On a regular basis, I have the opportunity to speak with new entrepreneurs thinking of starting their own businesses. One of my key topics is how to successfully evolve an ‘idea’ into an actual deliverable, regardless of whether it is a tangible product or a service.
A basic product plan needs to clearly define your offering:
- What must it do?
- How must it do it?
- Where is it done?
- When is it done?
Just as important, arguably more so, is what it is not:
- What must it not do (if only for now)?
- How should it not be done?
- Why not?
How you will get there:
- What resources are needed?
- How long will it take?
In my experience, when most people are confronted with the notion of doing a business plan, the natural reaction seems to be one of dread, reluctance, or denying there’s value in doing so. What I have learned, for anything more than the most basic of plans*, the only effective way to stay on your original course is to have documented what that course may be in the first place.
*As the psychologist George Miller demonstrated in his famous essay, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two,” the conscious brain can only handle about seven pieces of data at any one moment. [How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer, ISBN 978-0-618-62011-1]
Even if your basic product plan only consists of 7 basic components, you will invariably be required to evaluate new inputs along the way, forcing 1 or more of your thoughts to be swapped out. More often than not, you never return to the original process in quite the same way.
The person gaining the most value out of a plan is you. There is no requirement that the plan be 46 pages long, with a table of contents, index, and executive briefing. Sure, if you’re going to seek venture capital, you will need to provide a more-developed document—but not at the outset.
At a minimum, your plan might only be 2 or 3 pages long. The intent is to address the key points outlined above as well as others that might be important for your particular interests.
At a very minimum, you need to define the Idea, your left thumbtack. Second, you need to define the finished deliverable, your right thumbtack. Between them, tie a string. Here you have your most basic plan.
As you develop your product, you are going to be faced with innumerable inputs. Many will be well-intentioned. For instance, Mom, who will likely never buy one of your widgets, will strongly suggest the color is all wrong.
All seem good ideas, so you pin them on the board (blue thumbtacks). As long as these new ideas fit within your plan’s scope (within the string’s bounds of movement), they may be worth consideration.
Here’s where the ‘string’ comes in handy. You will continue to receive all manner of ‘all important ideas’ regarding how to improve your product. Some come from others, some from you (at 3am). Your plan (the thumbtacks and the string, together) lets you evaluate whether they’re able to be considered at this time or not.
Ideas that fall outside your plan’s constraints (red thumbtack) may be very good ideas. But they simply out too significant: they may take too much time; too many resources; or, require other building blocks come first. Red thumbtacks can be safely ignored, because they have been evaluated, and deemed inappropriate at this time.
Another interesting thing that happens as you develop your product. It begins to develop a legacy. In other words, as you move forward, your past decisions begin to constrain future decisions.
We can illustrate legacy as the passage of time (yellow thumbtacks). As we make decisions, as time passes and our plan progresses, the amount of flexibility is rapidly reduced. Ideas that might have once been readily accepted (blue) are rejected because (now) they fall outside the plan’s scope.
As your product (or service) reaches planned completion, the introduction of new changes or requests rapidly becomes untenable.
Hopefully, if you didn’t before, you now agree that having a product plan is important. Not only can its use help keep you on track, it can help you sleep easier at night, knowing your decisions were well-founded and not based on a whim of the moment.
So, go buy a $1 box of thumbtacks, a $15 cork board, and a piece of string. Then, build you product plan.
Of course, this is closer to what reality will look like:)
(photo credits: JT Pedersen)