Prioritizing at startups
A guide for prioritizing at an early-stage B2B startup
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Q: I find most of the prioritization frameworks are for larger companies with an established set of features. Apart from user feedback, research, and my gut, I’d love to understand if there is a framework you’ve seen work at early-stage companies trying to hit product-market fit. For context, I’m a first-time founder building in the B2B space.
You’re absolutely right. Most of the prioritizing advice out there is not actually useful for early-stage pre-PMF companies. Including my earlier post on prioritization. That’s troubling, because bad prioritization is an excellent way to kill your startup.
A startup is like a newly lit fire: exciting but fragile. Make a few wrong moves, and it ceases to be.
Prioritizing at a large company is different. You’ve got momentum and fuel, and prioritizing is more about accelerating something that’s already working vs. creating something new. As a result, you have a lot more room for error.
While I was at Airbnb, I’m pretty sure the majority of our experiments had zero (or negative) impact. But we continued to grow because we had strong PMF, a word-of-mouth flywheel, and a growing market, and we found enough big wins to make up for many mistakes. You have none of these advantages at an early-stage startup.
Let’s take a closer look at prioritizing at a pre-PMF startup—specifically a B2B startup. Below, I’ll share:
Common prioritizing pitfalls
A guide to prioritizing
How to come up with ideas
To inform my thinking, I asked some of my favorite early-stage founders (building rocket-ship businesses) how they prioritized early-on. You’ll find their insights below. A big thank-you to Benjamin Encz (CEO of Ashby), Christina Cacioppo (CEO of Vanta), Julianna Lamb (CTO of Stytch), May Habib (CEO of Writer), Rujul Zaparde (CEO of Zip), and Tommy Dang (CEO of Mage).
Let’s do this.
Most common prioritizing pitfalls at early-stage startups:
Solving nice-to-have problems: Too many founders spend their time building “vitamins”—products that solve small problems and make life just a bit easier. In B2B, you’re unlikely to build a big business if you aren’t solving significant pain. Salesforce, Datadog, Stripe, Workday, Gusto—they all solved big problems for people. These products aren’t just nice-to-have. You basically can’t do your job well without them. How do you know if you’re solving a big enough pain point? Keep reading.
Trying to be data-driven: As an early-stage startup, especially in B2B, you simply don’t have enough data. Use this calculator to see for yourself how many data points you need. For example, if you want to increase conversion by 10% and it’s currently at 20%, you’ll need over 5,000 users to experience that change.
Too much theory, not enough building: I’ve seen a lot of founders (particularly ex-PMs) with incredibly detailed strategy docs and really nice decks who don’t ship often enough, and thus end up building something no one really needed. If you’re holding back because you aren’t sure which direction to go, just ship something.
Doing everything your users ask: Don’t rely on what your users tell you to build. They will (unknowingly) deceive you. Instead, focus on their pain points. Then think deeply about the best way to make that pain go away. Sometimes the solution will be exactly what a user suggested. Oftentimes you’ll discover a solution that’s simpler, smarter, and useful to many other users.
“We have a philosophy when it comes to building product that we shouldn’t just build either what competitors are doing or take at face value what customers are asking for. Rather, we dig deeper to understand the problem they’re trying to solve and what the optimal solution could be. Maybe someone thinks that x is a solution to problem y—but if you just build x without understanding problem y, you often shortchange yourself. There’s actually a more elegant or better solution to problem y that you’ll only find if you understand the root issue first. Sometimes we even find that the product already supports what someone is trying to do. This helps us build more universally applicable products vs. one-off solutions.”
—Julianna Lamb, CTO of Stytch
How to prioritize at a pre-PMF startup
Broadly, your single goal as an early-stage pre-PMF startup should be to make 10 customers very happy. Everything you prioritize should be in service of this goal.