3 Verbs & 3 Adjectives: An Intentional Product Strategy for your Startup
April 4, 2022
Picture this Scene
Setting: the local watering hole after work or on zoom with cocktails.
Actors: Two friends who work in the same profession. They also happen to be your ideal customer profile/target buyer (ICP).
After a drink, this exchange happens:
Friend one: "You need to check out this product! It rules!" Note: this product happens to be yours.
Friend two: "Why - what is so great about it?"
Friend one: "Well it allows me to do XYZ." Note: XYZ are verbs that speak to something friend one can now do with your product better than they could before.
Friend two: "Wow. That's Cool. Why are you so fired up about it?"
Friend one: "Well what makes the product cool/special is that it's ABC." Note: ABC are adjectives used to describe your product.
Friend two: "Double wow. I need to check it out. Can you introduce me?"
Pretty cool eh?
One of your customers cared so much about your product that they couldn't wait to tell their peers - completely unprompted. Fantasy? It doesn't need to be - if you are very intentional about your product strategy and roadmap.
For those that know me, I spend the majority of my time with founders at the intersection of product and GTM. On the go-to-market front, I work with founders closely to ensure that their initial ICP is the right one and that their messaging is nailed. Absent getting that initial ICP / messaging pair correct, it will be very hard to deliver any level of repeatable revenue success. On messaging, as you have heard me beat the drum loudly - the focus is really on the
- WHY THIS (why does the buyer need what you have)
- WHY NOW (why does the buyer need what you have now)
- WHY YOU (why is what you offer better than alternatives)
Intentional Product Strategy - Knowing Your Kernel
If I have the time (diligence cycle compression being what they are these days), I will try before partnering with a founder formally to actually have a 60-90 minute product demo and roadmap discussion. I.e does the plan for the product actually back up the three whys above. Is there a kernel there today and a strategy forward that makes sense at a 1,000-foot level?
Which, to some, seems silly as teams when we invest may have 1-3 devs max, no dedicated PM, no dev manager, and no real release process. There is no time to talk of strategy when founders are just trying to build the basis of the core product and quickly fill the gaps their early customers tell them they need, not to mention meeting some soc 2 or GDPR requirements if they sell to the enterprise. For the record - this is an intro discussion - post-close, we spend considerably more time together on product strategy, especially as a founder's R&D team moves from a few devs to a fully staffed scrum team to a whole set of mission-based scrum teams.
The Three Verbs (the what)
I never use the word strategy in these discussions. I ask the founder first what are their three verbs. To which they say, "WTF are you talking about?" I replay for them the scene at the bar - if this bar scene happens for their buyers in the future - what would they say about you? What would they say you allow them to do (verbs)? What outcomes can now they achieve that they could not with the status quo? For simpler vernacular - these are the jobs to be done by your buyer and as a founder, you must know these for your target ICP. See this article for an exercise to help on this front.
For example (using SFDC circa 2009) - salesforce.com allows me to run a consistent marketing and sales process, pinpoint the gaps in my funnel performance, and reinforce with sales teams what they need to do better.
The Three Adjectives (the how)
I then ask them what values will they use to guide their team's delivery of the verbs outlined above. What three adjectives would your buyer in the bar use to describe you? These adjectives reflect what your customers feel about HOW you allow them to do or achieve the what/the verbs and what they find so positive about that. These hopefully aren't "buggy as hell, slow as molasses, and non-responsive customer service". Relevant adjectives fall within these buckets generally: cost of ownership, ease of set-up, ease of integration, ease of / amount of usage for relevant users, quality of post-sales support, ease of deriving meaningful insights, etc.
For example (using SFDC circa 2009) - salesforce.com is easier to deploy, simpler to customize, and is pre-integrated with all my upstream and downstream tools.
Note - no credit for trying to sneak in adjectives like its fast, quality code, and secure - those are core requirements for any world-class product.
Why Product Intentionality Matters at Seed Stage & Beyond
I understand that there are many out there who ascribe to the POV that being too intentional too early is not only not useful but could be dangerous if you don't have enough market data yet and are wrong in your intentions.
To that, I say - hogwash. Of course, at the seed stage, we are not >50% confident in any direction we are taking. The key however is to have a core set of theses you believe in that of course you will adjust as you get positive or negative feedback from the market as you go along.
The seed stage is all about ensuring you are a learning organization that responds and adjusts in real-time - but if you lack intentionality or are running too many experiments, you won't be able to make sense of what the market tells you.
So if you are not in the intentional camp, you know which VC partner to avoid:). But, in my experience, intentionality is your closest friend during the seed stage as:
- You have limited time, limited cash, and limited resources to leave the nest and find your wings.
- To raise an A round in 18-24 months, you need to hit a certain revenue or usage milestone aligned against a core message. The goal here is to be focused and prove just that one product / with one message / with one motion / to one target buyer works - that is what series A investors want and need at a bare minimum. You will only have a modicum of resources in each function and it will be critical to have them aligned together.
- You also are a sucker for revenue when you are so small and, let's admit it, you will often take anyone who will buy your product, even if your spidey sense tells you they are not the right long-term fit. Even worse, some startups will let these early customers take over and drive their entire product roadmap.
- Absent product intentionality - ie defining the core ICP and defining your Verbs and your Adjectives - you will make things far harder on yourselves. Imagine how much easier it will be for leads to land and reps to excel when you are 100% clearer on why you matter to a buyer - i.e. it allows them to do verb, verb, verb in an adjective, adjective, manner. I have seen the inverse and I can trust you - that is where sales and marketing money goes to die, not to mention the giant sucking of energy - including the founders awake at night wondering why this is so damn hard when it seems like everyone else is crushing it on VC and startup twitter.
Product Intentionality for Your Phases of Growth
The great thing about product intentionality is that as you achieve success and start to add more R&D resources to build even more product, the 3 verbs and 3 adjectives approach holds up for a very long time. This holds true as a baseline for your strategy which usually moves along these phases. I describe below four types of company/product expansion. The first type of expansion is always generally the same for most start-ups. The second and third types of expansions may swap in terms of order depending on what your product and GTM strategy is. The fourth expansion type should be avoided at all costs early in your journey unless you are a broad horizontal solution not focused on any particular buyer - which are home runs when they work but hard to intentionally engineer.
Expansion Type 1 - The Baseline - Deliver Better on Your Existing Verbs & Adjectives
This is the phase in which you start to add more R&D resources and move from a few devs to perhaps a few scrum teams. This is all about doing a far better job of fulfilling your promise to your early customers and initial buyers. As such the verbs you use stay the same as do the adjectives although you may refine them as you may have gotten them wrong in your initial assumptions. As you build mission-based teams, often you will split up your verbs/whats and assign each to a dedicated scrum team.
You also start to have real feedback in regards to won/lost deals data. For your lost deals, split up lost to competition from lost to do nothing. The latter tells you your verbs are somewhat off and what you allow users to do is not meaningful enough for them to bother to move forward - yikes you might even be a dreaded vitamin rather than a painkiller. For your deals lost to competition, it's likely that perhaps either your verbs are incomplete (i.e features not fully delivered) or your adjectives. Assuming you deliver the baseline of the actions your user desires to do, it's often within your adjectives where your competitive differentiation lies. Use that feedback to hone/tighten your verbs and adjectives as well drive delivery of completion towards what is a Minimum Lovable Product (MLP) for those.
You also start to get feedback from customers in regards to what they need in the product to love you - ie rave to their peers at a bar about you. This feedback needs to be incorporated against your verb and adjectives - do you have them wrong, or are you just delivering poorly against them.
During this phase, you also should seek to discover the answers to the core roadmap questions which hold true for any software company regardless of their value prop (verbs & adjectives)
- User Interface - For our users, what screen are we? Do we replace an existing screen? Are we asking them to use us as a second screen? If so, do we offer enough value to a user's daily workflow that they would bother to use an additional screen? Or, does our product do best when it is used/exposed within an existing screen the user already uses?
- Integration - how important is it that your product seamlessly integrates into the existing tools/workflows of what your ICP uses. If really important, get cracking on being API first, expose all your end-points, and start to define a longer-term integration strategy because writing custom integrations suck.
I call this phase one - but it is really the baseline - i.e. your product kernel you can’t lose as you get bigger and badder and add many more resources across the company. Do not lose your way on your core verbs and adjectives and always incorporate deal/customer feedback along with your own intuition to constantly deliver on the baseline verbs and adjectives.
Expansion Type 2 - Deliver for New Flavors of Your Original ICP
This is the phase in which you want to serve different versions of your core buyer. These different versions generally fall into the categories
- Market Segment: Your original ICP was likely either SMB, MM, or ENT. Hopefully, you aligned your GTM organization against this target as well. Now, it's time to expand the company's aperture and add an additional market segment as a focus. To that end, from a product perspective, if you started at, say MM, for SMB expansion you will need to invest heavily in product-led / self serve/ simplistic packaging, and for ENT expansion, you will have to make sure you deliver on the "ities" enterprise buyers require - scalability, extensibility, and security.
- User Sophistication: You may want to stick with the same ICP in the same market segment but you now realize that all of your buyers are not at the same level of sophistication. Usually, start-ups may target early adopter types who are more sophisticated in their own workflows and as such can handle more "power" (a nice word for complexity) in your product. You may now want to target a larger subset of less mature/sophisticated users and in this case, will focus on the right pricing & packaging (i.e. editions) for them that provides only the level of complexity/value they can grok/achieve as well as the proper instruction/guidance into your product (i.e. go get yourselves some Pendo).
- User Hierarchy: Your core product today may be focused as, an example, for a first level manager and you see a real fit for your product for the people above (VPs) and below (ICs) the organizational hierarchy of your core ICP.
Regardless of the new flavor that you are looking to solve for, the verbs likely do not change all that much from your core verbs - they are slightly nuanced but not completely different verbs. In regards to your adjectives, they are likely the same but you may see that the priority of those adjectives differs for the new flavors of buyers you add.
That being said - do not lose your way - if you are a super easy to use product - enterprises love that and are attracted to that - just because they want it to be more customizable, integratable, secure, etc - it does NOT mean they will trade that for ease of use.
Expansion Type 3 - Deliver More Products to the Same ICP
Invariably, even when everything is going great - your customers love you, churn is low, sales win rate is high, etc - you should ask yourself before your board does the following question - "Hey what's our expansion / NRR story?" If you don't, your sales leaders will be asking you "what more product can we put in our reps' bags given I keep adding 30-40% more sales capacity each year w/o any reduction in quotas?"
In this case, we go back and look at the what's - i.e the verbs of what our ICPs can do today. In my mind, to sell more products to your target ICP beyond what they bought already, you need to offer up a new verb for them - allow them to do something additional with your product that they do not today. If it just allows them to do a better version of what you already sold them, that to me seems like an included feature. For them to buy something else - i.e a module for an additional charge - that's indeed a new verb. The adjectives likely stay the same because that is what the buyer loves about you.
From my experience, there is a rule of thumb for building additional products with the hope that your sales reps will sell them. If these additional products do not add up to at least 35- 50% of their initial sale to the customer with your core product, they will not bother to sell it because it's a waste of their time. So be thoughtful around the additional products you decide to build for additional revenue from your target ICP.
Expansion Type 4 - Deliver / Sell Products to a New ICP
Within the customers you have already sold to, there may be a natural extension of your product to buyers adjacent to your existing buyers within that organization - i.e. the workflow that you solved for your existing buyer extends as part of a broader workflow to other upstream and downstream workflow owners in the organization. As such, if you offer a product to that new buyer that meets their needs as part of their workflow, there is in theory incremental benefit that both buyers use your product (think buying a sales automation and service automation solution from the same CRM vendor).
For these new buyers in the organization, you will be delivering on different verbs than those for your core buyer - as they have different work they must perform to achieve different outcomes. I would posit that the adjectives stay the same across the buyers within your customer base.
Note - this is much much easier than picking a brand new ICP that has no adjacency to your existing buyer. Absent adjacency, this is the equivalent of selling to a brand new type of buyer in a brand new type of organization. Why is this really hard? For one, you might have come up with a completely new set of adjectives and verbs. More importantly, all of your GTM teams know nothing about how to market, sell, and service this customer and even if you decide you want to train them to do so, that is an amazing amount of context switching for the ICs in this roles to master - something I try and shy away from as much as possible.
Summary & Some Parting Thoughts
Hopefully, you find the "verb & adjective" construct and the different product expansion types helpful as you think through your product strategy. Below is a quick table that summarizes how verbs & adjectives change depending on your strategy:
The key to all of this is ensuring you are thinking about your product from within the context of how your buyer would describe you - because that, in the end, if they are raving about you, is what engenders customer trust and love.
Note - Ensure that your go-to-market organization is aligned with your product focus and future strategy. Ideally, your marketing, sales, and service organizations and motions have been fine-tuned to your initial ICP focus. If you expand down or upmarket - understand the nuances in execution required to succeed there in regards to demand gen (from inbound to outbound, sales (transactional to valued led), and success (self deploy versus ps implementations).
If you expand with more new products to sell, ensure there is alignment on how they will be marketed and who will sell them. For the love of God, don't just throw "Account Managers" at the problem:). If you do choose to expand to a brand new ICP, ensure that marketing/product marketing care, and that you have determined if the same rep sells to both ICPs or an additional rep is needed, etc.
As you get larger, it seems amazing to suddenly have much larger teams in R&D. Warning - prioritization at that point is actually much much harder. You do not simply have one small group of devs who can flex and deliver whatever is needed against your initial MVP. You now have mission-based teams where the resources become even less fungible with far more choices/routes to potentially take.
This is where product intentionality and the model I have provided become your friend. Some final tips:
- Always gauge how you are actually delivering vs the verbs and adjectives of your initial ICP - ie don't forget/abandon the core.
- Always ensure that you make hard calls and finish one job "enough" before you start another. If you choose to make too many choices at once and open up too many fronts (ie expansions) at once, you will inevitably end up delivering < 50% of the verbs and adjectives your buyers desire. Instead of your buyers, you will end up in the bar drinking by yourself, wondering why no one loves you.
- Avoid the peanut approach to staffing/resourcing - ie no "10 teams of two devs" where you just do a little bit of everything all at once. Your customers will dislike you as well as your R&D teams who will not be able to deliver enough momentum to make an impact in the market and in their careers.