Product Prioritization for Startups: Our Perspective


I recently joined Sailthru as the SVP of Product from product leadership posts at Medialets, Prisa TV and a 10-year run with Google’s DoubleClick. What I found at Sailthru is that we had a couple of really good problems. The first one is that we’ve created a platform that is so powerful and flexible, it could be used for 1000 different things. The second is that we’ve got the smartest, most energetic, and most engaged employees I’ve ever encountered. Why do I see these things as problems? Because they are both natural forces against focus, and the permanent limits on resources and time require focus for success. 150 really clever people, plus some brilliant customers, thinking of all the ways to enhance, apply, evolve, and mutate our core product leads to a black hole of backlogs and feature request lists, and some interminable debates.

So it is with this context that we started talking about a recent article from the First Round Review on Pandora’s early system of prioritization, which is the following:

1) Each quarter ask, “What would be stupid not to do in the next 90 days?”

2) Define and scope every idea on a single presentation slide.

3) Roughly calculate the engineering capacity needed for each of the ideas generated, and how much you have to leverage total.

4) Express this scope in dollar amount. Include a dollar amount on each slide.

5) Pick a small team to participate in the prioritization process.

6) If you pick 5 people, make 5 stacks of Post-Its with $5 written on them. Hand the same number of Post-Its to each person based on your engineering capacity.

7) Print out all your idea slides and hang them on the wall. Talk your prioritization team through each one.

8) Have your team “buy” the ideas they believe are the most valuable to the business by sticking their Post-Its on the corresponding slides. People can choose to spend more than $5 on one idea.

9) Discuss the allocation of stickies, consolidate and re-scope.

10) A miracle occurs — you end up with a manageable number of tasks that can be executed with the resources you have, and you have buy-in from leadership in only a few hours.

11) Develop specs, scrum, and make sure everyone in the company knows how these decisions were made. Make prioritization a part of your culture.

12) Repeat 90 days later. From scratch.

I’ve done similar things at other companies, but the directness and simplicity with which this process is presented makes it very accessible and appealing. Naturally, the process needs to be adapted to the specifics of your particular situation (how many of us at start-ups consider 40 engineers a “skeleton crew”?), but there are some really fundamental ideas here for achieving focus and clarity and spending the majority of your firm’s energies on successful execution.

The principles that really stood out to me were:

1) No long roadmaps for a young company!

There’s a great metaphor about building on shifting sands or being like a river or a bending branch, but the key is that your world is changing so rapidly and new data surfacing in such abundance, that committing to long-term inflexibility is fatal, even in the name of focus. Yes, you should know where you’re headed strategically, but be ready to tack as needed to reach your destination.

2) Source your ideas from everywhere, but create a time box around that energy and clearly communicate the winners and losers.

I’d be a fool not to leverage the wisdom, experience, and creativity of our employees and customers, but the black hole goes away if we tell everyone that the features which weren’t picked have to be resubmitted next time around. And we can all focus on execution if we aren’t engaged in a perpetual debate about what to do next.

3) Ideas should be focused on what’s really really important, not on everything that’s possible.

There’s room for brainstorming, but you have to trim the fat really fast. It’s hard in an entrepreneurial environment, but asking a clarifying question like “what would we be stupid not to do?”, and making people defend their ideas will really make a difference.

4) Involve the key stakeholders to help evangelize your product.

Have your key executives, the people “that [have an] obligation to the whole company” choose the winners, with a clear understanding of their actual resources and the cost to build. This alignment is so fundamental; it’s what get’s everyone on board pulling in the same direction.

From there, I’ve got two key additions or tweaks for the process that we’ll apply here at Sailthru. First, we’re going to pull our capacity understanding out of our Scrum process. Agile Estimating and Planning will actually give us the data to know what our velocity and productivity are. We’ll split the story points (maybe we’ll call them dollars to make it feel more relatable) between the voters so that they’re speaking the same language as the dev org.

The other change is that we’ll do each round of voting privately. This avoids peer pressure and lobbying and, more importantly, gaming of the system. Everyone I’ve ever worked with wants to vote last so they don’t waste votes on projects that are already funded. The secret voting will lead some projects to be overfunded initially, but that can be used as a data point for prioritization within the time of execution. We might have to sacrifice the stickies, but the group wisdom comes from the ruthless and honest assessment of the ideas at hand. The secret ballot should help.

So we’re going to give it a go here as part of our strategic planning and quarterly adjustments. I believe it’s going to really help us break through to the next level of productivity and agility and allow us to supercharge our customers.

Stephen Dove is SVP of Product at Sailthru. Previously, Dove was SVP of Product at Medialets, Chief Digital Officer at Prisa TV, and grew Google’s ad products, under DoubleClick, for more than 10 years.