If you want to change the world, first create a product strategy.

A strategy delineates a territory in which a company seeks to be unique.
— Michael Porter

Strategy, as an activity, is a bit mysterious. It's black box, kind of stuff. Some consider it a form of alchemy. It's part science and part art. Here’s what I’ve learned about creating them and a list of the seven essential topics to cover.

For those looking to outsource their strategy creation work, know that strategy processes can differ greatly between consultancies, design firms, agencies, etc. How to conduct and leverage a strategy was vaguely understood 15-years ago, but highly valued when done right. I would argue that consulting companies like McKinsey were expert strategists back in the day. They made crazy revenue with a mysterious blend of research, intuition and presentation theater. They still do.

Today, strategy is much better understood and has become an expected part of any creative service group’s process – large or small – for revealing what, how and why a product or service can best serve customers.

To begin building your brand, ask yourself three questions: 1) Who are you? 2) What do you do? 3) Why does it matter? – Marty Neumeier

These three questions from Mr. Neumeier yield a brand strategy, though this serves products quite well too as I’ll describe. Brands need strategies... a lot of them. Strategies come in all sorts of flavors, such as these:

  • business strategy

  • market strategy

  • media strategy

  • channel strategy

  • product strategy

  • content strategy

When looking at this cursory list, you can understand why large brands often have a number of specialized agencies who all claim to provide the best strategy in their specific domains. When you are a startup, though, the most important strategy from this list is your product strategy. Never start a project without one.

How I arrived at understanding Strategy

From my corner of that world, it used to confuse me on how to take a brand strategy and transform it into a digital (channel) strategy. The digital strategy has to account for user behavior on screens (desktop, mobile, console, TV and tablet). It has to translate how brands would distinguish and position themselves in consumer's minds into a set of experience principles that cements how we want the product to successfully interact with users. It isn't an easy thing to do and frankly, I winged it for a number of years.

Today, I finally feel knowledgeable enough to articulate a definition for Strategy that is wholly my own. Here it is:

Strategies are insights into complex environments for the purpose of galvanizing informed action.
Creating strategies means lots of sketching to work through the vagaries.

Creating strategies means lots of sketching to work through the vagaries.

Product Strategy Definition

So where do you start? What I've been examining over the last several years are product strategies. In my opinion, they have a great deal in common with digital strategies. Digital products need the same strategic statements to inform the designs. It provides the builders with their north star.

Here is a formula that will provide enough strategic information to build a successful product upon. Answer these seven questions and you and your team will be way ahead of the game. Yes – there are more questions other product strategies answer (like the 4C's), but these are the essentials.

  1. Problem / Opportunity - Describe the pain that you’re alleviating or the pleasure you’re providing.

  2. Audience – Who is your user? Why will they care? What are they currently doing to resolve the stated problem?

  3. Value PropositionExplain the value of the pain you alleviate or the value of the pleasure you provide.

  4. Underlying Magic – Describe the technology, secret sauce or magic behind your product. The less text and the more diagrams, schematics and flowcharts the better.

  5. Business Model – Explain who has your money temporarily in his pocket and how you’re going to get it into yours. In other words, how will this make money?

  6. Go-To-Market Plan – Explain how you are going to reach your customer without breaking the bank.

  7. Competitive Analysis – Provide a complete view of the competitive landscape. Too much is better than too little.

But wait… there’s more. If you're a startup, you will definitely want to answer this final question:

  • Management Team – How will you scale this effort? How will it be managed? Describe the key players of your mgmt team, board of directors and board of advisors, as well as major investors.

In the age of quantified activities where analytics and numbers shape so much of our decisions, strategy is still part science and part art. And that’s just fine. While strategy should always tie back to an insight unearthed by research, it should also be mixed with the strategist's instincts.

It can still be a bit of a black box, but that's only because each person and team has slightly different ways of arriving at their version of truth. Good luck changing the world!

I've included a download of the above with this post. Feel free to share. I hope it will prove useful. If you want a keynote version, please email me.