Most visual designers have an online portfolio. Look for the following keywords: Illustration, Photoshop, Illustrator, HTML, CSS, jQuery, Prototyping.
What’s a great interview question to ask? “Who are the designers that influence you, and why?”
Writing copy is the redheaded stepchild for any product. No one really wants to write copy because it’s so time consuming, but without it, usability and engagement is severely hindered. Copy is as important as the visual look to setting the tone and brand. Establishing this early with a single resource that can perform consistently is critical.
Copy is as important as the visual look to setting the tone and brand.
If you’re lucky, you’ll find a resource that can do both marketing and content development, solving both problems at the same time. A few members of the team will probably be contributing to this process.
Also, consider this: the product you are building now most likely isn’t the product that will become your startup. Copy and design will be changed early and often.
What job titles should I look for? Copywriter, Technical Writer, Marketing Manager.
Should I outsource it? Maybe. Using someone in-house takes away from time they should be spending on something else (you know, like selling). A common solution is to write the first draft in house, and then hire a professional copywriter later on to revise the copy.
Who else can perform the role? Interaction Designers, Visual Designers, and Product Managers should all be able to write copy. For many, this will never be a full time position unless it’s a content-heavy site.
What should I look for in resumes? Great writers should be able to tell their story in a compelling way. Look for the following keywords: Copywriting, content strategy, marketing, lead generation.
What’s a great interview question to ask? “In 50 words or less, describe your writing style.”
Someone has to build it, right? Developers are the people who take the dreams of product managers and designers everywhere and turn them into a working product. If they’re good, they can cut time to market from months to weeks, and give you a minimum viable product that you can test user assumptions against. If they’re not so good, they’ll kill your idea.
Building smaller, agile development teams can be better than building a massive team, because each additional member increases communication overhead.
The developers that you hire should be on the same page with each other on what platform to use and how to build it. Building smaller, agile development teams can be better than building a massive team, because each additional member increases communication overhead.
The best developers know how when to roll their own (build custom code), and know when to use frameworks. If they’re rolling everything custom, that tends to be a really bad sign unless it’s an extremely complex application.
Developers tend to come in two flavors: front-end and back-end. Ideally, the developers should be full-stack: generalists that can play on the front-end or back-end, but it may vary depending on your needs. And you have to watch out for specialists. If they are an architect, they may be rusty in coding. If they’re primarily a front-end developer, they might not know back-end development at all.
Back-end developers are skilled in languages that connect to databases, like Java, .Net, PHP, Python, and Ruby on Rails. They should also have some database knowledge, and that could be anything from MySQL to Mondo DB. Their primary goals are to make the system flexible for future development and fast for current performance. Data structure is crucial: I’ve seen many a startup killed by poor database decisions.
What job titles should I look for? Software Developer, Software Engineer, Front-end Developer, Front-end Engineer, Software Architect.
Should I outsource it? Possibly. With strong project management, it can work, but it’s risky. Sometimes you can hire some in-house developers, and they’ll manage the outsource team. Any outsource development team, however, has very different goals (increasing billing amounts) than you do (building your idea for the lowest cost possible). Ideally, I would have one architect or senior-level developer that has skin in the game. Additional considerations include whether you should buy or build technology, or the complexity of the application. The fewer the variables in the business model, the easier it is to outsource.
Who else can perform the role? I’ve seen product people with development backgrounds, but the roles are so different that it’s hard to combine this role. Developers should be focused on building and testing code, and nothing else. Sometimes front-end development can be handled by the visual or interaction designers, but that’s not an ideal situation.
When should I hire this as a full time position? Most make their early recruits engineers, because if you can’t build it, you can’t launch it. However, with careful project management, I have seen some outsource their development. If your product is not truly technology based, it might be better to use consultants.
What should I look for in resumes? Well executed, completed projects where they worked with a team. Ask for demos. Look for the following keywords: Ruby, Java, PHP, Python, .NET, MySQL. Also look for projects that have similar business goals as your product idea.
What’s a great interview question to ask? “Given a typical e-commerce system, what approach would you take building it? What would the software development lifecycle look like?”
Someone has to make sure it works, right? Any good Product Manager or Interaction Designer should be able to put together a test plan that anyone can follow, or even better, you’re doing test-driven development and the engineers are writing unit tests.
However, that’s an ideal scenario.
If everyone else is busy, there are dedicated Quality Assurance resources you can hire. The best analysts I’ve met act almost as an additional product manager or interaction designer because they become gatekeepers for great product development. They help establish process and goals in a chaotic environment, and work to ensure steps are taken to deliver a good product.
What job titles should I look for? Quality Assurance Engineer, Quality Assurance Analyst.
Should I outsource it? Maybe. If you’re lucky enough to find someone that’s super detail oriented, it can work. But you can end up doing this yourself and wasting money in the process.
Who else can perform the role? This can be the “all hands on deck” role. The interaction designer, product manager, or developers can write test plans and go through the steps of making sure the product works.
When should I hire this as a full time position? This can wait because other roles can test early on for most products. I would hire it as the 10th or 15th member of the team. The number of developers establishes the staffing level for the rest of the company, and is determined by what kind of business you’re in.
What should I look for in resumes? Test-driven driven software development processes, and ideally a perfectly laid out resume without typographical errors. Look for the following keywords: Agile, automated testing, test plans.
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