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Why Your Product Team Is Failing

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I build teams that build products. It’s my thing that I do. Engineering, Design, Marketing, and Product Management. That’s what I did with the pretty-big Firefox team at Mozilla. That’s what I did as a consultant with tiny to medium-sized startups in Toronto. That’s what I’m doing now with the growing and amazing team at Hubba. I love it.

Are you in charge of a startup product team? Do you love it? Because, and I want to be honest here, a lot of the people I talk to who run product groups are not having a good time. They are not even having an okay time.

They are having a not okay time.

What It Feels Like

The hard thing about a busted product org is that the problem isn’t obvious. The engineers seem to know what they’re doing. The product managers have roadmaps. The designers are always busy and things look nice. But it just. doesn’t. work.

Your team seems to run fast, they ship a lot of code, but features take forever. You never feel like you know when something’s going to come out. When it does, it never looks like you thought it would. The engineers celebrate when they complete a heavy project, but the rest of the org doesn’t get why it ever mattered. People don’t respond to new features, and bugs in old features never get attention. Things break that we should have seen coming, and you have to drop everything to fix them. Which makes the other problems worse.

If you’re hyperventilating right now, I feel you. I’ve been where you are. I wrote this post for us.

Whose Fault Is It?

“Everyone’s fault. No one’s fault.” I think I’m supposed to say those things. That there are a hundred reasons for product teams to fail to execute well. I guess that’s probably true.

But in my own life almost every team I’ve seen struggle with this stuff fails for the same reason. There is one role in the product organization that we ask to be the integrators. The systematizers. And companies, especially startups, usually set them up to fail. We call those people Product Managers.

If your product managers aren’t on their game and well supported, you will have a bad time. Not because it’s always their fault. At all. But because when they’re in trouble, strength in other areas is unlikely to compensate.

How to Build Your Product Team

Any time I write a new job posting for a product manager, I brace for impact. Few people would apply to be heart surgeons, or forensic accountants, without any relevant experience. But lots of people apply to be product managers without experience. Everyone thinks they’d be good at product.

If none of your founders/executives have run product orgs before, it can be hard to know what to do. These candidates have so many amazing ideas. They have a lot of energy.

If you find yourself saying something like, “anyone can learn how to file bugs and run a standup, but what I like about this person is…” you’re about to make a mistake.

Hire Product Managers as Product Managers

There are lots of times in the growth of a startup where you should take a gamble on candidates with gumption, even if they don’t have the background. It’s a great strategy for building a more diverse team, and gives your senior folks mentorship opportunities. There are many times when it’s a wise and progressive call to make.

Your first few product management hires are just not one of those times. Your first PMs will set the tone for how your product team operates. And since few people have any kind of formal education in product management, your best indicator is significant, direct product management experience.

After those first few hires are in and operating well, go ahead and hire some trainees. Build a reputation for product excellence by training people up and setting the standard. Your people may get poached, but your inbound candidate pool will more than cover it.

That’s a high quality place to be, but not until you’ve locked on fundamentals.

Hire Product Managers, not Visionaries

Oh I know it’s unromantic. Great product needs vision. And good CEOs want partners in setting that vision. You want PMs who understand it and can bring their own light to it. I’ve heard all that. And it’s not wrong.

But the truth is that I need vision from my PMs about 5–10% of the time. I need brilliant, focused, measured execution from them all the time.

I didn’t say 0% vision, don’t straw-man me. Vision matters. But ideas are cheap and execution is very, very hard. Interview for the hard part. Hire for the hard part.

Product management is a real discipline, not a pretend catch-all title. That “anyone can learn” garbage up there undercuts the value of clear requirements, clean process, measurement, and accountability. Your product managers put the machine on rails and make sure it gets to its destination.

Vision is one of the tools they use to get there. The whole team benefits from clarity in the product’s narrative. You’ll meet candidates who blow you away with their list of ideas, prepared over the weekend looking at your product. It’s exciting.

But if they can’t tell you when a waterfall development process would be a better choice than scrum, or how they feel about personas as a user-empathy tool, or how they prefer to see new features instrumented, they aren’t your first product hire. Or at least, they wouldn’t be mine.

Hire Product Managers, not CEOs-of-the-Product

Poor Ben Horowitz. He said, “The product manager is the CEO of the product” and I suspect he’s regretted it ever since. His intention was noble enough — arguing for buck-stop accountability and whole-product view. But it has armed a generation of asshats with a terrible self-importance. He even wraps that post with a disclaimer these days.

Your product managers are not the CEO of anything. They can’t fire people who are hurting the business. They can’t sign partnership deals. They do not live the 500 daily struggles of trying to keep everything alive and growing. It’s facile to pretend that the analogy holds.

PMs are much more hub-of-the-wheel than root-of-the-tree or top-of-the-pyramid. They synthesize, they decide, and they orchestrate. As Andy Grove would say: Input, Process, Output. If you think of them as a CEO you’ll manage the good ones badly and keep the bad ones around too long.

Be curious about how they listen and seek counterpoint during the synthesis phase. Challenge them on how they make trade offs in the deciding and planning phase. Measure them based on their results in the orchestration and delivery phase.

(I’m sure someone will tell me that’s exactly what a CEO does. This is the internet after all. It’s still a broken and unhelpful metaphor.)

How To Know It’s Working

When you’ve got good product leadership the chaos starts to make sense. You ship fewer features, but they speak directly to customer needs. They come with instrumentation so that you can measure their impact. Great ideas get amplified, missed attempts are spotted and quickly culled.

When your product team is working, the product connects directly to the strategy of the business. You can see how the roadmap elements move the needles you care about. You can elevate the conversation from “Ship this feature by Friday,” to “How should we tailor our onboarding to maximize engagement for different kinds of users?” Your PMs start to surprise you with vision and creativity that is rooted in reality. It makes sense. It matters.

This rarely happens right away. In my experience, good PMs often start with the safe, obvious bits. It helps them get processes in place, and ensures that they put up some immediate wins to earn the respect of their engineers and the broader team. On that foundation, I expect to see them take broader autonomy and scope pretty quickly and make the product their own.

A product manager that’s still running someone else’s roadmap a year in is effectively a project manager. A product manager that throws the roadmap away on day 1 in favour of their new vision is very likely a liability.

What if it’s Too Late?

You’ve already hired them, haven’t you? The ideas people. The CEOs of the product. And maybe you’re reading this and it makes some sense to you but you don’t think your existing team can get there.

You might be right.

But let’s choose to believe in them. Most people can learn most things. And I’m a really big fan of treating people like adults. So talk with them about this stuff. Ask them what they think of it, and what supports they need. Ask them if they agree.

And they may not. And it may be that they are not going to work out in your organization. And that can be okay.

If your team does agree they need a change, they’ll still need support to make it real. And so my second piece of advice, worth whatever you paid for it, is to hire an experienced product leader to drive that cultural shift.

Most product leaders love building things, and this is a good meaty role for the right candidate. Give them the founder’s vision. Expect them to want to see pitch decks and understand the state of the business. Get them to meet your existing product folks to see the potential that’s waiting to be unlocked. You can do it.

Sorry not Sorry

If any of this stuck, I’ve made your job harder. You had such a huge candidate pool before! You could hire exciting people with great ideas! Now you have to go hunt, and you need them to have well developed operational chops. There are fewer of those. And they are more hotly contested by savvy organizations that know what they’re trying to build.

But I’m not sorry. They’re out there. They work hard, they rarely get the credit, and they deserve to be courted. It can be thankless to wrangle a team of engineers and designers week after week. Particularly when the output is “reliable, measured, upward progress” which is easy to take for granted. So if I drive up their market rate a bit, I’m not sorry at all.

Go find them. Add your vision to theirs and their system to yours. Make something amazing.

_________________________________________________

About the Author

This article was written by Johnathan Nightingale of the Co-Pour. The Co-Pour is dedicated to leadership lessons with relevant articles and insights on the subject. Johnathan is also the CPO @Hubba and editor of https://mfbt.ca

Callum Connects

Andrew Schorr, Founder of Grata

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Taking a different route throughout his life, Andrew Schorr ended up in China and started several businesses.

What’s your story?
I moved to China after I graduated from college in 2004. English teaching was the easiest way to get there, so I looked on a map and picked a small town in Hubei, because it looked to be more or less in the middle of China. I was the only foreigner there.

Back then, everything was about the upcoming Olympics in Beijing, so I moved to the capital after my year of teaching. Pretty soon after arriving, I met the co-founder for all three of my companies. We decided to start a company together the first day we met. He has now moved back to the US and builds flight software at SpaceX.

Our first company, an online city guide, was re-purposed into our second company, GuestOps, a web concierge platform. We sold GuestOps to most of the major international hotel brands in China and still operate it. The genesis of our latest company, Grata came from looking at the intersection of hotels and WeChat in 2012, when WeChat was just starting to blow up. Grata expanded from hotels into a live-agent customer service console.

What excites you most about your industry?
Our thesis with Grata has always been that what is happening with WeChat in China is the future of messaging platforms globally, and as an international team building on WeChat, we would be well-placed to capitalize on that trend. It’s taken longer than we expected for the industry (and us, for that matter) to get there, but finally, we’re starting to see messaging as a platform to get better traction in other markets.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I’ve always been a bit of a contrarian. I grew up in Texas, where all my friends studied Spanish in school. I studied German for no reason in particular. I took a similar path in college: Chinese and Japanese seemed like languages that not a lot of people who look like me studied. I was one of only two students in my third-year Chinese class.

Concur conference in San Francisco, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013. (Photo by Paul Sakuma, Paul Sakuma Photography) www.paulsakuma.com

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Shanghai. I should live there, but Beijing has been home for so long. I take the night train down to Shanghai every two-three weeks to meet with clients. Domestic flights are way too unreliable here.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Don’t plan too far ahead; otherwise, you plan yourself out of good opportunities.

Who inspires you?
Has anyone said “Elon Musk” yet? Barack Obama would be another.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
The gravitational waves recently detected from neutron stars colliding, were so subtle as to only affect the distance from earth to our closest star, Alpha Centauri (4.24 light years away) by the width of a human hair. Perhaps in another life or in the future, I’ll be an astronomer, but a telescope doesn’t do me much good in Beijing.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
When I give advice to students looking to get into entrepreneurship, I advise them to work for a post-Series A startup first and learn from a company that’s already doing things well. I learnt everything on my own, which is slower and you pay for your own education. If you work for a startup that’s small in the beginning, you risk learning bad habits.

How do you unwind?
I Hash! The Hash is a drinking club with a running problem. The Hash attracts good people from all walks of life and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a great way to meet fun-loving people all over the world. It’s also how I met my co-founder, our first lawyer, and my girlfriend.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Pulau Perhentian, Malaysia. A fantastic beach and where I first learned to scuba dive.

Everyone in business should read this book:
For business in China, Tim Clissold’s, Mr. China.

Shameless plug for your business:
Grata does WeChat contact centers for many top-tier brands in luxury retail, travel, financial services and hospitality. We started developing on WeChat before they even had an open platform. Grata provides the most value for large enterprises with complex routing and content demands for their contact centers.

How can people connect with you?
Check out www.grata.co or email me: [email protected]

Twitter handle?
My personal handle is @andrew_schorr and we tweet about messaging from the company handle @grata_co.

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Benjamin Kwan, Co-Founder of TravelClef

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Making music to create a life for his family, Benjamin Kwan, started an online tuition portal and his music business grew from there.

What’s your story?
I am Benjamin and I’m the Co-Founder of TravelClef Group Pte Ltd, a travelling music school that conducts music classes in companies as well as team building with music programmes. We also run an online educational platform which matches private students to freelance music teachers. We also manufacture our own instruments. I started this company in 2011 when I was still a freshman at NUS, majoring in Mechanical Engineering.

I was born to a lower income family, my father drove a taxi and was the sole breadwinner to a family of 7. I have always dreamed of becoming rich so that I could lessen the burden placed on my father and give my family a good life.

After working really hard in my first semester at NUS, my results didn’t reflect the hard work and effort I put in. At the same time, I was left with just $42 in my bank account and it suddenly dawned on me that if I were to graduate with mediocre results, I would probably end up with a mediocre salary as well. I knew I had to do something to gain control of my future.

During that summer break, I read a book “Internet Riches” by Scott Fox and I knew that the only way I could ever start my own business with my last $42 would be to start an online business. That was how our online tuition portal started and after taking 4 days to learn Photoshop and website building on my own, I started the business.

What excites you most about your industry?
Music itself is a constant form of excitement to me as I have always been an avid lover of music. As one of the world’s first travelling music schools, we are always very eager and excited to find innovative ways to a very traditional business model of a music teaching.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and raised in Singapore and I love the fact that despite our diversity in culture, there’s always a common language that we share, music.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Hands down, SINGAPORE! Although we are currently in talks to expand to other regions within Asia, Singapore is the best place for business. I have had friends asking me if they should consider venturing into entrepreneurship in Singapore, my answer is always a big fat YES! There’s a low barrier of entry, and most importantly, the government is very supportive of entrepreneurship.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
I have been blessed by many people and mentors who constantly give me great advice but right now, I would say the best piece of advice that I received would be from Dr Patrick Liew who said, “Work on the business, not in it.” This advice is constantly ringing in my head as I work towards scaling the business.

Who inspires you?
My dad. My dad has always been my inspiration in life, for the amount of sacrifices that he has made for the family and the love he has for us. He was the umbrella for all the storms that my family faced and we were always safe in his shelter. Although my dad passed away after a brief fight with colorectal cancer, the lessons that he imparted to me were very valuable as I build my own family and business.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
You can not buy time, but you can spend money to save time! With this realisation, I was willing to allow myself to spend some money, in order to save more time. Like taking Grab/Uber to shuttle around instead of spending time travelling on public transport. While I spend more money on travelling, I save a lot more time! This doesn’t mean that I spend lavishly and extravagantly, I am still generally prudent with my money.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I would have taken more time to spend with my family and especially my father. While it is important to focus our time to build our businesses, we should always try our best to allocate family time. Because as an entrepreneur, there is no such thing as “after I finish my work,” because our work is never finished. If our work finishes, the business is also finished. But our time with our family is always limited and no matter how much money and how many successes we achieve, we can never use it to trade back the time we have with our family.

How do you unwind?
I am a very simple man. I enjoy TV time with my wife and a simple dinner with my family and friends.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Batam, it’s close to Singapore and there’s really nothing much to do except for massages and a relaxing resort life. If I travel to other countries for shopping or sightseeing, I am constantly thinking of business and how I can possibly expand to the country I am visiting. But while relaxing at the beach or at a massage, I tend to allow myself to drift into emptiness and just clear my mind of any thoughts.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Work The System, by Sam Carpenter. This book teaches entrepreneurs the importance of creating systems and how to leverage on systems to improve productivity and create more time.

Shameless plug for your business:
If you are looking for a team building programme that your colleagues will enjoy and your bosses will be happy with, you have to consider our programmes at TravelClef! While our programmes are guaranteed fun and engaging, it is also equipped with many team building deliverables and organizational skills.

How can people connect with you?
My email is [email protected] and I am very active on Facebook as well!
https://www.facebook.com/benjamin.christian.kwan

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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