Louise Bernstein, Director of Product at Hubspot, and Beth Topolovsky, founder of The Spark Group, recently joined us in hosting our portfolio teams in a panel discussion about how a product-led approach can help your business navigate its way through the iterative process of growth.
If you are aiming to establish a product that serves multiple markets and verticals, through minimal product customisation and after sales costs, then having a product-led culture in your business will be important in driving sustainable growth. When a customer thinks about a company, he/she thinks about the product experience. How good it is at solving their problems? How does it improve their day to day lives? How does it make them feel? How are they supported to realise the most value from the product? It is time for companies to see themselves the same way customers do. Every function in the business should point in the same direction and play its part in creating one end-to-end customer experience, anchored within the product itself where possible, ensuring their product serves its market to the best of its ability.
The product manager plays a key part in making sure everyone in the company is well aligned on the product values. They are instrumental in ensuring the product truly serves its customers and, importantly, continues to evolve to better serve them. Product managers are normally influential members of the senior management team and report directly into the CEO. While CTOs are typically visionary specialists, product managers are generalists who are technical, commercially minded and can communicate exceptionally well in order to keep the business aligned in serving its customers through their products. Getting the best out of the respective teams and key individuals is vital to building a product-led business.
Mapping the customer journey is a great way to get one unified macro view of their day to day lives and what impact – good, bad and ugly – your product has on it. Such a map will highlight what is important to them, what their problems are, what motivates them, what causes friction in their lives, what helps them and how they make decisions. Once you have a shared, deep understanding of your customers, you will better understand, and be able to evolve, your own product values.
The process will help you to focus on delivering value to your customers. You will notice your questions will start changing or becoming more focused. Can we better measure the value our product brings to our customers? How do we optimise the value customers get from things we already do well? Where should our innovation priorities be? What experiments should we run to test some of our hypotheses from this process? A customer journey map can become an integral tool in helping your business to navigate through the ever-iterative process of driving growth.
One of the areas in which tech businesses in Silicon Valley are particularly good, is being obsessed with their competitive landscapes. They not only know and understand their direct competitors and their products inside out, they also recognise that other ‘free’ alternatives should also be seen as competition. If, for example, your product is a CRM application and you are not asking yourself why so many businesses are still using MS Office, Google Suite, etc. as their CRM tool, you are potentially missing a big opportunity.
Failing to know the product values of your competition and understanding the market forces at play, can lead to having a brilliant product that nobody wants or that is no longer lucrative. Like understanding your customers, knowing your competitive landscape is key in helping you to thoughtfully position your product to best serve your customers. It ensures that your product remains relevant and enables your company to continue to enjoy sustained growth.
In start-ups, it is common to see CEOs or CTOs also performing the role of product manager initially. This is possible if the individual possesses the right skillsets, but as a company scale, it becomes counterproductive to hold on to every aspect of the business/product for too long. CEOs and/or CTOs need to ‘give away their LEGOs’ and ensure this is not left too late in order to prevent the business from becoming reactive and plateauing out. It is key to introduce a product manager as soon as the business starts scaling to ensure the product stays at the centre of the business. Every aspect of the business should enhance and effectively communicate the product values. Effective collaboration is vital and, as the business scales, product management becomes a significant undertaking and cannot be bolted onto the already very significant roles of either the CEO or CTO.
When letting go of your LEGOs, you are embracing this change and accepting that parts of what you have created may need to be looked at again. Things will have progressed since inception and will continue to progress going forward. Continuous iteration and change should be cherished, and you must find a way to have confidence in this process and let go, especially when you have good people in your team. Although this might at first not feel like a natural or easy journey for many founders, CEOs or CTOs, achieving and embracing this healthy dynamic will help drive continual growth beyond what is otherwise possible.
If you are a CEO or CTO who finds that everyone always agrees with you, always laughs at your jokes and never challenges you, your ideas and opinions are what is known as HiPPOs – the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. A HiPPO is something to be very careful of as where the HiPPO reigns, the team often doesn’t. Being a truly product-led business means that you have a dynamic and healthy team environment where ideas are polished by others and people are not afraid of exploring diverse perspectives and taking reasonable risks. This gives the psychological safety that is so important when failure, and learning the most you possibly can from failure, is a key part of the iterative process of driving growth. To embrace failure, to have the courage to identify it quickly, and, of course, to correct at the soonest opportunity, is at the heart of creating a truly product-led culture. And, for this, you need a healthy team dynamic. In such a team, everyone is pointing in the same direction and keen to learn from each other and their customers. They are focused on reaching the best outcomes while always putting the team and product first.
Constant change, iteration, learning from failure, and each other, is a given if you are looking to sustain high growth in a tech company. After the initial excitement of establishing a product and proving that it is one that the market wants, businesses normally soon enter what is known as the ‘messy middle’, when trying to scale up. This is where the journey gets tough, and it becomes important to be grounded by a few important principles to guide you through this iterative process. Creating a healthy team environment, truly understanding your customers and knowing your competitive landscape will help you navigate this messy middle through a product-led approach.