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Podcast with Lenny Rachitsky

Lenny Rachitsky recently launched Lenny’s Podcast, and I was happy to be a guest. We talk about how to communicate upward, different product design strategies for complex products, what it means to be a product leader, and much more. I’ll expand on some of these in upcoming posts. You can listen to the podcast here or on Spotify below.

Currently listening to my Downtempo House playlist.

How to Justify “Non-Sexy” Product Investments

A common issue leaders in product management, design, or engineering face is justifying investment in the “non-sexy” stuff. What is not sexy can differ by company, but usually the sexy things are new products and few features. Non-sexy things include general user experience improvements, performance, developer velocity, infrastructure, technical debt, and, fortunately less than it used to be, growth. I’ll walk through some frameworks and examples from my career on how to drive excitement and investment in these critical areas that may not be properly valued or staffed currently in your organization. But I urge everyone I can in product to develop the intuition to support these initiatives without making teams jump through hoops to justify these investments.

User Experience

The most common path product teams are on today is that they go from feature to feature trying to add new functionality, never confirming their feature actually adds value, and never improving features over time or updating experiences to be more modern as the world evolves. Designers complain about how stale certain experiences get over time, but improvements never make the roadmap. Product managers think designers are whining about things that aren’t important versus their current OKRs. 

Why are the designers right in this instance? Well, they aren’t always. It is possible to over-design and do things that feel good and look excellent, but don’t materially help your customers or the business. Polishing too often can be just as bad polishing too little as you don’t deliver enough new value for customers. While over-polish does happen, why designers are mostly right is they intuit something about product/market fit that is hard to measure on a metrics dashboard: that expectations of customers increase over time. Another way to say that is product/market fit has a positive slope. If you do not consistently improve your product or feature, and customer expectations continue to increase, your product or feature can fall out of product/market fit over time. Many business strategists talk about companies being in a Red Queen effect with their competitors. This means they have to run really hard to stay in the same place competitively over time. But what many product teams misunderstand is that they are in a Red Queen effect with their customers to maintain product/market fit as well. Consistently improving the user experience helps products stay above that positive sloping curve of product/market fit. Let’s visualize this by borrowing a graphic from my product/market fit essay.

 

In the above graphic, the customer expectations line is the point at which customers stop complaining about elements of a product. That is not the target for product/market fit. The target for product/market fit is the purple line where customers stop leaving a product. Teams invest in products and features to get them above the purple line, but failing to continue to invest in them beyond that point means expectations for product/market fit will eventually exceed what has been built without continued investment. 

The dotted line is a worst case scenario as it happens in a way that is not measurable, but once those hard to define lines cross, every metric gets worse. So, in prioritizing user experience improvements that scale with customer expectations, the net effect you see is no impact in business metrics. But the effect of not doing these investments means business metrics will decrease over time. This practically means that teams that make investments feel like the investment didn’t “pay off”, but in reality it prevents the possibility of dramatic issues for the product down the line.

On the growth team at Pinterest, Kaisha Hom and Lindsay Norman on the growth design team intuited this, but had trouble convincing a very metric-oriented team on the value of this investment. Eventually, we decided that one of our key results would be a quarterly audit (and refresh if needed) of our top five user flows. The expectation was no material impact on growth, but instead prevented potential growth issues down the road. 

At Eventbrite, we have gotten a little more sophisticated in how we manage this. Adele Maynes, who leads our research team, helped craft a survey that measured different components of our product/market fit, including:

  • Ease of discovery
  • Ease of use
  • Ability to self-serve
  • Product fit
  • Likelihood to recommend

We also created this survey for some of our key features inside the product so we can understand their feature/product fit better. Our new strategy is to be a fantastic self-service experience that rivals the best SMB tools on the market, but we know we have a long way to go to get there. Investing in user experience is a key driver of this strategy, and these scores help us know if our overall product and specific features are on the right track. CRPX is now one of the top level key results for the product team.

Sample analysis of Eventbrite’s Creator Product Experience Score (CRPX)

Performance

Performance, roughly meaning how long it takes for software products to become usable to customers who load them, tends to become a problem at scale without concrete investment. Products become bloated, the number of different types of users and use cases multiply across countries and categories, and the number of frameworks engineers are leveraging to deliver experiences rises exponentially. We actually have pretty good data externally on the impact of performance. There are many studies that show additional milliseconds of load time impact things like conversion to purchase and engagement on many websites and apps. 

A big problem is actually addressing performance issues at the start tends to be measuring it well, across different pages, apps, countries, use cases, etc. Obviously, this is normally the place to start. But sometimes even shockingly high metrics in certain countries or at the edges can’t motivate teams to scrap their current OKRs for performance work. 

On the growth team at Pinterest, we were struggling with some performance issues of our home grown frontend framework. After trying to rally the company around this work and failing, we decided to leverage our skills to prove out the value of this work. A small team of engineers led by Sam Meder decided to work part-time on a performance initiative just for our logged out experiences, migrating to React, server side rendering, lazy loading, spriting – all the usual suspects from a frontend performance perspective. They ran these changes as AB tests to show the impact on user engagement and key business metrics. The result was a 30% decrease in user-perceived wait time, which resulted in double digit= increases in traffic from Google and conversion rate to signup. The impact was enough to get our CEO to push this as an organization-wide initiative the following quarter.

Developer Velocity

Shortly after I joined Eventbrite, I ran into Omar Seyal on the street. Omar was the Head of Core Product at Pinterest at the time. As I said hello and asked him how things were going, Omar, always to the point, remarked, “Pinterest doesn’t understand leverage!”. He then went on to say how he was struggling to get Pinterest to invest in its infrastructure so that engineers could move faster. In my head, I thought, he doesn’t know how good he has it compared to Eventbrite. Startups, or companies that emerge from startups, tend to prioritize new customer value and growth at all costs. This not only can create a lot of technical and design debt that will slow companies down for years to come, but it also prevents them from seeing “what got you here won’t get you there.” At a certain point in a startup’s lifecycle, it has to shift from growth at all costs to balancing growth and long-term scalability. Yes, you could spend 90% of your time building new things when you were small, but that won’t work when you’re big and have dozens of things to maintain. 

A belief Omar and I share is that developer velocity is the purest form of leverage in a software company. So, it follows, investments in things that make developers more productive are the highest leverage investments a company can make. Sure, those investments don’t translate into customer value directly, but they enable each developer to build more customer value. That can mean more features, more experiments for a growth team, whatever the company needs to maximize long term growth. The key question I think non-developers fear is that these are just quality of life investments and don’t actually meaningfully improve the amount of value to customers. After all, you’re spending less resources on value to customers in the short-term whenever you look inward at internal tools.

What we did at Eventbrite to confront this narrative is we built a measurement plan and a goal. First, we measured the amount of downtime our developers experience on a quarterly basis for various issues. We then stated that with investment we could decrease that downtime, freeing up more capacity to build value for customers. We then set a goal. By making these investments, James Reichardt and Dan Peterson, our leaders in platform engineering and product, argued we could free up the equivalent of 15 new engineers’ worth of capacity at the company. In the end, those investments freed up 18 engineers’ worth of capacity. We confirmed this with “end of sprint” reporting on different teams on the amount of what they were able to deliver. If those numbers aren’t improving over time, you’re probably under-investing in projects related to developer velocity.

Developer Downtime

Engineering downtime was actually trending upward, but by working on our tooling we were able to save hours per engineer per week.

Growth

As much as I’ve written about the rise of growth teams and how growth teams work, the concept of investing in things that help connect customers to value instead of building new value is still pretty nascent in the software world. I speak to product managers and leaders all the time that are struggling to get investment in areas that could help inflect their growth. We definitely faced some of these same issues when I started at Pinterest. While we had a dedicated growth team, many parts of our growth model felt under-optimized, but also hard to measure or justify investment for.

One of these areas was search engine optimization. A few months before I got to Pinterest, Pinterest had “no indexed” the entire site, leading Google to email us to confirm that was what we wanted (it wasn’t). Anna Majkowska jumped onto the problem, but was only able to secure a few part-time engineers to help her. I joined shortly after as the PM, and we worked together on a plan to improve SEO for Pinterest as we believed that to be a large growth opportunity. The problem was we were on a growth team that ran every change as an AB test to show the improvement in growth. With SEO, you can’t run AB tests because it’s one Googlebot instead of millions of separate users. Julie Trier, a part-time engineer on the team at the time, said we had to develop an SEO experiment framework like we use for other parts of the growth team, and set out to build it. With this initial version, instead of showing different users different experiences, we changed parts of the experiences on some pages and not on others and measured the traffic change from SEO. The framework worked, and helped us justify SEO investments by showing how much extra traffic we received from making changes. 

More traffic was great, but the issue was that users from Google would just look at all our cool content and leave. Conversion rates were very low. Conversion was managed by another team. So I went to them and explained the opportunity. They said they were busy working on a home page overhaul and couldn’t look at it. So I said we’ll take on the work ourselves. By then Jean Yang had joined the SEO team and ran an experiment that increased traffic, but decreased sign ups. How that was possible was by making a new page available to Google, we removed a signup modal blocking logged out users from accessing it. It turns out people signed up when they saw that modal, so we hypothesized maybe we could trigger that modal when you clicked on an image when you didn’t have an account. Also, we thought the other thing that indicates you like what you’re seeing and should sign up besides a click on an image is scrolling down and viewing more images. We already restricted Google from seeing more than 25 images on a page, so we decided to make the same change with users, with a modal coming up from the bottom saying to sign up to see more. 

It took Jean two days to implement the experiment, and the result was a 50% increase in conversion rate to sign up. Every graph at the company kinked up as a result. I got a message from Tim Kendall, our Head of Product, asking “What did you do??”. I thought he might fire me, but instead he used the data to go raise more money at a higher valuation showing investors we could inflect our growth. Don’t under-estimate the power of proving it by going rogue or making the measurement investment others think isn’t worth it. It can turn subjective conversations into objective ones very quickly. The team grew dramatically after this with Julie eventually leading a platform team for growth tools.


These are just a few examples of how teams were able to make the investment case and prove the value of “non-sexy” projects to make a big impact. Of course, what tactics work for you will depend a lot on your company’s culture, but one thing that will likely mimic these stories is teams working together to make both the case and execute on the investment. Building products is a team sport, and the more cross-functional the support you achieve, the more likely you are to succeed. 

As I relay these types of stories, it’s easy for people to say something to the effect of “sure, that worked at Pinterest or Eventbrite, but it could never work here” without realizing the point of the story is that almost all companies have these types of issues. The question is whether you are willing to put in the work to try to change the narrative to help your company grow. Those that do typically are rewarded and reward their customers in the process.

Currently listening to my Trip-hop playlist on Spotify.

Applications for Reforge’s Spring 2022 Cohort are Now Open

Hey everyone,

It’s that time of year again – applications for Reforge’s Spring 2022 Cohort are now open. Over the past four years, I’ve worked closely with the Reforge team to create three of the 16 programs it currently offers including:

Created with Fareed Mosavat (Chief Development Officer at Reforge, formerly Slack, Instacart)

Build, communicate, and execute a cohesive product strategy across feature, growth, scaling and innovation product work.

Created with Kevin Kwok (Formerly Greylock Partners) and Fareed Mosavat (Chief Development Officer at Reforge, formerly Slack, Instacart)

A step-by-step system to create, analyze, and communicate a growth strategy of compounding growth loops.

Created with Shaun Clowes (SVP Product Mulesoft, formerly Metromile, Atlassian)

A deep dive on how to understand, measure, and improve retention through activation, engagement, and resurrection.

Apply To Join Reforge

If you’re unfamiliar with Reforge, it’s the world’s leading career development platform for top-tier tech talent. Membership combines cohort-based programs, with a year-round experience to help you learn, execute, and scale your career and your company.

The Spring 2022 Cohort begins the week of March 21. I’ve included details about all the programs below. If you have any questions, please send them to hello@reforge.com.

16 Spring Programs Begin March 21

Each program is built and led by experienced executives from the world’s fastest-growing companies.

[ Apply to Join Reforge ]

Reforge Membership: What You Get

Reforge membership combines cohort-based programs with a year-round experience to help you learn, grow and drive meaningful impact in your career.

Live Cohort-Based Programs to Level Up Quickly

Real problems require real depth. Membership includes participation in 3 cohort-based programs per year where you will learn how to solve a key business challenge. Programs are 4-6 weeks in length, part-time, and held in a virtual format, guided by an executive.

Each week in a program, you can expect:

  • 3 hours of deep content covering actionable frameworks and systems.
  • An expert-led case with a featured guest to apply what you learned to a real-life situation.
  • Opportunities to connect with vetted peers solving similar problems through discussions and feedback in the member Slack.
  • Guidance by an Executive in Residence who has done the work before.

Year-Round Access to Tech’s Best Content & Curated Community

Your personal growth doesn’t stop with the program, it just begins. As a Reforge member you can:

  • Access all content across all 16 Reforge programs.
  • Complete step-by-step projects to help you implement and execute what you learn.
  • Attend weekly workshops and deep-dive sessions led by Reforge Partners.
  • Receive weekly releases of projects, examples, and cases.
  • Connect with vetted peers in our member Slack who are solving similar problems.

[ Apply to Join Reforge ]

Product Programs

Product Management Foundations

By Jiaona Zhang (VP of Product at Webflow, formerly WeWork, Airbnb, and Dropbox) & Anand Subramani (VP of Product at Path, formerly Pilot, Gusto, and Stanford Professor for Product Management)

Build a foundational understanding of the product manager role, and learn the tools and strategies needed to succeed as a product manager.

Mastering Product Management

By Sachin Rekhi (Founder and CEO of Notejoy)

Level up your product management abilities by mastering critical product management tools. Learn to identify and execute on high leverage work that generates disproportionate product returns.

Product Strategy

By Fareed Mosavat (Chief Development Officer at Reforge, formerly Slack, Instacart) & Casey Winters (CPO at Eventbrite, formerly Pinterest, Grubhub)

Build, communicate, and execute a cohesive product strategy across feature, growth, scaling and innovation product work.

Product Leadership

By: Ravi Mehta (ex-CPO at Tinder, FB, TripAdvisor)

The methods of building high-performance product teams, managing up/down/across, and creating cross-functional influence.

(New!) Data for Product Managers

By Shaun Clowes (SVP Product at Mulesoft, formerly Metromile, Atlassian) and Crystal Widjaja (CPO at Kumu, formerly Gojek)

Unlock your full potential as a Product Manager by learning to drive impact for the metrics that matter most for your product.

User Insights For Product Decisions

By Behzod Sijani (Founder at Yet Another Studio, former Research Leader at Slack, Meta)

Learn to make key product decisions based on a deeper understanding of customers.

Engineering Programs

(NEW!) Engineering Management

By Nick Caldwell (GM for Core Technologies at Twitter, formerly Looker, Reddit, and Microsoft) and Heidi Williams (Head of Engineering for B2B & Platform at Grammarly, Founder of WEST Diversity and Inclusion)

From managing your team and stakeholders to engineering work, learn the skills of successful engineering leaders who deliver reliable output.

Technical Strategy

By Harsh Sinha (CTO of Wise, formerly PayPal, eBay) and Bryan Dove (CEO at Commercehub, formerly Skyscanner, Amazon, Skype, and Microsoft)

Learn how to go beyond executing strategy and gain the tools to shape strategy, educate peers on what is possible, and guide the product roadmap to deliver significant business impact.

Scaling Product Delivery

By Andy Johns (Advisor and Investor at Unusual Ventures) and Matt Greenberg (CTO at Reforge, former VP Engineering at Credit Karma)

A methodology for product and engineering leaders to ship innovative products at scale.

Marketing Programs

(NEW!) Growth Marketing

By Mark Fiske (Operating Partner, Digital & Marketing Strategies at H.I.G. Partners, former VP Marketing at Credit Karma) and Brittany Bingham (VP Marketing at Guru, formerly SurveyMonkey)

Create and evolve a growth marketing strategy across a diverse portfolio of channels, strategies, and tactics to drive meaningful outcomes in your growth model.

(UPDATED!) Marketing Strategy

By John Russ (Former Global Head of Marketing at Coinbase, formerly Zapier, Nerdwallet) and Martina Tam (COO at brightwheel, formerly Masterclass, Eventbrite)

Build and execute an integrated marketing strategy across the marketing domains of brand, product, and growth to drive compounding results for your organization.

Cross-Functional Growth Programs

Growth Series

By Brian Balfour (Founder and CEO of Reforge, former VP Growth at Hubspot) and Andrew Chen (GP at A16Z, former Growth at Uber)

The most comprehensive overview on the systems and frameworks that form the foundation of a successful career in growth.

Advanced Growth Strategy

By Casey Winters (CPO at Eventbrite, formerly Pinterest, Grubhub) and Kevin Kwok (Formerly Greylock Partners)

A step-by-step system to create, analyze, and communicate a growth strategy of compounding growth loops.

Retention & Engagement

By Shaun Clowes (SVP Product Mulesoft, formerly Metromile, Atlassian) and Casey Winters (CPO at Eventbrite, formerly Pinterest, Grubhub)

A deep dive on how to understand, measure and improve retention through activation, engagement, and resurrection.

Monetization & Pricing

By Elena Varna (Growth Advisor at HP, Netlify, MongoDB, formerly Miro, SurveyMonkey) and Dan Hockenmaier (Head of Strategy and Analytics at Faire)

A deep dive into the strategies top tech companies use to improve monetization and pricing.

Experimentation & Testing

By Elena Varna (Growth Advisor at HP, Netlify, MongoDB, formerly Miro, SurveyMonkey)

A deep dive into creating and executing a strategic experimentation system for breakthrough ideas.

Learn from Tech’s Most Experienced Leaders

  • Ravi Mehta, Former CPO at Tinder, formerly FB, Tripadvisor
  • Casey Winters, CPO at Eventbrite, formerly Pinterest, GrubHub
  • Sachin Rekhi, Founder and CEO of Notejoy
  • Adam Grenier, VP Marketing at Masterclass, formerly Uber, HotelTonight
  • Bangaly Kaba, Head of Platform Growth at PopLive, formerly Instagram, Instacart
  • Dun Wang, Former CGO at Calm, Yahoo, Zynga
  • Harsh Sinha, CTO at Wise, formerly PayPal, Ebay
  • Bryan Dove, CEO at CommerceHub, formerly Skyscanner, Amazon, Skype, Microsoft
  • Fareed Mosavat, CDO at Reforge, formerly Slack, Instacart, Zynga
  • Anand Subramani, VP of Product at Path, formerly Pilot, Gusto
  • Jiaona Zhang, VP Product at Webflow, formerly WeWork, Airbnb, Dropbox
  • Adam Fishman, CPO at Imperfect Foods, formerly Patreon and Lyft
  • Vaibhav Sahgal, VP Consumer Product at Reddit, formerly Zynga
  • Justin Bauer, SVP Product at Amplitude
  • Bela Stepanova, VP Product at Iterable
  • Angel Steger, Director of Product Design at Meta, formerly Dropbox and Pinterest
  • Zindzi McCormick, Directory of Product at Shopify, formerly Slack, Google
  • Kieran Flanagan, SVP Marketing at HubSpot
  • Joanna Lord, CMO at Reforge, formerly Skyscanner, ClassPass, Porch
  • Brittany Bingham, VP Marketing at Guru, formerly -SurveyMonkey
  • Mark Fiske, Former VP Marketing at Credit Karma
  • And many more…

[ Apply to Join Reforge ]

What Type of Job is This: My First Year as Chief Product Officer

I have written about the Chief Product Officer role in the past, and why the job is so hard. I also wrote about being a product leader during a crisis. But not much is written about starting as a new product leader. So, I thought I’d write a post about my first year as CPO, and share some general lessons. First, a reminder of the situation I started in. I had been an advisor for Eventbrite for about two years, so I had a lot of comfort with the CEO and many of the executives before ever starting the role. I believe this is an underrated way to start new roles for senior people because you can de-risk the culture fit and alignment issues that plague many new executives. When I started advising Eventbrite, the company had a business unit structure, so it didn’t even have a CPO role, but product leaders embedded into different business units. The company reorganized functionally, and created this role and asked me to consider it.

What Type of Job is This?
I believe the most important question a product leader needs to ask when they get started is what type of job it is they have to do. I wrote in the past that there is frequently a misalignment on vision vs. execution roles. There may also be a misconception of what type of product work is needed to help the company i.e what the product strategy should actually be. In the Reforge Product Strategy course, we teach that there are four different types of product work:

  • Feature development: adding new things to the product that improve value proposition e.g. Uber’s Split Fare
  • Product/market fit expansion: adding totally new products that create new value propositions e.g. Uber Eats
  • Growth: tuning the product experience so more people can connect to the current product’s value prop e.g. Uber improving driver onboarding
  • Scaling work: tuning the underlying technologies or process to help the product and team continue to be effective e.g. Uber rearchitecting its data pipelines

Old school product leaders would just do their preferred type of product work even if it wasn’t what the company needed, or adopt a primitive portfolio approach to the four types of work even if part of the portfolio was wasted work e.g. building a ton of features for a network effects business, or doing a lot of growth work for a pre-product/market fit product. As a modern product leader, it’s important to understand based on the company and its lifecycle, what type of product work has leverage, and these crude approaches are usually not the best approach.

Usually, the best place to start is looking at what the company is actually working on right now. In Eventbrite’s case, the company was:

  • Integrating the acquisition of Ticketfly to move up-market in a specific vertical and build an enterprise sales motion
  • Building a consumer marketplace to drive incremental ticket sales to event creators
  • Paying down technical debt with duplicate versions of Checkout and Create
  • Launching a developer platform so external developers can add more features for Eventbrite’s broad base of event creators
  • Launching new SaaS products with its incubation arm

Julia, our CEO, had told me she wanted me to focus on growing the self-service business faster. So, first off, what you should notice is that there are too many things going on for a company of Eventbrite’s size (sub one thousand people). In other words, the product strategy lacked focus. So, I had to spend my first few months understanding these different strategies to understand which ones to focus on. So I gathered as much information as I could about these different strategic initiatives, as well as digging into the core self-service business.

What Was Going On With the Core Business?
The core self-service business was growing steadily at significant scale and was profitable. Most of the sales clients we brought in stressed our product/market fit, which we compensated for with manual services at no charge, straining margins. We didn’t have a good sense of who our self-serve customers were, how we acquired them, or what retention looked like. As we dug into these questions, we found that while Eventbrite’s product/market fit was strongest with making it really easy to host a single event, but the bulk of our growth and profit was coming from frequent creators hosting small events very often. So, while the product roadmap was scaling for size of event, the market was scaling with frequency of event. The product did not handle this frequency very well, causing these event creators to hack the product to get what they needed, and a higher churn rate over time as those hacks proved problematic to execute. The gaps in our product to strengthen product/market fit for these creators didn’t seem insurmountable, but none of them were actually on the roadmap.

We also were able to get a clear picture of the core competencies and competitive advantages of the Eventbrite product. The fact that Eventbrite supported events of all types and wasn’t focused on one vertical e.g. conferences meant the company had a scale of data no other company had. Secondly, the self-service acquisition model meant the product had very low acquisition costs overall. That model was also a good fit for many different types of creators. Lastly, the company had leveraged its scale of events to drive consumer demand through channels like SEO, emails to previous ticket buyers, and distribution partnerships with companies like Facebook and Spotify.

What Did the Team Say?
As I talked with the team about the state of the product and what they were actually working on, let’s just say the team had a lot to say. Breaking it down by project:

Upmarket Music Vertical Expansion
We tried to integrate music customers too quickly into the Eventbrite platform, and we were much further away from product/market fit with the more traditional enterprise approach those customers were used to than we thought. The space is low growth and low margin, and relies on enterprise sales, relationships, and high touch human service, which doesn’t match our self-service capabilities well.

Consumer Marketplace
Frequent creators drive most of the inventory consumers are interested in, and if frequent creators’ efficiency tools on Eventbrite don’t work for them, they will leave the platform even if they sell extra tickets because of the platform. This is an interesting strategy, but needs to be sequenced after we have a great product experience for frequent creators.

Technical Scaling
Internal developer productivity was incredibly low due to low level of investment in developer tools. Our infrastructure was rickety and frequently had stability problems during big “on sales”. Multiple versions of every feature made it hard to build new things quickly and at high quality. We never deleted features because some sales clients use them and would complain. Everything we build is an MVP, and we rarely iterate.

Developer Platform
While the strategy of leveraging external developers to build specific features for a large array of customers with different needs makes sense at Eventbrite’s scale, we internally lacked the capability to service our own engineers well, much less external developers.

New SaaS Products
Many of these products are very far away from product/market fit and do not have a path to scalability. There is one partnership related to creator marketing tools being run out of this program which is doing well though, and it has been easier to talk with creators about that than our marketplace demand.

Developing A New Product Strategy
Strategy is about making choices among many options that optimize across a few key dimensions like:

  • Company Focus
  • Business Model
  • Target Customer & Market
  • Competition
  • Core Competencies & Competitive Advantages
  • Consequences & Risk
  • Sequencing

Eventbrite failed to make a lot of hard choices with its product strategy when I arrived, so it was time to make some tough calls on what to focus on. There are no simple answers here, but in evaluating the initial strategy, it became clear we should do the following:

  • Upmarket Music Vertical Expansion: We are too far away from product/market fit trying to rebuild the Ticketfly model, and there is little margin or growth to be had once we get there. There is a lot of competition, and the go-to market approach leans out of our core competencies. It felt like we were trying to win the music industry’s last war instead of building a more technology-forward experience many up and coming music venues would appreciate. We need to focus our music creators towards a self-service experience like the rest of our product, and if that means that some of the less tech savvy customers won’t come with us on that journey, that’s okay.
  • Consumer Marketplace: The product needs to have a good experience for frequent creators before they will value our demand, and we should probably help them improve their efforts to drive their own demand first. Sequence to this strategy when frequent creators are in a good state.
  • Technical Scaling: Developer velocity is the purest form of leverage in a software company. We should be investing more in this area so we can increase our strategic appetite over time.
  • Developer Platform: If we are not providing a great experience for our own developers to build great features, we are even less likely to provide a great experience for external developers. Pause until our technical infrastructure is in a much better place.
  • New SaaS Products: Creators drive the majority of ticket sales through their own marketing efforts, and they are not expert marketers. Our knowledge can help them improve and automate their efforts. Cancel everything else in this area.
  • Core Self-Service Growth: Make the product experience great for frequent creators of small events as they drive most of the profit for the core business. We are not far away from strong product/market fit here.

The new product strategy is remarkably simpler and more sequenced over time:

2021

2022

2023

Frequent Creators

Marketing Tools

Consumer Marketplace

Technical Scaling Technical Scaling

Technical Scaling

Frequent creator investment will be measured by improved frequent creator retention. Technical scaling will be measured by internal developer velocity and our say/do ratio. Marketing tools and consumer marketplace will both be measured by revenue from those sources. So, going back to what type of job this is, my initial directive would have made this product leadership role to be primarily about growth. Instead, the focus is on scaling with some product/market fit expansion. 

Your Product Strategy Probably Isn’t That innovative
One dirty secret behind the work of many executives and product leaders is that our strategies aren’t that innovative. There are a few playbooks we generally run to improve performance in companies depending on the business situation after we’ve gathered the right insight. You can run through them and rule most of them out like the con men strategies in Ocean’s 12:

Yes, product leaders also rule out strategies because we don’t have enough people or can’t train a cat that quickly.

The new Eventbrite strategy was a combo of two common strategic playbooks. The first part of the strategy is what Chris Zook calls “profiting from the core”:

“The greatest strategic error stems from an inaccurate understanding of the core and its full potential.”
-Chris Zook, Author of Profit from the Core

However, if you’re an Arrested Development fan, you might call it the “there’s always money in the banana stand” strategy. The idea behind this strategy is that many companies as they scale pursue too many expansion strategies and leave behind growth that is closer to their initial core business, plays more to their core competencies, and requires less work and less risk to execute. Eventbrite was pursuing expansions in verticals (music), business model expansion (SaaS), and value props (driving demand) while ignoring improvements that could help the growth of the core product (features for small, frequent creators). At Pinterest, VP Product Jack Chou ran a version of this he called “make the basics great”.

The other component of the strategy is probably most known from a blog post (and soon to be book) by current Snowflake and former ServiceNow CEO Frank Slootman. In Amp It Up, Frank Slootman basically divides up his strategy into three elements:

  • Improving velocity
  • Raising standards
  • Narrowing the focus

Personally, I would flip the order and revise the language to be more software specific:

  • Improve focus
  • Raise quality bar
  • Reduce tech and design debt (usually the biggest hurdle for velocity inside software companies)

By the way, if you’re a public market private equity investor, and you aren’t running this strategy on every sub-rule of 40 tech company, I have a question for you.

So, in Ocean’s 12 language, Eventbrite is running a banana stand combined with a Slootman Special. We… may need to work on these code names. Recently, Etsy has run this same strategy combo to grow its market cap from $2 billion to $25 billion in four years after many years of no market cap growth at all.

There is one other element to Eventbrite’s strategy, and that is presented by the table above: sequencing vs. parallelizing. There is a reason Eventbrite started to pursue a lot of these adjacent opportunities in the first place: fear the core business could not grow itself fast enough. But in trying to pursue multiple adjacencies at the same time, it not only failed to make the progress it wanted on any of them, but many were not set up for success because they would gain from other strategic elements of the plan already having been completed.

The goal of this post is not to geek out on all the generic strategies, though I could do that all day, but to give a sense of the work new product leaders need to do to understand strategy and make it explicit to the organization. Frequently, there is a mismatch between what the customer or business needs and what the team is working on today. Usually, by talking to the team, your customers, and looking at the data, you can identify the mismatch and position the team toward a more likely to be successful product strategy. Then, product leaders can move to the meat of the role, which is building and optimizing the structure and processes of the team to execute against that strategy more effectively over time, or adjusting to changing market dynamics *cough* pandemic *cough*.

Currently listening to the Housewerk EPs by Tusken Raiders.

Reforge Fall 21 Applications Now Open: Apply Today

I’m excited to announce that public applications are open for the Fall 2021 cohort of Reforge. I’ll be participating alongside leaders from Tinder, Facebook, HubSpot, SurveyMonkey, Instagram, and more.

[Apply to Join Reforge]

Reforge Membership includes participation in a cohort-based program and ongoing access to content from all programs, weekly releases, deep-dive sessions, and a community of vetted peers to help you execute what you learn.

Fall Programs Begin October 4th

I’ve worked closely with Brian Balfour (CEO at Reforge) and the Reforge team for the past 3 years to develop and host four different programs. Onboarding for the Fall 21 cohort begins Oct 4th and programs run between 4 to 6 weeks long.

Product Strategy

Build, communicate, and execute a cohesive product strategy across feature, growth, scaling, and innovation product work.

With Fareed Mosavat (GP at Reforge, Ex Slack, Instacart, Zynga), Ravi Mehta (Ex CPO at Tinder, Facebook, Tripadvisor)

Advanced Growth Strategy

A step-by-step system to create, analyze, and communicate a growth strategy of compounding growth loops.

With Casey Winters (CPO at Eventbrite, Ex Pinterest, Grubhub), Kevin Kwok (Ex Greylock Partners), and Fareed Mosavat (GP at Reforge, Ex Slack, Instacart, Zynga)

Retention + Engagement Deep Dive

A deep dive on how to understand, measure and improve retention through activation, engagement, and resurrection.

With Shaun Clowes (SVP Product at Mulesoft, Ex Metromile, Atlassian) and Adam Grenier (Ex Lambda School, Uber)

Growth for Founders

Gain critical growth tools to help your company traverse the next leg of its growth journey.

With Brian Balfour (CEO @ Reforge, Ex VP Growth @ HubSpot), Elena Verna (Growth Advisor to Miro, Netlify, MongoDB and Ex SVP at SurveyMonkey), Fareed Mosavat (GP at Reforge, Ex Slack, Instacart, Zynga), Ravi Mehta (Ex CPO at Tinder, Facebook, Tripadvisor)

Other Programs

In the Fall cohort there will be 14 total programs across Product, Growth, Engineering, Founders, and Marketing all built and led by experienced executives. Here is the full slate:

Reforge Membership: What You Get

Reforge is the first-ever career development membership focused on high-growth tech practitioners, and is built entirely around the idea of driving impact for your business and for your career. The Reforge membership combines cohort-based programs, with a year-round experience to help you learn, grow and drive meaningful impact in your career.

Live Cohort-Based Programs

Real problems require real depth. Membership includes participation in two cohort-based programs per year where you will go deep on how to solve a key problem in a 4-6 week, part-time, virtual format, guided by an executive.

Each week in a program, you can expect:

  • Around 3 hrs of deep content covering actionable frameworks and systems.
  • An expert-led case study with a featured guest to apply what you learned to a real-life situation.
  • Connecting with vetted peers solving similar problems through discussions and feedback.
  • Hands-on guidance by an Executive-In-Residence who has done the work before.

All Year Access to Tech’s Best Content & Curated Community

Your personal growth doesn’t stop with the program, it just begins. As a Reforge member you can:

  • Access all content across every Reforge program (over 14+ programs!)
  • Complete step-by-step projects to help you implement and execute what you learn.
  • Attend weekly workshops and deep-dive sessions by Reforge Partners.
  • Receive weekly releases of projects, examples, and cases.
  • Connect with vetted peers solving similar problems.

[Apply to Join Reforge]

Members Love Reforge

You’ll be joining other top operators from companies like Airbnb, Spotify, Stripe, Dropbox, Zoom, HubSpot, Reddit, and LinkedIn who consider Reforge one of the best professional investments they’ve made.

  • “Even for experienced practitioners, Reforge crystalizes a practical and easily explained series of handy frameworks and immediately gives you a way to approach almost any product in any industry.” – Scott Worthington, Dir of Product Marketing at Peloton
  • “Reforge has the best content of any educational resource that I’ve encountered. It’s the best way to accelerate your career in tech.” – Bangaly Kaba, Former Head of Growth at Instagram, Instacart
  • More reviews here…

Who Do I Learn From?

In addition to the experienced executives that build and lead our programs, you’ll hear examples from the industry’s best. Past featured guests have included:

  • Bangaly Kaba, ex-Head of Growth @ Instagram, Instacart
  • Dun Wang, CPO at Calm
  • Melissa Tan, ex-VP Product at Ro, ex-Head of Growth at Dropbox
  • Darius Contractor, Head of Growth at Airtable
  • Jiaona Zhang, VP Product at Webflow
  • Kelly Mayes, Sr Dir Product at Roblox
  • Adam Fishman, CPO at Imperfect Foods, ex-Patreon and Lyft
  • Crystal Widjaja, ex-SVP Growth at GoJek
  • Vaibhav Sahgal, VP Consumer Product at Reddit
  • Justin Bauer, EVP Product at Amplitude
  • Bela Stepanova, VP Product at Iterable
  • Angel Steger, Dir Product Design at Facebook, ex-Dropbox and Pinterest
  • David Bakey, ex-VP Consumer at Harry’s
  • Zindzi McCormick, Head of Activation at Slack
  • Kieran Flanagan, VP Growth/Marketing at HubSpot
  • And many more…

[Apply to Join Reforge]

To join the Fall cohort, you must apply before September 10th. Once accepted, seats are first-come, first-serve. If you have questions, contact hello@reforge.com. I hope to see you in the Reforge community!

Product Positioning and the Product Marketing Partnership

This was adapted from an internal blog post in collaboration with Tamara Mendelsohn, Eventbrite’s CMO. Slightly edited to make more sense for people outside of Eventbrite.

When you actually launch new products to customers (which many teams don’t do), product managers and designers that have focused on scaling issues and optimization have to flex a new type of cross-functional muscle: how to work with product marketing. The default mode of this partnership across the industry is beyond terrible. Product works in isolation on product, then at the last minute hands things off to product marketing to name it and “launch it”. Product marketing then does their best to come up with a brand forward approach to make the product or feature sexy to their customers, but more so for their portfolios or their friends. Marketing doesn’t match the product, dev teams are pissed that marketing doesn’t understand the feature, marketing is pissed they got brought in last minute, customers don’t know what the hell the thing the company released is and don’t use it. Rinse and repeat.

If you don’t want to do that at your company, you actually have to put in work to make sure the default mentioned above doesn’t happen, and for a company that isn’t in a rhythm of shipping new products and features over time, muscles can not be particularly well toned for that. Consider this post a workout training video that helps you understand how to tone those muscles and learn how to position products well so that customers adopt and understand.

The Brand Marketing Pyramid

If you’ve ever had the pleasure/misfortune of getting an MBA, you’ve likely suffered through a few mostly worthless marketing classes. But they’re not all bad. Perhaps the most important concept you can learn from these classes is how positioning works. If you’re positioning any product or feature or service, there are three different layers of branding that need to occur, and they get harder to execute the closer to the top you try to get:

  • functional benefits: what the features deliver
  • logical benefits: what the product enables you to do
  • emotional benefits: how it makes you feel

Most brands work their way up the pyramid over time. At first, they try to clearly describe what their product or service does, taking a list of features and translating them into benefits. As the brand learns more about what customers actually care about, they usually determine that focus isn’t as optimal as describing what the features actually enable — sometimes called “the job to be done.” Describing a phone as having “10 megapixels” (feature) means very little to most people, and even saying “higher resolution” (functional benefit) is often not as impactful as saying “it takes great pictures” (logical benefit), but it depends on the audience. If a brand gets really good at describing the functional and logical benefits, over time it tries to reach the customer with more emotional resonance: “Feel like a professional photographer” (which was basically the “Shot on iPhone” campaign). But Apple is able to do this because it’s built up high awareness of its features and functional benefits over time. 

Let’s take a look at how this evolved at Grubhub while I was there. When I joined the company, our tagline was “discover who delivers”, clearly what the company did. When we hired our Head of Marketing, we overhauled the brand and changed the tagline to “eating made easy”, more of the logical benefit. Eventually, we moved up the pyramid again to “happy eating”, an emotional benefit.

Once it all came together, Grubhub had a playful, visual style that resonated with young professionals, advertising that focused around the irrationality of hunger, and a nice mixture of emotional resonance, features, logical and functional benefits in its advertising.

While Grubhub got better at this type of work over time (and has gotten so much worse since that Head of marketing left), Nike and Apple are incredibly fantastic at this balance. While they receive accolades for their work at the top of the pyramid, they still do all the forms of positioning in different contexts.

Position

Apple

Nike

Features iPhone 12
5G speed. An advanced dual-camera system. Ceramic Shield for 4x better drop performance. And a brighter, more colorful OLED display.
The Lebron 17
Heel max air unit, air max zoom pods, high tenacity yarns, heat molded.
Functional Benefit iPhone SE
Small, secure, water resistant, long battery life.
Nike Joyride
Make running feel easy.
Logical Benefit iPhone privacy
iPhone lets me control who sees my data.
Built for Speed
I will go faster in these shoes.
Emotional Benefit Make Movies Like The Movies
You can be as awesome as this when you use the iPhone camera.
You Can’t Stop Us
Nike athletes defeat all odds. So can we during the pandemic.

Positioning Features Is Harder Than Positioning Products

I have a real appreciation for great brand marketing, because I personally suck at this shit. Ultimately, what great positioning does is provide potential customers a promise of the product experience. If branding obfuscates that, it’s not doing its job. This is why when many brands go for the emotional benefit without pairing it with the other elements of the pyramid, it doesn’t work. But the reason brands try to do this in the first place is there is a lot of value to be gained by pushing what the product can be considered for over time, and creating loyalty through emotional connection in the process. That shit is hard though! 

Positioning part of a product is even harder than normal positioning because the promise of the feature has to sit inside the broader context of the positioning for the overall product. Comprehension of how products work and what they can do is already incredibly difficult, so adding new elements to products compounds problems most products are already not good at. Product people tend to suck at positioning themselves. We’re often too wrapped in our jargon to speak in ways the customer understands. So we’re happy to have marketing take the lead. But the default mode of positioning features from marketing teams is to try to enfuse the brand into them without understanding how it can create even more comprehension issues. Scott Belsky, the Chief Product Office at Adobe, talks about how his startup initially got this wrong, and how it hurt comprehension (the whole post is great, but the example is in the “be more accommodating” section).

We faced this same issue when I was at Pinterest. When we launched the product internationally, retention was a lot lower than in the U.S. As we watched international users try the product, we realized that many were struggling with the key call to action saying “Pin it!”, which didn’t mean anything in their language. The product team wanted to change it to the local word for “Save”, but the brand marketing team was absolutely against it. We tried it anyway, and saw a 15% increase in activation rate, even in the U.S.! Our own brand was confusing users, the exact opposite of what it is supposed to do. We faced a similar issue from an SEO perspective. 

Our images were called “Pins”. By changing our title tags to say “images” instead of “Pins”, we received 5% more traffic from Google. There is plenty of time to get activated users to build an emotional connection with our brand, but if our brand makes the product not enticing to try or too confusing, it needs to back away until a later time when it can help, not hurt, company goals. Many times product and marketing teams will try to “go their own way” to solve the problem. Product creates a page for SEO. Marketing creates a page for the launch that is more branded. Not a good idea. The buzz the marketing team can create with that landing page will help with SEO goals because it can drive links that help Google trust the page more to rank it higher. Instead, product and marketing must work together to carefully balance positioning to maximize what helps the page rank, what gets potential customers interested, and what drives loyalty over time. This is what the best brands like Apple and Nike do.

Product Positioning Is A Delicate Dance

Many times when we talk about product marketing, we talk about the launch. But positioning is where the real long-term value is for features and new products. Dev and marketing teams have a lot of different variables to balance in launching new products and features, and positioning is at the heart of many of them and the hardest to get right. In almost all cases, we will need to iterate to optimize comprehension, adoption, retention, satisfaction, and that emotional connection that leads to word of mouth and improved adoption of things teams will launch in the future.

Thanks to Tamara Mendelsohn for contributing to this essay.

Currently listening to my Vocal Tones playlist on Spotify.

Fire Every Bullet

In crisis situations, a new style or management and prioritization has to occur. Andy Grove famously called this “wartime”, and he and others like Ben Horowitz have described what it’s like to be a “wartime” CEO. I haven’t ever seen anything written about being a wartime CPO though. Being a wartime CPO means a lot has to change in how you approach building product. Most product leaders think about their team as the product, and they continue to iterate on their team through hiring, training, coaching, delegation, etc. In wartime, you’re not hiring, you don’t have time to train or coach, and you make more top down decisions. But there’s one big thing that needs to change for wartime CPOs I want to cover today, and that is prioritization and evaluation.

I hope you never have to be a wartime product leader. But as you might have surmised, Eventbrite has been in a wartime situation for over a year now. Let me give you some background. In February 2020, Eventbrite started to become aware of a big problem. While the company was off to a fantastic start to the year, we could see the tidal wave of a global pandemic coming. Neither the world, nor us, was ready for what our metrics were showing could happen: the global shutdown of the live events industry. We were about to go to war, but not against a competitor, instead against nature.

There were, of course, differing opinions about the severity of the situation. The media was making fun of VCs for banning handshakes and telling us to be more worried about the seasonal flu, but the media failed to take into account the true potential downside. When the downside is unknown and potentially disastrous, as Nassim Taleb would say, the only rational reaction is over-reaction.

We planned for our mission, to bring the world together through live events, to be tested like never before. We acted swiftly to ensure the longevity of our business and mission, and the wellbeing of our employees, creators and investors. We launched resources and tools, we increased communication to keep employees informed, engaged and connected, and we realigned cost structure and secured access to funding. We also re-wrote the strategy of the business to align to this new reality.

More specifically, on the product side, we shifted all of our focus to help our creators prepare for the reality of a global pandemic and what that meant for their businesses. As we got to work, I recalled a conversation I had with Luc Levesque years ago when we brought him on as an advisor to Pinterest. Luc was the VP of SEO at Tripadvisor at the time (now VP Growth at Shopify), which was the only American company I could find that had succeeded at international SEO. Pinterest’s biggest impediment to growth was international growth, and SEO had been our primary lever to get U.S. growth into good shape after our initial strategy of leveraging the Facebook Open Graph stopped working. I was asking Luc whether we should prioritize different tactics to make international SEO work like international link building, localizing our URL structure, or making sure only content in local languages showed up on a page. His response was basically, “Dude, you do ALL of it.” We could figure out which one mattered the most after we’re successful. This is the approach we took at Eventbrite when the pandemic went into effect.

We built every possible thing we could to help creators and the company. We helped creators pivot online through virtual events; we published information on how to apply for loans; we built a bulk refunds tool, introduced the ability for creators to pay-in or wire money to Eventbrite to refund consumers and a credits system, and an easy postponement tool. We fired every bullet we had at the pandemic problem. We did not prioritize. It didn’t matter how much effort each activity was. We were going to do it all, and do it fast. We released things that would not meet our normal quality bar, because the only thing better than releasing these features for creators today would have been releasing them yesterday. We later learned other companies were doing the same.

One thing I would say, maybe feeling somewhat self-conscious right now, we made a company wide decision to lower our minimum acceptable quality bar due to the pandemic. If you observe Shopify right now, we are launching a lot. Almost just because of this one change. So we are pulling a lot of our roadmap forward in time. Everything that can help businesses right now, just because, again, we are in a crazy world right now.
Tobi Lutke, CEO of Shopify, on Invest Like The Best (May 2020)

You never want to be on the other side of a catastrophic event having failed saying “we could have done more,” and that has been top-of-mind for us throughout the pandemic. What is interesting when you take the approach of doing everything is some of the tactics work really well, and some do not. There is a tendency to evaluate those tactics in isolation for their success and failure. This is a mistake. You have to evaluate success or failure via the aggregate of all the bullets you fired. Did we save the company? We did. Did we save a lot of our creators’ businesses? We did. You can’t do an experiment or results review on those tactics individually. You have to look at the portfolio.

When should you fire every bullet? Do you fire all the bullets only in near death situations? How about live events recovery? Is Eventbrite firing every bullet to maximize the success of that? Prospect theory states that humans dislike downside impact more than they like upside impact of the same level. Many people have called this irrational. In fact, it is not, because extreme downside effects are things like death and ruin. Extreme upside effects don’t have the same degree of effect. So, firing every bullet makes a lot more sense for extreme downside scenarios than extreme upside scenarios. Think of the two by two.

The difference between we could have grown a little faster and death vs. safety is not at all the same. That doesn’t mean firing every bullet in upside situations is wrong; it’s just not as clear of an answer as in the extreme downside scenario. Quibi did everything to grow for its launch and burned through $100 million. It might have been better to do a smaller launch and iterate on content to find stronger product/market fit. Uber burned through billions for many years to try to both accelerate the size of their market and their market share within it, and it’s almost a $100 billion company.

The important thing to remember here is in extreme circumstances a lot of the best practices are different. Decisiveness, waste, and measurement will trade off in very different ways. It’s important to register when in these extreme situations that a different rulebook may be required to do the right thing for your business or product when in normal operations. Wartime isn’t over at Eventbrite, but I like to think of the situation right now as we’re finally having peace talks. 

Currently listening to Primitive Arts by Ron Trent.

Transparent Optimism

When I started managing teams at Grubhub over a decade ago, I was pretty obsessed with high performance. I wanted my team to have very clear goals, remove any roadblocks they would face to being successful, and make a big impact on the success of the company. I was able to hire a strong team, and we got to work, 100xing the size of our customer base over four years. As part of this process, a lot of what I tried to do was reduce distractions for the team. Any time there was strategic misalignment or confusion at the top ranks of the company, I would hide that from the team so it didn’t affect their performance. In other words, I wouldn’t let confusion at the top level create confusion at their level.

As the team grew over time both in size and in scope, I started to see cracks in this strategy I didn’t immediately understand. The first symptom was people on my team saying that while they felt very supported by me and were growing in their skills and their career, they didn’t have much visibility in what other members of the team did or how their roles worked. So, I created a Friday meeting we called “Team Learn” where every week, one team member would deep dive on what they were working on so the rest of the team could learn more about it. Initially, these were topics like email marketing or Google Adwords, but we started expanding them to other topics the team wanted to learn about, like venture capital and emerging channels. This meeting was so successful other teams wanted to participate, so I eventually expanded the meeting to include other teams.

This didn’t solve the root problem though. As my team got more comfort or clarity in their feedback, I started to understand the root problem more. While I was shielding my team from any swirl related to top level strategic decisions or screw ups or whatever elsewhere in the company, I was not the only person they talked to at Grubhub. So, they would hear from peers about all of these other things going on I had deemed to be unimportant or distractions, and the fact that I didn’t ever mention them made it feel like I was hiding things from them. It made them feel as if they couldn’t handle that level of knowledge and weren’t being treated as senior as they should be. 

So I shifted my approach. I made a commitment to share what was going on, but also contextualize it so as not to create doubt or swirl in their minds about what was going on at the company. We were definitely winning, after all. I moved from extreme editorial filtering to complete transparency, followed by contextualizing how this will all work out and why we win. When we hire great employees, the push to focus them and not distract them, while good, can easily be used as an excuse to not share hard things, and that creates a belief that the team can’t handle unresolved conflict, work through confusion, or understand strategic fog or even help lift it, and creates the perception that you as a leader are hiding things. It’s like hiring a bunch of strong engineers, and then only feeding them tickets of what they need to code through Jira because if we actually got them involved in deciding the problem, “they couldn’t possibly understand the business!” It doesn’t make a lot of sense when you think about it.

At Eventbrite, I have come to call this style transparent optimism. I’m going to give you all the context, the good, the bad, and the ugly, and explain how I think we come out on top. I trust my team with being able to handle all of that context and ultimately help us work through some of the thornier issues together. This is a style of communication that will not work with all cultures. Company cultures have to decide where they exist on a spectrum of open vs. closed in their communication. If I tried to apply this style at Apple, for example, I would quickly be fired for sharing things they do not want shared. So I bias toward cultures that have a comfort with this level of transparency, which is not all companies! Many companies would not even let me write a blog like this while working there. At Eventbrite now, I host quarterly AMAs with the team, the CEO does them twice a month, and both the CTO and I wrote monthly internal blog posts on what is on our mind. 

Obviously, I am biased, and communication styles come with pros and cons. With transparent optimism, I create risks of more interpretations of what is happening, external leaks, and it just requires me to communicate a lot more. But ultimately, I think it creates a default trust and default respect with the team, and helps them contribute more to the success of the company.

Currently listening to Scurlage by µ-Ziq.

The Rise of Department Operations Roles, and How to Tackle Inefficiency

At every company, there are well defined roles you would expect to see. In software, they tend to be roles like engineering, product management, design, marketing, legal, finance, etc. But as companies scale, they tend to invest in more specialized roles over time. During that transition, operating in one of these roles can be confusing. One interesting trend emerging at many companies including Eventbrite is the creation of departmental operations roles. Oh, you’ve seen them: Marketing Operations, Sales Operations, Design Operations, Product Operations et al. My first instinct when I hear an “operations” title is “inefficiency.” Not that the operations person is inefficient, but that there is inefficiency at the company. It is okay to be inefficient at things at your company. At various times, it will make sense to be inefficient in tons of areas of the company. The danger is in accepting inefficiency for the long term. We should strive to eliminate inefficiency over time at companies, not embrace it. Thus, the goal of departmental operations teams can be somewhat paradoxical. By explicitly attempting to remove inefficiency, they are actually attempting to remove the need for their roles entirely. 

The Intercom Biz Ops team was the first to just come out and say it. This can create a remarkable conflict of interest though. By doing a good job, will I eliminate the need for my job? As a result of this conflict of interest, we have started to see people in these roles try to define them as long-term necessities in organization, which means employees are optimizing for themselves instead of the company. What is interesting about this trend is that this job security issue shouldn’t be a conflict of interest. The goal of every job inside an organization should be to eliminate the need for it so you can do more important things. This is a great way to get more responsibility and promotions. There would be no greater pride for me than feeling like I am no longer needed in my current role at Eventbrite, for example.

So, if you want to do a great job in a departmental operations role, how do you do that? Well, the real question is how do we solve inefficiencies at companies? It’s like solving any problem within your company. You use various tools. I have a very specific hierarchy I like to follow to solve these problems, and I wish more companies used it instead of defaulting to hiring people and creating roles. If you’re in a department operations role, you can consider this a playbook to helping the company be more successful.

#1 Software
Any problem or inefficiency we can solve with software is superior to other forms because it automates away the inefficiency in the future once it is built. Now, it may be the case that we cannot think of or do not have the resources to develop a software solution to the problem, permanently or temporarily, or that there is no software we can buy that helps. This is okay, even normal. Companies tend to under-invest in leveraging engineering to build solutions that help their companies become more efficient, largely because so many companies are engineering-constrained. But just like engineers have started to work more on business problems like growth or marketing, they will eventually start to work more on internal tooling that enables their and other teams.

#2 Process
My next goal would be to solve the problem or inefficiency with process. Process innovation is a remarkable thing. By understanding the issue and proposing a way of operating to solve the problem, the pain point can frequently be mitigated or disappear. Now, this is not as automatic as software because it requires people doing things to follow the process and usually more training than software. But processes can become hard-to-break habits, especially once employees see the benefits of them inside an organization. This is more of where departmental operations roles tend to thrive today. By understanding the strategy of the business and the day-to-day operations, operations team members can spot inefficiencies, test different process solutions and assume responsibility for scaling out ones that work. But these solutions can be led by anyone. The more this happens without dedicated operations people, the more efficient an organization is.

#3 People
My next best option after process is to solve a problem with a person. Hiring is expensive, so it should be considered carefully. I definitely prefer hiring for concrete roles that have well defined value inside companies. Engineer, designer, analyst, etc. If you need to hire an Operations role because the problem is nebulous, temporary, or today can’t fit into one of those roles, you can do it. But you should have a career plan for those roles to evolve into a more well-defined role. Fortunately, team members that showcase generic problem solving skills are great fits for many other types of roles inside companies, so they rarely have to worry about their next internal career move. Still, it may be more efficient to actually look at one of the other solutions below.

#4 Advisors or Consultants
Sometimes the right person isn’t available, or the problem is well time-boxed. In this situation, I prefer to find consultants or advisors. Subject matter expertise exists out there in the world for almost anything. Working with individuals that have specific experience makes it easy to align incentives even if this subject matter expertise isn’t hireable full-time. If the issue is temporary, you may not want to hire full-time anyway.

#5 Agencies and Firms
Lastly, I look at agencies or firms. With these companies, it is hard to prevent misaligned incentives. But they do have expertise and bodies that you can throw at a problem with less risk of being stuck with them full-time. 

Where Operations Wins
I am not against Operations roles; I just want companies to understand how to use them well and to scale out of them whenever possible. Early stage companies can absolutely crush with Operations. Smart people Swiss Army Knifing problems is many times the fastest way to scale in the early stage. Operations roles can also thrive in larger companies, if they root out inefficiency with the tools above and don’t succumb to empire building. We can’t yet automate transportation needed for the delivery of the business? Call that the Operations team. We can’t automate training for our customers yet? Call that the Operations team. 

The COO role is very common, though its definition is ambiguous because it tends to be a grab bag of executive inefficiency. Usually, the COO manages what the CEO is inefficient at. That can be management in general, or parts of the company the CEO is less capable of adding value to. The COO role can also be a roll up of certain executive functions when the CEO has too many direct reports as well. 

This is all fine and even optimal. But every operations role you add you should also add to a list of inefficiencies you hope your company can solve one day, and always be thinking towards software or processes that make these current roles unnecessary so those people can take on even more important roles over time.

Currently listening to Good Times by Moire.