5 reasons why sharing your product roadmap is a bad idea

I’ve been watching a few threads in our forums sparked by customers who want to gain visibility into our product roadmap. This is an important and sensitive issue, both inside and outside our company. We really value all the input we get from our users, and work hard to translate the thousands and thousands of requests into good decisions for everyone.

That said, after a few years of not knowing how to handle questions around what we’re doing next, we’ve settled on a practice of not telling anyone what we’re doing until it’s released. In a nutshell we won’t be sharing our product roadmap, and here are 5 reasons why:

Commitments weigh you down
Once you say you are going to do something, you really ought to do it. If you don’t follow through you are going to let people down. If you change your mind once or twice, you can probably get away with it. But if you make it a habit of going back on your word, you will lose credibility.

But credibility is just an internal problem – a bigger problem is it costs our customers when we mislead them. The problem for them isn’t that we blew our credibility; it’s that they made business decisions based on our commitments and when we don’t meet them, they suffer real business consequences.

I’ve killed the release of new features the night before they were scheduled to be rolled out. Why? They were not up to standard. Fortunately we hadn’t told anyone these features were on their way, and no harm was done. Releasing on a specific date what you said you would is a packaged software thing, and on the web you don’t need to subject yourself to this weight. Commitments make you heavy and less nimble, so avoid them every step of the way.

Keep Your competition guessing
Are your competitors watching you? There’s nothing like giving away your roadmap to inform your competition and make it easy for them to head you off at the pass. Keep your plans to yourself and you’ll always have your competitors guessing – which is right where you want them.

Purchase decisions get delayed
Here’s a scenario: I’m on the phone showing someone FreshBooks and I can tell they are as good as sold. And then I make the mistake of telling them what we are doing next and the conversation goes 180 degrees and they say, “that’s great – get in touch with me when it’s ready!” Not only did I lose a sale, now I have to follow up with someone in the future so I’ve created work for myself! Talk about putting salt in a wound.

People delay purchase decisions if you tell them “what’s coming”. I’ve seen this countless times. Early adopters might be different, but once you reach a certain level of maturity in the market, your product should sell itself as it is today. If it doesn’t, what are you saying about the people who pay for it now?

Don’t set expectations too high
Despite what people in Silicon Valley might tell you, you don’t need to tell everyone about your big vision to be successful. Instead, play your cards close and focus on doing a good job of telling people what you’ve done, not what you’re going to do. People want to believe in you, and there’s nothing like a track record of delivery to ensure their aspirations are well founded.

You can bank on surprise and delight
Finally, and most importantly, surprise and delight are hugely valuable. At FreshBooks we work hard to execute on extraordinary experiences every day. To be extraordinary you have to exceed expectations, and the best way to do that is to do something your user is not expecting … like releasing a feature they’ve been dying to have but figured you’d never implement.

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  • http://www.proworkflow.com Julian Stone

    I agree with not giving too much away. We struggle with customers wanting to know what’s coming up vs not committing unless we need to make changes. It’s a hard balance, and all software co’s have this prob.

    We just give a few feature promises to users (and commit to them) and keep others up our sleeve…

    Julian Stone, CEO http://www.proworkflow.com

  • http://www.clarityaccounting.com May Chu

    I must say that you have some bullish customers on your forums literally “demanding” features and being rather rude about it. I am quite impressed at how much man/woman power you have devoted to dealing with these people and I think it is about time that you flat out tell people that you are going to make executive decisions you believe will benefit your business and most of your clients.

  • GirlPie

    Great advice for any type of service or product business — I can see where it directly applies to my solo consultancy. Thanks to @Havi for tweeting about this post (now that I know your philosophy, I’ll have to look around to get to know your product ~ ha!)

  • http://www.revsoftware.ca Shane McCallum

    This is the way Apple has done business for years and it has done nothing to hurt them. It’s not what you plan to do, it’s what you do that really matters.

  • http://freshbooks.com/team/randy FreshRandy

    RE: Shane

    Tangent Comment – Your last line is actually a very famous jazz quote written in 1939 and first sung by Ella Fitzgerald. “T’ain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It)”.

    It warms my heart to know that this still applies in 2008 and used in the topic of online invoicing and billing :)

  • http://deepr.ca dazomaz

    It’s kinda the same concept as ALMOST getting everything you asked for from Santa …

  • http://www.entegral.net Bushfire

    We are in the same SaaS industry and couldn’t agree more, especially if you sit with thousands of clients. Unfortunately one learns the hard way.
    As long as new features are rolled out on a regular basis so that clents know active product development takes place.

  • http://dealerignition.com steven

    Plus, too often people are distracted by the notion of the new shiny object coming.

    To quote one of our advisors who built a very successfully SaaS business. “Always ask the customer if they are willing to pay for it [new features] when considering before developing them.”

    How many times have salespeople said, if we build this I’ll have a XX new clients. Only to have those clients never sign-up…

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  • dragonwize

    “Releasing on a specific date what you said you would is a packaged software thing…”

    I completely agree with this statement. But I would also agree that being secretive is also a part of that same industry.

    I believe that is more about how your industry and business model that will determine how much information you can share and do well. Being transparent is a great thing but it does not work with all business models and vice versa.

    In the end, it is the company management that is the key factor in determining what will work.

  • http://www.tourismkeys.ca/blog todd lucier

    Hi Mike,
    I can see why you moved away from the PaddlingOntario type projects into this exciting venture. Its really nice to see how your service has evolved. And future evolutions…. hmmm. I have one wish:
    Printing Cheques…
    Coming from Simply Accounting, going back to handwriting cheques will be a pain. Any way to simplify the process for offline payments?

  • http://www.freshbooks.com/our-team.php#mike Mike McDerment

    @todd good to hear from you :)

    re printing cheques: i hear you, and the specter of handwriting is indeed painful – we’ll keep it in mind.

  • http://www.remarkable-communication.com Sonia Simone | Remarkable Communication

    It’s fascinating to me to watch passionate, engaged customers become so certain that they have the RIGHT to all of your business processes and closed-door information. It’s a great sign but it’s still a pain in the ass.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/royabraham Roy Abraham

    Insightful post.

    I made that sales mistake once in the past (telling a potential client about upcoming features).

    Besides there’s something odd about a product if it needs to sell itself by telling you what it plans to do in the future.

  • http://blog.cosential.com Dan Cornish

    I will argue that a discussion forum and user group are another way for customers to gang up on you. Look at the discussion forums at 37 Signals. The gripes of customers provides a development roadmap to build a competitive product. Also if enough customers say you suck, you will be forced to veer off your own plan to cut the noise down. Sometimes product development can cause you to have a tin ear to your customers but sometimes you just end up oiling the squeaky wheel.

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  • http://alpesinfo.com Phillip Ingle

    I think that you need also to consider the old maxim that ‘the customer is always right’. At the end of the day the customer does pay the Freshbooks staff wages, and pay for the development costs of the product. You should not discount them completely.

    I tend to think that May Chu’s bullish and Sonia Simones engaged customers, customers who might have already invested significant resources in choosing a system, and significant cost in paying for yours do have the right to request features, and to have some idea of whether those features are in the pipeline, or shelved. By not keeping those customers up to date, you are failing to provide them with a sense of security in your product/system and you risk losing them.

  • http://johnsplayfield.com/ John Kamuchau

    I agree with this to a huge extent especially a commercial product. My strategy has always been to set up a landing page with a teaser of what the product can do and one or more screenshots and then wait until launch or when the product is mature enough to for private beta.
    However , for open source projects , i believe that a road map is critical.

  • http://emprendedordelsigloxxi.blogspot.com/ Ignacio G del Valle

    I agree with most of your points, but I think if you are receiving lot of input from your customers, is good to manage their expectations, in such a way they don’t need to look elsewhere to satisfy their needs.
    Maybe a compromise is to publish a partial roadmap, so you keep some surprises under the hood, but at the same time are showing your commitment to deliver the new features your customers expect.
    I think this is specially important if you are offering a web-based service, or if you are offering a maintence contract.

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  • Steve

    It’s fine to expose features you are confident if delivering but never disappoint your customers. Surprise and delight is worth so much and buys you loyalty quicker than anything else!

  • http://opencal.com/blog/ Darren Negraeff

    Great post – I had noticed your third point as well (delay purchase decisions) but had not put two and two together yet. Of course they’re going to delay – why didn’t I think of that!

  • http://www.deskaway.com Sahil P.

    I have noticed customers request features but once released they really don’t care about it. So, the question is if people really know what they want?

  • Fresh Casey

    Casey from FreshBooks here…

    I’m the Director of Product Management for FreshBooks.

    Sahil, one thing I’ve learned working on features for FreshBooks customers is that its important to start with understanding why someone wants a particular feature. Once you start peeling that onion back and digging deeper into why, you start to discover interesting things. Its from the deeper understanding that you will build the right feature to address their true need. Once you’ve solved the “need” with a feature, customers will get really excited about it.

    Hope that help.


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  • Zach Aysan

    Great post Mike. Good to see you guys are still rockin the blog :)

  • Charles

    i think its ok to expose some bits as its all about action and most people will never copy as their lazy.

  • Dongan

    Very good post those who develop products like us. Thank you so much.


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  • http://flowsimple.com Pashmina

    Mike, while I agree with the 5 reasons you’ve outlined here, I was surprised by what LED me to your post . This forum thread: http://community.freshbooks.com/forums/viewtopic.php?id=7183 and the comments from the Freshbooks support staff didn’t spin it in such a positive manner.

    From the wording and tone, the Support staff sounds powerless. Perhaps there’s a rift between the Support and PD teams. I’m optimistic and hoping that they are actually quite tightly integrated. Or perhaps it was just some subtle frustration on the part of some support staff. Either way, it does not look good.

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  • http://www.knighttask.com/blog John Moon

    Great article man! I always struggled whether or not to share what my plans were to get confirmation. I see how sharing every part of your plan could result in competition.

    Thanks for the advice!