All new products start with an idea and then continue through the stages of development. What are the 5 habits that can accelerate product development cycles? In this interview series, we are talking to product managers, founders, and authors who can share stories and insights from their experiences about how to accelerate product development cycles. As part of this series, we had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Alexey Kulakov.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before diving in, our readers would love to learn more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
In 1997, I was one of the first three web designers in my hometown. I started my own web design studio at that time, and parallel to that received a job offer from a publishing company that needed digitalization. This experience provided valuable insights on working in a large company. Eventually, I left that business and launched my own startup.
Thanks to my design background, I connected with future partners who needed a designer for Rideró, a self-publishing platform. Curiosity led me to join them as a partner, particularly because they had a Tech Lead, a specialist essential for scalable business.
However, the Tech Lead left shortly after I joined. Unexpectedly, I became Rideró’s Head of Product, and this platform revolutionized the national publishing landscape. Today Rideró has got the best automatic layout system in the market. For me, Rideró has become the experience that significantly contributed to my expertise in venture projects. A couple of lessons I learned from developing this project:
For instance, I understood the importance of scaling geography properly, as launching in the domestic market with plans to enter others later proved ineffective. Products must adapt to each specific market; in other words, each specific market requires a specific type of a product. Copy-pasting does not work here.
Another insight I gained from Rideró was distinguishing between internal and external market drivers. Rideró followed an external market driver model: we relied on partners in many aspects. While this accelerated early development, it also made us dependent on partners. To expand into new markets, we needed to organize a similar distribution of responsibilities and tailor products for different audiences.
Apart from that, throughout my work biography my projects taught me a crucial lesson: a passionate CEO is the most valuable resource in business. Part-time engagement often leads to loss of money and failed ventures.
Rideró has become a solid operating business over the past three years, so I had to find a way to satisfy my personal passion, which is launching new projects. Recently, I have become a mentor for early-stage b2b startups at a corporate accelerator; my work is to assist them in securing investments. For me, launching new projects is a thrilling way to feel alive.
Do you have any mentors or experiences that have particularly influenced your approach to product development and user experience?
As for literature, the best book I’ve read about business development is “The Mom Test: How to talk to customers & learn if your business is a good idea when everyone is lying to you” by Rob Fitzpatrick. In my opinion, it’s the gem of business literature—simple, laconic, and rich with examples and practical tips.
Overall, I guess almost all my colleagues and clients have influenced my approach to product development.
It has been said that our mistakes can sometimes be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting and what you learned from it?
Well, I made a few of them, especially at the start of my journey when I first delved into internet projects and encountered the challenge of scaling. The owner of the publishing company I worked for, seeking efficiency, entrusted me with multiple internet projects. It was a thrilling opportunity back in 2006, and I simply couldn't resist taking on such a challenge. However, lacking experience at the time, I lost focus, and the projects didn't yield much success.
Nowadays, I adhere to the principle of building product teams: one goal per team, one team per entrepreneur. There’s no use in rushing, and there’s no way to hack this rule. It was a great school of life for me, and I’ve learned to say no since that day.
Sun Tzu coined the concept of the "death ground," where one must fight to survive. Though I dislike finding myself in such circumstances, I thrive in them, as it compels complete readiness for action. Startups naturally find themselves on the "death ground" as they fight for survival during the early stages of product development.
Personally, I've moved past that era in my personal entrepreneurial journey. My businesses, like JetStyle, have achieved stability and consist of several entrepreneurs, each with their own ventures.
What do you feel has been your ‘career-defining’ moment?
There were three pivotal moments that shaped my journey. The first was the start of my career as a web designer back in 1997 when I was studying at the State Academy of Architecture and Arts. A web provider approached the university seeking a specialist, and my professor recommended me. I teamed up with a friend, and that's how our journey began.
The second defining moment occurred during my work at the publishing company, and the third was my involvement with Rideró.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I have a few concepts that guide me through failures and breakdowns:
First, I have to confess I'm a workaholic. In all the bad meanings of this word—I don’t know how to rest. What I do know is that I’ll go insane if left without work to do. I find purpose in constant work. However, I've realized the importance of balancing work and rest as I've started to experience the effects of overwork on my health. Now, I try to prioritize self-care.
Second, my personal interests keep me motivated. I have diverse hobbies like role-playing games, fiction writing, serious games, and sci-fi. I believe that work should be as exciting and enjoyable as my personal pursuits—that is why my projects align with my interests and inspire me.
Next, I've developed rules for reflection to avoid mistakes and demotivation. I used to calculate risks and costs early on, which often led to abandoning project ideas to avoid losses. Now, I follow the rule of not overthinking during the initial stages and prioritize action over excessive reflection.
Passion is crucial in product development and shouldn't be rationalized. It fuels an entrepreneur's energy, inspiration, and motivation, serving as a remedy for burnout.
Once, future JetStyle’s executive director and I were working on another project together. We were doing a SWOT analysis, and in the Strength section, we wrote: “We know nothing about it, so we see no obstacles.” It was a joke at the time, obviously, but now I know that it matters. So, trust, vision, and excitement are essential drivers. Without them, the chances of success are low. Although Rideró had its share of mistakes, we managed to create a self-publishing service that connects authors directly with readers, all thanks to our firm belief in freedom of speech.
How do you stay on top of market trends and developments in the product management space?
It’s as simple as it may be: I work with projects. Two years ago, I started mentoring at a corporate accelerator to provide valuable assistance to product teams. To effectively support them, I make sure to acquire a deep understanding of their respective industries. In addition, a lot of information is shared during our brainstorming process.
Areas such as VR, education, team management, and story games intertwine with my work and give me valuable knowledge. This and my communication with startups that I mentor allows me to gain insights about relevant markets.
What role does cross-functional collaboration play in accelerating product development cycles, and how do you foster effective collaboration across different teams and departments?
I mentor product teams at the earliest stages of product development, and I always root for the idea that I’ve mentioned before—one goal per team, one team per entrepreneur. You win if you concentrate your effort, collectively and individually, to achieve one specific goal.
It happens all the time: startups define more than one goal to reach, as it looks efficient. My experience shows that before you’ve become an operating business (meaning that from now on, you can only grow if your market grows), any ‘side quest’ is just a waste of your valuable resources.
Then, the teams I work with will say that they’ve got two equally important goals. In this case, I remind them that for two goals, they need two teams. However, they should bear in mind that two teams will cost 3-4 times more than 1 team, as the business will have to pay the so-called “communication tax”—teams will need to communicate, and this process will not lead them closer to their respective goals.
My conclusion is really simple: if you can avoid having several teams on board, do it. If you have to, then a great life hack would be to differentiate functions between the product team and the support team.
During the first years of development, the business concentrates on research and scaling activities. As it scales and grows, there appears operational activity: legal, finances, support & sales, etc. These are tasks of a different nature, but they still have to be processed by IT departments. If you delegate them to the product team, it will be—let’s put it mildly—unhappy, and your development process will definitely get stuck, while you’re fixing those payment gate issues.
To make sure the feature team and the support team work in tune, I recommend promoting higher integration within the company. Each employee is supposed to have a clear understanding of how their activity contributes to the achievement of the global goal of the company. Horizontal communication is a must, as well as a well-defined prioritization system.
There’s one related risk I’d like to highlight: companies often introduce KPI-based bonus systems. However, this approach leads to confusion between goals and metrics, as employees will attempt to scale metrics since this activity is financially rewarding. Achieving global company goals should be something that motivates each team member to work on their key results.
Based on your experience, what are your “The 5 Habits That Can Accelerate Product Development Cycles”?
Working as an expert and mentor in corporate accelerators, I have collected a set of practices that help me and companies I work with to stay on track of their product development path. These are both specific tools you can implement in your work, and concepts that you need to have a clear understanding of. All of these ideas pertain to the philosophy of the product development approach. Glad to share 5 of them with you:
1. Critical Review of Business Ideas
Not every business idea is a good product idea. What are the criteria of a concept that can grow to become a digital product? First of all, it should be related to an already existing process. Ideally, your product is supposed to improve a process and make it more effective. In other words, you need to have specific knowledge about your customers and their motivation to purchase items or use services.
At this point, you’ll have to filter your idea through a set of questions, related to either your potential profits, marketing costs or customer value. If an entrepreneur finds answers to these questions listed below, it will be easier to confirm the idea that the product is worth getting involved.
a) Do you have a clear understanding of what you’ll gain if you start this business? - Assess the viability of your business by considering market saturation, understanding the target audience, finding a niche with growth potential, and identifying key factors that drive business growth.
b) Do the sales pay off? - Determine if your sales strategy is successful by offering a compelling value proposition, fulfilling customer expectations, establishing efficient sales channels, and ensuring profitability. Here you might find unit economics useful; read our blog to learn about this method of estimating business effectiveness and use our calculator).
c) Do we deliver value to our customers? - Evaluate the impact of your product by observing customer behavior changes, fostering customer loyalty through repeat purchases and referrals, and ensuring customer satisfaction with the product.
d) Do we have a well-coordinated team that develops using their experience? - Build a cohesive and effective team by leveraging individual expertise, delegating tasks efficiently, fostering mutual support, maintaining predictability, and ensuring a well-balanced distribution of roles.
2. Time-travel For Your Benefit
We often create solutions and plans to move forward, but they tend to be typical and common. To find something unexpectedly effective and new, try the opposite approach.
Imagine arriving at the successful endpoint of your venture, where you've achieved the ideal balance between effort, costs, and profits. Visualize the experience you've created for customers and their motivation to return. Then, assess your current business state that led to this success. Step by step, work backward to determine what you need to achieve today for your product to deliver value and generate profit.
Throughout this journey, you'll learn what kind of experience you aim to create. Even if some experiment ideas fail, they provide valuable insights for your product development journey.
3. 'Black Box' Canvas
I often use canvases, although I have mixed feelings about them. They can enhance entrepreneurial thinking, but they may oversimplify the process. People mistakenly believe that filling in a canvas is all it takes to create a business model, which is often ineffective.
One approach I find valuable is the Black Box method, a customized entrepreneurial tool. It focuses on the core factor of business effectiveness: the potential to change people's behavior and improve their lives. This goal is both egoistic and rational because customers pay for products that they believe will make a significant impact.
The Black Box method is particularly useful for developing product hypotheses. It involves envisioning the product with all its features inside a black box, temporarily setting it aside, and then engaging in thoughtful hypothesis development.
The process can be divided into four steps. First, identify the actual benefits the product brings to customers and how it improves their lives. Second, understand the target audience and their existing problems and dissatisfaction. Third, consider how clients will experience the desired change and what will motivate them to adopt it. Lastly, analyze competitors and what sets your product apart, as well as the impressions and feelings you want to leave with customers.
Once you have answered these questions, it's time to open the black box and discuss the product's functions. What is your solution? What steps do you take to address customer problems? Consider these solution features: affordability and preference over alternatives.
Once you're confident in your product's positive impact, it's time to define its specifics. This may involve website development, ad campaigns, design, or copywriting.
The desired outcome of the Black Box method is a behavioral change in customers with minimal effort. This minimal effort forms the essence of your initial product development hypothesis. Now, you can begin the experimentation process and deliver value to your customers.
4. Most Critical Hypothesis First
This habit is based on risk analysis. For new enterprises, the biggest risk is failure leading to losing your business. Then, look at the list of your hypotheses—you’ve got plenty as a result of the previous technique—and choose the one that has a potential to be fatal. Which experiment are you counting on most?
You might find potential problematic spots in several areas. First, you may find out you’ve chosen the wrong market. Then, you’ll notice risks related to sales. Accordingly, the highest risks may lay in the area of value delivery, when there’s not enough operational power to ensure stable value delivery flow.
Even though it might feel compelling to start product development from the easiest steps, there’s a lot of logic in tackling risks first.
5. Eliminating Bottlenecks
This idea comes from the Theory of Constraints in Lean production. It implies that we view the business as a flow that goes through a system of pipes with different diameters. The system’s capability equals the amount of water flowing through the set of pipes.
Your system will be in either of the two states. In one of the states the pipe is too narrow, which creates a blockage; so the flow is limited by the pipe. In the other one, the flow is too small for the existing system: take any pipe of any size, and you’ll see that the capacity is higher than necessary.
What is the ‘flow’ in terms of your business? You could measure it in profits, number of sales, or product items. When you’ve settled your metrics, channel your effort to the most overloaded pipe, a.k.a element of your business. Take measures to unblock and eliminate it. However, your work does not finish here: you move on to the next element of your business system to improve and upgrade this specific ‘pipe’ to ensure it doesn’t block the flow. This process is continuous. Working on each element of your business flow helps to avoid so called local optimization. It happens when you channel your efforts to maximize something that is not the top priority at the moment.
This habit of flow management will eliminate bottlenecks along the way of your business development without local optimization.
What are some of the common pitfalls that you see product teams fall into when trying to accelerate their development cycles, and how can these be avoided?
- Teams often neglect the crucial aspect of communication with real people, which greatly impacts the product's overall success. They place their own ideas first, and fail to observe people's behavior. Client feedback is a valuable source of insights. Without engaging with clients, you risk losing touch with reality and creating something that the market doesn't need.
- Confusion arises when teams mix up goals and metrics. While metrics are important for measuring success, the team's main objective should be scaling the product's success and working towards its goals. Sometimes, transient indicators overshadow goals, causing a loss of focus within the system.
- Teams tend to center their activities around a set of features, leading research results to align with preconceived notions. To address this, teams should follow a methodology and clarify their initial hypotheses.
- Relying solely on expertise rather than conducting research is a mistake. Although expertise is valuable, decisions based solely on expert opinions often yield lower-quality outcomes. The ideal approach involves combining expertise with thorough market research and hypothesis development.
- Launching a product without testing is a recipe for failure. Even if you have a vision, it is essential to develop your product through a series of test launches.
- Teams sometimes fail to differentiate between planning, prediction, and modeling. Modeling plays a crucial role in the early stages of product development, enabling the integration of research data into decision-making processes. Failure to recognize this can lead to mistakes.
- Focusing on local optimization diverts team resources from achieving their goals, negatively impacting the system's capabilities and causing bottlenecks.
- Attempting to develop a product part-time is not feasible, as business development requires significant resources and cannot be treated as a hobby.
- Choosing a non-entrepreneur as CEO for a new product hinders progress. An effective CEO should thrive in chaotic environments, possess the ability to conceptualize goals and responsibilities, and embody the entrepreneurial spirit.
- Market research should never be skipped. A vital lesson I've learned is to avoid starting a business in a stagnant niche. The niche's dynamics, rather than its size, hold greater significance. Seek out a growing niche, understand its growth factors, and capitalize on them. Operating in a stagnant niche leads to being out of sync with market trends.
- Reinventing existing best practices is unnecessary. Experimentation is more suitable for areas lacking established practices. Initially, it is wise to adopt and refine existing best practices. The essence of startups lies in developing innovative solutions that previously didn't exist in the market.
- Misinterpreting the results of hypothesis testing often yields three outcomes: approving the hypothesis, rejecting it, or failing to accomplish it. Failing to find approval doesn't automatically mean the hypothesis is rejected; it simply indicates insufficient effort in testing.
Can you share an example of a time when you had to make a tough tradeoff between speed and quality during a product development cycle, and what was the outcome of that decision?
Ten years ago, when launching Rideró, our vision was to create the best WYSIWYG ("whatyouseeiswhatyouget") browser editor. Many tech giants attempted to develop such a tool as well. We spent nine months developing solid prototypes, and they ended up being approved by engineers. However, the browser's development didn't align with our editor service, causing difficulties with handling large volumes of text.
During one of the tech demos, we realized the tool’s prototype was non-functional. It was a tough choice: we had to decide whether to continue development or let it go. Since the client needed a launch, we opted to establish the layout process through servers. This compromise sacrificed customer experience but enhanced the speed of value delivery. Thus, Rideró was launched as a solution that balanced the technological limitations and client's requirements. Though I had long desired to build a browser editor like this, the business circumstances didn't align with that goal.
All in all, it was the right decision, and we can only speculate on the outcome had we pursued an alternative approach.
For more content like this, subscribe to The Product Manager newsletter.