Deep Dive: How SaaS Companies Can Make the Most of Product Development

In an increasingly competitive SaaS market, product development and engineering is a critical component of success among organizations looking to make their mark. Of course, this is often easier said than done. SaaS businesses of all sizes face unique and dynamic hurdles as they attempt to build, promote, and evolve their offerings, especially in the wake of new remote protocols and growing complexity in areas such as security and compliance. Success rests upon a given enterprise’s ability to gauge the demands of their customers, the market, and their own internal benchmarks. Having seen the challenges so many businesses face with regards to this subject, Amazon Capital wanted to cut to the heart of why some organizations emerge victorious while others falter. That’s why, on December 9th, we hosted our second CEO Roundtable entitled “Efficiently Scaling Product Development for SaaS Companies.” Over the course of two hours, we presented two keynotes from speakers Claudia Dent and Ryan Breen.  Moderated by Akmazo Capital’s own Imad Mouline, this event yielded rousing discussion from all in attendance, speakers and audience alike. Here are some of our key takeaways!

The Nuances of Product Management

As Claudia Dent put it at the beginning of her presentation, product marketing is an art as much as a science, with multiple pathways to success. Nonetheless, there are a few best practices that are wise to follow in order to achieve the most from one’s product lines.

Best Practices

Compelling Vision
At the core of any product line, there must be a compelling vision that is
  • Enduring and scalable
  • In-line with market demands
  • Resonant with your customers and your team
Balanced Investments
A crucial consideration when it comes to product management is being able to balance your investments across your offerings. A critical component of this involves effectively doling out resources for both Core and Context factors, first put forth by author and consultant Geoffrey A. Moore:
  • Core (60% of resources) refers to the features of your offering that offer substantial differentiation from other products in your target market, and allow you to push premium pricing and achieve increased volume.
  • Context (40% of resources) refers to the aspects of your product that are expected by your customers. Managing these involves things such as uptime or support availability.
Both are crucial and the balance between them might change based on the phase your product is in, especially early on in product development. It’s important, then, that the product team provides the level of transparency that allows everyone from senior management to engineering to weigh in on how and where you’re investing time and resources.
Actionable Roadmap
This is where your actionable roadmap comes in. Product development and management is complicated and knotty. In addition to vision and investment questions, this roadmap should consider a number of factors for prioritization, including:
  • Sales blockers
  • Adoption blockers
  • Vertical solutions
  • Sales channel challenges
  • Competitive differentiation
  • The potential for new buyers, sales motions, and technologies
Cross-Functional Focus
It’s vital to ensure that everyone in your company is aligned when it comes to a given product. Otherwise, you might find yourself struggling with issues of messaging, different stakeholders expecting different things from a solution, and customers who feel like they’re in unsteady hands. Make sure to pay attention to the needs of:
  • Executives
  • Marketing and sales
  • Account management
  • Product engineering
  • Customers
Measured Outcomes
When you think about the question of balanced investment, you have to ask yourself: what are the outcomes that you expect? If you don’t have key metrics in mind for how you measure the success of a product, it’s impossible to effectively gauge success. These measures can include:
  • Acquisition of new logos
  • New bookings targets
  • Renewal targets
Feedback and Changes
This is perhaps the most important of these six for long term success. Things will inevitably have to grow and evolve as you work to build the ideal solution. Paying attention to feedback from internal and external sources is essential to remaining on top of your goals. If you can’t change, you run the risk of losing the faith of your customers and the vision that drove your product in the first place.  These best practices explicate the role that product management plays within the organization, the key values that you want to emphasize:
  • Transparency
  • Clarity
  • Alignment

Product Management is a Balancing Act

At the very core of product management is the need to balance a wide array of factors, both within and beyond your control. While your target market might shift beneath your feet, if you have a vision, a strategy, and a measurable idea of what you’re looking to achieve, you’re in a prime position to develop and grow solutions that make an impact and carry you forward.

Product Engineering for a Remote-First World

Transitioning from a single product company to a platform company is a time-tested path to growth for a small SaaS business. Building a platform, though, takes engineering bandwidth, and that doesn’t come cheap if you’re only targeting employees who live within 20 miles of a home office in a US city. The global shift to remote work was seismic, but it created new opportunities for businesses looking to scale a team and a platform. If everyone is in the same virtual place, no one is left out of decisions and progress, so the old-world inefficiencies of integrating remote teams disappear. As Ryan Breen laid out in his presentation, all it takes to activate this model is thoughtfully embracing a fully remote workforce.

Key Commitments

Product and engineering must commit to making this relationship work. Product needs engineering to build solutions on time and on budget, and engineering needs product to give them the requirements and time to do so. This all requires a well-defined relationship from sales to product management to engineering. Sales hears what the customer base needs. Product filters these needs into a roadmap that engineering delivers.
The Commitment of Product
At its core, the commitment to product ties back to the idea of a central roadmap so everyone understands the future of the products they’re building, marketing, selling, and supporting. There are four key features of a working roadmap that Ryan highlights, each of which makes it easier for a business to communicate across teams, and demonstrate value to customers:
  • One that customers want: While this may seem the most obvious, it’s easy to forget that the way you design, promote, and deploy your products should be in line with the needs and wants that your customers share.
  • One that is actionable: Scope creep is always a risk, especially with distributed teams redefining the rhythms by which we all work. Your roadmap should be one that allows you to move forward and achieve goals on a weekly basis. You can’t afford to spin your wheels.
  • One your whole business is aligned with: The rest of the business needs to buy into the roadmap. They need to commit to this roadmap as the best possible balance of context vs core.
  • One that allows you to defend your focus: There’s always another customer need or new idea to chase down, but product needs to provide air cover so engineering can focus. Building a roadmap that communicates both process and outcome makes it easier for other teams to trust in product strategy and accept delays having their specific needs met.
The Commitment of Engineering
Homing in on engineering, it’s important for those building a business’ platform to understand what other teams need from them, and how they can best empower the organization as a whole. This commitment is best summed up in four tenets, provided by Ryan Breen:
  • Build for agility and quality
  • Define projects and goals up front
  • Work as unified, global teams
  • Finish on time
The only commitment here that may be foreign is working as unified global teams. The model here does not disperse product development into geographically siloed pods: every engineer in every region can work on any product in a given week. Communication is paramount here, ensuring that everyone knows what needs to be done, who is doing it, and who may need help completing a project.

Why Remote-First?

A globally unified development team is more cost-effective, of course. Done right, it can also be more productive, more predictable, and more reliable. Historically, communication was the main limiter on building remote teams. Almost all businesses had one center of gravity at a headquarters near a major city, and new employees added in new locales were excluded from much of the day-to-day planning and hallway conversations that are the lifeblood of effective teams. For most organizations, the only way to activate remote teams was to give them their own geographic silos and minimize the need for constant (minute to minute and hour to hour) communication between geographies. This typically meant dividing up different teams to own different products and features, leading to some or all of these problems:
  • Knowledge of a product was siloed in a given geography. Need help supporting a customer when a team is asleep? You have to wait a few hours or wake someone up.
  • Siloed products lead to differences in development standards and methodologies. If teams are building things their own way in their own technology stacks for months or years at a time, it’s much more difficult to move people from one product to another and have them contribute quickly. Varying approaches to development also lead to a jarring customer experience where it’s clear that different parts of a platform came from different teams.
  • Teams were stranded working on the products they owned. Products mature to the point where they don’t need work in a given week or month, so what do you do with those teams? In this model, It’s hard to reallocate people from one product to another, given knowledge siloing and schisms in development approaches, so the natural tendency is to justify make-work on a given product even if it’s not the best use of time for a business.
  • Most insidiously, teams didn’t trust each other. Human psychology is prone to an in-group / out-group bias, so it’s all too easy to view your team in your city as the productive one and to look down on products and teams that live elsewhere. It’s a rare organization that hasn’t expressed some form of cross-geography bias: “Oh, this is one of those products from a remote team. It won’t be as good.”
These challenges are not due to the quality of output from remote engineers. The cause is the failure to go all-in on a remote model and ensure that the playing field is level across the entire organization. Ryan Breen emphasizes just how much this strategy opens an organization up to success in scaling from a product to a platform. No longer is hiring constrained by geography; no longer are enterprises stuck with rigid and unproductive hierarchies. In a remote world, you’re able to connect with the best and most passionate people who understand and are excited by your vision. These are the people you want on your teams, and it helps to know that you have access to anyone in the world who’s ready to step up to the plate.

How Do You Achieve This?

Success starts with finding the very best people for each role is essential. Not everyone wants to work in a fully remote team, so you need to be transparent with each candidate that this is how you run your business. Don’t worry, though. There are more qualified candidates around the world who prefer this working model than there are qualified candidates who want to drive to your office. First, you want to hire people who can thrive in this environment, and that means you need excellent communicators. You need employees confident to raise their hands and ask questions in Slack the second they’re stumped. You need employees who support each other, who build each other up, and who provide a safe environment for new team members to feel accepted. And you need team members willing to work across geographical boundaries with no assumptions that one geography is preeminent: a hire in the US should be fully comfortable with a project led by someone in London or Singapore or India, and vice versa. Second, as Ryan mentioned in the commitments of product and engineering, you should keep everyone focused on achievable, near-term deliverables. If teams know what their next two or three weeks of work will yield for the business, they can focus on the task at hand rather than spin their wheels trying to guess at requirements. It’s the responsibility of the product lead and engineering lead to define success criteria, break down the work by person, and communicate constantly throughout the project. This constant communication between leads and the entire project team is the lifeblood of this model. Was a requirement missed? Is something done sooner than expected and someone is freeing up to work on another project? Is someone stumped and in need of a helping hand? All of this should happen in Slack or Zoom in real-time, with outputs finding their way back to Jira or Confluence so everyone knows what decisions were made, whether or not they were awake at the time. The model fails if anyone starts their day not knowing what to do, why to do it, or where to find help if they’re stuck. This happens less, though, once you’re committed to being a remote organization because everyone on the team has the same constraints and needs. There’s no office in which communication works differently for a subset of the team, so everyone is naturally committed to communicating in the same way.

Questions of the Moment

One of the most prevalent subjects throughout the Q&A portion of the roundtable was that of how to balance chasing deals with pursuing company vision for a product. In the context of the actionable roadmap this is an incredibly important (and equally tricky) needle to thread. After all, while the vision for a product can seem like the bedrock of the roadmap, the need to balance investments and actually achieve measurable ROI for a product is equally critical. As per Claudia Dent, there are a number of factors to consider, the most apparent being whether the deal really stands out in a way that might elevate your organization, whether via the size of the deal or the influence of the logo. Another litmus test that Claudia put forth is whether the deal is in line with your vision in a more practical way. Could the impact of this deal empower your organization in a way that positions you to better execute the vision you have for a product, that puts that product more on the map? If the deal doesn’t meet that litmus test, but still appeals to your organization just based purely on size, it’s vital to consider what the long-term impact of the deal will be on your product vision. Three years down the line, is this a deal that’s going to boost you beyond the revenue? If this deal renews, will that further disrupt your vision? With questions such as this one, it’s hard to find a true right answer, but these insights serve as a firm starting point.  Ryan Breen has his own experience with this topic, and his additions provided even more practical understanding. According to Ryan, this question becomes less of an existential quandary once your organization is in a place where you can have multiple teams tackling multiple objectives at once. When you’re starting out, and the majority of your resources absolutely have to go into guiding that vision down the roadmap, serious consideration goes into taking a deal that might potentially derail your course. When you have multiple teams, however, you can keep the course while also chasing the deal, sacrificing little or nothing as long as you’re strategic.

The Future of Your Business Lies in Product Development 

In the current climate, there’s an array of new challenges facing organizations who strive to create and manage their product strategies, but there are also novel and dynamic chances for differentiation and innovation. Enterprises that pay attention to the needs of their target market, the structure of their teams, and the wants of their customers are not only in a prime position to design powerful solutions, but solutions that can scale, and propel them to ever greater heights.  Over the course of their careers, Claudia Dent and Ryan Breen have been part of incredible and exciting developments across product teams. We hope that their insights allow you to soon say the same for your business.
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