How Successful Product Managers Handle Feature Requests from VCs
January 21, 2016

How Successful Product Managers Handle Feature Requests from VCs

by Brian de Haaff

You just received another feature request, but this one is different. It is a bad idea like many of the others. But this one is from one of your highly celebrated (and feared) board members — and that makes it special. Very special.

He is a proven venture capitalist who has invested several million of his firm’s capital in the company. And he is fairly certain that his feature idea is a “game-changer.” You certainly cannot ignore him. But you are really not sure anymore that becoming a product manager was the best career choice. And that is really saying something.

Here is how it happens. At least once a month you are getting an email from the investor via your boss. Sometimes he even visits the office to check on how the product is progressing and what customers think — and drops by your desk to say, “Hello.”

You are smart enough to be thankful that he is there — because without his money you would be working somewhere else. And you like the product and the company.

But you fear that if you say, “Yes” to this feature request, it would be wrong for the product and customers. If you say, “No,” you worry that it will not be good for you. After all, investors are not known for their patience or deep empathy. You would have a lot of explaining to do.

So, what is your next move?

This is a rough situation. You would love to fade into the background and quietly focus your energy on the product. But artful prioritization is part of the required skill set, like it or not. You must walk this fine line between different stakeholders and differing interests.

You need a standard by which to measure these requests, including the silly ones that come in from the people who are paying your mortgage. Luckily, you already have one — your product strategy.

Your strategy already informs every move you should make with the product. Armed with that powerful tool, you can be the one to say, “Yes,” “Not now,” or even say, “No” — and still keep your job. Here is how you should do it:

Consider each request Consider each idea on its own merit. You have other ideas to vet as well, but explore the possibility that his idea has value. Demonstrate your interest and listen carefully to the complete request. Ask probing questions to understand what is motivating the request and what the expected value of the feature would be to customers.

Show your appreciation Give him credit for the idea and space to explain how he came up with it. Talking it through may refine the idea and trigger a better one. Before responding, you should most likely explain that you need time to think through the request and how it fits with the product strategy and roadmap. This gives you time to fully consider the request, talk with your boss and others, and decide whether it is aligned with where the product is headed.

Explain your why If you need to say, “No,” expand on your reasoning. It is safer to internalize his ideas and then respond by showing him the key strategic drivers that were initially agreed upon. This shows why the idea does not align based on the strategy that he agreed to. [Hopefully, your CEO has a strategy and the board is behind it. If not, you should explain the key strategic drivers for the product before getting back to the features.]

Keep him in the loop The investor is betting on the people and the product and may want to be part of the company-building process as well. So, give him the insider’s view when appropriate and with the CEO’s guidance. The better he understands what is happening with customers and the product, the more aligned his future input will hopefully be.

When an opportunity like this comes up, put aside your conflicted feelings and ask:

Would I prioritize this request even if it had come from someone who was not on the board of my company?

In great companies, investors and managers alike know that the product manager’s responsibility must always be to the customer and the future of the business. Feature prioritization decisions must be as pure and transparent as possible. Sticking to your strategy — no matter what — ensures that only the features that matter most will move to the top of the list.

You will ultimately have a better product to deliver to customers. And at the end of the day, that is what every investor wants: value being created for customers, which is the best way to guarantee a great return on his investment.

How have you handled investors’ feature requests?

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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