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All new products start with an idea and then continue through the stages of development. What are the five 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 Ivan Begunov.

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 what brought you down this specific career path?

As a serial tech entrepreneur, my life has revolved around technology for the majority of my journey. With a strong engineering background and an entrepreneurial mindset, I have always been fascinated by the possibilities that technology holds. My true passion lies in facilitating the effective implementation of positive innovations in our everyday lives.

It is crucial to recognize that technology truly delivers value when it is transformed into a product that addresses someone's needs. This is where a product development approach comes into play. However, transitioning from a technology-focused mindset to a customer-focused one can be quite challenging for someone who is technically inclined.

To overcome this challenge, I proactively delved into the study and implementation of product management frameworks within my business experiments and processes. By doing so, I aimed to bridge the gap between technology and the end-users, ensuring that our products align with their requirements.

Do you have any mentors or experiences that have particularly influenced your approach to product development and user experience?

As a startup founder and an active member of various startup communities, I've had the chance to learn from mentors and gain experiences that have greatly influenced my approach to product development and user experience.

Within the startup community, mentorship has been a game-changer for me. I've been lucky to connect with experienced mentors who have generously shared their knowledge and insights. 

But it's not just individual mentors that have made an impact. Being part of startup communities has been an amazing source of learning and inspiration. By engaging with fellow founders, product managers, and industry leaders, I've been able to exchange experiences, share best practices, and gain fresh perspectives on product development and user experience. Through workshops, discussions, and networking events, I've tapped into the collective knowledge of the community, constantly learning and improving.

The startup community is like a treasure trove of shared experiences. It's a place where founders and professionals come together to support each other's growth. Being an active member has exposed me to a wide range of approaches, frameworks, and innovative ideas. I've been able to explore new methodologies, experiment with different techniques, and stay up-to-date with industry trends.

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 the lesson you learned as result?

It was over 15 years ago when we launched a local portal dedicated to sharing photos from local party events. The response from the community was phenomenal, and we quickly gained a dedicated user base who loved the platform.

However, amidst the excitement and positive feedback, we made a crucial oversight. We completely neglected to think about developing a proper business model for the portal. Our primary focus was on providing a platform for people to share and enjoy event photos, but we failed to consider the long-term sustainability and scalability of the venture.

The local market turned out to be quite small, limiting the potential for substantial revenue generation. Additionally, the nature of the business model we had built made it difficult to scale beyond the local community. It soon became evident that our lack of a viable monetization strategy and scalability plan was a significant stumbling block.

Despite this oversight, the portal gained remarkable retention and garnered a loyal user base. It was a reminder of the importance of delivering a valuable product that resonated with the target audience. However, it also taught us a valuable lesson about the necessity of considering the business model and market potential from the very beginning.

To this day, I still have a t-shirt with the logo of that portal, proudly displayed as a memento. It serves as a constant reminder of the importance of strategic thinking and considering the long-term viability of any venture. It reminds me to always take into account the scalability and monetization potential of a business model, even when initial traction and user engagement are strong.

What do you feel has been your ‘career-defining’ moment?

One of the most career-defining moments for me was shortly after graduating from university when I found myself working in an office for a telecom company. It was during this experience that I came to a profound realization about the nature of work and the importance of creating value.

In the corporate office environment, I quickly noticed a stark contrast between the emphasis on presence and the actual impact on productivity and results. There was a prevailing mindset that as long as you were physically present during working hours, you were doing your job. However, I couldn't help but feel that this approach lacked a genuine focus on generating value and making a meaningful impact.

The disconnect between time spent in the office and the actual value created became increasingly apparent to me. I witnessed colleagues who would prioritize staying late or appearing busy rather than focusing on outcomes and tangible results. It was disheartening to realize that the office culture seemed to prioritize appearances over actual productivity.

I decided to leave the corporate environment after just a couple of months and ventured into the world of private business and startups. The startup culture emphasized the importance of results, innovation, and the relentless pursuit of creating value for customers. It shaped my belief that creating value should be the central focus of product development. 

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that 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?

When I embarked on my startup journey, I faced numerous challenges that tested my resilience and determination. There were definitely times when I contemplated giving up, but two types of communities played a pivotal role in keeping me motivated and pushing forward.

The first community that provided unwavering support was the customer community. Their positive feedback served as a constant reminder that I was making something right. 

The second community that played a vital role in my perseverance was the startup and entrepreneur community. This diverse group of individuals shared a common bond of understanding the rollercoaster nature of the startup journey. We were all aware that hard times and good times often interweave like zebra stripes. Engaging with fellow entrepreneurs, exchanging stories, and learning from their experiences helped me realize that challenges were manageable and that persistence was key.

How do you stay on top of market trends and developments in the product management space?

I believe that trend-watching is crucial for product management. I actively engage in trend-watching and have implemented a redesigned Rapid Foresight framework within our product development pipeline.

To operationalize this framework, we have integrated trend-watching activities into our product management pipeline. This includes dedicated resources and processes to collect, analyze, and disseminate relevant market information to inform our strategic decision-making.

By staying attuned to market trends, we can proactively identify and capitalize on new opportunities while minimizing the risks associated with changing market dynamics. This approach enables us to align our product roadmap with emerging customer needs and evolving market demands.

What role does cross-functional collaboration play in accelerating product development cycles, and how do you foster effective collaboration across different teams and departments?

Cross-functional collaboration is instrumental in accelerating product development cycles. It brings together teams from various departments, such as technical, product development, marketing, and sales, to align processes and work cohesively towards shared objectives.

To foster effective collaboration, we utilize HADI cycles, which stands for "Hypothesize, Analyze, Design, Implement." This iterative approach allows us to continuously iterate and improve our products while maintaining a rapid development pace.

One of the key elements of fostering effective collaboration is through weekly traction online meetings. These meetings serve as a platform for teams to share data, insights, and align on plans. During these sessions, we review the progress made, discuss challenges, and collectively make data-driven decisions to drive the product forward.

To ensure effective collaboration, we prioritize transparent communication and knowledge sharing across teams. This includes regular cross-functional meetings, where representatives from different departments come together to discuss and align on priorities, roadmaps, and dependencies.

Furthermore, we emphasize the importance of setting clear goals and metrics that align with the overall product vision. This enables teams to work towards a common objective, with each department understanding how their contributions impact the overall success of the product.

Based on your experience, what are your “5 Habits That Can Accelerate Product Development Cycles”?

  1. Trend-Watching: Constantly monitor market trends and identify upcoming opportunities that can boost your product. For example, over three years ago, we recognized the potential of generative AI as a driving technology. By incorporating it into our product roadmap early on, we positioned ourselves to capitalize on its growing popularity. This allowed us to stay ahead of the curve and leverage the technology to boost our product's capabilities.
  1. Flexibility: Create product roadmaps that allow for easy adaptation and switching between different product hypotheses without overhauling the entire project. In a face swap startup, we implemented a flexible roadmap that enabled us to swiftly switch between targeting both B2C and B2B markets. This agility allowed us to quickly respond to market demands and explore new opportunities without disrupting the core product.
  1. Iterative Approach with HADI Cycles: Adopt an iterative approach to product development, using Hypothesize, Analyze, Design, and Implement (HADI) cycles. By working in weekly cycles and leveraging data-driven insights, we make informed decisions and iterate rapidly. This iterative process helps us refine our product, uncover insights, and validate hypotheses efficiently.
  1. Fast Prototyping: Utilize fast prototyping techniques to accelerate testing and validation. Not every hypothesis requires full-scale development. In several instances, we employed human imitation of AI in our MVPs instead of spending months training neural networks. This allowed us to quickly gather feedback and validate the viability of our ideas. Once proven successful, we proceeded with full-fledged development.
  1. Seek Unfair Advantages: Identify and leverage your unique resources and strengths to gain an unfair advantage in the market. This could be exclusive partnerships, proprietary data, or specialized expertise. By harnessing these resources effectively, you can differentiate your product and accelerate its development. For instance, we leveraged our in-house research team's expertise to gain a competitive edge.

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?

Overcommitting: One common pitfall is setting unrealistic timelines or taking on too many features or projects at once. This can lead to poor quality outcomes and missed deadlines. To avoid this, teams should practice effective prioritization, focus on essential features, and establish achievable milestones based on realistic estimates and capacity.

Lack of Clear Communication: Ineffective communication can lead to misunderstandings, delays, and rework. It is crucial to establish clear channels of communication and ensure that everyone is aligned on project goals, timelines, and expectations. Regularly scheduled meetings, documentation, and using collaboration tools can help streamline communication and keep all team members informed.

Insufficient User Research: Neglecting user research and feedback can result in developing products that do not meet customer needs. It is important to invest time in understanding the target audience, conducting user research, and gathering feedback throughout the development process. This enables teams to make informed decisions and build products that resonate with users.

Inadequate Testing and Validation: Skipping thorough testing and validation can lead to issues and setbacks later in the development cycle. It is important to allocate sufficient time and resources for testing, quality assurance, and user acceptance testing. This ensures that the product meets quality standards and minimizes the risk of launching with critical bugs or usability issues.

To avoid these pitfalls, product teams should prioritize realistic goal-setting, establish clear communication channels, conduct user research and allocate ample time for testing and validation. 

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?

We were initially focused on creating a SaaS MVP for our face swap technology. However, in order to conduct more extensive experiments and gather user feedback, we decided to create a prototype messenger bot instead. We provided this bot to our corporate clients to test the capabilities of our technology.

To our surprise, the bot started attracting a larger user base, including users who were not our corporate partners. This unexpected development prompted us to reach out to these users for interviews and to understand their experiences.

During these interviews, we discovered that many of these users had found us through organic search. They were searching for face swap services and were dissatisfied with the resolution and quality of the options available to them before discovering our bot. In fact, some of these users became daily users, consistently hitting their daily usage limit.

In response to this positive feedback and growing user base, we decided to promote our bot. This approach resulted in acquiring hundreds of new users with zero marketing costs. 

This tradeoff between speed and quality arose when we shifted our focus from the SaaS MVP to the messenger bot prototype. This experience taught us the importance of being open to unexpected opportunities and listening to user feedback throughout the product development cycle. It reinforced the idea that tradeoffs between speed and quality can lead to valuable insights and enable us to make informed decisions that align with user needs and market demand.

How important is a data-driven approach to product development, and can you share a story where data significantly influenced your decision-making process?

A data-driven approach is paramount in product development as it provides objective insights for effective decision-making. 

We were working on some new features for our project that we believed would greatly enhance the user experience. We were enthusiastic about the idea and invested a considerable amount of time and resources into its development.

However, as we began testing the feature with a select group of users, we started collecting data on their usage patterns and feedback. To our surprise, the data revealed that the feature was not being utilized as much as we had anticipated. User engagement was low, and the feedback we received indicated that it didn't provide the expected value to our target audience.

Initially, we were hesitant to accept this data-driven insight as we were personally attached to the idea and its potential. However, we recognized the importance of making decisions based on evidence rather than personal biases. We conducted further analysis, examining user behavior, conducting surveys, and studying comparable market data.

Ultimately, the data consistently pointed to the same conclusion: the feature was not resonating with our users, and it was unlikely to drive significant value or long-term growth for our product.

We made the difficult decision to discontinue the feature and refocus our efforts on other initiatives. This data-driven approach allowed us to redirect our resources towards areas with higher potential for success and better align with our users' needs and preferences.

This experience highlighted the crucial role of data in product development. It reminded us that personal enthusiasm alone is not enough to drive a product's success. By relying on data, we can objectively assess the viability and impact of our ideas, enabling us to make informed decisions that increase the chances of delivering a valuable product to customers.

Is there a person in the world with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?

I am truly impressed by OpenAI's ability to create transformative technologies that seamlessly transition into impactful products, attracting a user base comparable to popular social networks. OpenAI's innovative solutions have undoubtedly set new trends in the industry. It would be an absolute pleasure for me to have the opportunity to meet Sam Altman, as his visionary insights and forecast of upcoming trends would be invaluable in shaping my understanding of the future of technology.

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By Hannah Clark

Hannah Clark is the Editor of The Product Manager. Following six years of experience in the tech industry, she pivoted into the content space where she's had the pleasure of working with some of the most brilliant voices in the product world. Driven by insatiable curiosity and a love of bringing people together, her mission is to foster a fun, vibrant, and inspiring community of product people.