Are you ready to build a product? Citizen PM Cissy Chen shares 5 things to keep in mind

July 14, 2020
From the Fund

As a founder, it’s important to evaluate the need for and effectiveness of your product at every stage in your journey. You may be starting out with a great idea, or you could have identified a huge problem which needs to be addressed. Maybe you already have a problem and innovative solution and only need to think about when to scale and expand your resources. No matter where you are in the process, you have to commit to repeatedly building, iterating and testing your product. 

In our first Female Founder Track Session, Cissy Chen — a product manager at Citizen, a safety app backed by Sequoia and 8VC, and a former product manager at LinkedIn — shared insider tips and best practices on product iteration. 

At Citizen, Cissy is focused on building a personal safety service. One of the problems she’s currently trying to solve is how best to support people who feel unsafe walking home alone at night, a common problem which she faces personally. This helps her steer the way she encourages founders, and other product managers to think about user insights, framing a problem and creating a problem. 

Her time building this has shown Cissy that her own experience may not be quite enough to build the best solution to this problem — the process requires more talking to users to understand pain points and context. When they’re walking home at night, how do they feel? Are they anxious? Are they scared? Or do they also feel some level of guilt, shame or paranoia?

The first version of the safety product immediately called your friends, creating a lot of noise in the process. Cissy quickly realized that people walking alone often want to appear confident and strong in dangerous situations to ward off potential attackers. The solution needed to be discreet, instead of attention grabbing — an important constraint which could only have been made with a thoroughly researched problem statement, backed by customer empathy.

Define Your Problem Before Moving Forward 

Having a cool idea isn’t enough to get started — you need to be solving a real-life problem, which starts by clearly defining what it is, who it impacts and what potential customers need. Your first step in the process is charting out a clear problem statement, which you can expand on and use to start doing user research. 

“Defining a problem is done through a lot of hard work of talking to your users, talking to potential users, and really understanding the complete journey — the whole context of their needs,” Cissy shares.

To get you on the right track, she compiled a handy template to put the elements of your statement in place: 

As a <user>, I experience <problem> when <context> 

For example, a problem Cissy is solving is : As a young adult woman, I feel unsafe when walking home at night.

Problems Need Constraints 

How do you find the right problem? Once you have your outline in mind, you need to “investigate” deeper to understand what your constraints are: What is the user’s context? Who else is involved? How do they actually feel? 

“Picking the right problem is just a combination of picking the one that has the most user impact and the most business impact,” Cissy explains. “And of course, you have to think: Am I able to solve this problem?” 

According to her, user impact is a product of how painful the problem is and how many people experience the problem. One really good sign that a problem is painful is that it comes up without you having to prompt it in user interviews. If a user talks about your problem automatically, you know you’re on the right track. 

Product-Market Fit

You need to know if people love your product — which is an indication that you’ve solved your problem successfully — before you scale. 

“PMF is more important than growth when you’re starting out,” Cissy says. “Find product market fit before you spend a lot of time and money optimizing and selling the product”

You don’t need a lot of scale to see if you achieve product-market fit, and if you do start scaling, this is what you’re doing: 

0 X 10000000000000000

You’re multiplying a really large number, which represents the amount of effort you’re putting in to grow, run ads, launch in different cities — or whatever your scaling strategy is — but if you have 0 users who love your product, no amount of hard work and planning will amount to anything. 

As a founder, you may assume that you have PMF. Why would you be working on a product if you didn’t think users need it? However, PMF can change through iterations of your product, and increase or decrease over time. Cissy outlined some tangible markers to look at to make sure you continue to have PMF, but make sure you choose the right metric for your product: 

- High penetration of your target audience

- High engagement or usage

- High retention

- Users who would be disappointed if the product went away

Minimum Lovable Product

An MVP, or minimum viable product is a term that’s commonly thrown around. It’s a base version of your product that has just about enough features to attract preliminary customers and get started on product development feedback. 

Instead, as a founder, you should look into making your base product “lovable” instead of just “viable.” 

Your product needs to be good enough to get customers interested — if your MVP is too bare and has obvious improvements that you can identify on your own, product feedback will be significantly less valuable. Think about your “Minimum Lovable Product” as a first iteration of the product you’d actually enjoy using, instead of a version to test.

“Everyone talks about a minimum viable product, but I have a love-hate relationship with that term, because I think the essence behind it — which is to test your hypotheses before over-investing — is great,” says Cissy. “But the term itself is often misleading, guiding teams to build products that are too ‘M’ and not quite ‘V.’ An analogy is that your goal should be to build a lovable "cupcake," instead of an unfrosted cake. Build a simple product that is lovable.”

When Anecdotes > Data 

“Our industry is known to be super data driven, which can be a good thing,” explains Cissy.  “But, the reality is that at the stage where you only have 100 or 1000 customers, data crunching has its limits.”

Data can be useful to spot obvious patterns or trends. But at the beginning of solving a problem with a new product, talking to users by setting up individual interviews, or sending out detailed surveys will provide richer learnings from anecdotes than what you see in limited numbers. 

Dorm Room Fund’s Female Founder Track is a hands-on masterclass program to help female and non-binary students scale their projects into companies and raise their first capital. Learn more here

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Written by Mahira Dayal, Head of Content at Dorm Room Fund. Follow her on Twitter.

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