How To Make Your Startup Product Perfect? Apphawks CPOs Interviews

We know that there are no perfect products. Come to think about it, perfect in what way? Recognizing clients' needs, fitting the market, sales, user experience, design, lack of software bugs? Or maybe a little bit of everything?

One thing we know for sure. There are applications on the market which are just great. They combine pragmatism because they solve users' problems and using such apps is pure pleasure.

Apphawks Interview Series invites people making decisions about the product, but also about the development process to the discussion. May these unique perspectives show us how rich in various experiences the process of building and developing the product can be.

For us, as QA partners, the most important thing is the insight related to quality assurance. We want to find out how startup leaders maintain quality during the company's scale and growth. We ask what to do to stand out on this very competitive technological market.

In the first series, we're talking with CPOs. People on the front lines in the battle for a better product. Here is the list of our quests and short descriptions of their companies:

Brad Dunn, Chief Product Officer at Whispir - Whispir reimagines communications with automated workflows so that organizations can easily master connection and engagement with people. Packed with time-saving features and clever tools including a powerful API to integrate your data, you'll produce professional finishes, engage your audience, build your brand and make data-driven decisions with a click of a button.

Akhilesh Chadha, Chief Product Officer at Oneflow - Oneflow speeds up the last mile of your sales process - presentation of the offer, negotiation, and closing - with e-contracts. E-contracts are interactive and responsive. Oneflow is seamlessly integrated with the major CRM systems, such as Salesforce, Upsales, Lime, etc.

Andreas Ahlenius, Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer at Amuse - Amuse gives free music distribution and empowering tools to artists across the globe. By using music consumption data Amuse finds, licenses and builds cutting-edge services for tomorrow’s platinum selling talent.

Jarek Owczarek, Founder & Chief Product Officer at Conractbook - Send, sign, and store all your contracts with Contractbook - a digital all-in-one work agreement solution to handle all your legal work. Unlike other digital signing tools, Contractbook provides a simple, transparent and effective workflow with easy templates and digital storage with seamless imports.

Francois de Bodinat, Chief Product Officer at ZeroLight - ZeroLight is the real-time visualisation platform for automotive sales and marketing. Using a scalable, multi-channel platform, ZeroLight empowers its partners to sell smarter and engage customers with cloud-based digital solutions that enhance every stage of the car-buying process

We often write about Agile work methodologies, such as Scrum or Kanban, on our blog. We believe that a well-organized process of working on a product promotes quality. However, every company comes up with its own unique flow. I would like to know a little bit more about your way of work and about your role in the team.

Brad Dunn: Generally speaking, different teams do different things. Our DevOps team using Kanban for instance, and some of our more feature focused teams will adopt scrum, and our API team is different again. My belief is that because different kinds of people need different ways of working, its best to give the teams the autonomy to find the best solution for them. 

Obviously, you don't want to create totally different ways of working, you want to get some economies of scale, but I think its important to leave room for finding what works.

For us at Whispir though, we plan roadmaps about 3 months in advance, and we try and keep features no longer than about 6 weeks in size. We use OKR's to set goals for the teams, and run a dual track development process where we visualise discovery items on the roadmap, just like we would features.

Andreas Ahlenius: We have two different dev teams. One here in Stockholm where we are based and one distributed/outsourced team in Sarajevo. We also have a specific dev team for analytics and data science.

We don’t have one single process for all the teams. They differ a little bit between the teams. The key is the communication and planning that goes on between the project managers and the developers. We try to adapt according to context, project and the overall objectives and timeline.

Akhilesh Chadha: Our way of working at Oneflow is very much inspired by the Scandinavian philosophy of hierarchy less organisation as much as possible. We follow mix scrum and kanban with 1 week sprints. However we do not see agile as religion and each team has autonomy to find ways which works best for them what is most important is they are continuously moving the needle they have been assigned to move. 

One way where we are trying to be different is to focus a lot more on outcomes from output. While most of the companies treat developers and development teams as feature factory we are trying to make sure teams are more focussed towards outcomes. 

My job is to make sure the whole organisation is moving in the same direction, there is alignment between different teams. We have the right strategy and good culture to execute on a vision. Hiring is another thing I take very seriously. As my CEO says A+ people hire A+ people, B people hire C people.

Jarek Owczarek: We have recently transitioned to full cross-functional teams. The objective is to allow more autonomy in reaching the company goals. Each team consists of 8-9 members: 4-5 software developers, a designer, a business stakeholder (e.g. Head of Customer Success or an Account Executive), a marketer, and a quality assurance person. 

Our quarterly goal is divided into subgoals and each team is assigned one subgoal. They then have to freedom to choose whatever it takes to reach the goal. They use impact mapping ongoingly as a planning exercise and execute the plan with whatever methodology works best for them. Kanban, Scrum, Extreme Programming, whatever works best. 

My role is to help the teams reach the goals, help with planning, execution and quality. I also take care of the team's health and coaching.

Francois de Bodinat: There is no ideal magic flow that works for every startup or every organization, it’s all about what works for you, your team and your context. At ZeroLight, we use Scrum as it helps us to be agile and that is key as we want to be able to remain reactive and effective. 

As a CPO, I use a mix of long term and short-term tasks and objectives management. For instance, I have a long-term vision, but I also define a 12-15-month road map of features and products, with goals set at each quarter.  I then dive deep when evaluating the next 3-month detailed roadmap with three-weeks-sprint for development, design, QA and corresponding marketing activities. 

This process allows me to convey and keep a long-term vision to my peers and to the management team, and in the meantime, keep the short term reactive in order to adapt to the market needs, customer demands and overall new opportunities.

The CEO's and CPO's perspective is often different. The former think about the profit or growth, the latter - about the user experience, the design, but also the quality. How do you combine these two perspectives at your work?

Brad Dunn: At Whispir, we have a CEO who is probably more aligned with the product vision, but leaves the actual mechanics of how that vision unfolds to the product and engineering teams. I've seen some organisations where the CEO pays very little interest in the product - and places where they are involved too much.

I think perhaps the real danger for most product leaders is when the CEO doesn't come from the software world. It can be an uphill battle when a CEO's only exposure to software comes from waterfall, rigid practices. When you hire a product leader, this will always mean a great deal of the role is educating the CEO, and often other executives, on how the world's best software companies work today. In reality, I find that this is often a hard battle to ever really win without an open minded CEO.

When you look at software companies that have grown aggressively and quickly, you often find the CEO has been a developer, designer, product manager or at least some other kind of support software role. It is rare to find some merchant banker start a software company and end up with an agile, productive software development practice that builds great software for its customers. I'm sure there are exceptions, but I see more of one than the other.

Akhilesh Chadha: I would slightly disagree, I am thinking of growth all the time. Growth of the company is very much a function of its people and products. When it comes to aligning everyone in organisation we follow OKR process. I would not say we have perfected it but I do believe that is the best way of aligning the whole company together.

Andreas Ahlenius: My background is more commercial and business than development so I think those parts are usually always present. My job at Amuse is to make sure the team has the possibility to deliver on the vision that includes both growth and user experience. User experience is how we try to differentiate ourselves from competing services, and then the product becomes increasingly important. 

Jarek Owczarek: Fact is, I'm not the CEO, so I do my job and I let Niels, the CEO, do his 🙂
At the end of the day I'm as focused on the company reaching our goals as he is. We just manage different groups of people. He is more exposed to investors, the board and sales and I'm more exposed to software engineers, designers and other product people. 

That said, I sell to whoever I'm best to sell to or get in touch with investors in my network whenever I need to. We work as a team and trying to use our strengths as advantages.

Francois de Bodinat: This could be true for some companies, but it is not really the case at ZeroLight where the executive team work closely together, towards the same set of goals. 

As a CPO I am not just thinking about design or user experience, I am also thinking about what products we need to create that will solve customer issues as well as achieve enterprise goals (revenue, market share, innovation etc). 

The key pillars of an effective product strategy reside in the ability to achieve a sound balance between customer needs and company needs. It is therefore imperative to make sure that any head of product sits at the executive level, so the information and strategy can be well defined and in line with company goals and vision shared with the CTO and other executive members. 

For instance, creating multiple advanced products to serve the individual needs of the customer is tempting, however, this approach could quickly surcharge the R&D team’s capabilities and therefore endanger the company’s profitability and the ability to deliver in a timely fashion.

While starting a new job we often have our own imagination about it. I would like to know how you perceived the role of a person working on a product in the startup back then when you were just starting out, and how you perceive it now. Did it becomes different in confrontation with reality?

Bradd Dunn: I guess over the last few years of my career I've done more product leadership roles, and I kind of miss being in the individual teams a lot just solving problems and trying to make the designers and developer's lives easier. I think what I've come to realise is that the higher up the organisation you go, the more general management becomes part of the role. 

But all organisations have problems and truthfully, you will never know what they are until you arrive. I think this is why perseverance and grit play such a large role in people who succeed over time. There appears to be a trend in technology today where the average tenure is dropping to around a year. 

From what I see, it takes nearly a year to just learn what is going on in a company and how to navigate it effectively. If your staff are leaving after 12 months, it can be hard for the organisation to ever really get a return on the hires. 

So I guess my point really is, every job you take will have some obstacles you need to overcome. It might be technical, capability, political, anything really. The real question is, do you want to try and solve those problems, or find the kind of organisation where different problems are less of a concern to you.

For me, the technical and product problems are the easiest to solve. Cultural and political ones - these are often much harder to get on top of without serious commitment from the rest of the business.

Akhilesh Chadha: I would not say we are startup anymore, I would say we are scaleup. I was made very clear about roles and responsibilities from the very beginning so I do not think there was a mismatch between expectation and reality. After working for 16+ years in different companies and domains. I have had my share of learnings to bank on. 

Andreas Ahlenius: I think the key learning for me has been that everything takes time, and the difficulty and importance of prioritization. We all want everything to be built at the same time, but that’s just not realistic. But there's a balance to that as well. It’s important to keep pushing forward at great speed because your competition will not slow down.

Jarek Owczarek: When starting a company, I think it's crucial to have the problem you are solving in mind. Solving that problem is more important that our expectations towards the role we are to fulfill. 

That was the case with me. Up to this day, I'm trying to help wherever I can and wherever my time is best spent. The confrontation with reality brought more problems than I expected 🙂

Francois de Bodinat: The main reason I joined ZeroLight was to fulfill a mission of productization. The interesting thing for me is that I started the ZeroLight productization mission as a CMO, and not a CPO. 

Productizing ZeroLight started from a marketing led mission that consisted of clarifying the current technologies and services into a compelling value proposition to the customers. This worked and allowed us to promote our mission, but then came the next phase which consists in scaling the company and moving from a service-based approach to a product-based approach. 

This is where my role evolved into creating prototypes, product platform, and other product ideas that would allow ZeroLight to scale and propose the same product multiple times, hence increasing scalability, efficiency and ultimately growth and profitability.

Let's give a couple of tips for startups/ for the people working in startups. How would you say should one build a startup with a chance for success? Is there a perfect idea or a perfect product? If not, then how to start?

Bradd Dunn: First, start with Jobs to be done. Find a job a customer is trying to do that is really important, but where all current solutions are really awful to use. Next, make sure you're solving a real problem. Finally, get the releases out with a good tempo. Also, just get all the data and analytics sorted out early. Too often I see companies having to re-architect all the analytics years down the track, but when you get it right up front, it pays huge dividends as you grow. 

In my view, nearly everything you need to know about building a great company is in the pages of "Inspired, by Marty Cagan." If you aren't sure where to start - start there.

Akhilesh Chadha: As someone has said it before identify the need/problem felt by enough number of people and solve it well. My advice would be very simple:

  1. Product market fit before growth. 
  2. Build a culture of product discovery and experimentation.
  3. Hiring is very very important, specially hire people with a growth mindset.
  4. Focus on outcomes and not output.
  5. Take care of your culture.

Andreas Ahlenius: I think there’s too much focus on having a unique idea. We all just have to accept that there is most likely somebody that has already thought about your idea. That doesn't mean you should not pursue it. Maybe you can do it quicker, more scalable or create a greater experience? I’d also recommend keeping costs low and make sure you have the right balance of people. 

When starting your company you’ll need business minded people, but you’ll need developers even more. Make sure the ratio of people is skewed towards developers.

Jarek Owczarek: Find a problem people have, understand how often they experience the problem and how important it is to address it. Build something SUPER lean to solve it. Test with real users and listen to their feedback. Deliver value from day one. If you don't dig deeper into the problem or find another one. Iterate, automate, and scale. 

Francois de Bodinat: If only there was a magic recipe to create a startup 🙂. In my experience, the most valuable attribute is motivation. If you do not think your product, your vision, your idea or yourself, can make an impact upon the industry, the society, or the lives of others, then it’s already a showstopper. 

The startup life is a bumpy road that needs loads of motivation and ambition to keep moving. It is very likely that your initial idea will be different, and sometimes far-removed from your final product, so the key is to adapt, remain flexible and keep on listening to the market and customers. 

Lastly, I would quote a Ted Talk from Bill Gross who analysed over 200 start-ups and found that the key to a company’s success was not the idea, nor the team (who came second), nor the business model or the money, it was instead timing. It is key to keep this in mind that with whatever you do and whatever your product, idea or service is. Ask yourself, does this solve the right problem for the right people, at the right time? Being too early or too late simply does not work.

It is thought that product is being built together with the company. New functionalities are added, new integrations, sometimes a redesign takes place. How do you maintain the quality of your product when the company grows and HR does not slow down? What are your ways of keeping the quality on a high level?

Bradd Dunn: A clear vision for the product, a strategy on how you think you'll get there, and some product principals everyone understands. The main reason you have a strategy is it gives you a clear idea on what to say no to. The principals ensure a consistent looking product, and the strategy keeps everyone on the same page.

Akhilesh Chadha: We bake quality in the product, we also take our technical debt very seriously. In my experience, number 1 reason for quality degradation is technical debt. We make sure we can address as much a possible and what cannot be addressed is known.

Andreas Ahlenius: In my experience... People are key. The right mindset of the people you work with is everything. I also believe there’s a timing element.

Jarek Owczarek: I think trying to maintain the same high quality at all times across your entire product is costly and sometimes might not be the right thing to do, especially in the beginning. 

As soon as you get there, it is important to have dedicated, experienced QA team members that will work very closely with people building the product. It is crucial to have error handling tightly under control. 

In Contractbook we approach it both reactively and proactively. To gather information on errors that our users experience, we employ error tracking tools on BE and FE alike (AppSignal, Sentry) with error notifications coming live to our slack channels where developers pick up on them. In addition to that, we keep tight cooperation between our developers and business(customer success, sales) so that developers receive first hand accounts of issues experienced that we then address in a timely manner.

In order to prevent issues from arising, we adopted current software development practices including but not limited to mandatory code reviews, continuous integration, automated regression testing, shift left testing approach. We integrate and deploy often using automated pipelines, gather insight and feedback as soon as possible, and when any defect is resolved follow-up actions are planned and executed to prevent it from reappearing.

Francois de Bodinat: It is true that everyone wants their company to grow but it also means that we lose grip on some of the finer details of the product or even the overall offering. 

But let’s not make any mistake about it; growing a product portfolio and a company is the most exciting thing that an entrepreneur can experience, alongside pleasing its customers. To me, the key to this resides in delegation and trust. 

I spend most of my time working with my teams on the products, the design, the innovation, the marketing, the sales strategy, and more, and, if one thing is for certain, it is that you cannot do everything, and you should not even try to. 

My main goal resides in building the right level of trust and delegation with my team member and co-workers, to empower them to take over and grow the product and features of our portfolio on their own. Most of my time is spent in supporting the team to do what they have to do, unlocking the resources they need when they need it, challenging their ideas until they fit the agreed company vision, whilst supporting them when they need help.

Thank you, guys. I think you delivered here a lot of value to all people who are trying to be better as CPOs or Founders. To all readers, if you like it - share it. Help others to see helpful content.

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Grzegorz Kłos
Grzegorz Kłos - Apphawks Co-founder
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