The most critical position in any software project

Just like Goodfellas couldn’t be created without Scorsese and In A Silent Way without Miles Davis. Any major piece of software requires one. A product owner is a person who has the most extensive knowledge about the concept and business side of the project and is able to steer it in the right direction.

Who should be a product owner in a startup?

The most common answer to this question is “startup founder” because, in most cases, it’s a person who understands the market and has the best vision of what software is supposed to become. If there is more than one founder, they should choose who is best suited for the role. A scenario in which there are two or more product co-owners rarely works out and usually causes additional problems and tends to slow down the process.

So, how to choose the one? First, let’s look at the list of product owner responsibilities.

1. Owning the backlog

Backlog is the honey-do list of software development. No matter if it’s a complex integration, a minor feature, or a bug fix, everything that’s to be done in the future lands there. The product owner’s responsibility is choosing which items in the backlog have the highest priority at a particular phase. Afterwards, developers choose items from that high-priority list for production each sprint. This way, product owners have control over the progress and can change strategy or dynamically react to changes, such as new trends on the market.

It’s especially important if a startup is developing an MVP or dealing with a limited budget. Being a product owner puts the client in the driver seat of the entire process, letting them choose only the most significant features to fit the budget and schedule.

2. Making sure everyone is on the same page

Just choosing items for development is a fairly straightforward task. A bit more complex challenge is to ensure that team members perfectly understand each element. One of the most significant roles of product owners is communicating with all stakeholders and potential clients and translating business aspects into understandable backlog items. Knowing the idea behind the software lets programmers and designers work much more efficiently and even figure out better solutions and improvements to features throughout the project.

3. Making crucial business decisions

A product owner must have both the ability and the authority to make significant decisions in the process. The authority usually comes with the territory of being a founder or CEO, because they usually become product owners in startups. Of course, they’re also the most informed and have the most industry experience. The ability to make decisions, however, isn’t always a given. In some cases, a founder can have all the industry experience and knowledge required to be a decision-maker but is simply indecisive on a very personal level.

So, especially in MVP development, it’s worth remembering that most decisions can be reversed and follow a simple rule “better done than perfect.” It’s often better to make an imperfect decision than no decision at all.

In addition to that, the lack of decisiveness and leadership can lead to certain risks in a project. In some cases, development teams can impose their viewpoints and strategies on a product owner for purely technical reasons while disregarding (or not understanding) business aspects. Good product owner is a guardian that has the ultimate goal of the project always in mind. If that means being authoritarian from time to time, so be it.

What are the skills and traits of a perfect product owner?

While it’s possible to be a good product owner without certain soft skills, industry experience and knowledge about the industry are essential. A product owner must be able to answer all questions that relate to the business aspects of the software. This is the main reason why founders usually are the best candidates for this role in startups. In the end, who can be more informed about such aspects than the founder?

In terms of soft skills and personality, the most fundamental is the ability to communicate and explain the project’s idea to different people. Back-end developers and UX designers may have very different perspectives on the project and require an individual approach. Of course, charisma and empathy always come in handy in such matters. The better the product owner communicates with the team, the smoother the project goes.

The next skill I would put into the “nice-to-have” category. It’s the experience in software development. Product owners who know the scrum process and their role in it can start the project much faster and work much more efficiently from day one. For those who aren’t familiar with agile methodologies, I highly encourage reading my article about the values of scrum.

Last but not least, availability. For a project to go well, a product owner should be an active participant. Anyone who’s thinking about taking this role should know that in most cases, it’s a full-time job. As a startup PO, you’ll need to attend meetings, discuss many aspects of the project with the dev team, and oversee the progress. Therefore, taking the product owner’s position while having about 15 or 20 hours free per week may endanger the entire project.

What if no one can take the role in a startup team?

It’s entirely possible that a perfect person with the necessary skills mentioned above simply doesn’t exist. So, can there be no product owner at all?

In my opinion, yes, but only in very specific circumstances. There must be a very clear and detailed list of features and requirements for the project. It can be done only if a client can give the development team an easily followable roadmap for the entire process. An example of such a project would be a simple e-shop. Software houses that specialize in such projects can do a majority of the job on their own and the product owner’s role is far less instrumental.

In most startup projects, however, I would argue that it’s not possible. More often than not, there are too many uncertainties and too many decisions to be made during the project. In addition to that, without a product owner, there can be a certain lack of leadership, which grows significantly with scope. Anything that’s up for interpretation only makes the lack of decision-making more apparent.

Generally speaking, startups need flexibility. Making changes to the original idea deep into the development process is entirely normal, and there has to be a product owner to direct those changes. So, if you’re a startup founder, we highly recommend taking on the challenge and learning the position as you go. Let’s take a look at an example.

Story time!

In one of our projects, the product owner was an ex-DevOps. That alone resulted in plenty of complications. The biggest one was an irresistible urge to micromanage the development team. As someone with programming expertise, the person tried to get involved in the actual coding process constantly, making specific suggestions and requests. The problem is, product owners are not part of the development team and they usually have far less knowledge about all the code-related issues. Consequently, those suggestions were very often disconnected from reality and developers had to spend unproductive time explaining why.

After a few weeks of adjusting and finishing the product owner’s course, things improved significantly. The person switched their focus to business, strategizing, and thinking in terms of concept and big idea instead of technical details that belong to the development team. They also learned to communicate better and work with different teams on a daily basis. The adjustment period was bumpy at first, but it didn’t take that long until the person became a super-efficient product owner.

Differences between a project manager and product owner

As a project manager myself, I feel like it’s necessary to explain the differences between those two roles to avoid any confusion. Most importantly, project managers don’t need to know the product or have domain expertise. They don’t make strategic decisions.

Their role is to coordinate work between different teams, communicate between an agency and a client, and make sure all deadlines will be met. The position is most usually played by someone on the software agency’s side.

Yeah, they’re completely different, but the question comes too often to leave that without clarifying ;)

Behind every product owner must stand a good development team

No matter how charismatic, insightful, and available product owners are, they still need a reliable team to follow their instructions. A team that will quickly understand their business challenges and write flawless code within a scheduled timeframe.

If you’re looking for such a group, let us know ;)