Product Foundations

Leading product teams as you grow

Neil Rahilly VP Product & Design @ Mixpanel

Leading a product team in a startup—where it’s basically you, or maybe you and one other person—is far different from leading a large product management team for a well-established company. Neil Rahilly, Mixpanel’s VP of Product and Design, walks us through how product management leadership priorities change as you move from startup through scale up and all the way to enterprise. 

Startup: Set ruthless priorities

When you’re a startup and you’re looking for product-market fit, you need to be ruthless. You have to prioritize product differentiators that will give you a breakthrough ability to solve user problems that no one else can (or in a way no one else has thought of). These differentiators get you those very first customers that, even though you’re rough around the edges and small and unpolished, value your product so much that they’re willing to look past all that. Actually, it’s more than that: they’ll be your biggest fans because you’re the only company that’s solving their problems for them.

Here’s an example from the early days of Mixpanel:

We didn’t have a self-service Forgot Password flow—if you forgot your password, you had to write into Support and someone would manually reset your password for you. Rightly, we concluded that our fledgling product wasn’t going to succeed or fail based on the Forgot Password flow (or lack thereof), so we focused instead on the most impactful things that we could do. 

Scaling up: Make customer feedback your most strategic asset

As you grow and you start scaling, you’re going to have to focus on matching innovation with follow through–and iron out the little things (like, say, that pesky Forgot Password flow). You might be tempted to look over at what your competition is up to, but resist that temptation. Your goal is to leapfrog them, and that means you have to do a better job of fixing their customers’ problems than they are. 

The bigger you get, the more your customers will become your most important strategic asset. You’re the first and only person or team that gets to hear their complaints, feedback, input and feature requests. You’re the one with the relationship; you’re the one who gets to meet with them and understand how and why they’re using your product and what they’re using it for. That’s an invaluable source of information.

Personally, I don’t want other company’s roadmaps; I want their user feedback, their customer gaps, and their feature requests. Because if you want to leapfrog your competition, you have to do a better job of fixing their customers’ problems than they are.

Enterprise: think like a startup

As your established company faces disruption from scrappy startups, you need to figure out a way to stay innovative. As you scale, keep decomposing your teams into units that can function efficiently and that still feel like little startups within themselves. Amazon, for example, tries to break down their engineering teams into what they call “two-pizza” teams—teams that you could feed with two pizzas. I’ve found that, when you’re doing software development, the highest functioning unit is a product manager, a designer, and a handful of engineers. Whatever that team is working on, across large stretches of time (like months), they can make their own decisions without a ton of authoritative coordination with other people.

At the enterprise stage of growth, your goal is to balance this team autonomy with the larger corporate vision. At Netflix, they work according to the principle of “context, not control.” (You can take a look at the Netflix culture deck here.) It boils down to a sense of purpose—if a team knows why they’re doing what they’re doing and how that fits into the company’s success, they’ll make better decisions on their own and will not have to be managed as much or as directly. At all costs, you want to avoid the endless meetings and check ins and authorizations that make a company slow and frustrating and bureaucratic.

Working to grow a startup into a successful company can be stressful but also exciting and inspiring and creatively satisfying. The trick for product managers is to retain as much as you can of the agile one-team atmosphere and focus that launched you into the big leagues, while ceding responsibility to the product teams that will continue to grow your business. I guess in the end I’m arguing for keeping a little bit of that startup feeling going in everything you do.

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