3 Mistakes Startups Make when Starting to Document their Product
Written by Gershon Joseph on 20 Feb 2019
Technical Writers at work
Startup leadership teams often overlook Product Information development until they are close to releasing their product to early prospects or customers. Up to this point, the startup's leadership team is occupied solely on two areas: developing the product and landing early sales. Only when the product approaches readiness to ship do they realise they need some sort of documentation to accompany their product.

The same is often true with products that require training. The first users are often trained by the engineering and/or sales team, with little to no formal training content or methodology. The team then scrambles to develop the Product Information, often with unimpressive results. From my years of working with startups and their leadership teams, I've noticed a number of mistakes that are commonly made. I share three of them in this blog.

Mistake #1: Let the engineers develop user manuals and training content
I am very much in favour of having the engineering team contribute to Product Information. When done as part of a broader process, this ensures the engineers document their work while it's still fresh. This also saves them from time-consuming and (from their perspective) frustrating interviews with content developers. However, startups usually don't have any content developers on staff, so they have their engineering team develop the Product Information and leave it at that. The problem with this approach is that most folks on the product development team were hired for their technical acumen, not their written communication skills. The result: product documentation and training material that's of little use to the people who need it. Of course, this negatively impacts the brand of the young startup company.

Mistake #2: Outsource and make Product Information someone else's problem
The quickest and easiest solution to addressing the lack of Product Information is to outsource it. Not all service providers are the same, and many don't have experienced technical writers or instructional designers on call 24/7/365. So they take what they can get at the eleventh hour, which is often an inexperienced or early-in-career technical writer. The result may be better than having the product development team create the content, but is not likely to impress the customers or prospects. Even if the technical writers have some experience, they will be up against an impossible time crunch that naturally affects the quality and accuracy of the content. In addition, this time period leading up to a product release typically has the engineering team heads-down debugging last-minute defects that always raise their ugly heads prior to a release, so the engineering team won't have time to meet with the technical writer. After the dust settles, the startup blames the technical writer or service provider for the lack of quality Product Information and terminates their relationship with them. This exact same cycle repeats itself as the next release approaches, but a different technical writer or service provider is selected in the hope things will work out better this time. I'm not saying outsourcing is a bad idea; it's often the ideal solution for startups who don't need full time Product Information developers. Outsourcing done correctly, with early engagements that include time for the content developer to understand the product and target users, and with modern methodologies and technologies, compliment the engineering team and consistently deliver quality content. They key is for the startup's leadership team to address Product Information holistically and early on in their product development cycle.

Mistake #3: In-house technical writer without sustenance
I've lost count of how many friends and colleagues have been hired early on in a startup's life, only to be laid off when VC funding runs low. When budgets need to be cut, the technical writer will always be hit ahead of any product developers, because the company can't survive without a product, but they can survive without an in-house technical writer. This is why I feel strongly that young startups should outsource their Product Information development to a third party that acts as an integrated and integral part of the startup, that can dynamically adapt to the changing needs of the startup. Just because the Product Information development is outsourced does not mean modern processes, methodologies and technologies cannot be adopted. Unfortunately, many outsourced projects today still employ legacy, outdated methodologies and technologies.

While there are many more mistakes I frequently observe when working with startups, these are the ones that stand out the most. These are the ones that can easily be addressed by any startup executive who is responsible for Product Information. By taking Product Information development into account early on, by acting early before the pressure builds up, startups will be better prepared to deliver quality Product Information at the time they release their products.

Gershon Joseph

Gershon Joseph helps startup executives implement Product Information strategies that adapt and scale with the needs of the company. He is an expert at helping Product Iinformation teams and professionals massively up their productivity to deliver more, higher quality content in less time by optimising their organisations and adopting modern single-sourcing methodologies, technologies and best practices.
If you're interested in solving your Product Information challenges, reach out and request a free strategy session today.
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