Early stage startups are hard, most of the time it isn’t that they are doing something that is hard by itself since most of the time they tackle a problem that the founders know about.
I believe the main problem is the chaos: every day you have hypothesis to test against customers, what do they want? What will make them pay? Is the product enough to solve their pain?
A whole lot to do! That’s why you are not alone, your CEO will handle sales, your COO maybe handle operations (HR/Finance etc.) and yeah, you’ll be building the product.
Building the product early means heaving the discussion with your founders about what the customer must be able to do then churning lines of code that do that, now you deliver and have the discussion again, what now you ask ? Of course, they have suggestions: adding Z features or updating the UI to look better. You spin up Notion and immediately ask them to write them down and prioritize them so you know what do you next.
The next thing you know, you hire an engineer to move even faster, keep the hypothesis testing going. Now wait a bit more time and you are wondering if those hypotheses are worth testing in the first place, I mean you wrote a lot of code, is that absolutely necessary to do that to know what is worth building?
Congratulations, you are now starting to step in the product management territory. Your daily responsibility will not be to build the next feature, it will be to be sure that the next feature will move the company in the right direction.
How do you know that you are moving in the right direction? Well to know that you need to know the business inside out, know your customers, know their pain, know what they are willing to pay for.
Obviously, your CEO (or the person doing sales) knows a bit about that, so they will explain it to you, transfer the knowledge they can.
But! Would not it be better to be there to discuss with potential customers? Yes, that’s what the whole internet is telling you, talk to your customers, morning afternoon whatever. But that was the CEO part, right? So you can be left alone building the product ?
Does your CEO knows that this process could be one big SQL query away from requiring no effort ? That this communication problem could be solved with querying this API to be sure that there are no mistake ?
Of course he can, but can he always? I believe that it’s generally an impossible ask.
So what you can do? Sit in one or two sales meeting and listen. Take the time to personally onboard that new customer and observe. Write an email to your oldest (and/or newest) customer and ask what they would want to see in the product next.
Listen, observe, ask for what could be a detail for some, but could a new feature for you.
This is how you stop writing code and start building a product, a product that people want.
This is how you start to move from engineering to product. Don’t be afraid and embrace it.
Note: Obviously this doesn’t apply for everyone.