Designing our company for velocity

Deep diving on the 3 rituals that help us keep a high velocity: Monthly focus, Beta Fridays and Strategic workshops

Designing our company for velocity
Photo by Pawel Czerwinski / Unsplash

Most start-ups have more established, better funded, larger competitors. Some incumbents might have 1000s or 10000s of employees working on the same problem you are tackling.

How can a 3-people start-up challenge the sheer scale of these large companies?

This question has been on our minds since the day we co-founded Hera, Louise and I, 10 months ago. We've found two attributes to effectively make a difference:

  • Having a strong community around your product
  • Maintaining a high velocity

This article is about the latter, and how we try to design our company to keep a steady rhythm of experimentation.

I should also say that the latter (high velocity) is catalysed by the former (strong community) as our community is continuously providing us with feedback.

I am using the word velocity to encompass speed and direction, because you don't want to have one without the other.

I am going to deep dive in the few rituals that effectively help us go faster:

  1. Planning our product bets for a month, not more.
  2. Dedicating every Friday to tactical improvements in our product
  3. Using each end of month to step back, process learnings and update our direction

A month is our time horizon

There is always a tendency to plan for quarters and years. It's reassuring.
It's also vastly unadapted to early-stage companies, because of the intrinsic uncertainty about the business and the product.

At this stage for Hera, our goal is to make sure we learn as much as possible on users every month. We will try ideas that won't work and thus we want to keep the time invested in each idea capped.

Based on our current understanding of our space, target audience and product, we define the strategic bet(s) we want to make this month. Never more than one or two bets per month.

Scoping your bets to one month means that if your new feature is not successful, you've only invested one month— in practice, often less.
You can then decide whether you want to invest more time on this feature, or if you should pursue something else.

Each month, we make one or two strategic bets in our product

For instance, here's a snapshot of our focus product-wise for November.

We ship the strategic bets at the end of the month but we almost always release the feature earlier to 5 to 15 users to shape it together.

I've found the Shape Up methodology to be a great source of inspiration to find the right length for these product "sprints". Raycast also explains well the advantages of such format for early-stage start-ups.

So far, a monthly focus has worked well for us, both long enough to be bold in what we build, and short enough to minimize potential losses and tighten the feedback loop with our users.

We started building our product in September, 2 months ago. We were onboarding 30 users per week at the end of September.

We knew our product was far from perfect.

It was not acceptable for us to tell users "Yeah, this part of the product is broken but we are in the middle of that strategic bet for at least a month!"

We've found a good balance between strategic work and tactical work with Beta Friday:

Using every Friday for tactical improvements

Beta Friday is simple: every Friday at Hera is dedicated to tactical improvements in the product.

We use Airtable to consolidate the feedback we get everyday from our users, and trends often emerge after few weeks.

We then carve out some scoped improvements or bug fixes and we crush them on Friday.

Friday night is release night
An example of Beta Friday release

I find it to be a good ritual to give back to our community and make sure users perceive their impact on our product.

Speed only matters when you are confident in the direction.

The agressive monthly focus and Beta Fridays allow us to iterate substantially on our product every month.
Each iteration brings its set of learnings and surprises.

We make sure to process these learnings to refine our product vision and our overall understanding of where we need to go.

Using end of months to update the direction

At the end of the month, we set up two to three 1-hour workshops where:

  • We go over the quantitative and qualitative metrics of what we've built the previous month
  • We derive a set of learnings on a) the problem we address, b) whether our product correctly addresses the problem and c) who are the users getting the most value out of our product

From these learnings, we refine — if needed:

  1. Our value proposition
  2. Our target audience
  3. What is missing, broken, or superfluous, for our product to deliver on this value proposition.

Of course, these updates are direct input for next month's focus

Taking a step back to process the learnings from the previous month

For instance, here's the outcome of one of the workshops done last month. This one was on the future we believe in and we want to enable:

Besides the outcomes of these workshops, we also deeply value the time blocked to step back and reflect on our longer term future.

The timing of these workshops is great as it's just before we send our monthly update to our investors and community.

So, if we zoom out, our months look like this:

1 strategic week, 1 tactical day, rinse and repeat

This framework works well for us, at our current stage.

I expect this framework to break once we reach a stable level of product/market fit. When the core retention of a product is consistently high, part of the company focus shifts towards finding ways to distribute the product to more users, versus creating the best user experience for a small group of users.

Disclaimer 1: The same way our product evolves every week, we expect these rituals to evolve over time to factor the new challenges we will face as we grow.

Disclaimer 2: Also, this intrinsic focus on velocity does not guarantee in any ways that we are going to "succeed", but it decreases the probability that we don't make it because we haven't tried enough stuff.

Have a good day everyone,