Your Product is More
Than a Project

When launching into the world of tech startups one key element to grasp is the difference between project and product. I have to admit, as a former tech product startup founder with a long agency background, understanding this difference was a process. The process ended when the product manager lights came on in my mind and the difference was right in front of my face. Clarity begins when you understand the difference.

Let's start with simple definition of each respectively. First, a project has a defined scope of work which is completed in a designated timeframe. The project has a definitive start and end. The product on the other hand is an ongoing iterative scope of work which is shipped in parts of continuous delivery cycle. The product is essentially never done.

Why does this even matter? Project or product. Whatever, right. Not so fast, and here's why.
Products are market problem driven solutions
All markets and consumers have problems. These days a majority of these problems are being tackled with a tech-based solution. One of the greatest challenges is dialing in your product to be the optimal solution to the problem you are tackling. This is where the continuous delivery cycle comes into play, as does another key skill — listening.

Shortly after your proof-of-concept product hits the market you spend time listening to your growing audience of customers and learning from the market adoption. Pointing a project plan against a market problem assumes you have the solution nailed and aim to hit the bullseye on the first attempt. As a former agency guy delivering projects I found this to be true, but in the world of product this simply is not the case.
Products are never really finished
When you launch your digital product into the market it's common for this version to be the proof of concept (POC), which is better known by the terminology — minimum viable product (MVP). The purpose of the MVP is to prove there is a market of buyers (users) for your product.

When the beta version of the product for my first startup tech company, Virtual Race Bags, launched it was truly a simple proof of concept. In beta there was enough functionality in the product to provide a solution for event organizers to connect their sponsors directly to their participants via a digital goody bag. If the target audience of events would pay to use the product we were in business. We quickly found the proof and the next move we made was maybe one of the most stressful moves you could experience in the early days. We decided to go big and rebuilt the entire product from the ground up.

As a growing number of events began to adopt (more than 10), we believed the beta version would not scale to sustain the larger event customers we were targeting. If our MVP version was a project, this simple proof of concept version would have been the end of the line and customers would have suffered from lack of continuous improvement. Instead, as a product with the continuous delivery cycle was just the beginning and continues still today (even post-acquisition).

Castle's CEO, Travis Parsons, looks at this further in Your Digital Product Will Never Be Finished.
Product and project managers are different talents
My career started in the design agency world. After starting and running a boutique design studio, I became versed in delivering projects using traditional waterfall methodology. As I launched a tech startup and transitioned to managing products, the focus shifted to the continuous iteration process of building a successful product using agile methodology. Managing both project and product helps me quickly point to the key differences.

In a Forbes article describing the product manager as the rock star of the digital industry, Ray Tsuchiyama clarifies these differences:
The "Project Manager" is different from a Product Manager in that the latter is a strategic leader and makes key decisions based on market insights, while the former is handed a "project" and completes it on schedule.
— Ray Tsuchiyama
The questions are, "who is managing your product?" or "are you running your product like a project?". Startup tech companies can easily survive without project managers. But without strategic leadership and the ability to discover market insights found in a product manager, you may find your product (and maybe the fate of your entire digital venture) wandering around in the desert.
Products have a life cycle
While projects have a simple start and end delivery date, your product has an ongoing life cycle. Drawing from past and current experiences managing products there is a clear life cycle: products will traverse from beta launch and grow to maturity. During this life cycle the team will utilize various skills and experience first hand how to manage through the constant iteration toward dialing in strong product market fit.
  • Discover: researching key target market and defining positioning
  • Plan: bringing clarity to market problems and path to solutions
  • Design: crafting user experience to deliver on the plan
  • Build: coding the features for each part of user experience
  • Launch: releasing the group of features into the live product
  • Grow: product learns and builds new features as customer onboard
  • Listen: refining product-market fit based on market insights
During the discover, plan and design phases of the life cycle the product manager and design team is cranking at 110 percent capacity, while the development team is slowly building steam. Next, in the build, test and launch phases, the product, design, development and QA teams are all driving at maximum speed. Finally, as the product matures through grow and sustain phases both the product and development team hit their stride with a natural cadence and capacity to support the sustained growth.

This life cycle for products is important to understand. The typical product life cycle can reach launch within 6-12 months and the timing to reach beginning level of maturity will take between 2-3 years. If you treat your product like a project you will overlook this life cycle. If you pursue product as a project, which is a linear path to complete in short defined timeline, you might be confused when your product lacks the constant iteration and refinement to land on the product market fit you need to succeed.

The day you launch your tech product solution to be the ultimate answer to the market problem you so passionately want to solve, be ready for a continuous cycle of delivery. Listen, observe, plan, design, build, ship... repeat (never complete).