Kashflow CEPO CEO Duane Jackson recently posted discussing their policy of not disclosing a product roadmap. To summarize Jackson’s argument, he believes that publishing a detailed roadmap is problematic because it;

  • Reduces agility
  • Builds expectations with customers and hence reduces the opportunities to delight
  • Introduces competitive risks
  • Sets them up for a fail when things change

Dennis Howlett posted calling Kashflow “bonkers” and stating that Kashflow’s reasoning was “at best lame and at worst lacking customer focus.” He went further to claim that Kashflow, a company with a pretty impressive track record in the SaaS accounting space has no idea about product management. I’ll not get into the prudence or otherwise of saying a company with significant market share and support form a customer base has no idea, what I will look at is the assertion that having a public product development program is necessary.

In taking this “don’t tell” line Jackson is certainly not alone. In a subsequent comment, Gary Turner, MD of Xero’s UK operation stated that;

We don’t publish a long term or detailed roadmap, but we do blog about forthcoming changes sometimes a few months before they arrive

To me upcoming changes are different from a roadmap. What Xero does is give pre-announcements about imminent releases, a product roadmap is a longer-term view and necessitates a degree of crystal ball gazing. As Adrian Pearson said in a comment;

Perhaps I should have been a little clearer in defining “Roadmap” when I used the term – what I was trying to suggest is that for those new features that are already planned / in progress there is much benefit to be had by sharing with users

Similar sentiments have been expressed by 37signals who raise a very important point that speaks to Jackson’s agility comment;

Builders bound by the guesswork of yesterday are not going to be happy troopers. It’s demoralizing to be forced to work on something not because it’s the right thing to do at the time, but merely because the promise note is up.

Mike McDerment, Founder of Freshbooks, a company that is rightly proud of its 2.5 million customers, has also said that a roadmap is unnecessary. Bear in mind that Freshbooks gained those 2.5 million customers while having a strict policy of not announcing a product development roadmap. It would seem that the assertion that customers will balk without an express roadmap is patently incorrect.

What many of these companies, be it Freshbooks, Xero or 37Signals do offer however, is a glimpse into where there software is going at a conceptual level – Freshbooks invests heavily in having a strategic role in The Small Business Web, an industry grouping looking to show people there vision of connected software for SMBs. Xero CEO Rod Drury presents at every opportunity about the enablement that online software brings, 37Signals talks plenty about what a nimble approach towards development can bring – all of these examples show prospective customers a vision of the future, without sharing a detailed product roadmap.

When Howlett states that “I’ve never met a buyer yet who didn’t want some clue as to what the future holds”, I agree. However stating the future goes far beyond a mere product roadmap. Stating the future, especially given the revolution that Cloud Computing really is for SMBs, is about articulating a vision. Clearly the product that sits beneath that has to have sufficient functionality to meet the needs of the users, but I don’t believe the SaaS industry is anywhere near a place where sales should, or are occurring through feature shoot outs. The majority of vendors I speak to state that their customers realize their products are less functionally rich than on-premise alternatives, but that the pace of innovation they see is sufficient to encourage them to dip their toes in SaaS.

There is a distinct difference between SMB buyers and enterprise ones. Bear in mind I have owned a number of small businesses in my career and currently own 5 (at last count). Those whose history is in the enterprise can’t be expected to understand the realities for an SMBs. As one commenter said;

when buying cycles are measured in months (or even years), knowing where the vendor is going is crucial. No question about that. When the buying cycle is measured in days (or even hours), knowing that it fills your immediate need is much more important

So I’m going to back the quieter vendors here. All four companies I have discussed here have achieved great market success and support form customers without any detailed product roadmap. Meanwhile the enterprise behemoths who do make explicit product roadmaps have been failing to deliver all across the board – I know which team I’d rather be on…

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Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

  • Ben – it’s more nuanced than just whether an neatly ordered document entitled “Roadmap” exists or not.
    We openly discuss our products current features and design principles in the context of our longer term ambitions and vision with anyone that cares to listen. That’s not a roadmap but neither is it keeping mum about all but the most imminent new developments.

  • +1 for Gary’s comment.

    Similarly, although we don’t have a single document that we’d share that maps out an immutable development schedule, we’re very open with our customers about our priorities, direction and development philosophy. These intangibles are often more important than an arbitrary “feature X will be done by Q3”. If you want to know what’s important to us, or want to know what we’re working on, all you need to do is ask.

    A side-benefit to this approach, is that it also helps customers self-identify as ones that want to build a relationship with their vendor.

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