Agile product development for Startups – Part one – First steps

Agile Product Development

So you think you have a brilliant idea that will become a hugely successful product or service. Congratulations!

But how do you turn that idea into a well considered, structured game plan for how you will turn your concept into reality?

Traditionally, you’d do a bunch of stuff around market research, business plans, big project plans and a whole heap of things before you get anywhere near building the thing. But you’re an Agile startup right?

In these short posts, I’ll be referring to the great work of Roman Pichler. I consider Roman to be at the top of the tree when it comes to Agile Product Management specialists. His site has loads of detailed background and resources on the areas I will just skim over.

So how do you quickly get from a concept to an initial Product Backlog you can start working with? Here’s a high level of the first steps you probably want to take.

Step 1 – Understand your users. You should create personas for the different types of user your concept is aimed at. A persona is a fictitious person who represents as closely as possible a typical type of user of your product or service. Personas are important because they remind you that you are developing a product for people, not generic user types like “Author”, “Editor”, “Administrator”, “System User” etc. In most cases, you’ll have multiple personas to represent the different types of people your product is for. Make your personas visible in your team space to remind you everyday whom you are designing for. You don’t have to define loads of detail up front. Your personas will evolve as you learn more about them through user testing and other forms of feedback. Here’s a short definition from the Agile Alliance.

Step 2 – Develop the Product Vision. In short, you need to define who are your users, what of their needs are you going to address, a super high level view of the capabilities your product or service will provide to meet those user needs, and finally, what’s in it for you? You should also define a one sentence “vision statement” to encompass the whole concept. A vision statement for YouTube might be “A free online video hosting, sharing and streaming service funded by advertising”.

The Product Vision is important because it provides scope boundaries. We know that things move in and out of backlogs as we gather insights and inspiration.

We may define a Product Vision for a new car, and as we learn more about our users and our needs, an initial view that they want four seats may change. They may want six seats, because in our target market, people often travel with the whole family. But it’s still a car.

However, if our Product Owner explains that we need to provide 50 more seats, spread over two decks, that’s not a car any more. It’s a bus, and that doesn’t fit within the overall Product Vision.

That’s not a bad thing. It doesn’t mean we say “No, we’re building a car, so we won’t do that”. If our users really need a bus, we should reset the product vision and the steps that follow it. What we have discovered is that the car is not the right product to build.

The Product Vision is also very important to align understanding and expectations early from stakeholders. If you are going out to angel investors or other routes to seed funding, the PV and other artefacts will be absolutely vital to get your concept across concisely and professionally.

Roman Pichler’s Product Vision board is a fantastic resource that I have introduced to many teams. I wholeheartedly recommend it. Here’s a link to Roman’s site.

Once you have your Personas and Product Vision established, you have a solid foundation to work from. The PV is vitally important, but it lacks a critical dimension – time. In my next post, I’ll explain how you build on the Product Vision to move towards creating that Initial Product Backlog.

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Five factors that can go wrong with software development

Software development projects

I have been lucky enough to be involved in many software development projects and the best or worst thing about each project is that every project throws you in the deep end with a new challenge. There are many experts, methodologies and tools that promises businesses that projects can be understood and implemented in the desired way without much hassle but very rarely are projects developed smoothly.

Based on my experience as a business analyst and project manager, I have brought together various factors that could constitute a project delivery and noted what could possibly go wrong with these ingredients and, from my limited experience, how can we resolve them!

Even though it might be old cliché all development projects are about people, processes and technology. However, there is always a debate about the weighting of these which factors in order to ensure successful delivery.

People

People or stakeholders are the most critical aspect of any project, and if we believe into experts’ stats, 80% of project success relies on how satisfied people are with the outcome

What can go wrong with stakeholders?
When stakeholders with conflicting objectives are not looked after well, the project can end in disaster!

How can this issue be resolved?
The mantra is to build relationships (via continuous communication with pure honesty and integrity) with each stakeholder to win their trust and understand their objectives. And once you know their goals, it becomes easy to lead from the front and be proactive so that you can tell your stakeholders how you are looking after their interests and create a win-win situation.

Process

Business processes are the heart of any project because these aspects define how businesses works in order to make successful proposition. And all projects are meant to either enhance existing processes or implement a new process in order to improve operation.

What can go wrong with processes?
Too much focus on people and technology can cause business process ignorance. I have seen lots of projects which, after a successful implementation, are scrapped due to their failure to implement the right processes.

And Solution is…
My experience is that the best way to ensure that processes are implemented correctly is to conduct a thorough analysis so that the precise scope can be defined and aligned to businesses. Strong leadership is then necessary to ensure successful implementation.

Technology

Technology helps companies to implement processes and let users operate their business.

What could go wrong with technology?
Over the, last decade or so we have seen great advances in technology that have led to us being carried away with the wonders it can do when it comes to project implementation, and that’s where things go wrong, be cause technology might force stakeholders to compromise on their objectives and can led to a non- business- relevant project i.e. either a project which is too advanced for the end user or not really implementing the right process.

How can this issue be resolved?
A Simple one liner is that the best way is for the business to lead on what technology should do, and not the other way round.

There are two more additional factors that can lead a project’s failure.

Development Methodologies

Two types of project development methodologies (Agile and Waterfall) are very prevalent in project management. They help to define various stages of the project and how to manage them.
But the problem is that sometimes, I have seen that the PMs and BAs get so obsessed with methodologies and their artifacts that they deviate from the main business objectives and deliverable, and that leads to delays or scope creep.
How can this issue be resolved?
Projects that adopt these methodologies loosely in order to put more emphasis on deliverables become more successful than those that wrangles between tightly- coupled methodologies and artifacts.

Development tools

To implement the above methodologies, there are many tools out there that already have templates in place to create everything from project plans to project initiation documents and requirements capturing documents, but .
again the issues is that PMAs and BAs gets too fixated with these tools and forget about real project deliverables, focusing more on tools.

We should limit the use of these tools and methodologies to ensure smooth project delivery, rather than putting in masses of time and effort to than mastering the tools.

Conclusion

No project can be delivered successfully until, as PM and BA, you have a grip on stakeholder objectives and, project scope, and then an understanding of technology to ensure that process are implemented as per business requirement., However, don’t forget no project will be implemented entirely without hassle, and the old saying is that every project has three phases: “storming, norming and performing” – I leave it to your imagination to interpretate what this means!!

2014 belongs to Social Commerce, Bitcoin, Wearable Tech and Sentiment Search

2013 saw the rise and rise of mobile commerce, the stock market launch (and surge in share price) of social media sites such as Twitter, LinkedIn & Facebook, the introduction of wearable technologies like Google Glass, and high demand for Bitcoin took its valuation to $1,000.

Google shares reached over $1,000, LinkedIn shares are trading at over 300% of their original value, Twitter and Facebook shares are strong too. Overall, the year was very exciting and reached heights that caused  critics to suspect a tech crunch just around the corner.

On  the downside, 2012 stars like Zynga and Groupon have struggled to maintain their share price and profits, and Samsung and Apple went to war over various patents.

Amid all these highs and lows, I have spotted some trends that might dominate the coming year’s technology developments.

1.Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn might need to think beyond display advertising or parish

Social media networks have become the most popular and most time-consuming sites and applications for users and the big three ($FB, $TWTR and $LINKD) are already trading on Wall Street with a combined valuation of over $200bn and a valuation per user over $100,  but revenue per user still in single figures. Therefore, I think to justify their valuation and competitive advantage, these networks will be forced to find means for brands to do commerce solely on their platform, because revenue merely based on display advertising and industry specific marketing products is not good enough and might only take them to closure rather than leading them to flourish.

2.Google, Samsung and Apple will indulge in a big wearable technology domination war

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2014 in Las Vegas is full of companies (including LG, Intel, Sony, and Samsung) demonstrating wearable technologies, such as: smart watches, smart bands, smart ear buds, and smart glasses.

Apple and Google are not participating in CES 2014 but undoubtedly they must be keeping track of their competitors with an eye on the almost saturated smartphone and tablet market.
Apple has already filed a patent for iWatch and, due to shareholder pressure, might launch this in 2014. If we believe in the continuation of historical trends around competitors product launches following Apple’s new product release, I am sure Google glasses will come out of beta and Samsung will improve their already launched Galaxy Gear in order to be top of their industry; a wearable technology war seems inevitable.

3.Sentiments and Location Search will replace Google Keyword Search

For many, Google keyword search is still the primary form of data finding service. However, the rising popularity of Q&A engines like Quora, Facebook’s Social Graph, Apple’s Siri, Google’s Map, and recently launched Social search app Jelly, by Twitter founder Biz Stone, indicate the futuristic search trend is more aligned to human sentiments, where users can search stuff based on real intention rather than generic search terms.

4.APIs accelerate Marketing Automation but surge bot rates too

“A study by Incapsula suggests 61.5% of all website traffic is now generated by bots. The security firm said that was a 21% rise on last year’s figure of 51%; however, Activity by ‘good bots,’ it added, had grown by 55% over the year.”

The trend will continue because marketing automation with artificial intelligence is gathering momentum and content networks and providers are giving access to their data via open APIs.

5.The direct messaging industry is poised for disruption or consolidation

Snapchat, WhatsApp, Blackberry Messenger (BBM), Twitter Direct Message, and Facebook Messenger process over ten billion direct messages every day. However, none of these has managed to determine their monetisation model, which means consolidation is inevitable. Biggies like Facebook and Twitter in particular are trying to spread their wing in this sector.

6.Bitcoin or virtual currency will become mainstream

Recent developments in the virtual currency industry are:

1) Bitcoin is trading at $1,000 after Zynga announced that they will take Bitcoin as formal currency to sell their products or games.

2) Many companies are already following the Bitcoin success story and launching their own currency such as “a new Bitcoin-like virtual currency inspired by rapper Kanye West is set to be launched, and has been named “Coinye West”. Kanye West is not involved and has yet to comment on its inception. It will follow in the footsteps of “Dogecoin”, another virtual currency based on the popular Doge meme.”

3) Amazon and Facebook are pondering their own currency too! Overall, 2014 will see virtual currencies become mainstream!

4) National government such as Singapore Tax Authorities (IRAS) Recognise Bitcoin;

Eight Qualities that make a good Product Developer

Product Development Recently product development has become very intriguing career choice in computer science field. People like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and Jeff Bezos have become household names and role models to aspiring entrepreneurs, and computing has, to a certain extent, replaced the oil and commodities sectors on Wall Street as a future investment bet. Many big universities have already introduced product development as a separate subject and unsurprisingly these courses are oversubscribed despite high fees.

However, having been involved in product development for both consumer and enterprise software and hardware, I am inclined to believe that product development cannot be learnt or taught over a relatively short time period as it is a continuously evolving process to find a solution for identified problems.

Based on personal experience, and after researching the thoughts and actions of many product developers from companies such as Facebook, Instagram, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, eBay etc., the following characteristics have identified that might help product developers to become successful!

1.Passion:

Passion is about determination – finishing the job with calmness and confidence; it is not shouting and swearing.

Passion is the first characteristic everyone expects from a product developer, but I am not sure if all developers understand what passion stands for; some confuse it with obsessive aggression, argumentativeness and impatience, which can have an adverse effect.

In my opinion, the passion means a determination to finish what you start, regardless of pain and hurdles, and the work must be carried out with confidence so that you can remain focused, productive and immune to failures.

2.Drive:

There is nothing wrong with being driven by money or fame

Hunter Walk wrote a very good article and he emphasized the three most important things for product development: love, greed and fear. I must admit that the second one, greed, left the most lasting impact on me, as he rightly mentioned that greed relating to becoming famous and/or rich can potentially bring a focused and non-egoistic approach to developing a product quickly. 

3.Proving yourself:

Use personal grudges to motivate  yourself.

I was attending an event and one of the most experienced entrepreneurs in that meeting mentioned that he wanted to develop successful products  because, ”I need to prove many people wrong and rather than talk the talk, I like to do walk the walk and make things happen.”

Another example is in Nick Bilton’s new book Hatching Twitter:  Square is the byproduct of proving those people wrong that pushed Jack Dorsey out of Twitter.

4.Standing away:

Don’t get emotionally attached and learn every day.

Emotional attachment to a product can become hurdle to its development. Just because you want to shape a certain product in a specific way does not mean that everyone will buy in to your idea. As a product developer, you must be fixated on the problem you are solving but not on the way you choose to solve it i.e. if your product ends up completely different to what you first envisaged but solves the problem, you are winner!

5.Aptitude over qualifications:

You don’t need to be an engineer to build product.

Companies from Google to Facebook emphasize that product developers must be engineers. However, there are many examples in the technical world where people from a non-technical background become product developers. Steve Jobs was art school drop put was not a technical guy; he was a salesman at Atari and had vision to shape computer hardware in certain way to make it accessible. Working with the technical skills of Steve Wozniak, he developed the first personal computer and the rest is history.

6.Control the whole development cycle

Product development is not just about developing a piece of software and/or hardware; it needs a holistic approach.

As well as doing the things you love, you have to manage people, processes and technology.  You might have to be a tester one day and project manager or blogger or legal representative another day.For example, a developed product must go through legal checks to ensure that no copyright is infringed. As the product developer you can’t shy away from taking that responsibility and you will need to engage with non-technical people to ensure the whole product is ready.

 7.Build an honest team:

Surround yourself with people who can criticize.

Build a team that can identify issues with your product, not “Yes boss” colleagues, who are either charmed with your enthusiasm or have no clue about your product and therefore fail to pinpoint any issues. For example, I suspect that Microsoft’s failure to identify the internet opportunity and Yahoo’s inability to convert their content to context, losing the race to the likes of Facebook and Twitter, is result of this misinformation to their main product developers.

8.Step out of your comfort zone

Product development is a very time consuming activity and comes with huge responsibility and leadership. However, for greater productivity, and to remain in touch with the ground zero reality, every product manager must take some time out from their routine life and must involve themselves in activities that force them to think outside the box, such as become a volunteer worker at a sports club or charity, go to new places and work with people whose skills don’t match yours.

The key is you must work at something which doesn’t fall into your usual professional, social or personal domain and challenges you to step out of your comfort zone and broaden your horizons. 

3 Factors that can Hinder Product Development for Startups

Converting and ideas to product a humongous tasks and need lot many soft skills, sacrifice and courage in addition to hard core technical skills. There are many Startups and entrepreneurs failed to reach at pinnacle of their work just because somewhere in between inception and implementation, they lost faith in idea, product or themselves and shelves the whole plan along with great opportunity to make something valuable to society.

The current stats suggest that only 5% Startups do survive in their third year and out of those only 2% become profitable in fifth year. However, it is very difficult to digest that out 100 only 2 ideas were worthy enough to survive!

After talking to some seasonal entrepreneurs and looking existing startup data, we have compiled a list of factors those might contribute into ultimate failure during startups lifecycle.

1. Someone will nick your idea

Never scare in revealing your ideas to friends, family, colleagues, VCs, Meet up group or any potential investors. The notion of someone can nick your idea is largely false as converting idea to real products needs lot more than just writing something on piece of paper or verbally discussing it.

Takeaway: Let people dissect up your idea at early as possible as their critique can help you to fill up gaps in your thinking and build a real product that can be monetised

2. Not riding against latest fads

Entrepreneurship is all about riding against the tide, if current trends suggest to go right, you shouldn’t hesitate to go left if you strongly believe that it works in your favour. The gist is if you will try to develop the product by following recent trends, you will more likely to fall, as many Startups try to ride on the popularity of Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn and Twitter and ended up creating similar kind of social media platform and subsequently died.

Takeaway: Create a product that solves problem or filling any gap not just follow existing successful products targeting niche market in hope that you will also become part of history.

3. Giving yourself fix time frame for positive cash flow 

Many budding entrepreneurs gave themselves specific time period when start ventures. However in realty it is other way round i.e. in many cases it is almost 1000th day of your start up that company goes in positive cash flow with the exception of few companies.

In addition to, the Entrepreneur also stops because they are running out of cash or failed to evolve their product to cop up with market changes but these issues can be offset if planned beforehand! Such as don’t scare to work at Tesco Till or as Bar Tender or take part time consulting work if that can pay your bills and keep you going with product development.

Takeaway: Keep going until your product is monetised and don’t set a time period as that might hinder you eventually become successful.