Product Roadmap: How to plan your project strategically (7 easy steps)

Strategic planning and documentation don't always get a lot of love from indie hackers, makers, and early-stage businesses. Who needs it when you're working by yourself? More to the point, who has time for it?

Enter product roadmaps — high-level plans that keep your features on track with your business goals (and inform your customers, too). I started my career as a project manager at a dev shop in Chicago and I made tons of these. In my experience, if you don't want your product to end up like Frankenstein's monster, you need them. And making a product roadmap can be a pretty quick (and enlightening) exercise.

Here's a practical guide to product roadmaps — not for big organizations or product managers, but for indie hackers like us.

First, a product roadmap case study

If avoiding a Frankensteined product isn't enough, maybe a boost in retention will help.

Check out this Growth Bite. Malte Scholz (@productproduct) of Airfocus not only has a product roadmap, but he shares it with customers via Trello too. And he encourages customers to vote for new features. This resulted in a 3% decrease in churn. Not bad 🙌

If you don't have features that customers want, they may go to your competitors. But if they know that you're heading in the right direction, they'll often hang out a little longer. And if you show that you care about them and value their input, they'll often become more engaged. Maybe they'll have some great ideas for you. And either way, you're building relationships.

Plus, we all know the power of building in public.

So what is a product roadmap?

A product roadmap, or product plan, is a high-level summary that maps out upcoming features. It embodies the purpose of the product and bridges the divide between business goals and features.

"High-level" is key here — this is not a hyper-detailed document. This is simple. Approachable.

Malte's roadmap (linked above) is a good example of using a (modified) kanban as a product roadmap. And here's an example of a product roadmap that's set up as a timeline:

Product roadmap as timeline

Product managers share product roadmaps with the rest of their organization as a unifying document that brings everything together. Everyone buys in, then handles their own tasks accordingly.

But as a many-hat-wearing founder, you're probably the product manager and just about every other role in the company. It's a little different for us, but no less valuable — provided that you do it right. Let's avoid the weeds of product-manager land and talk about what will add value to your product.

Why are product plans important for entrepreneurs?

As entrepreneurs it's very easy to just fly by the seat of our pants. We're fighting fires, building shiny new features, and generally flopping from one thing to another as priorities shift. That can lead to… I don't want to say a bad product, but… a bad product. Having something that guides our actions based on our goals is, therefore, a pretty good idea.

A product roadmap is your guide and your connection to the realities of the market.

But being nimble is our advantage as indie hackers, right? And documentation is bulky. Right, but product roadmaps are easy. They shouldn't be bulky. And they won't slow you down — quite the opposite, in fact. They remove distractions and get you to your goal.

How to create a product roadmap in 7 steps

With your gears always turning, and customer feedback coming in to boot, it's a good idea to keep track of every idea and feature request. When you're ready to do some product planning and dive into that list, follow these seven steps:

  1. Start with your "Why." Why are you building this product? Your roadmap must be aligned with your business goals, so focus on those first. Write down the primary goal(s) for the plan that you'll be creating.
  2. Consider your target audience. What do they want? Your roadmap needs to resonate with them, and their desires will have a clear impact on whether you achieve your business goals. So ask them personally or send out a poll. At the very least, take a look at the feedback you've received from them and use it to guide your strategy.
  3. Now group everything into themes, then features. Once you know what is needed overall, you can create themes that satisfy the goals. Themes are essentially broad ideas that will solve a problem for your customer and also move the needle for your business (e.g. "Improve onboarding flow"). Now check out your backlog of features (and ideate new ones). Group them under specific themes. As you can see, we're taking a top-down approach here.
  4. Define and prioritize the features. Put some details into each feature about how it'll function. Keep it simple — don't go overboard with your documentation. Prioritize the features in relation to your themes. There are a million ways to prioritize, but for most of us, we can eyeball it pretty easily. All things being equal, the highest-priority task should be the one that will have the biggest impact on the most important goal. If you want to dig deeper into prioritization, here's a simple quadrant framework based on cost and value, and here's a slightly more complex framework that adds urgency into the mix.
  5. Visualize it. A big part of this is making it something that can be understood at a glance. Gantt charts work very nicely for this. And we'll get into tools and templates below.
  6. Share it. If you have a team, make sure they buy in — to the goals, the features, and any timelines that you may have included. And then share it with your customers. You could create a roadmap page on your website, post a link to an open Trello board, tweet about what's next, or use some other tool (see below). And consider giving customers an easy way to weigh in on new features.
  7. Get to work and stay flexible. Your roadmap is going to change. You need to leave room for innovation and new information. As new ideas come up, prioritize them, and determine if they should be tacked on at the end, or if priorities need to be shifted. Always consult the roadmap and the overarching goals when doing this. And make it a habit to review (and possibly adjust) your roadmap regularly.

Product roadmap tips

As far as best practices, here are a few pointers:

  • Make sure sure your goals are realistic and measurable.
  • Spend a few minutes with your roadmap regularly. Some product managers do it daily.
  • Check in with your stakeholders (customers, team, etc.) regularly. Is the roadmap still addressing their goals?
  • A common concern with open roadmaps (and building in public, generally) is that your competitors will know what you're up to. I tend to think the benefits often outweigh the costs, especially for nimble folks like us. But use your discretion. And feel free to have top-secret initiatives that aren't on the roadmap (you can even hint at them to build anticipation).
  • Remember, this is not a detailed todo list. It's a high-level strategy that should inform your todo list. Keep it simple.

And when it comes to sharing with your customers:

  • Don't give them too much info, keep it high-level.
  • Don't over-promise.
  • If you give a timeline, add cushion (or go by quarter instead of date).
  • And Malte (from the case study above) recommends only sharing two months out. Three at most.

Product roadmap tools

To help you get started, let's talk about roadmapping tools. Here are a few free options that will do the trick nicely:

And here are a few advanced products if you want to get a little fancy. Most have free trials:

  • Canny is a tool that allows you to capture, organize, and analyze feedback.
  • Airfocus is a roadmapping and prioritization platform designed to help teams collaborate remotely.
  • ProductPlan is an easy-to-use product roadmapping platform that allows for collaboration with audiences.
  • Aha! is roadmapping software that lets you crowdsource, analyze, prioritize, and visualize features.
  • Roadmunk is a roadmapping service that focuses on customer-driven roadmapping.
  • ProdPad has a whole suite of product management tools, including roadmapping and a way to get customer feedback on features.
  • Craft has a suite of product management (and roadmapping) tools.

Happy roadmapping - hope it helps!

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