There is not one but as many as three (or more) products that founders need to keep in mind, and keep evolving, while they build their startup.
The first product is well understood; this is the one aimed at users / customers, consisting of all of the surface edges of the startup that come into contact with the users, in order to solve the user’s problems. The desire to create this is what led the startup into being. This is the product for which the PM is hired, and around which a zillion posts and newsletters and podcasts are written about and created for.
The above ‘user product’, if we can call it that is not always a purely software product like at a Postman, but can also be a software + hardware combo like at an Ather, or a software + wetware combo like at an Urban Co. Sometimes, like in a marketplace like Dunzo (or Urban Co), you may have a customer app and a delivery person / rider’s app, but all of these are user products.
The user product is typically where the founders’ maximum attention goes. That said there is at least one more, if not two (or more) products that founders need to keep in mind.
The investor product
A much less understood product is the investor product – this is essentially the narrative that you shape around your startup, aimed at investors. This includes its position in the marketscape relative to its competitors, how it is advantaged vis-à-vis them, and its growth prospects (or perceptions around its prospects).
This narrative is effectuated through clear consistent messaging about the positioning and growth prospects of your startup, delivered via public content (on Twitter, LinkedIn, podcasts) or private content (pitches, DMs, emails or other comms).
Amazon is a great example of a compelling investor product. Jeff Bezos was able to sell the narrative to Wall Street that it should be valued not on its margins or profitability (which were nonexistent through the noughties) but on the fast-growing TAM of ecommerce and its high marketshare here. At the right time, he said, we will be able to take up prices and up our margins. Wall Street believed him and supported a high price / earnings (p/e) ratio, far higher than its peers. This helped Amazon weaponise its stock prices to attract talent through its rising ESOPs, as well as use its high p/e advantageously in M&A transactions.
Another example in this light is Adobe. Kevin Kwok in his brilliant piece on narrative shaping, writes “Adobe has continually shown over the last few decades how core managing the narrative is to getting the support and coordination of investors and employees as the company makes fundamental shifts to their business model. Whether that be in adding new products, transitioning to the faster internal cadence of a SaaS company, refactoring into a cloud-first infrastructure and pricing model, or the myriad other endeavors Adobe has undergone from building printing software to the full expanse it is now.”
Closer home, we have CRED which has shaped the narrative around how it is building a trust layer enabling frictionless commerce and lending for India’s 1%, and has raised $1bn+ selling this vision. A Ken story on Kunal and CRED breathlessly puts it “Ultimately, the bet is on CRED’s team and founder. The expectation is that Shah has the wherewithal and chutzpah to leverage the narrative around the market and the moats to position the company as being worth US $10bn to someone who has the means and inclination to pay for an acquisition.”
The medium is also the message
The investor product is also ultimately a function of founder personality and pedigree. The tone and intensity of the messaging is linked to, and borne out of the personality of the founder. Uber is a great example of convergence between the investor product and the founder personality.
The investor product can vary between two similar startups, like Nykaa and Purplle. The latter’s investor narrative was focused around margins, private labels and how they were serving the aspirational more than the affluent customer. Nykaa’s like a market leader was on selling the category. The below is from a podcast of Abhiraj Bhal where he talks about the market leader / pioneer’s burden – that of selling the category
The #2 player doesn’t have the burden of explaining TAM. That said, it should sell its relevance, and reason to exist / right to win. A common take is to talk about how the market leader can’t serve all customers or can’t offer cheaper products, and it can thus address underserved customers. Of course, this needs to fit with what it is doing on the ground. Any misalignment between the investor product and the user product is dangerous. Let us dive deeper into this interplay.
The investor product and its interplay with the business side
The investor product both shapes, and is shaped by the startup’s present business context and operations. The former because if the investor product is successful, and it persuades the VC to invest, you now have the funds to grow even faster. The latter because the business context sets the tone for the narrative that the founder is taking to the investor, e.g., if the experiments that they embarked on – say expansion to an adjacent market, or a new geography, hasn’t worked out, then the investor narrative would be very different, from if it had worked out.
Sometimes, you will see the founders stop interacting with VCs coming inbound, typically in between the rounds. The typical response that goes out is “We are heads down building, and we will surface closer to the fundraise”. The underlying message is that the investor product is evolving, the new narrative isn’t clear, and the founder doesn’t want to risk sharing his half-baked narrative with investors, lest she have to change it later. For example, perhaps a SaaS startup is experimenting with a marketplace, and if that takes off, then its narrative would be very different from a scenario where it takes off. Investors who see a change in the startup’s narrative may rethink their interest.
The content product
If you are a B2B EnterpriseTech founder, or a SaaS startup with a PLG play, or are a content-commerce brand, that is, you have a content-led motion, where you are using content to bring in audiences to the top of funnel, where you will engage with your product and hope to convert them, then this section is for you.
The content product is the third product that a founder in this space has to worry about building. In fact the founder should focus on it simultaneous to building out the product. A key reason for that is that, content takes time to create and for distribution to build up; so instead of waiting for the main product to be ready and then start writing, it is better to start the content engine going as you decide to start coding.
Patrick McKenzie (@patio11 on twitter) says in a podcast:
“….every B2B SaaS company will say, “… we should have a content marketing engine and every content marketing engine will eventually publish a book, either like an actual book book or something which is morally equivalent to a book based on word count, degree of intellectual depth, et cetera, et cetera. And the thing that I would suggest most people do is to pull the content marketing forward and sort of write the book before writing the software, if that makes sense? …If you do it earlier, it’s quicker to get up and running on the internet and quicker to get something worthy of the attention of others that have been running on the internet. So you get to start the clock on things like Google giving your domain some authority, you get to start to clock on things like social application via social media and attracting people to your banner, on getting newsletter subscribers, etc., earlier, and those things tend to compound over time… just some things like Google Authority take just a while to bake, regardless of whether you’re physically hands on keyboard during it.
And if you sequence those activities earlier you get to have more opportunities to go through the learning loop, more opportunities for value to compound over a longer period of time versus sequencing them later. If you spend nine months in the code cave building out version 1.0 of your software and then launch to nobody, that’s nine months where you could have had developed a newsletter with thousands of people subscribing to it and then nine months after that, with relatively little additional work done on the newsletter, had people ready to buy everything on the first day. So that is the first thing I would suggest is rethink the mindset of becoming a software person who writes and think more about becoming the expert and then writing the software that sort of encodes your expertise in the software product. I think that really writing deeply about how you understand whatever your problem domain is will make your software product decisions better.”
A similar perspective came from Asad Khan, cofounder & CEO at LambdaTest
The tweet covers a talk he gave for Blume’s founders where he talked about the importance of creating content before the product releases “I would say even when we start writing the first line of code, it should not be that you should wait for the product. Because your content strategy will take time. I mean, I can give example, like Rishen is doing an amazing job in Toplyne. He started evangelizing ,writing Substack and started doing some blogging, some threads over Twitter, going after the community. He started six months before, almost one year after actually he launched the product. He opened up PLG after one year but he built his audience already.”
Subsequently too, the entire set of content assets are akin to a product that needs to be kept running and updated, aligned to the user product.
Internal comms, culture as products
I suppose you could think of every process as a product like it is alluded to here.
That said, there are two other potential ‘products’ – both aimed at your most important asset, your people. One is internal communication. The other is culture.
Let us take internal communication as a product. Kevin Kwok puts it well: “Talk to top tech companies today and raising capital is ironically one of the easier aspects of building and derisking the company. Hiring and retaining a talented team is far harder. Acquiring and retaining customers is harder. Understanding and getting the team coordinated on what to build is harder. Oh, and did I mention that hiring and retaining a talented team is far harder? This is the CEO’s job: to raise and allocate the capital needed, but also to build a team capable of building the product needed and getting distribution. All while understanding what the company needs to build and helping the team understand and orient around it.” Driving orientation and alignment and coordination is not an easy task, and the best companies devote a lot of resources and thinking to this task.
Some examples of good internal comms. Shopify has an internal podcast. Stripe has its internal documentation library etc. which anyone in the co can access which has access to past memos, guides etc.
On to culture as a product. The canonical example here is Hubspot. This article has Dharmesh Shah, the CTO of Hubspot quoting “Culture is a product you build. And your people are its customers.”
Another way to look at culture is that as a scaling mechanism for internal decisions. Culture is why your frontline team will go the extra hours to solve a customer’s problem, or offer (or not) a reimbursement to an unhappy customer, when you are not there in the room. When your org crosses 20-30 people, well, you can’t be everywhere, and not everything can be codified, so if you don’t want to be a blocker, then culture is your best tool!
So there you go. I am going to end here.
Let me wrap with a short summary. There are at least two products – user products and the investor product. These two need to align with each other. In many ways each shapes the other. Then, if you have a content-led motion, you need to look at your content too as a product. Build your content product even as you build the user product. Finally, you can also look at internal comms, and even your culture as a product too.
Narratives & Pseudosecrets; Michael Dempsey
Narrative Distillation; Kevin Kwok
Culture as a product: How Hubspot built its famed startup culture; Various authors
Culture is a product you build; Drew Beechler