In the early stages... optimise your product backlog for learning

Most people prioritise by creating a product backlog sorted by cost x benefit. Instead, I believe you should ask yourself "What is the biggest unknown that would rewrite my priority list?"

When working on my own projects this has always been the approach I take. However, it wasn't until I watched this YC video from David Rusenko (28m30s) that I found the confidence to explain my approach.

I believe early-stage businesses should be obsessed with finding Product-Market-Fit (PMF). The truth is, finding PMF is incredibly difficult and most companies never get there. Arguably, some of the biggest startups today have not found PMF. Yes, Uber, I'm looking at you…

Founders will eventually stumble on PMF when they are solving for genuine problems. Very rarely will this be at the first attempt or first iteration. You will know you're solving a genuine problem when people keep returning to use your solution. When you put a price on that solution, and people still come back - or even better send others to you - then you know you're on the path to Product-Market-Fit.

You won't ever get there if you hide from the problems your customers or users experience. Adding shiny new buttons, and a CSV export feature may be great for your marketing website. But, if it's not a problem people are paying for why is it even on your product backlog at such an early stage?

Instead, your time is better spent finding answers to the most pressing questions.

Find answers to your biggest unknowns.

I'm only at the beginning of my journey, but my very first question in September 2021 was: Do people want to avoid queues at food festivals?

Sure, a nice menu screen, a beautiful checkout flow and even ApplePay integration are all great features. But none of these are the reason behind why customers would use my product in the first place.

The problem I was trying to unravel is how important is it for customers to avoid queuing at a festival? In the back of my mind, I did always wonder if queues are just part of the "festival experience". Maybe people complain about them vocally because dramatic and long queues make for a great story.

That's why the first thing on my backlog to test my hypothesis. I created a QR code to keep friction low, stuck it up everywhere at a food festival and observed how often people would scan it.

The QR code had varying labels. Some said "COVID-safe ordering", "Mobile ordering" or "Skip the queues". I found that "Skip the queues" was overwhelmingly the most popular. This gave me some hope that my hypothesis was not completely absurd.

Notice how none of my attention was actually on what most product and engineering professionals would focus on. Branding? Nope. ApplePay? Don't care. A fancy scrolling menu with nice pictures? Let's save that for another day.

My very first backlog revolved around answering my biggest unknown at the time. Answering this unknown would give me insight and learning that would unlock an entirely new perspective on the journey ahead.

I optimised for learning. I answered one big question that would unlock the most information in one swoop. When I saw people return and scan the QR code a second or third time after collecting their first order, I realised I had achieved mini-Product-Market-Fit (mPMF).

I had identified, tested for and proved a problem frequent and intense enough for a business case. People were going out of their way (because the problem had enough intensity) to scan my QR code several times during their attendance (frequency).

With one unknown out of the way, it was time to focus on the next one. If I optimised for learning, what question would bring me the most insight in one swoop?

The next biggest unknown: Are customers willing to pay through their smartphone, without seeing the food first, at a festival?