Latif Nanji, the CEO and co-founder of Roadmunk, has written about how poker helps you better at product management and building culture (by taking his team to Costa Rica). Roadmunk was started to help collaborate and align vision across teams and has served over 25,000 product innovators worldwide. After sharing his stacklist, we asked Latif more about roadmaps and how entrepreneurs can plan for the future.
Roadmunk was founded 4 years ago, would you still consider it a "startup"?
In those 4 years, what growing pains have you come across as you scaled?
This is my third time doing a startup. I’ve entered two or three sets of growing pains that were very difficult before, so we knew how to work our way around them. A lot of what founders have to do is manage their own psychology because of the number of moving pieces and stress. The key to being mentally sharp and focused is a rather traditional answer: make sure you find the right people.
There’s a huge talent pool in Toronto, and I think we’ve done an incredible job hiring. Sometimes I wish we got some of our people earlier! We’ve brought on 6 engineers in the last 6 months. We had typical onboarding problems, which isn’t anything I haven’t seen or experienced. If I was a first time founder, I would be jarred that it takes 3 months to get an engineer fully trained up, but that’s totally normal.
The team - yes a traditional answer but there’s a reason for that. Any other obstacles?
I can’t really say that we’ve run into major obstacles that were threatening the business. We started the business by focusing on being empathetic to our users, building something they really need, which in turn has given us tens of thousands of users that have been able to invest and us so we can return that investment to them.
"When someone asks me for advice on roadmaps, I ask about their culture. Is it data-driven? Or is it going to be more agile? It’s important to understand your company culture."
You’re an expert on roadmaps. How and when would an entrepreneur start building a roadmap for their business?
I would look at what stage your business is at. If you’re a really young company, you don’t necessarily need a deadline- or timeline-driven roadmap. You need more strategic things like “here’s what we want to accomplish in the next 3-6 months,” or do it by quarter. Keep it really simple. Or you can do it by simply listing features. It depends where the product and company is. Entrepreneurs further along the road may need something more time-based to align their teams.
I also recommend using software to put information and data in, and get feedback.
So, you have to look at it from all those different points of view and get feedback. A lot of roadmaps are built in isolation, so I really recommend:
And what about the inverse of that question … what are things a roadmap would NOT be good for?
A roadmap is not good for planning a series of tasks. A roadmap is not good for people that want to understand the day-to-day operation of a business. If a company is going into a roadmap and wondering what are they doing in 1 day or 5 days or 16 days (a roadmap that is built on a day-to-day), it starts to challenge the definition. But I am one of those people who believes there are a few definitions of roadmaps.
Some people have to be week-to-week or month-to-month. When it becomes day-to-day it becomes a danger. That’s when you have a product launch strategy or engineering sprint board. I think people should make sure they are looking at the right scale, and be able to drill down into their roadmap and see what their activities are, but be able to look at it from a higher level as well.
Early on in my career, I was building roadmaps for the next four weeks and looking at feature plans—which isn’t what a roadmap necessarily needs to be.
If the goal is to align the team to a unified direction to a specific strategy, you need a roadmap.
"Sometimes you get ideas and get jazzed about them psychologically, but to look at them objectively takes time and a deep level of emotional intelligence."
I love the term "pivot." What happens to a roadmap after a startup decides to pivot?
Update it! Lots of companies that I’ve worked with and mentor pivot. When you look at a company and why they pivot, it’s because they fundamentally didn’t understand their user or the problem that they are trying to solve to the deepest degree.
It’s not just about what you want to make, you need to understand product market fit. Roadmaps don't get you product market fit. That comes from endless conversations with users and being brutally honest with yourself, and that is something that takes time to do. Sometimes you get ideas and get jazzed about them psychologically, but to look at them objectively takes time and a deep level of emotional intelligence.
Startup mentality is usually "move fast/learn as you go." How much time would you say should go into planning?
That depends on the type of company. If you’re a $500-million-dollar business, you’ve probably got consultants, and at the management level you’re probably spending 50-60 percent of your time on planning.
If you’re a 500-person startup like Slack: at the executive level you’re still you’re spending 20-30% of your time on strategic thinking and planning. You’re gonna be heavily involved in this process. These numbers are ranges that depend on your market, I just use Slack as an example because everyone understands them and what they do. They’ve already got market domination so strategically they’re gonna make some big moves.
Mid-size companies, growing 40-60% year over year who’re aiming to be rocketships, those are the companies that need to step back and look at their plan and make sure they have the right process, focus and goals.
A pure-bred startup with less than 50 people—I suspect the management team and VP level are spending no more that 10% of their time on strategy, which is still a big part of your week because all day-to-day are naturally driven by these high level thoughts and conversations. For me personally, I spend at least 20% of my week reflecting, planning and working my team leads even though our company is only 20 people. It’s important to us to make sure we are calibrating on the market and using that information to our advantage.
Can you tell us why you feel it’s important for startups to share their stacklist?
Paying it forward to understand how entrepreneurs scale their companies using software is pretty damn cool. What does a company look like at 150 people, and what are those companies using in terms of tools? So you know there’s a strategic “roadmap” if you will, to which tools you’re going to be using.
Right now we could be using tools that are great for us today that are really fast and have great UX, but all of a sudden if you’re a company that’s 20x the size you are now, do you have the technological infrastructure to make sure your team can be effective and productive? In a lot of the cases, the answer is “no.”
I’ve worked for an organization that went from 20 to 150 people, and their eyeballs wanted to pop out because of the number of tools they had. I was in a fortunate position to work for another company that was around 15 people and implemented Netsuite. When I left, they were 100+ employees with less than five major software providers—that’s impressive. And then everyone in the core operations was on one simple tool, and that’s a powerful thing. There were early hiccups and hurdles to get over, but once we got past it having people on one platform was incredibly powerful.
I think it’s important to share to see what the best people are doing and what the latest trends are. If a company isn’t paying attention, they are going to fall behind and they won’t have the edge they need over their competitors.