Category Archives: Product Strategy

Join us for Tomorrow’s SaaS Product Power Breakfast with Skilljar Co-founder and CEO, Sandi Lin

Please join us tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM Pacific for the (final in this form — see below) SaaS Product Power Breakfast with Skilljar cofounder and CEO, Sandi Lin, discussing why product managers make great founders and the potential pitfalls they should look out for along the way.

Skilljar, founded in Seattle in 2013, is a fully distributed, ~150-person company that provides a customer education platform to over 400 customers that’s raised $50M+ in venture capital from top investors including Techstars Seattle, Trilogy, Mayfield, Shasta, and Insight Partners.

Sandi is well, a dynamo, with an impressive academic background (two engineering degrees from MIT and a Stanford MBA) matched by equally impressive work experience (~4 years in consulting followed by ~4 years at Amazon in product management followed by co-founding and leading Skilljar).  Our prep call was a whirlwind; it should be a great episode.

Among others, we’ll address these five questions with Sandi:

  • Why do product managers make great founders?
  • How has your product planning process evolved from founder to startup to scaleup stages?
  • As CEO with a product background, how do you interact with your product team now? Has it been challenging to pull back?
  • You used to work at Amazon. What are key similarities and differences in product management from a large company to a startup?
  • What have you found as your blind spots as a former Product Manager?

Thomas and I hope to see you there!

The End of This Format; The Start of a New One
I should note that this will be our last episode in this current form.  While we are pleased with the success of the podcast version of the SaaS Product Power Breakfast, the live rooms have several drawbacks we’d like to address:

  • The platform.  While we started the series on Clubhouse as a deliberate way to participate in the evolution of a new app, I believe the platform has technical limitations for what we’re doing and, moreover, is in general trouble.  We’d like to try something else.
  • The name.  While Thomas is in Germany and I am in Silicon Valley, we nevertheless decided to call the series a “power breakfast.”  That instantly posed timezone challenges for the live events (e.g., Thomas has a “power breakfast” over a beer at 5:00 pm) and didn’t translate well into the podcast.  Moreover, we have strong international audience that should only grow with the recent announcement that I’m joining Balderton Capital as an EIR.  So the name was a fail and that’s on me.  We need a new one.
  • The timing.  I’m not sure how to fix this one, but 8:00 AM Pacific isn’t a great time for a live event.  The West Coast is just starting work, the East Coast in their last meetings before  lunch, the UK is getting ready for a pint, and continental Europe finishing up before heading home for dinner.  With Thomas and I separated by 9 time zones, maybe the best answer is no live event at all.  Just a podcast.  We’re deliberating.
  • The duration.  While an hour is a relatively short Clubhouse room, it’s a relatively long podcast.  We should take a lesson from Harry Stebbings of The 20 Minute VC and work towards a shorter format.  Who knows, maybe it will be The 21 Minute Product Leader.  (Think:  ours goes up to 11)

To those who’ve attended the live rooms and/or listened to the podcast, we thank you.  Thomas and I will be back in several weeks with a new name, a new platform, and a new format.

Join us for Tomorrow’s SaaS Product Power Breakfast with Dan Faulkner of Plannuh on Building Great Product Teams

Please join us for tomorrow’s SaaS Product Power Breakfast where we’ll speak with Dan Faulkner, CTO of Plannuh, about building great product teams.  I serve as an advisor to Plannuh and I wrote the foreword for their book, The Next CMO, which Dan co-authored with Plannuh founder and CEO Peter Mahoney.

After getting a master’s in speech and language processing, Dan worked for speech recognition powerhouse Nuance for well over a decade, first as a researcher and later moving product and business unit management.

Our topic will be how to build great product teams.  Among other questions, we’ll ask Dan:

  • What makes a great product team?
  • What is his four-part framework for thinking about product teams (e.g., context, talent, change, and location)?
  • Why context matters so much?
  • How to deal with the army you have vs. the army you want?
  • How to think about change and risk?
  • The tradeoffs in location strategy and colocation of PM and ENG?
  • How to think about and drive diversity across a number of dimensions?

Hope to see you there!

Join us for Tomorrow’s SaaS Product Power Breakfast with Alation Cofounder Aaron Kalb on Design, Data, and Disagreement in PM

I’m delighted to say that tomorrow’s SaaS Product Power Breakfast will feature one of my favorite people to riff with, Alation cofounder Aaron Kalb.  Our topic will be on design, data, and disagreement in the context of product and product management.

In addition to cofounding Alation, the inventors of the data catalog, the category leader in data intelligence, and a high-growth company that recently raised a $110M Series D (placing the company squarely in unicorn territory), Aaron serves as Alation’s chief data & analytics officer (CDAO) and before that worked as a designer and researcher in Apple’s Siri advanced development group after graduating from Stanford with a master’s in symbolic systems.

We’ll speak to Aaron both as a product-oriented cofounder of a highly successful company and as a design-oriented product leader.  (We may get a little data-oriented decision-maker mixed in as well.)  Questions we’ll address include:

  • How do you synthesize data-led and design-led product management?
  • How did your psychology and software engineering background help you as a product leader?
  • How do you hire strong product leaders?
  • What was like for a product-oriented cofounder to hand-off the reins to an “outsider” (i.e., newly hired outside expert) product leader?

And, with a little luck, he’ll tell us what the heck symbolic systems is anyway.  See you there.  It should be a great episode.

Thomas will be joining us from a trip to Paris and says he won’t be asking too many questions, but I’m thinking this subject matter will inevitably draw him in.  On verra.

As always, the session will be recorded and made available on the SaaS Product Power Breakfast podcast.

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(Disclaimer:  per my bio and FAQ, I’m both an angel investor in and director of Alation.)

 

 

Join Us for Tomorrow’s SaaS Product Power Breakfast with Andy MacMillan, CEO of UserTesting

We’re back this week with SaaS Product Power Breakfast and tomorrow’s guest is Andy MacMillan, CEO of UserTesting, and our topic is a framework for hiring product teams.

Andy started his career building web applications at EDS (so he presumably has lots of old white shirts somewhere in his closet), was VP of product marketing at content management vendor Stellent, was acquired into Oracle where he spent nearly 5 years in product management before serving as COO of Products at Salesforce (where we crossed trails), then CEO of marketing automation system Act-On, and now CEO at UserTesting, a human insight platform that helps companies get feedback on user experiences — so he’s definitely at the right place at the right time as the whole world starts to value design, user experience, and product-led growth strategies.

Net:  Andy’s got a great background, some real product chops, and can simultaneously give us both the Product and the CEO perspective on product issues.  Our topic is Andy’s framework for hiring product managers and product management teams.  My five key questions for this episode will be:

  • Why do I need a framework for hiring PM teams?
  • What is your framework for hiring PM teams?
  • What goes wrong in hiring PM teams?
  • What do you think of the PM as GM or mini-CEO concept?
  • When should an early-stage company start using such a hiring framework?

Thomas Otter, my co-host, and I look forward to seeing you at our chat with Andy tomorrow at 8am Pacific time.   The session will be recorded and released subsequently as an episode of the SaaS Product Power Breakfast Podcast.  See you there!

 

A Quick Critique of Clubhouse

As you may know, I have been experimenting with Clubhouse over roughly the past six months in several capacities:  as a regular user, an occasional audience participant/questioner, and as the host of a regular room I’ve been running with Thomas Otter, the SaaS Product Power Breakfast.

I love to get involved with new social media platforms early because I’m interested in new forms of media (and the often subtle differences they bring), I enjoy watching early evolution of the products and their usage (e.g., the invention of hashtags or URL shortening on Twitter, the applause convention [1], speaking protocols [2], or the use of Instagram DMs on Clubhouse [3]), I like watching the minimum viable product (MVP) questions play out in real time, and I love to see strategy at work.

So, in that light, here is my quick critique of Clubhouse intended as both critical and constructive.

As a startup- and media-watcher, I’m of the opinion that, after raising money at a $4B valuation in April (and with maybe 50 total employees at the time), Clubhouse appears to have lost significant momentum in the past several months.  Why?

  • The pandemic is winding down.  I think Clubhouse got a significant pandemic tailwind when people were locked in, Zoomed out, and looking for new ways to connect with other humans.
  • Certain communities returned to IRL mode, notably comedians, one of several core Clubhouse communities.  Some of my favorite rooms were in Leah Lamarr’s Hot on the Mike club and it appears that many of those outstanding comedians are back working at physical clubs.  That’s great for them, but not for me — as a Clubhouse user I can’t just login when I’m free and easily find a great comedy room as I once could.
  • It’s hard to reliably find live content.  The key difference between podcasts and Clubhouse rooms is the serendipity of live content (e.g., when I stumbled into a room with John Mayer) and the potential for interactivity [4].  Without those two things, I can just listen to a recorded podcast.  If you can’t find content, what good is the app?  It becomes like cable TV — 500 channels, but nothing to watch.  Every day I am less enthusiastic about firing up the app because I think I’ll either spend half my time looking for something [5] or fail entirely.
  • The app doesn’t get the most basic thing right:  language.  While I do listen to content in two languages, the app is constantly showing rooms in my hallway with titles (and dialog) in languages that I don’t speak.
  • The app has no room-search functionality.  The single most basic, MVP-level feature is (still) missing:  search in-progress rooms by keyword (or topic) in the title or description.  Not there.  Stunning.
  • The follow paradigm is wrong.  Content discovery is based primarily on people, not topics.  Using myself as an example, I like:  enterprise software, the Grateful Dead, French language, comedy, startups, mathematics, and philosophy.  Just because you like enterprise software doesn’t mean you like the Grateful Dead or topology.  While the app notionally supports topics, they appear ignored in composing your hallway [6].
  • The app does not appear to learn.  While the app does not appear to learn what I like in formulating suggestions in the hallway, it does appear to learn some bad lessons:  e.g., if you actually stumble into a single Russian room it seems to suggest them endlessly.
  • The app breaks trust in machine learning.  In an era of sophisticated users, I’m OK to hide-room numerous times in order to teach the app my preferences.  While hide-room didn’t appear to actually do anything (yet), I was confident that at some point they’d leverage that data to improve my experience.  Then one day hide-room seems to have simply disappeared from the app, so all that teaching appears to have been wasted.  That breaks my trust.  Don’t ask me questions if you’re going to throw away the answers.
  • The app is gameable in odd ways.  It appears that long-running rooms get some advantage in hallway prioritization so there are people who run rooms for days on end (e.g., Scenes From an Airport Terminal) that pollute my hallway, and that now I can’t even hide.  If the app were focused on topics and not people and duration, they could eliminate this.
  • The community has too many hucksters and charlatans.  Everyone seems to be a millionaire, successfully running five companies, a great venture investor, and yet still somehow need $99 from you to take their masterclass.  Just reading the bios of the moderators in many rooms makes me feel vaguely ill.  Hearing the advice these people give to would-be entrepreneurs makes me feel worse.  Don’t get me wrong, some rooms are amazing and offer an experience you can find nowhere else.  But a lot of Clubhouse feels like the vapid self-help section of a bookstore.  Oh, and don’t forget your laser eyes before going into the crypto rooms.

What to do about it?

  • Strategically, Clubhouse seems to have missed the systematic expansion memo (e.g., Amazon from books to DVDs to cameras and onward, or Facebook from Harvard students to Ivy League students to College students to broader groups).  I think their decision to port the app to Android before coming even close to completing it (e.g., content discovery, search) was a big mistake.  They need to focus on completing the app first.  Get to MVP before porting the app.
  • Systematic expansion includes not only product but community.  Just as they need to prioritize their product features to complete the product in a logical order, they need to decide which communities they want to serve (and, no, “creators” is not a sufficiently focused community definition).  I think comedians may be gone for good because the time that people want to hear them is precisely the time they are out at work.  But there are lots and lots of communities on Clubhouse they can try to develop (e.g., Silicon Valley VC/startups which had an early focus but seems to have faded away, crypto, activism, real estate, investing).  Just pick some and complete the app for them.
  • Appoint community mangers.  In addition to product managers to drive functionality, appoint and empower community managers and not just to makes rules about content [7] but to help build the community in a given topic area.  Just as retailers have category managers (someone responsible for, e.g., swimwear at a business level) so should Clubhouse have community managers.
  • Play for your users, not your VCs.  Existing users definitionally were not pushing for Android.  I’m guessing the VCs were — so they could continue to show great adoption.  But what good is great adoption if, after using the app a few times, everyone drops off because they can’t find anything they want to listen to?  Without great content on the app, there is no need for the app.
  • Stay in touch and on the ground.  One of my favorite rooms was cofounder Paul Davison’s weekly introduction [8] for new members (on Thursday evenings) that I assume he’s still running.  I know he runs a weekly Town Hall as well.  Paul is a great spokesperson, communicator, and listener and I love that he stays in such direct touch with his user base.  They just need to add some more systematic strategic focus atop that and some Geoffrey Moore 101 to go with it — complete the app, use-case by use-case and don’t get stretched too far, too fast in the process.

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Notes

[1] Muting and unmuting your microphone in rapid succession

[2] Examples:  Pull-to-refresh (PTR) order.  Or the “this is Dave and I am done speaking” protocol, which is seemingly for several reasons including:  to identify speakers in rooms with large numbers of moderators where you may not be able to find the speaker (e.g., if they are buried three screens down), as a basic courtesy protocol, and for accessibility reasons for people who are unable see the grey ring indicating speaker identity.

[3] A great example of not needlessly building DMs a feature, but instead supporting profiles that link to Instagram and the community quickly embracing Instagram as the default DM method on Clubhouse.

[4] If you want to raise your hand and ask a question and are so selected — itself another issue as I’d been in numerous rooms where people said they waited literally for hours

[5] And because Clubhouse can be and is often best done while multi-tasking, it needs to be fast and easy to find something, e.g., when you’re hopping on the treadmill.

[6] The app suggests if you’re not finding content you want to “follow more people” — not to like more topics.

[7] The narrow definition of community manager is about making and enforcing rules for rooms, dealing with reported speakers, etc.  While such activity is important, it’s table stakes — a community manager should be far more than a security guard, but instead a leader trying to build the community, drive membership, foster and promote rooms, etc.

[8] Even though it was notionally an “introduction” I attended for several weeks just to hear Paul talk about the app and his vision.