Moving from Product Vision to Strategy to Execution
A great product story always starts with a vision. But as we all know, it is those next steps that can be challenging and ultimately dictate whether a product becomes a success. And what exactly are those next steps and what is the best way to approach them?
We spoke with Hubert Palan, Founder and CEO of productboard, a product management system that enables teams to get the right products to market faster. Hubert is passionate about product strategy and has worked to fill a need was hearing repeatedly: that there was no clear definition of what a successful product strategy looked like.
So what has Hubert learned about product strategy through his experience with productboard? And why does starting with the right product idea make all of the difference? Listen in to hear Hubert’s insights on product strategy that moves product makers from vision to execution.LISTEN NOW
Hubert Palan: Obviously, you should have relatively clear understanding how the worlds around the product looks like when you introduce the product into the world. So, that's the vision, but the strategy is what is the sequence of steps that I'm going to take in order to get to the vision so that I maximize the chances of getting there?
Anna: This product-
Christian: Are we recording?
Anna: Oh, my God. Better Product, the only show that takes a behind-the-scenes look into how digital products are created.
Christian: The businesses built around them and how you too can innovate better product. I'm Christian.
Anna: I'm Anna.
Christian: Welcome to today's show. A great product story always starts with a vision, but as we all know, it is those next steps that can be challenging and ultimately dictate whether a product becomes a success. And what exactly are those next steps and what is the best way to approach them? That's what we're going to focus on in today's conversation.
Anna: We talked with Hubert Palan, founder and CEO of productboard, a product management system that enables teams to get the right products to market faster. Ultimately, Hubert's goal with productboard is to help product makers understand what users need, prioritize what to build, and rally everyone around the roadmap.
Christian: Hubert is passionate about product strategy because in his experience there was no clear definition on what a successful product strategy looked like.
Hubert Palan: I knew I had a need. I knew that I was running around here at Silicon Valley, and I was ... The group of people that I hang out with are all the VP products and senior people in high-profile startups. And the more I talked to people, I realized that, "Wait a minute. There's actually not enough clarity on what a good product strategy looks like, and there's definitely not enough functionality." I started learning more and more about the use cases, and I started to learn about, "Okay. How is it that teams get aligned? And how is it that you communicate your product roadmap and product strategy to your board, and how is it that you communicate it to the rest of the company? How do you talk about partnerships from product strategy perspective?" and so on.
Anna: Those conversations served as a genesis for productboard and led Hubert on a journey to help product developers manage their strategy from vision to execution.
Christian: And just like many other product journeys we hear about, Hubert kept uncovering new opportunities for what productboard could ultimately be, leading he and his team to dig deeper to deliver the best product possible.
Hubert Palan: And so, all that informed my understanding and kind of shaped, obviously, the trajectory of productboard. But initially, the initial insight was like, "Come on. It's people, problems, products. Let's build a system that is going to have all these entities baked into it." But I didn't know how exactly it's going to look like. That evolved to this. It's like discovery, and then you deliver and discover again. And then, you deliver.
Anna: Today, productboard serves not only smaller startup product teams but large enterprise companies, and through this experience, Hubert has found that starting with the small problems before tackling the big ones equips his team with the necessary skills and experiences to meet the needs of their largest customers.
Hubert Palan: And so, within that we said, "Hey. Let's start with smaller teams. Let's start with the teams that are not that complex and to go from bottom up." And then, later on as we went to the market and we started to understand better the needs of the larger customers, then we started tackling those, and we'd go into bigger and bigger, bigger customers. And now we have large banks as companies and the largest enterprises in the world. And obviously, that up market pull will continue. But we were very, very deliberate about prioritizing the functionality so that we didn't start with the largest, more most complex ask of the biggest customers even though they were offering us the most money. But make sure that we first go bottom up and slowly build up the functionality and build on top of that.
Christian: So, what has Hubert learned about product strategy through these experiences? That is the story we're going to hear today along with a lot of other insights.
Anna: For example, why is it so important for everyone in a company to buy in on the purpose of a product, and what are the challenges associated with that alignment? And speaking of purpose, Hubert has some interesting thoughts on why everyone should want to make the right product. What exactly is the right product?
Christian: It stands to reason that the right product is probably a better product. Am I right?
Anna: Whoa. With that, let's dive in.
Christian: So, if you could summarize what you consider to be product strategy in sort of one sentence and maybe how it is different from a vision, what would that be?
Hubert Palan: What I mentioned is the vision is the long-term. How do you see the product? How does the product look like in the longer term? It was like five, 10 years, so basically it depends on the product. But that's the long-term vision, and then obviously, you should have relatively clear understanding how the worlds around the product looks like when you introduce the product into the world. So, that's the vision, but the strategy is what is the sequence of steps that I'm going to take in order to get to the vision so that I maximize the chances of getting there? So that I waste as little as possible along the way. So that I maximize the chances of winning in the competitive environment, right? Because, obviously, the landscape changes and so on.
Hubert Palan: So, did I minimize the chances that I build something that is not, that shouldn't be there? Because the vision can be misguided because you keep learning. It's not like now I have vision done, and now I go to strategy in order to execute it. It's a cycle. You keep iterating. And so, that's what that's for me the product strategy is, and you need to think about it. We were talking about product, product management, product strategy, but it's really overall it's, "Okay. What functionality am I going to launch?" But then also, "How am I going to message it? How am I going to communicate it? How am I going to price it?" All of a sudden, it's like, so now you're in the middle of the pricing strategy. Do you start pricing high, and then you go down market like Uber did or like Superhuman is doing I think? Or, do you start the opposite direction? And so, all this is part of the strategy.
Hubert Palan: And to your point, that I think that this is kind of what's being, what has been taught in marketing strategy class. So in the traditional world, in the before-digital world, if you talk to product managers at Procter & Gamble or Unilever or just like fast-moving consumer good companies, they've actually perfected this. They think strategically about, "How do we introduce new products to the market?" And we somehow haven't made fully the switch from the non-digital to the digital, or it seems like the people that are the digital project managers, they don't have the classical marketing strategy education because digital is now swarming everything, and there's such a big demand. There're just so many products that there's kind of lack of leadership, lack of education on it, and I feel like we haven't applied these lessons learned from the hardware or traditional fast-moving consumer goods products into the enterprise software world or into just like software world, digital world in general.
Hubert Palan: And so, I think that we just need to make sure that we surface it. And you can buy books on high-tech strategy, or you can buy books on marketing strategy and just like if you read them through the lens of, "I'm building a software digital product," you can directly apply those learnings and the concept of segmentation and how you should do market research and make sure that you understand the homogeneity of your target customers. And all that is directly applicable. It's just that there's very little, again, overall content in this specific arena of the digital world. There is very, very few examples. It's also challenging because companies don't want to talk about their wrong strategic mistakes, the mistakes that they've done, so it's kind of like a little more difficult to learn from the mistakes and from the failures. But there's sources. You just need to dig.
Christian: What it sounds like to me is that productboard was driven more based on a better way of doing things, but in a, I guess, "right way" of doing things, or as you said, "The best way to build product," as opposed to solving a distinct problem in the market. Would you agree with that, or am I misrepresenting that?
Hubert Palan: Well, the problem in the market is that I hope that everybody wants to make the right product, and it's like whatever your motivation is, right? Even if you're motivated by money and you just want to build a product that makes a buck, which I hope isn't most people, in my idealistic world. But even there, you're motivated to make the right decisions because if you build something that nobody needs, you're going to go under. And so, that's the market problem. It's obviously broad, so it's difficult to then, "Okay. So, this kind of obvious. We just want to make things that work and that people will want to buy and enjoy using and all of the emotional aspects and the aspect of delight to it." But that was the problem.
Hubert Palan: And then obviously, underneath is like, "So, let's figure out," like, "Let's understand better that there are these core jobs or core needs that need to be satisfied and that it is the insights and the listening piece of the customers." It is the prioritization strategy. What are the objectives? How am I going to decide what to build next? And then, the third piece is the execution, which is really roadmapping and planning and alignment, just to make sure that all this is covered.
Christian: So, yeah. No, that makes sense. And where I was going and sort of thinking about is because I imagine it's got to be challenging when you've got a better way of doing things, but it seems like even the problems you're describing that people have maybe aren't right in front of their face. So, I'd like to understand a little bit more, and maybe I've mischaracterized it again. But I'm curious on that subject how you sort of bridge that communication gap to your customers when you're actually trying to get them to adopt a product that they may never realize they needed before.
Hubert Palan: Yeah. So, I mean, so I hear you on the product. It's every time they're building a product that doesn't exist in a kind of category that doesn't exist, you face this challenge. Because if I showed up in 1980, and I asked you, "Hey, what CRM are you using?" you'd have a blank face because it wasn't until Tom Siebel invented it, and then this is Marc Benioff and his launch with Salesforce. But we are kind of in the same situation, right? Like, "Hey. What's your project management system?" and people don't know because it's a new category. The association doesn't exist.
Hubert Palan: But if you look at, if you observe the people, what is it that they do day-to-day, they do think about this, right? You as a product team hopefully, and especially as a senior product leader, spend time in product strategy sessions. You draw things on the whiteboards, and you gather inputs and insights from the team and all the other teams in the company to make sure that you understand. You kind of discuss that, and you set priorities. You just do it kind of with a far inferior solution, and you're doing it in a world where the volume of insights is growing exponentially.
Hubert Palan: We have all the online chats and intercoms, drafts, Zendesk, like all these. And so, the companies are bombarded more and more with insights and asks from customers, and then you just can't keep up if you're just going to be sitting there. And so, that's something that like when we were talking to our perspective customers, we helped them realize like, "Oh, my God. That's ... You're right." I'm like, "There's this modern army marching at me, and I'm sitting here with a stone and hammer, and that's ... I think like that I'm going to figure things out."
Hubert Palan: And so, it's like jobs to be done. The needs are relatively stable. They don't really change. You need to understand the customers. You need to make the decision, the right product position decision. You need to make sure that everybody understands why you're doing it so that everybody executes, and people are not running around in chaos. And so, once you kind of explain, "Hey. This is how you operate this." Like, "We're not changing your behavior. We're just telling you there's a better system that supports that." So, then, suddenly it clicks. It's like, "Oh, yeah. I get it. I get it."
Christian: Now, my next question is, and I ... Tell me how many employees do you, does productboard have now?
Hubert Palan: We're at hundreds.
Christian: So, how has that been challenged as you've scaled your team? So, when you sort of talk about the three pillars of a product vision, product strategy, product execution and delivery, how has that been challenged for you? What are the challenges that you've faced from that early vision of what you wanted to get done and then where you're at today over the past few years as you've grown in people?
Hubert Palan: It's kind of that it's hard, obviously, as you scale the team, and as the companies become more complex, the organization becomes more complex. The product organization, the product can become very complex. So, for us the good news is that actually we're our own Guinea pig, and we're obviously using product what and we're learning. And we were just saying like, "Hey. We started building product for ourselves, but sort of started with the product first, and we'll start up." And then as we go as we grow, we were just understanding intimately the needs of bigger teams because now we have ourselves, seven product teams, and it's not that different if you have seven or 14, or we have customers that have hundred product teams.
Hubert Palan: But the challenge there that I see as the biggest is the communication flow, and you need to create this shared understanding. And how do you make sure that there is this ... How do you describe it? Like the fabric in the company that allows everybody to understand the needs of the customers. Everybody can contribute and communicate what is it that they heard, and so that's challenging. It's like because there is always the translation piece. I talked about it before to translate from user researcher to project manager from project manager to demand and so on. It's the same thing. If you know the salesperson had a conversation, and now they're translating the insights to the product team, things get lost in translation then.
Hubert Palan: Then, you have new people who are on team. They have their little contacts. They don't have the long-term history. They haven't had enough time to think about the problem and understand the problem space. So, all this is kind of typical pain points of a fast-growing startup or a fast-growing company. And we're just learning, and we're making sure that, hey, well, whenever we stumble upon an issue like, "Hey, somebody didn't understand this problem," or like during the discovery, it seems like that the designs are not really meeting the needs, we go, and it's like, "Hey, what could we do? What is it that we can do in productboard? What is it that we can do the process? What is it that it means for the methodology and for the framework?" And so as we grow, we are just trying to make sure we that we adopt all of this process, this methodology.
Christian: Yeah. No, that's great. So, thinking ahead to the next five years, given your position overseeing a product manager's product, where do you see products headed? What's a one key trend, or is there any sort of shift that you're starting to see maybe over the next five years that sort of contrasts over what you've seen over the last five years?
Hubert Palan: Yeah. I mean there's a major ... The biggest shift is the digital transformation that is happening, and we've been talking about it for a while now. But Marc Andreessen Software's Eating the World is absolutely happening, and we hear from customers and companies that are from a completely traditional space, like your manufacturers of heavy machinery, bulldozers, right? And I was like, "Oh. How do we do e-commerce version, and how do we do kind of shared economy around that?" Or like, "How do we kind of follow all the latest, new go to the market digital world thinking?" And so, you're seeing many more chief product officers in the very kind of traditional companies or chief digital officers who ...
Hubert Palan: Because these companies realize that it's not any more than the software is just like an internal pool. It's not just, "Hey, we need a banking system because we are a bank, and we need to operate internally." The products are becoming revenue generation channels. It's like the product drives revenue, which suddenly requires a very different way of thinking. It's not the internal. It's not the way that Agile methodology was invented for, right? Agile methodology was invented for custom software development project. It's not the way. It's like you need to suddenly put on, as I mentioned, the marketing strategy hat and think about customer segmentation needs and all that and make sure that you really do it right because otherwise, there's all these new companies that are going to start competing with you, and you lose.
Hubert Palan: And so, that's like absolutely the biggest trend that we see, where old school, traditional companies are realizing, "Oh, shoot. How is it done? We need to adopt quickly." And the rise of, obviously, design driven, I mean it look like it's kind of like everybody has a take, right? Designers kind of started looking at this, like you said, and you focus on UX. So, if you talk to Alan Cooper at Cooper Design and personas and user centered design and all the design thinking, then it's all coming from the design world, which is, "Let's make sure that we designed the right products and so on." But the product managers are coming at it from the business feasibility, and is it really a business opportunity?
Hubert Palan: So, I just talked to a person who was like a senior UX designer at an agency, and he was saying, "It happened to us several times that we won a design award, and the design itself, some parts of interactions in the product were really incredible, but the product overall failed because the product strategy wasn't right. Overall, the scope of the product wasn't right. Pricing was off," and so on. And so, that's basically the job of product managers. And so, I think that this is what the companies realized, and that's why product is now part of C-suite. And that's why we see this ride and why you hear a lot about product-led companies as opposed to engineering-led or sales-led companies. In our world, this is a major trend.
Anna: Yeah. No, definitely. I think you're 100% right. I think, but, yeah. I agree with you. You saw the shift to UX, but now you're seeing that shift to the larger product strategy. I think you're 100% right.
Hubert Palan: And it's not. It's you need to do both.
Anna: Of course. Yeah, yeah.
Hubert Palan: It's not like one is more important than the other, right?
Hubert Palan: Design thinking and all the best practices there needs to stay, and we can actually just maybe in some cases even just amend them for the product thinking, and it's like, "Great that this was already invented," right? And the people are familiar with the techniques. Just kind of like, "Okay. Let's broaden it and have somebody who really represents the customer overall from both the UX perspective but also understands feasibility," and then adds the business aspect as well.
Anna: So, what does better product mean to you?
Hubert Palan: It's a product that satisfies the needs of the customer in a superior way. And there is, now we can go into what is superior, right? Because there's the functional needs. There's the emotional needs, so it's both the function and the aesthetic. And so, that's obviously something that we need to think about when we say "better product", consider both of these dimensions. And then, there's these dimensions: fast, right? Cheap, easy. There's something that eliminates cognitive friction. Something that eliminates physical friction. Something that eliminates kind of like the social awkwardness.
Hubert Palan: There's this model. BJ Fogg has a great model, a figure model. BJ Fogg is a professor at Stanford. And it was like six dimensions. Something that's safer. Something that makes people safer. So, there's all these dimensions, and so as long as you satisfy the needs better on one of these dimensions, or obviously you can satisfy better on multiple, that's what a better product is, and it's ... Look. The needs, again, don't change that much, but the way we solve them evolve, and we have better technology. We have better approaches. We understand design better. We understand consumer psychology better. We understand people better. So, then the results, if we do it right, better products.
Anna: So, Huber talked a lot about building a product where a product doesn't exist, and I think a lot of people out there are probably doing this, right? They're building something new. It doesn't have a category. It doesn't have a name. There is no prescribed processes around it, and he mentioned specifically Salesforce, right? If you go back in the '80s and ask someone what CRM they're using, they're like, "What's a CRM? Where'd you get that cell phone?"
Anna: "Are you a time traveler?"
Christian: "Why are you time traveling?"
Anna: "Why is your hair so flat?"
Anna: "Where are your shoulder pads? Obviously, you don't belong here." So, I guess, Christian, thinking about that, what were your thoughts around the idea of kind of building when there is no category or there is no preexisting competitor even?
Christian: Well, it was a good reminder that a lot of us, even with technology serving so many different facets of the business world, there's still a lot of things that we do that there isn't a product for. Even thinking personally how often we use say Dropbox Paper mixed with Airtable mixed with Gmail mixed with Slack, whatever it is, what he was kind of looking at is like, "All right. You're whiteboarding things. You're using different tools. You're handling face-to-face meetings when you're trying to strategize." There's a product in there that could facilitate all that, but there isn't something to position it against.
Christian: So, I think the first thing that struck me when he was talking about that was the actual name that he has, which is productboard. It's almost like it's about product, and then it's combined with a board but like a whiteboard. So, it's almost like using something physical that's familiar. In like five years, if this category that Hubert's in becomes a big thing, you could see names that don't have to leverage like something physical in the beginning. So, that was the first thing I thought about was just how even the name itself is leveraging something tangible, which I think is a good hook for people to understand, "Oh. This is actually tied to something that I'm doing day to day."
Anna: So, really it's a tieback to how people initially named software companies. It was always a smashing together of two words. So, I like how he was mentioning that every function in a company has a system of record, but product doesn't, which I think is a really good point. But he didn't just set out to build a product, he wanted to build a product and help people specifically build product the right way. It's very philosophy driven. So, I would think we've seen that. We've seen that with clients. We've seen that with people we've talked to on the show, but what do you think-
Christian: Name one.
Anna: Greenlight Guru.
Anna: Nick Tippmann.
Christian: Nailed it.
Anna: Yep. Thanks. I'll be here all day. So, a philosophy different product in a new space, it sounds kind of risky. What are your thoughts about that?
Christian: Yeah. I think it is risky. It's there's so many aspects of it because you have to try to communicate that he talks about translating what people are doing, so he has to figure out the way that he interprets what the customers are doing and then translating it back to them. If you're trying to move somebody say off of a physical whiteboard, that's a hard thing to do.
Christian: The other thing I thought about is a lot of experience we have with founders, and sometimes you get the sort of pie in the sky like ... Sometimes we get these founders that are kind of in the clouds and can't come down, and they have this sort of world view. I mean we all have been there where we have some grand idea and then try to think about, "Oh. If everybody just did everything this way." That line of thinking can get you in a lot of trouble. So, I think when you have a grand way of doing things, one thing that helps is to sort of ... Right? He talked about it. I mean the practice what you preach or what? I'm trying to say, "Eat your own dog food," like that. He mentioned it-
Christian: ... in there that they are users-
Christian: ... themselves.
Anna: Well, they, yeah. They built it for themselves.
Anna: I mean they were product people. They saw that there was a gap, and I mean going back to what we talked about with Justin Bauer, I mean he was a product manager who was, or who would have been, a very early user of Amplitude based on the startups that he came from. And I think we're hearing this more and more is this idea of when founders, when early team members are solving product problems that they have, they're subject matter experts, and they can really rely a lot on their intuition and what they know is the right way to get something done.
Christian: It's not that I don't know that we have a lot of great answers for how to handle building a product that's based on a philosophy. I mean it's almost just being aware of it.
Anna: Well, when it comes to building a product based on a philosophy, I think what Hubert saw here is that people have been building product, obviously, for a really long time, and I think really the big gap in the market was the philosophy, right? People are using Trello. People are using Jira. People are using all these tools to just organize, and there was nothing out there that's like really helping you build from a philosophical standpoint. I think what he did is say, "I'm going to take something and build it specifically for product managers as opposed to product managers just kind of jumping on other tools that are just built to be very, very general."
Christian: Yeah. One of the other things to be aware of when you're building a product based on philosophy is that some of the value props that you have for that product might take a long time to manifest. It's really easy in some of the marketing tech world to build a product that can have value because you have digital attribution, and you can actually plug numbers in and say, "Look. This is how successful you were." But when you're building a philosophy out and then you're building a product based off of that, you not only have to tell people what it does, but you have to help them understand how to even judge whether it's doing a good job for you.
Christian: It's kind of like if we think about what Pieter Omvlee talked about with Sketch Tools. Design tools is really challenging because when you're building design tools, it's hard to prove that, "Hey. Did I do a better job at my design because I used Sketch? I don't really know." So, you can't really hinge a product on the same sort of things that you might be able to in other cases.
Christian: It's like Greenlight Guru, for example. In Greenlight Guru, they're trying to reduce the amount of time it takes to test a medical device in QA. That's got really easy metrics that you can tie to it. You can say, "Well, it took longer, and we can prove that." With something like productboard, you're creating something entirely new, so you're almost having to create analytics and metrics to go along with it that you're almost like giving somebody a dictionary to go along with it to say, "Here's a product that's going to help you, and then here's how to know whether it's doing a good job for you." It's a lot to take on.
Anna: So, in this product management ecosystem, I think the philosophy of building a good product has outpaced the tool. The tools have not kept up with the philosophy, and I think he's coming in here to say, "It's time for the tools to match the philosophy." We all, as a product management community, know how to build a great product. We're a mature enough role at this point that we know how to do things right, but our tools have not kept up with us. And I think maybe thinking about that as a trend, if you see a space in the philosophy of how to do something right, there're not tools to support it that way, that's an opportunity to be taken.
Anna: Thanks so much for listening to the show this week. If you haven't yet, be sure to subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. Until then, visit innovatemap.staging.wpengine.com/podcast and subscribe to learn how you could take your product to the next level. As always, we're curious. What does better product mean to you? Hit us up on twitter @innovatemap or shoot us an email at email@example.com.
Christian: I'm Christian.
Anna: And I'm Anna, and you've been listening to Better Product.
Christian: Better Product.
Anna: Drop mic.