Freetrade VP Product Duncan Leslie on vision, strategy and measuring success.
‘How do I create a product vision?’
That’s one of the most commonly searched questions within product management, and one I’ve frequently been asked in the past. Vision, strategy, mission, objectives; these terms are increasingly used interchangeably - and incorrectly - to represent the same thing, and often cause unnecessary confusion.
But really, a product vision is the easy bit. In this post we’ll explore why.
Put simply, a vision defines what the world will look like when you’ve solved the problems your product is designed to solve, or accomplished the outcomes you started this job to achieve.
That’s it! Honestly!
Well, no, not exactly, but a mission and a vision are closely linked and one is likely to inform the other. Certainly one shouldn’t be divergent from the other.
Let’s look at an example. If the SpaceX mission is to make humanity multiplanetary, Elon Musk’s vision for it must be something along the lines of:
A universe in which interplanetary space travel is commonplace, affordable and safe. Humankind has expanded beyond Earth to Mars and is living sustainably and comfortably with renewable resources, reducing the demand on Earth’s finite resources and supporting our accelerating population growth.
Elon’s followers at Freetrade tell me the actual vision is to make a ‘backup’ of human consciousness on another planet, whereas mine above is a completely fictional vision I wrote at my kitchen table! But hopefully it illustrates a point: it’s a vision of the future if SpaceX were to accomplish its mission to make humanity multiplanetary.
The mission is generally a more snappy strapline that sums up what a company is trying to do in a few well-crafted words. But it lacks the emotive, inspirational hook of a vision statement.
Well, firstly, you need to have a vision. And this is where the over-thinking often comes in. If you’ve ever sat scratching your head, asking “How do I come up with a vision” or “How do I define a vision”, I’d hypothesise you’re overthinking it.
Ask yourself what you’re aiming to achieve with your product over the long term. Why did you start out with it in the first place? What problems did you identify (and hopefully validate) that you want to solve? Who are you solving it for? How will things be better once you’re kicking back at the end of it all, admiring a job well done?
If you can answer these questions, hey, you have yourself a vision!
If you can’t, don’t despair, it’s not uncommon, but it is important. If you’ve reached a mental block and can’t come up with a compelling long term reason to bring your product to the world, consider if you’re solving a problem that doesn’t really exist (and if so, you’ve just saved yourself time and money). Still convinced? Then it’s time to go deeper; immerse yourself in the problem, speak to the users you’re trying to help, gain a deeper empathy for their lives, pains, frustrations and the context in which they’d benefit from your product.
Once you have the outline of your vision it’s time to write it down. A good vision grips people, convinces them of the opportunity, and answers the question ‘Why?’ In his excellent book ‘Crossing the Chasm’, Geoffrey A. Moore shared a simple template for the vision statement which makes a great starting point;
You just need to fill in the blanks!
At Freetrade our mission is to get everyone investing. That’s pretty simple, right?
But what’s our vision for the Freetrade product? Well, firstly, we ask why doesn’t everyone invest already? My belief is it’s an industry filled with complexity, jargon and barriers to entry. I’ve spoken to countless people who believe they should invest, but don’t have the time or desire to learn how - and investing has managed to create an image of being exclusively for those in the know, certainly not for everyone.
So at Freetrade, we’re breaking those barriers down to get everyone investing. In the future, everyone, from all walks of life, will be able to make the most of their savings by being in the driving seat of their investments. They’ll be able to easily discover the best things to invest in that suit their requirements (life stage, appetite for risk, wealth etc), and will be able to build a strong, low-cost portfolio that grows quicker than the markets and supports their secure financial future.
See? A vision!
Time for a confession: I’ve worked in the investment industry for most of my career, so I’ve had plenty of first-hand experience, both of the benefits investing provides and of the jargon-filled, unapproachable nature that keeps new starters away. This gives me a head start in imagining a better approach.
However that long length of time can also be blinding - I’m used to the jargon, I understand complex ISA rules, I know what a ‘leveraged inverse exchange-traded fund’ is. Lots of our users do not, and it’s easy to think our users look and behave like us.
If you’re new to your product, that’s great! Take advantage of the short period of time during which you’ll have a similar level of knowledge as many of your users. Before long, that’ll never be the case again.
If a vision is the point on the horizon you’re aiming to reach, the strategy defines how you plan to get there. Or maybe how you intend to get a little bit closer to that point than you are today, within a defined time frame.
What mode of transport will you use? What route will you take? Are there obstacles you need to navigate around along the way? How will you stay the distance?
However, without vision, you cannot have strategy.
If you don’t know where you’re going, how can you plan how to get there? Without that focus point, you’re effectively staring down at your feet, taking step after step and hoping that, after fifty, a hundred, a thousand steps, you’ll end up at a good place. That doesn’t sound like a good way to walk around, does it?
Having vision and strategy is like lifting your head, taking confident steps forwards, each one a step closer to that better world in which you’ve solved a lofty problem for your lucky users.
I’m intentionally not going to explore defining a product strategy - that’s a huge topic for another day, covered extensively by many authors. It requires a lot of time, a lot of data (both qualitative and quantitative) and research.
If you want to read more about defining a product strategy, here are some books by industry heavyweights I would wholeheartedly recommend:
It would be remiss to ignore a core part of the puzzle: the metrics.
Metrics and key performance indicators are just as essential as a vision and strategy. Without them you’ll be flying blind.
Consider the analogy earlier: You’ve identified the point on the horizon you’re trying to reach, you’re going to sail across the oceans and have plotted your route, avoiding rocks and maritime traffic along the way.
Metrics tell you if your plan, your strategy, is working or not. How far am I along the route? How close to the rocks am I? What speed am I going? What speed are the other boats going? Metrics will tell you if you’re on course in the latest step towards your vision.
But, importantly, they’ll also tell you if you’re off course, or if your early assumptions have proven incorrect. Armed with new knowledge you can plot a new course and get back on track.
Well, not quite. Now you’ve got a goal, direction and plan, the hard work starts: Building the product, iterating, learning and adapting.
You’re starting with solid foundations, that should give you fuel for a few sprints, but the nature of product management - and what keeps it exciting - is that it’s all about learning from every action and every result, and constantly adapting your path. Nothing is ever set in stone, even your product vision.
When you invest, your capital is at risk. The value of your portfolio can go down as well as up and you may get back less than you invest.
This should not be read as personal investment advice and individual investors should make their own decisions or seek independent advice. This article has not been prepared in accordance with legal requirements designed to promote the independence of investment research and is considered a marketing communication.
Freetrade is a trading name of Freetrade Limited, which is a member firm of the London Stock Exchange and is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. Registered in England and Wales (no. 09797821).