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Evolving Enterprise: Building and Running Product Teams

March 10, 2022

As startups grow from a couple of people tinkering on a product to dozens and eventually hundreds of employees, founders find themselves having to make big decisions on when and how to build their product teams. 

We chatted with Ilan Frank (Head of Platform at Airtable and former VP, Product at Slack) and Tara Goldman (SVP, Product at Electric) about some of the biggest questions startups face when scaling their product teams. 

Check out some of their insights, or watch the replay:

What key traits should you look for in your startup's first product hires?

Your first product managers need to be comfortable with ambiguity, especially when the team itself is being built. Three guidelines can help guide your hiring:

  • Set expectations that PMs need to be flexible and wear many hats. They don’t have to stick rigidly within their own job function. For example, if an engineer sees a problem with the UX, and the PM or designer is completely maxed out, the engineer can go ahead and fix the problem. 
  • First product hires can and should develop transferable skill sets when possible. From UX design to data analysis, you want people with growth potential.
  • Prior experience is critical, but you want to find a balance. You don’t want to go with someone too senior who won’t roll up their sleeves to get their hands dirty, nor do you want to go with someone too junior who might not ask the tough questions. Find someone in the middle-to-senior area who can grow into a great leader over time.

How should product teams be structured?

Product jobs are information and context-heavy, and structuring separate teams makes it hard for businesses to build good products. Consider the pod structure that encourages mutual understanding across different functions. Product teams work most effectively when they are aligned with a mission and a goal. 

When it comes to reporting lines, keep in mind that:

  • In earlier stage companies, it may not matter so much whether a senior PM reports to a CTO, or a VP of engineering reports to a CPO.
  • In later stages, it’s important that product and engineering have equal footing—both the CPO and the CTO should report to the CEO.

While the new reality of tech jobs does not necessarily entail going back into the office five days a week, it’s important to have face-to-face opportunities at a regular cadence—say quarterly or bi-annually—in order to align teams on their missions and to keep them working well together.

How do you prioritize between customer feature requests and “moonshot” projects?

Stay matched up at the executive levels on what your strategic goals are and what you are trying to accomplish. If you decide to take something new on, be transparent about what sacrifices you would have to make to get there. This helps everybody understand the tradeoffs and helps to frame things in perspective.

Product management begins when you say “no” to the customer. Note that this doesn’t mean rejecting everything a customer requests. Instead, prioritize features that are the most common, which are also aligned with company objectives.

Create a customer advisory board (CAB) and have discussions with them every six months. Not only is this helpful in discovering the features customers most want to see, but CABs also help build trust with customers when they see your team taking notes, accepting feedback, and offering solutions.

What's your best advice for building successful product-led growth (PLG)?

Enterprise has always had the chooser and the user, and in general product teams tend to focus on one or the other. Treat the chooser and the user separately, and have different teams work on different businesses and targets. This helps reduce the daily tension of resource allocation decisions.

Use personas to help decide who your product is targeting. Targets can evolve, but personas help teams understand who they are serving, as well as what their needs and behaviors are.

Get more tactical tips in our Evolving Enterprise series: