How can Simpo proactively differentiate itself vs. staying reactive and trying to catch mature competitors?
A short case study on establishing company and product strategy, using a strategy pyramid and the CIRCLES framework.
While I was an industry analyst, I watched many companies fail because they catered to the needs of a few customers, becoming non-scalable services companies instead of SaaS companies. After joining Simpo and talking to my new colleagues, it became clear that Simpo was running this risk.
Context and background
Simpo is a no-code platform to help SaaS companies onboard, educate, and guide their users. This helps users find value more quickly, increasing conversion and retention rates—while also saving SaaS companies time and resources.
Simpo has some impressive customer logos, including Walmart, and has raised money from Redpoint and Menlo ventures. But it became clear that the company had no clear product direction or customer acquisition strategy. It wasn’t even clear who we were building for or which pain points we were focused on addressing. Instead, product decisions were largely reactive to the needs of a few key customers, and otherwise based on catching up with more mature competitors.
As a result, my thinking about what to focus on changed over the first few weeks:
In my day-to-day, I was quickly tasked with working on a big new feature with design and engineering, and sorting through a JIRA backlog of about 1,000 bugs, feature requests, and other tasks. Yet we had no clear method for making assessments or decisions; so we had no clear way to prioritize features or any of those tasks.
Without a company-wide strategy in place, there was no way to frame something specific to product, as you might expect to find along these lines:
And most importantly, there was a real risk of staying reactive… ultimately becoming an unscalable services company.
Given the circumstances, my top priority was to put together a set of frameworks to establish objectives and guide the direction of the company. The desired outcome was to have something that could inform our decisions at both the strategic and tactical levels. This is how I structured the approach:
The first step was to agree on a high-level strategy framework. I like this strategy pyramid. I’ve seen many versions but at this point all we needed was something simple to make it clear that we couldn’t make good tactical decisions until we had clarified the upper levels here.
When I was hired to be the first product manager, our founder/CEO candidly explained that product decisions had been largely a matter of gut decisions, and often reactive. Many companies grow like this at the start, which is fine… for a while.
However, this project went beyond the scope of just product management. Before any type of product prioritization frameworks would be effective, we needed to clarify Simpo’s company mission, vision, and objectives. After all, any new product initiatives should ultimately align to those higher levels.
Only after we had nailed down mission, vision, and objectives, could we make effective decisions further down the line. That said, we tabled those to ensure we could involve leadership throughout the company.
The next step was to clarify, “What roles and pains/JTBD are we truly targeting?”
I like the CIRCLES approach to ideation. Yet one of the key challenges for SIMPO was that we were missing the first few steps (CIR).
Comprehend Situation & Persona
I put together a detailed view of who we were targeting based on internal data, materials, and conversations I’d had. This seemed to be the direction we were headed in. This wasn’t meant to be final, and it certainly wasn’t complete, but instead as a starting point.
For example, when it came to the use cases / pains / JTBD we were addressing, the data supported what I was hearing from customer success, marketing, and customers directly — that customer onboarding was the biggest pain point bringing people to us.
Assuming the target persona/JTBD details above, I proposed the following:
In step 1, we would conduct research and map out the user flow — and pains within that process — for product managers responsible for user onboarding. The user flow output would look something like this:
Step 2 is detailed in the slide above. It’s basically the “Cut” step in CIRCLES:
The next steps in CIRCLES are to “List” solutions, which I mentioned in the slide above, and then to “Evaluate” them. Personally, I like a simple 2×2 matrix comparing value and difficulty:
Difficulty is relatively straightforward, in the sense that you can estimate resources required. But determining “value” can be harder, so a scoring framework is extremely helpful:
Once this is done, we should have a prioritized list of opportunities to pursue!
Finally, when it came to prioritizing lower-level tasks, there are many frameworks to choose from. RICE is common, but I feel it is missing a “demand” aspect—that is, “how much are customers demanding this?” So I added it in, as well as a category for possible exceptions (e.g., sometimes there’s a feeling that something is table stakes, or otherwise necessary in a way otherwise unaccounted for).
Recommended Next Steps
Presenting information without a recommendation is folly! I summarized my recommendations to conclude: