Our Start-up Primer to Ourselves (part 1)


The end of 2015 was an important milestone for The Product Works: we'd just passed our first year in business. The run up to Christmas was so busy that we barely had time to acknowledge it, let alone celebrate. Was there even anything to celebrate?

So we decided to kick off 2016 with a big retrospective - a powerful tool I've used for years in my software teams and projects but never on an entire business and over an entire year. We spent a few days writing cards with little pointers to the ‘good’ and the ‘not-so-good’ things from our first 12 months, then sticking the cards on our whiteboard, grouping and then discussing in detail.

It was a really productive exercise; not only did it make us realise how much we'd achieved in 2015 but also gave us a renewed set of targets for the new year ahead. It also got me wondering… if I could have had the chance to send an email back in time to ourselves all those month ago in Nov 2014, what would be in my own Start-up Primer?

Ideas everywhere

Your inspiration for The Product Works turned out to be true: there are tonnes of people from non-technology backgrounds here in Dublin coming up with all sorts of start-up ideas, AND who are looking for a partner to help them build it. You’ll meet folks from financial services, recruitment, construction, education and even midwifery teams!

"MVP" - the Most Vexatious Problem!

You'll find out quickly that 'Minimum Viable Product' is a subjective term. You think, let’s get the minimum functionality out there ugly to prove the value proposition; your partners think, let’s get everything working and looking beautiful. This will be the biggest source of friction in your projects. So spend the extra time nailing down the details and set everyone’s expectation to match. Write up two bullet-pointed lists: 1. What’s In Scope, 2. What’s Not In Scope.

"Software development is about people" - trust your own instinct

You'll meet potential clients - people looking for you to be their partners - that you know just aren't... well, right. Not that they're not impressive or admirable or anything. More like, you’ve just caught something they said that didn’t sit right, or a wee little nagging feeling in your gut. You might overrule the little voice in your head and actually work with the client. Don't. Just don't. It'll end awkwardly, even disastrously. If instinct is a distillation of experience, then trust your 15+ years of experience built up working with all sorts of people.

The pen is mightier than the keyboard

Get yourselves some notebooks and loads of pens. Yeah, by notebooks I mean the paper kind. Oldtech. Take them to meetings. Scribble ideas. Pass it around the table to your colleagues and clients. Why? Well it encourages real collaboration participation. And writing down notes in an actual notepad while people are talking to you, leads them to believe you’re paying attention to them - even when you’re just doodling. Just try typing notes on a laptop or, worse, a phone while your client is talking; it literally sits as a barrier between you and them, and no matter how you frame it, they’ll think you to be rude and ill-attentive every time you type. I carry a small pocket notebook for each project. My favourite is the moleskin but I've been known to even make my own from offcuts (see photo below)!

A handmade notepad used by The Product Works

A handmade notepad used by The Product Works

Spend the time to plan upfront

It might be in your nature to just get on with things but trust me, the "Sure-you-know-yourself” approach to building things will bite you in the arse every time. The time you spend working through details at the start of a project - however painfully tedious - will more than pay for itself at the end of the project (when the money has to change hands). It allows everyone involved - your own team, your partner clients - to get on the same page and have the same expectation before any code is written. You don't have to write a big requirements doc; instead, use the fantastic collaboration tools that are Google docs and Trello to capture notes from your discussions.

Don’t conflate light-touch planning with agile development - agile works best when everyone knows the shape of things to come.
— Conor, The Product Works