Centering Product Development in Our Mission

This article was published in the Winter 2020 issue

by Emily Campbell, Co-founder & VP of Product, BookClub

People learn more from books than from any other source. We know this from the massive set of learning data shared by users of Degreed, the Utah-based company founded by our CEO and CTO, David Blake and Eric Sharp. However, despite the rise of platforms centering on experts–Pluralsight supporting technology experts, Coursera supporting professors–Authors lack a platform built just for them. David approached me in February with a mission to change that: “We will be the place where authors can share and support their expertise. Community driven, author centered. If we can harness the power of life-changing conversations through books, we can create the world’s largest learning platform.”

It’s this mission that powers our decision making. By staying laser-focused on why we exist and who we serve, we can develop our product with scope and prioritization centered around the why and the who.

I’ve been in product and design for over a decade. I quickly learned the importance of understanding how something should function before deciding its form: what it looks like, what it says, etc. The key to product strategy is to understand not just what the product does, but why it functions like that and how it connects people to our end goal. That’s why, at BookClub, every decision we make about the product (or anything else) is centered around our mission. The goal sits at the forefront of everything we do. We connect people to books and authors. Period.

Product design is like building a house—you’re not going to pick out the curtains before you put up the frame. Similarly, we begin with the why (our mission) and build from there. From the mission comes who we are serving—for us that’s authors, readers, and book club moderators. Since authors and readers will be our primary audience, we spend a little more time with them. We ask ourselves, “what would lead an author or a reader to have an in-depth conversation about a book in a digital space?” and place our bets against this question.

By using the term “bets” we signal to ourselves and stakeholders that each product decision is a hypothesis against our mission. We don’t always know exactly what our customers are going to want or need from our product, so we have to use what we know about them to make some educated guesses (bets) to move forward.

We also use our mission to help form these decisions. At BookClub, we know what we are (a way for authors and readers to connect), what we are not (a clearinghouse for books or a social platform), and we know where our North Star is (our mission). We also know that it’s the product’s job to help the company reach that North Star.

Does centering on our mission and our customers mean we are leaving things on the table? Potentially. By making these tough decisions, we’re not saying we’ll never do something else; we’re just saying that it doesn’t serve the mission or our customers right now. Since we are young and small, our focus is narrow and targeted. Over time, as we know the market better and they know us, we hope to expand the lens of opportunities available within our mission. That’s the paradox of product: you have to build something to be able to grow more. It’s only a zero-sum game if you fail to act.

The biggest challenge in creating a product this way is the tradeoff between acting on what we know and constantly questioning what we know. We have to balance the tensions of time, quality, and accuracy in order to make a product that serves our mission and our customers. Again, it is the mission that makes all of this easier, by giving us a clear constraint to focus our efforts.

As we’ve built the BookClub team, and the product development team in particular, we’ve prioritized onboarding people who believe in our mission because this is crucial to creating an awesome product. The first thing we share with a new team member is the data David shared with me — that books generate knowledge in ways no other source comes close — and that our priority is to create a product that supports connecting readers to authors and conversations that unlocks this knowledge.

Our product strategy centers on the people who we serve, ingraining the mission of BookClub in everything we do. By staying focused, we can create something powerful and life-changing.

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*Read the latest issue of Silicon Slopes Magazine, Winter 2020Read Silicon Slopes Latest Winter Magazine
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