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How do you know if you're Creating a Product-First Company? Is there a Secret Formula? Whether you're developing a disruptive new product in a young startup or driving a well-established large scale firm, having a product-first mindset is crucial in the race to the top

By Zishaan Hayath

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What does it mean to have a product first approach for your company? It's not a brand tagline or value statement, but a culture that your company has embraced by placing innovation and customer happiness above everything. So how do you know if you're creating a product-first company? Is it naturally in your DNA? Is there a secret formula that you could follow to get there?

Some factors are common to product first companies, tying them together. They face similar challenges and team backgrounds. Whether you're developing a disruptive new product in a young startup or driving a well-established large scale company, the product-first mindset is equally helpful.

Related: Why Product Innovation is the Key For Every Organization

So, here's what what it means to have a product-first company, both from my experience as an entrepreneur-investor, and that of others.

3 essentials to a product first company

Product minded leadership team

Product companies are generally dominated by product teams - product managers, engineering, user experience, etc. This is why it's important that the company's leadership has a background in product instead of business or sales. This is important to distinguish because product-driven founders will have contrasting priorities to a sales founder.

Related: 10 Product Innovations You Need on Your Radar Right Now

A sales founder focuses on driving new customer acquisition while creating strategies to scale and penetrate markets. They will focus on hiring experienced sales and marketing teams first to communicate and sell the value. They will channel funds towards large scale TV ads, without hiring a team of talented engineers to constantly improve the product. This works in some cases and fails in others.

In contrast, a product founder loves the thrill of perpetually innovating the product and keeping it miles ahead of the curve. Steve Jobs and his approach to Apple is a perfect example. He built Apple with a complete focus on delivering the best products! Product-first leaders have a strong, clearly communicated vision. They focus on hiring people who value this product-first approach, nurturing this as the company scales.

Related: How Steve Jobs Saved Apple

This is why most product first companies have founding CEOs. This is because innovation is the core of any business, and founding CEOs, like Steve Jobs, build their company by facing hundreds of hurdles on a daily basis. They still continue to push innovative ideas to the forefront. They are the first believers in their product, they understand the technology required, what code base was needed to make it happen, and how to overcome market challenges, to make their idea a reality.

A product-driven leadership team will do just this — they will leverage the knowledge at their disposal and ensure that the product stays ahead of the curve by keeping innovation alive.

Product engagement = Sales conversions

Product-first companies have faith and trust in what they've created and, as a result, they offer a low barrier to entry for the target audience. This is why they often choose to run on a freemium model. They trust that if their target audience uses and experiences the product, they will buy the "pro version". They focus on creating a long-term product that has a lasting impact instead of short-term gains. To achieve this, they will have flexible pricing terms, month-to-month EMI payment options, and free trials.

The end result is that product-first companies are beloved companies! They have to be. Since there's no immediate pressure on the users to start paying just to access basic features and in turn drive conversions, these companies automatically build trust and loyalty. Once users see value in the product, the conversion is generated by creating an experience that turns users into customers and customers into influencers. Leveraging these influencers, product-first companies can scale rapidly through organic channels.

Cross-Company Alignment on Mission

If you want to create a product-first company, you need a clearly defined, laser-focused mission at the centre of all decision making. Creative thinking, collaboration and a thirst for disrupting the existing solution are encouraged throughout the organization. Customer feedback should be given importance and incorporated into the roadmap when it aligns with the mission.

While every feature in the company roadmap is designed to delight users and create better experiences, your leadership teams must make difficult decisions to keep the product ahead of the competition.

One of the most difficult decisions as a product first CEO is that instead of shaping the product to appeal to the needs of a high-paying customer, product-first companies have the strength to say "no" if the request doesn't match their core mission.

Good leadership will always focus on building features that complement the mission of the company. They know when to compromise and how to avoid derailing the roadmap if it doesn't make the product a better solution to the problems of their primary audience.

The advantage of any product-first company is that, if properly executed, there's an opportunity to scale significantly faster than sales-driven companies. In fact, product companies will see higher margins and returns because the product will sell itself. The end result of this approach is that you will create a brand worth talking about. Your brand will have a compelling mission that solves a problem and differentiates your company from the rest. All of these reasons are what make this approach worth the passion and courage that it takes to build a product-first company.

Zishaan Hayath

Founder & CEO,

A startup evangelist and a prominent figure in the Indian entrepreneurial ecosystem, Zishaan Hayath is the Founder and CEO of Toppr, an app that provides personalized learning for students studying for boards, Olympiads, and various engineering and medical competitive exams. 

With the backing of SAIF Partners, Helion Ventures and Fidelity Investments, his motive with Toppr is to personalize learning for students by leveraging best-in-class technology. 

Hailing from Hyderabad, Zishaan moved to Mumbai in 2000 to study at IIT Bombay and was awarded the Institute Citation and two Institute Colors, besides the Young Alumni Achiever Award in 2015 by the institution. Post his graduation in 2005, he joined ITC Limited and then worked with Opera Solutions on strategy and operations projects for Fortune 100 clients in North America, Europe and Asia. In fact, Zishaan was the first employee hired in Opera Solutions' India office. 

In April 2008, Zishaan co-founded a phone commerce marketplace called Chaupaati Bazaar, one of the early companies in the Indian e-commerce space, which was eventually acquired by India's largest retailer, Future Group, in 2010. He became the Vice-President in the product category of the new entity. It was during this time that Zishaan came across the idea of after realizing that students in India were spending enormous amounts of money on coaching classes. Following thorough research, the education app was brought into existence in 2013. 

Besides Toppr, Zishaan is a serial angel investor and has mentored a few Indian startups including Olacabs, Chaayos & BiteClub. He also runs a highly-regarded angel investment group called Powai Lake Ventures. In his free time, Zishaan loves to eat out and travel to know the culture, lifestyle, business and history of other countries.

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