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A Roadmap: What It Is and Why Your Startup Needs It

The functions of the roadmap. Steps for creating a roadmap on your own. What you need to know and consider. Free services for creating a roadmap. Real-life examples.

A roadmap is a strategic plan that defines the goal of a project and features the main steps, or stages, to achieve it. A roadmap is often used when creating a business or startup. It is an efficient communication tool for staying in touch with the team, investors, and top-level management.

Researchers Robert Cooper and Scott Edgett found out that 38% of enterprises with high productivity and 19% of enterprises with low productivity use road maps. For the first time, road maps appeared back in the 1970s. The Motorola company introduced the requirement to use them. Since then, they have taken root in businesses of any industry, including venture ones.

Each step of the roadmap contains a hypothesis that is tested during the experiment. The next step becomes possible only when the desired result is achieved. If this result is not achieved, you need to repeat the step with a preliminary change of the hypothesis. If you run out of hypotheses but the goal has not been achieved, then the project idea should be considered unsuccessful.

Why startups need a roadmap

In the world of entrepreneurship, it is too easy to load yourself with tasks that fail to move your business forward. Since a startup is the most free form of business, it is also the most likely one to lose its way — for example, by chasing a new interesting function or another market. The search for new horizons is a very useful process. Yet by itself and at the moment, it does not help the founders to reach their goal. 

A roadmap is a step-by-step guide that contains all the necessary information: who you can and should contact, how to test a hypothesis, what to do for the development of a product idea. The roadmap enables you to focus on one step at a time, maintaining a competent balance of time, finances, and efforts spent.

Based on the roadmap, the founders pave the least expensive way to the goal. The total cost of the project remains at a minimum level, increasing only as you go through the stages. But at the same time, the viability of the product also grows.

The roadmap leaves free and safe space for errors. With the step-by-step implementation of the project, costs are minimized because you detect and eliminate shortcomings at an early stage (and not after the launch of the product, when the corrections grow both in complexity and in cost).

In its essence, a roadmap is a method of empirical product development, where each hypothesis is accompanied by an experiment to refute or confirm it. This saves the founder from the fear of the blank page. It helps them to start a gradual, step-by-step development and not rush to spend their hard-invested money.

The functions of a roadmap 

The roadmap of a startup differs from the roadmap of a large company or enterprise since it performs different tasks at different stages of the business’s existence. For a startup, it performs two crucial functions.

1. Strategic directive

Previously, investors used to demand monstrous 50-page business plans from young companies. The founders tried to predict everything that it was impossible to predict correctly. Of course, modern startups do not need that. A startup project should be flexible, able to adapt to the rapidly changing market requirements and competitive environment. Therefore, 50 pages with a detailed description of each step for the next 5 years is largely considered fiction.

If a startup begins to work without a roadmap, it means that it lacks a clearly allocated place with a fixed strategic plan and product goals. The team has nowhere to turn for a reminder and references, they have nothing to rely on. Then, the organization will have no reference point from which you can periodically check your progress to make sure that your current actions fit into the broader picture and your overall strategy.

In other words, the roadmap serves as a reference document. With a roadmap, the team will always remember why and in what order they need to perform planned tasks. They will understand how not to go astray and keep the focus on the actions that are the most profitable from the strategic viewpoint.

2. Prioritization and planning

Cross-functional teams in a startup get easily distracted by exciting new ideas. They start pulling the project in different directions. This carries high risks for a startup with extremely limited resources, where a clear action plan has not yet been formulated.

If every employee of a startup becomes more enthusiastic and reckless than the founder, this is a sure recipe for failure. That’s why another function of the roadmap is so important: it serves as a guide that clearly indicates the priorities.

However, for a startup, a change of day-to-day realities is inevitable. The needs, priorities, budgets, and team will always keep updating. The above-mentioned 50-page development plan is bad because it assigns the product team to a clumsy, non-adaptive plan that might become outdated in six months.

Therefore, the task of a startup is to create a format that enables you to quickly and easily introduce changes as often as necessary — and at the same time, not to distract too much from current goals. After all, when a team lacks at least a tentative plan, it becomes impossible to develop the most strategically correct ways to adjust it. This is where the roadmap helps.

How to create a roadmap on your own

The startup roadmap is a good thing because it focuses on the big picture, not the details.

Step 1. Create a graph

Before you begin to draw up a roadmap, your startup should know what deadlines it needs to meet. In addition, you should begin planning its launch at least six months prior. This will give the project and the team enough time to prepare as well as study the roadmap and discuss it.

After you determine what you need for a successful launch, the startup management needs to create a clear work schedule. A deadline should be set for each task, be it creating your brand and corporate design, getting the final approval of the product cost, or training your sales department. The date does not need to be specific — but numbers will help you to better organize your team.

Step 2. Carry out preliminary research

Before drawing up a roadmap, you should conduct as many surveys, interviews, and checks as possible. Thorough market research will give the founders a clear idea of what the product should look like and help them navigate the next steps.

You need to answer the following questions:

  • What are the goals of your startup?
  • What is the target market for your product?
  • What kind of customer pain does your product or service solve?
  • How can you describe your competitive environment?
  • Who is your main competitor?
  • What kind of business model is used in your startup?
  • What resources are currently available?
  • How much does your product cost?
  • What evidence is there that your concept is viable?
  • What does your minimally viable product look like?

The more information a startup has, the more complete and accurate its roadmap will be.

Step 3. Create visual representation

The strategic roadmap should explain all the decisions that the startup has made on the way to the product launch. Also, it should motivate any changes that you need to introduce. Therefore, any employee or potential investor who opens a roadmap should get an explanation of every change, innovation, or choice from it.

The roadmap should be easy to understand. According to an article from HubSpot, it is 60,000 times easier to understand visual material than text. Therefore, the most competent solution is to create a roadmap in the infographic format. This list of free and shareware services should come in handy for you.

The name of the service

Free trial

Cost per month

Comments

Roadmunk

14 days 

From $19 per product + $5 for each new user

You can create a roadmap very quickly

Productplan

14 days

From $39 per user

Unlimited number of viewers

Productboard

15 days

$49 for 5 users, 10 viewers; $99 for 10 users, ∞ viewers

Integrates with various third-party services

Roadmap Planner

Up to 5 users

$5.83 per user; from $8.74 for the team

∞ viewers

GanttPRO

14 days

From $8,9 per user

Creates Gantt charts

Aha!

30 days

From $59 per user

Up to 5 people can join for free

Venngage

$19 per month for the basic version, $49 for the team

The free version has limited functionality

Recommendations for creating a roadmap

It is not too difficult to create a roadmap on your own — especially if you follow a few simple rules.

The initial roadmap of a startup product does not have to be aesthetically appealing, finalized, or even digital.

Your roadmap does not necessarily need a superb look. A skillful design will not hurt. But if a startup that has barely been launched pays for an ornately decorated PNG, that would be a waste of time and money.

At first, you don’t even need to save the roadmap in digital form. If the startup management finds it too difficult to use free services, you can even draw the first iteration of the overall strategy on a napkin. If you wish. But we are talking about those companies that are still at the stage of formation or have just passed it.

In the future, as the startup grows, the founders begin to think about switching to profile tools. Specialized services enable you not only to create a competent roadmap but also to easily update it, directly synchronizing the main elements with the project management service that you use.

However, this option suits rather advanced startups. Barely established companies might want to stick to simpler alternatives.

The roadmap of a startup product should not include ALL its ideas or functions.

You can leave most ideas, even truly interesting ones, for another document — for example, a product backlog or a brainstorming summary.

As for the roadmap, things are exactly the opposite. It should contain only short-term strategic plans. It should include the functionality that you objectively need to create a minimally viable product (MVP) with maximum return on investment.

The roadmap should always be available to the team for review.

A roadmap is a live document that you can change on the go. Therefore, employees and interested parties should always have access to it.

The team should make it a habit to constantly return to the roadmap and refresh their ideas about current tasks and immediate prospects. This is why you should keep your roadmap on cloud storage and warn the team each time someone introduces any changes to it.

Real-world roadmap examples

Example 1. Combin

The roadmap of the Combin company is a classic example that was created using Trello. The roadmap is divided into the following columns.

  • About the Roadmap 
  • Exploring
  • In Progress 
  • Done 
  • Leaving It for Now

Example 2. Slack

Slack’s roadmap is intended for developers, not end-users. However, many sections have not been updated since October 2020 or earlier. It features the following columns.

  • About the Roadmap
  • Near Term
  • Mid Term 
  • Long Term 
  • Released

Example 3. Buffer

In 2016, the Buffer company introduced its own version of the roadmap in the public domain. Since then, the document has been constantly updated. Users can vote for the features they want to see the most.

Since Trello is still used to create and maintain the roadmap, its layout is identical to the previous maps. The column names are the same as in the Combin map.

Example 4. Front

In 2013, a roadmap from the Front service saw light. Founder and CEO Mathilde Collin, admits: she has never regretted that she put the roadmap into public access. On the contrary, it aroused even more interest in her.

The following sections are used: Ideas, Coming Soon, and a quarterly schedule.

Example 5. Github

Github has shared a document that was created using the internal roadmap generation service. It enables you to see what features are being developed or will be released in the near future. Also, Github allows the users of the platform to submit feedback through the roadmap.

Conclusions

A roadmap is a strategic guide for a business that enables a team to achieve pre-set goals within a pre-agreed period of time. The roadmap helps to determine the following aspects.

  • The level of the product’s consistency with the established business development strategy.
  • The main tasks that need to be completed before the product launch as well as backup plans in case there are any problems.
  • Advantages and features of the product that make it unique.
  • What commands and in what format should be used at the launch stage.
  • What the short-term goal is and how to achieve it.

At the idea stage, the goal of the roadmap is to highlight the way to the launch of a popular product that customers will want to pay for. It contains answers to many important questions about customer expectations, product functionality, channels of attracting clients, and so on. If you focus on the roadmap, your startup will be able to avoid some mistakes or eliminate the mistakes that you have already made with a minimum of costs.

Let’s sum up the results:

  • Experiments are useful if they help a startup to achieve the desired goals and key results.
  • A backlog is not a roadmap. The roadmap should reveal the planned history and strategy of the project, not a list of functions.
  • You should not plan a roadmap for more than 6—12 months.
  • If there is no roadmap, there is no goal and/or strategy to achieve it.
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