Five Answers to Questions About Product Vision & Roadmaps

Here are five answers that outline how to build a product vision, test its viability, then over-communicate your short-term rolling, four-quarter roadmap.

Gib’s note: In each “Ask Gib” essay, I draw from my experience as both VP of Product at Netflix and Chief Product Officer at Chegg to help product leaders advance their careers. This is essay #52.

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1. What is your process for creating a 2-5 year product vision that’s not too far-fetched yet not too conservative?

For me, a product vision is a long-term, overarching plan for your product, with an articulation of how you will get there. A product vision enables teams to embrace a long-term mindset along with a somewhat flexible, step-by-step approach that helps the team navigate from where it is today to its hoped-for future.

I like the product vision to be inspirational and far-reaching but also serve as a practical guide that helps organizations navigate the short term. To keep it inspirational and reinforce the notion that anything is possible in the long term, I craft a vision that extends 10-15 years into the future.

For fun, let’s imagine we’re Instagram or Amazon at the beginning of their entrepreneurial journey. Here’s what the product vision might look like for each of these companies:

Instagram Product Vision

  • Get big on mobile photo editing and sharing

  • Lead in building a photo community

  • Expand into social commerce

Amazon Product Vision

  • Get big on books

  • Lead eCommerce for all product categories

  • Expand into web services for internet-based companies

In both cases, I applied the “GLEe” model to articulate the product that establishes the company’s initial beachhead, how you might lead from there, along with how you will expand even further. I call this the GLEe model because the first letter in each step spells “GLEe.”

Here’s the model:

  • Get Big on _____________

  • Lead __________________

  • Expand into ____________

Here’s how I think about each step:

  • The “Get Big” part establishes the product’s initial focus, including establishing product-market fit. This phase acknowledges the importance of growth to establish hard-to-copy advantages of brand, network effects, and economies of scale.

  • The “Lead” in the next chapter forces companies to continue innovating — resting on your laurels is a recipe for disaster.

  • In the third step, “Expand” forces teams to think about how they might “dent the universe” in the long term.

Generally, each of these steps outlines 3-5 years of hoped-for progress, for a total of 9-15 years.

When I describe these three chapters, I think about new technology or potential waves the product can ride. Below, I articulate the GLEe model for Netflix, and include the technology waves at each step, and expand the model out to five stages— it’s possible to keep expanding forever:

  • Get big on DVDs. Netflix launched in 1997, one year after Toshiba introduced the DVD player. Netflix also took advantage of the rising eCommerce wave with its one-of-a-kind “all you can eat” subscription service.

  • Lead streaming. Netflix launched streaming in 2007, taking advantage of internet bandwidth that finally enabled full-screen video.

  • Expand internationally. Once Netflix was primarily a streaming company, it could localize its digital service much more easily than a DVD-by-mail operation. It launched its first streaming-only service in Canada in 2010.

  • Expand into original content. Today, with its economies of scale, Netflix spends $20B on content translated into 40 languages across 190 countries to serve more than 200M members worldwide. “House of Cards”, in 2013, was Netflix’s first successful original series.

  • Expand into interactive stories. This is an early hypothesis. Experiments include Bandersnatch and interactive versions of several children’s stories (Captain Underpants “Choice-o-Rama” and Dreamworks’ “Puss in Book”). Netflix will know in 3-5 years whether this hypothesis succeeds.

In the early days of Netflix, the product vision provided a very high-level, step-by-step approach to how Netflix might progress from DVD-by-mail to a dominant original content studio. The early product vision wasn’t exactly how things panned out, however. I’ll illustrate this in a moment as I answer the next question.

2. Strategy starts with a vision. How do you test your way into having high confidence that your vision is the right vision?

The GLEe model provides a fuzzy vision of the future, and each step is a hypothesis. Here’s how Netflix tested its way from a DVD-by-mail company to the largest worldwide provider of original content:

  • At startup, the “fuzzy vision” was Netflix would go from DVDs-by-mail in 1997 to “downloading” in 2000. But it turned out that Netflix had to spend much more time establishing a beachhead with DVDs as it waited to establish both the financial resources required to license streaming content and sufficient internet bandwidth to enable full-screen video. Netflix launched streaming in January 2007 with only 300 titles at a time that the company had more than 100,000 DVDs to choose from. It was three years before the company invested more in streaming than DVDs. The steps in the product vision are not discrete— you slowly transition from one stage to the next.

  • In 2005, Netflix tested original content on DVD with its “Red Envelope Studios,” which failed. Looking back, the company did not have sufficient economies of scale to create its own content. But by 2013, with the launch of “House of Cards,” Netflix proved the viability of original content.

  • In 2005, Netflix also invested about a year to launch its DVD by mail service in the UK but canceled the project one week before launch. There were two reasons for the cancellation: 1) There was a rumor that Amazon was going to launch a rival DVD by mail service in the US and Netflix needed to protect its core, and 2) It became obvious that international expansion would be very challenging given the complexity of each country’s postal operations. Finally, in 2010, Netflix launched its first streaming-only product in Canada. Today, Netflix is in 190 countries.

The point in the above is that the product vision does not have to be “right.” The product vision is vague about the exact timing, and each step is actually a hypothesis. But it’s critical to share a product vision that helps investors and employees understand how big the opportunity may be, along with a rough plan of how you will eventually get there.

As a product leader, it’s important to have a fuzzy vision of “What’s next?” Today, I hypothesize that the next potential step for Netflix is interactive stories. Netflix is currently testing this concept with a dozen interactive story titles. It’s early days, so I’ll bet the company is investing less than 5% of its total resources on this potential fifth step for the product. Over time, Netflix will ramp up the investment if they see substantial traction for titles like its “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” interactive special.

3. What's the fine line between fuzzy vision and bad planning?

Eventually, the first three steps of Netflix’s product vision were obvious. But in real-time, treat each step like a hypothesis of the steps required to achieve your product’s long-term vision.

My approach to a product vision is to establish a “fuzzy vision” of the future. Each of the steps in the GLEe model is a hypothesis that is eventually proven or not. The GLEe model provides a rough plan for how things might play out, but it needs to be very flexible. The key is that all functions within a company are aware of the potential steps and agree on the level of investment for each stage at any moment in time. This helps the company to stay aligned.

Below I give an example of resource allocation for Netflix, with my best guess of the investment in each stage today.

  • Get big on DVD: Current investment: 2.5% of total resources. (There are still a few million DVD by mail customers in the US.)

  • Lead streaming: 25% (Continued investment in streaming technology).

  • Expand international: 50% (Investment in localization, awareness building in 190 countries).

  • Expand into original content: 20% (Stranger Things, Orange Is the New Black, Ozark, The Crown, etc.)

  • Interactive stories: 2.5% (Bandersnatch, Captain Underpants, etc.)

The key is for organizations to have shared language around the potential step-by-step product progression, along with a rough sense of the optimal level of investment at each stage.

Given all of the above, “bad planning” would be no shared vision or an inflexible belief that things will play out exactly as the product vision dictates. This almost never happens.

4. What’s the best way to build a 3-year roadmap?

I have never built a 3-year road map, so I’m not sure of the best approach. However, I am wary of the exercise as I find that even a one-year roadmap is an exercise in false precision.

In building a one-year rolling roadmap, I have high confidence in the current quarter’s projects, but I assume I will learn so much during the current quarter that plans for subsequent quarters will change. And I don’t build annual roadmaps. Instead, I update the roadmap on a rolling, four-quarter basis. I do this each quarter.

When I share a roadmap, I let folks know that I am confident about the plans for the current quarter, but we will likely update plans depending on our progress and learning. But I find the process helpful as it gives a sense of how the pieces might fit together along with a fuzzy vision of how the next four quarters will play out. For some engineers, it’s helpful to understand what might be coming down the pike as many technology projects require long lead time work — like building A/B test infrastructure to support future testing or transition of local data into Amazon’s Web Services.

I suspect that large hardware companies find it helpful to build a longer-term roadmap, as hardware takes longer to build and has many dependencies. So I’d likely build the three-year roadmap with very broad brushstrokes.

The short answer to this question:

  • Build a rolling four-quarter roadmap

  • Refer to your Product Vision to make guesses about what projects might happen in the second and third years, depending on current/future steps in your product vision.

  • Provide a high-level summary of years two and three but do not provide quarterly detail.

Let me know if this is helpful. Big company peeps with very long-term planning cycles— likely hardware companies — I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

5. How do you keep the product roadmap front-of-mind for the rest of the business?

As companies grow, there’s increasing potential for the overall organization to fall out of alignment, so I engage in a tactic I call “Lather, Rinse, Repeat.” (It’s a shampoo reference.) Basically, overcommunicate to keep everyone aligned.

Each quarter, I rearticulate the product vision, the product strategy (including the Strategy/Metric/Tactic lockup), along with the rolling four-quarter roadmap. I do this at both company and quarterly product strategy meetings. Sometimes it feels a bit pedantic, but I prefer overcommunication to under-communication. I also keep things as simple/interesting as possible, so there are higher odds that folks will remember these key concepts.

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Many thanks,

Gib

Gibson Biddle

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