Staying on Course with a SaaS Product: The Pitfalls and Solutions

The discipline of Product Management is not as straightforward as it seems. On a macro level, the frameworks and methodologies theoretically involved in building a product seem uncomplicated. However, as we delve deeper into the chasm of product development and management, we notice many typical situations that arise which have a profound impact on the overall growth of the organisation. In my experience, these problems eventually hinder the process of achieving the overall goals of the company and influence the culture of the company to a great extent.

So, it is imperative that we acknowledge the pitfalls and have an arsenal of solutions in place. Here are the traps in the product roadmap that we must avoid, and the strategy to mitigate these problems.

Common challenges faced in a B2B startup

As a B2B startup, here are some of the most recurrent problems you might face while building your product:

  • Too much focus on the tactical stuff, lack of focus on long term goals

It is very easy to get completely lost in tasks and activities that add immediate or short term value. While a balance between instant value accretive work and execution of strategy that takes you towards your long term goal delivers the best results, often start ups get heavily skewed towards the tactical stuff. This can happen due to multiple reasons – feature requests from customers, new product/feature launch by competition, incremental revenue (cross-sell/up-sell) opportunities etc. Amidst the hustle and speedy execution, it is quite likely that you might end up doing stuff that gives you immediate value but is not very pertinent to your long term vision.

  • Building everything for everyone

All of us talk about target customer segments but in the practical world, we almost always end up having customers of all shapes and sizes. This diversity in the profile of customers also leads to a diverse set of problems and needs, which end up becoming a part of your product backlog. As the business scales, this becomes a greater challenge as every customer wants his problems to be prioritised. You not only need to deal with customers, but you also need to face internal stakeholders who manage customer accounts. If this situation is not managed properly, you end up building everything for everyone. Your product starts reflecting this lack of clarity and you end up building sub optimal solutions for all problems, instead of solving few key problems really well.

  • Not saying no to large customers

This is very tricky to handle, but this can really derail you from your path if things get out of control. If large customers are not treated with a balanced approach, they can end up dominating your product roadmap to such an extent that you hardly get any bandwidth for the things you have planned. This can especially hurt if these customers are not the ones who fit in your target segments. You could have taken them onboard by building non core features, sighting significant incremental revenues… only to discover later that this was not a small, one time job, and requires significant development bandwidth. Even if these customers are from your core target segment, setting the right expectations earlier can prevent a lot of future troubles.

  • Lack of product knowledge within the non-tech functions

Some of the best product companies in the world are the ones where product knowledge is not limited to product/tech teams, and product champions can be found in other functions such as sales/business development and customer support. With product knowledge limited to the tech functions, often a disconnect starts building up between what is being sold vs what is being built. Not only this leads to a drop in retention as customers don’t get what they were promised, this also creates a lot of friction between tech and non-tech functions.

Avoiding traps and staying the course

Some of the ways in which you can handle the above complications are:

  • Look at the long term picture and use some framework to document your goals

Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) are one of the great tools that can be used here. As an organisation, you can define your annual and quarterly goals, which can flow downstream and can work as a guiding light. Once the organisation has charted out the key objectives, each leader/team within the company can define their objectives and goals, which are required to support the organisational-level objectives. These OKRs can effectively help you in deciding what needs to be prioritised and focussed upon to get towards your larger goal. Conversely, these can also help you in deprioritizing the tasks that don’t align well with the agreed goals.

  • Identifying the target customer segment(s) 

This can be done in multiple ways and it depends to some degree upon the company’s strategy. In general, your target customer segment is the one that moves the needle the most for your defined success metrics. Some of the most common success metrics are daily/weekly usage, transaction/purchase, renewals etc. Irrespective of what your success metrics are, you will almost always find the Pareto Principle in action: 80% of your target customers will fall in a similar profile. Identify this segment well and build for them. Make them your focus, talk to them and solve for them. It will be much easier for you to expand this segment by getting more customers having a similar profile, vs extending your product to customers having a very different profile and different needs.

  • Start saying no for the larger good of the company

This becomes easier when you have identified the target customer segment. Any feature/requirement you prioritize should either impact a large percentage of customers in your target segment, or should give disproportionate returns, even if adopted by a small percentage. Everything else should be critically evaluated. I have realised that most of the time, large customers have very different needs and their asks don’t fall in either of the above categories. Start saying no to them and take help of the stakeholders/account managers who are handling these accounts, by sharing with them a proper rationale.

  • Create product champions across the entire organisation

There is a perception that product/technology is very difficult to understand and sales and business folks don’t have the required aptitude for the same. This is totally wrong and becomes a mindset hurdle in organisations. While building an in-depth understanding of technology is difficult, basic concepts are not hard. Companies who have invested in developing product knowledge among their sales/BD people, have done far better than the ones who don’t. Further, it doesn’t take a lot to do this. Some of the things that can be easily done are –

1. Conduct regular product knowledge sharing sessions, open to all the functions.

2. Send out product release notes/emails, keeping the content simple enough for everyone to understand.

3. Talk to the leaders of various non-product teams and seek their help. You can also ask them to recommend people from their team who might have a higher degree of interest in product/technology, and can later help in passing on the knowledge to other people in your team.

One of the important points to remember for a successful SaaS product is having a proper timeline in place, and to have a framework wherein the goals are achieved in the desired timeframe. The product roadmap is unquestionably not so clear and not so easy when muddled with certain difficulties. If you do not find and alter the problem, it will be like giving in to a quicksand: the company is bound to have stunted growth and will have you running around in circles. Staying clear of the above mentioned traps and following the mitigation strategies can bring you closer to your product vision by leaps and bounds.

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