Building tech products loved by millions, with Lea Hickman, Silicon Valley Product Group
Lea Hickman is a Partner at Silicon Valley Product Group (svpg.com), a firm dedicated to helping technology companies on product vision, strategy, discovery, design and development process through advisory, consulting and training services.
For over 25 years, Lea has been leading product teams to deliver world class products used by millions of people. Starting her career at IBM where she was building applications for Fortune 500 companies, she went on to lead product teams at Netscape, Macromedia, Adobe and InVision before joining SVPG in early 2017. Lea took take part our Pain of Scale podcast series to discuss how tech companies can build products loved by millions. You can listen to the interview in full here.
At the heart of every great SaaS company is a product that clearly differentiates them in the market. We see the speed of innovation and execution that the very best tech companies are able to achieve at scale and so, for any emerging tech company, building world class product management and development is critical for their success.
The gulf between the very best tech companies in the world and the rest.
The biggest difference between great products and the rest is a mindset that truly values innovation. As businesses scale, they can lose that spirit, and start looking at their product portfolio purely from an ROI perspective. While ROI is important, the great companies prioritise innovation and disruption in and of itself and it remains a core part of their culture.
At the beginning this focus on innovation is innate and a core part of the values of the founders, but as they grow and as more people join them, it's something they cultivate.
At the early stage, that mindset starts with focus, especially with product centric founders, and it starts with focusing on the problem and validating that it is indeed a problem really worth solving. At the start up phase, obsessing about the problem is really important. And then you have to turn that problem obsession into passion, that builds momentum in a business better than anything else.
At the early stages the emphasis is all on discovery; not discovery around the solution, but discovery around the problem. So you need to disconnect the two until you have validated the problem in depth. From a discovery perspective, companies need to be really careful to avoid falling in love with their solution. The focus is entirely on the problem - understanding the customer problem in its entirety and then starting to explore how technology can adjust to solving the problem, not the other way around.
What are the characteristics of the product manager at the early stages?
In start ups, the best product managers have to be willing to roll up their sleeves and get involved in all aspects of the business. Not only do they get involved in writing user stories, but they need to understand each and every aspect of the business, demonstrating a keen understanding of the go to market strategy, a keen understanding of what it takes to build on the platform. The reason they need to be skilled in all these areas is that they are the person responsible for pushing the product, so they need to have empathy for all aspects of the customer problem and their business. As companies grow, the characteristics of the PMs changes, but at the early stages a certain degree of grit is necessary to keep pushing forward on multiple fronts.
How does the product management function change as the company grows up?
The biggest challenge companies face as they go through the difficult growing up phase is bringing people in from the outside, while making sure there is a continued emphasis on validating all the assumptions put in place in order to validate the value, but then to validate predictability and repeatability. When you introduce people from outside, you have to dramatically increase the level of communication about the focus and the vision as you bring in people who have not experienced the level of passion for the problem that fuelled the business through its early days.
Communication is very different when you grow to 50 or 100 people, but it’s not about telling but about influencing people to align them with the vision and imbue them with the passion. The tools, cadence and spirit of communication needs to be carefully thought through.
At reale scale, the role of the Product Manager is different again and sometimes the people simply cannot move from one stage to the next.
Beyond communication and influencing, the skills Product Managers need to demonstrate as companies move into $25m plus in revenues, with hundreds of employees are very different from those required in that original 1.0 phase.
At the start, PMs are the chief innovator and are incredibly creative, while at scale there is the PM who is really good at incremental value, building on top of existing platforms. We don’t often see people who are exception at both. So at scale there may be the opportunity to bring on different skills and people who thrive at delivering incremental value, and typically they are different personalities and people from those who thrived in the 1.0 days.
How do product management team structures change as a company grows?
At the start companies organise around squads, with a product manager working very closely with a lead designer and a lead developer, but as the organisation starts to scale with more products or shared services there is a level of dependency across the teams you must take into account. The shared services team needs to prioritise across multiple products. So as companies grow we see teams add additional resources into the core team, sometimes a delivery manager or a programme manager into the product organisation, in essence folks who are looking to help the product teams make priority calls. In the B2B space, there is also an increasing inclusion of Product Marketing people.
Proximity between product teams is incredibly useful, but when companies start to internationalise that can be hard to maintain.
So much has changed over the last few years with new technologies that allow us to collaborate across time zones. Invision operated entirely remotely with people all over the world, but we leveraged collaboration tools and worked incredibly hard to make sure everyone was in the stand ups at the same time. But the biggest challenge and the thing that we missed, was the relationship building that was so critical to product. So we made sure people travelled to get to know each other, even if just to work alongside each other in a cafe.
What are the cultural differences the highest performing product teams demonstrate?
There are two things that are critical 1) collaboration and 2) transparency.
As they grow, product teams need to work incredibly hard to instil a culture wherein the whole team believes that speed is built on collaboration. So they need to avoid asynchronous communication and make decisions together and stay aligned. This shortens the decision making time and companies just move faster.
It’s one thing to collaborate, but it’s another to do it transparently. It’s essential to ensure everyone has access to the same data and understands the why, truly understanding the motivation behind why they are doing what they are doing, not just the mechanics of it.
When we hire great product managers we need to look for people who are willing to make mistakes, talk about them openly and learn from them. If you are hiring someone who is more interested in being seen to be right, this could be a red flag.
The most important lesson I learned was to not fall in love with my ideas!
Early in my career, while working at Netscape, Marty Cagan gave me a really valuable piece of advice that I’ve carried with me ever since and that was “Whatever you do, never fall in love with your ideas” - Marty believed that people act irrationally when they are in love with their ideas. They start protecting their ideas and stop listening to the signs that say it's time to move on. Even more dangerously, you don’t talk to people who disagree with your ideas. So look out for that and entertain way more ideas than just the ones you love.