Ask Me Anything: Building and Leading Industry Defining Companies

Molly Graham, COO of Lambda School, and Corley Hughes, CFO of SonderMind, sat down with f7 founders for an in depth discussion on how to build and lead industry defining companies. Both women have extensive backgrounds building and scaling organizations, with Molly previously leading teams at Google, Facebook, CZI and Quip, and Corley at Microsoft, Product Hunt, CZI and Glossier.

During this AMA, we discussed the growing pains of scaling a business, how to adapt to those challenges, and the importance of people.

What you need will evolve rapidly

In the early stages of growth your needs are constantly changing and it is hard to predict exactly what you need. Try to have your first 25 people be the type who can wear many hats, can tackle any problem and figure it out as they go.

Don’t worry about role definition so much as questions to be answered

When needs are changing so quickly, it can often be beneficial to frame your roles around questions to be answered. That adds clarity to the focus of the role, and a good employee will be able to figure out their focus areas based on how to answer those questions.

With that said, make sure you are clear on the problem they are solving, particularly, in the first six months. Sometimes businesses can make the mistake of hiring people too quickly who don’t have a clear purpose, and you end up having overlapping work across teams.

Changes are constant – get comfortable with turnover and letting people go

Sometimes the people you bring in and the needs of the role are not a good fit, and you have to get good at letting people go amicably. One way to assess this is if someone isn’t performing to your expectations, rewrite the job description of what you wish that person was doing. This will help you see the gap in their performance and allow you to start a conversation about what needs to change.

Simplify the unit economics before scaling

It is important to understand the fundamentals of your business so you don’t scale on top of unit economics that don’t work. Some businesses have wasted entire funding rounds going after the wrong market. It is also easy to get pushed into strategies by advisors trying to help who may not be as deep in the weeds as you. For example, going after the enterprise market is very different than the SMB market. Be thoughtful about which market you go after and why. This includes making sure you take the time to know your business, know your customers and find your go to market motion before scaling.

Leaders define the culture of the company

For founders, culture is often a manifestation of your personality. It is important to do a lot of self reflection and self awareness exercises to nail what you want you, your employees and your company to represent. Find out who you are, use it to break the conversation around culture down and then define it. From there, find systems and processes that help you build on these things.

Find people who have done it before and develop ways to retain them

There is a misconception as a CEO that you are supposed to know everything, and you should let go of that. Figure out what you love doing, and build a team around you with complementary strengths. Bring in people who have demonstrated experience scaling in the areas you haven’t. Once you find the people you want to retain, take the time to understand their motivations and aspirations, and design an experience that works well for them so they stay with you for the long run.

You’re not alone!

The founder journey can be challenging, but know that you are not alone and many of the things you are experiencing are completely normal. What happens over time will begin to get familiar, and you’ll end up with frameworks and pattern recognition for things that fall apart, and you’ll know how to fix them quicker. It will never be perfect, but you can get better at the motions.

Ask Me Anything: HR and People

We were recently joined by Annette Reavis, Chief People Officer at Envoy, which helps athletes train harder and smarter with clothing that measure how hard your muscles are working. Prior to Athos, Annette was the Chief People Officer for Root Insurance and spent 10 years at Facebook building and growing the HR function and teams from the early days.

Below are seven takeaways from the conversation:

What you need will evolve rapidly

In the early stages of growth your needs are constantly changing and it is hard to predict exactly what you need. Try to have your first 25 people be the type who can wear many hats, can tackle any problem and figure it out as they go.

Don’t worry about role definition so much as questions to be answered

When needs are changing so quickly, it can often be beneficial to frame your roles around questions to be answered. That adds clarity to the focus of the role, and a good employee will be able to figure out their focus areas based on how to answer those questions.

With that said, make sure you are clear on the problem they are solving, particularly, in the first six months. Sometimes businesses can make the mistake of hiring people too quickly who don’t have a clear purpose, and you end up having overlapping work across teams.

Changes are constant – get comfortable with turnover and letting people go

Sometimes the people you bring in and the needs of the role are not a good fit, and you have to get good at letting people go amicably. One way to assess this is if someone isn’t performing to your expectations, rewrite the job description of what you wish that person was doing. This will help you see the gap in their performance and allow you to start a conversation about what needs to change.

Simplify the unit economics before scaling

It is important to understand the fundamentals of your business so you don’t scale on top of unit economics that don’t work. Some businesses have wasted entire funding rounds going after the wrong market. It is also easy to get pushed into strategies by advisors trying to help who may not be as deep in the weeds as you. For example, going after the enterprise market is very different than the SMB market. Be thoughtful about which market you go after and why. This includes making sure you take the time to know your business, know your customers and find your motion before scaling.

Leaders define the culture of the company

For founders, culture is often a manifestation of your personality. It is important to do a lot of self reflection and self awareness exercises to nail what you want you, your employees and your company to represent. Find out who you are, use it to break the conversation around culture down and then define it. From there, find systems and processes that help you build on these things.

Find people who have done it before and develop ways to retain them

There is a misconception as a CEO that you are supposed to know everything, and you should let go of that. Figure out what you love doing, and build a team around you with complementary strengths to go. Bring in people who have demonstrated experience scaling in the areas you haven’t. Once you find the people you want to retain, take the time to understand their motivations and aspirations, and design an experience that works well for them so they stay with you for the long run.

You’re not alone!

The founder journey can be challenging, but know that you are not alone and many of the things you are experiencing are completely normal. What happens over time will begin to get familiar, and you’ll end up with frameworks and pattern recognition for things that fall apart, and you’ll know how to fix them quicker. It will never be perfect, but you can get better at the motions!

Ask Me Anything: Channel Market Fit

We recently hosted an AMA for f7 Founders featuring Sam Wheatley, VP of Growth Marketing at Noom, a subscription mobile app that utilizes a cognitive behavioral approach to weight loss and healthy living. Noom recently completed its Series F fundraise with a valuation of $4.24B, having raised more than $668M venture capital funding to date. Sam has played an integral role in Noom’s success as the leader of their growth team for the last five years, starting as the Director of Growth Marketing before becoming a VP.

During this AMA, we discussed Channel Market Fit with Sam. Throughout Noom’s growth, their team has leveraged a variety of digital and offline acquisition strategies. Sam shared Noom’s process for evaluating various growth channels, how they diversified their media mix as they grew, how to choose the right channel(s) for your product or service, and more.

Below are seven (ok … 8) takeaways from the conversation:

1.Break out your growth efforts into phases:

Sam spoke about Noom’s growth marketing evolution, citing three key stages of channel growth:

Hyper-Focused Single Channel Phase

Noom started with a single channel as a launching pad. The channel / platform they chose given their audience (more below) was Facebook. Choosing one channel to start allowed them to focus all of their efforts on making that platform scale, investing in numerous strategies and testing for creative, landing pages and more.

Channel Diversification Phase

Once a solid foundation is built on one channel, many companies and their investors often look for channel diversification as an important KPI.

For Noom, this brought forth an acceleration of new channels, such as Search, Pinterest and expanding outside of digital to TV. As you add more channels, this brings up important questions around measurement, media mix modeling and attribution, which became more of a focus for Noom as they expanded (more on that below too).

Brand Building Phase

Noom recently entered a third phase focused on building brand awareness and consideration for its suite of health products. Sam views this new phase as a hybrid Direct Response and Brand building phase, as it is just as critical to maintain the core performance marketing strategies implemented in the first two phases. Brand will not deliver immediate revenue and is more difficult to measure impact, requiring a deeper time and resource investment to fully understand. However, over time it has the potential to become just as efficient and economically viable if done right.

Another important consideration about the timing of brand activation is how well known your category is. For Noom, weight loss is a well defined space so less education was needed. There was already pent up demand they could capitalize on and focus on their unique offering, rather than the category itself. Because of this, driving revenue was more relevant than driving brand in the early days. As the space became more saturated and they looked to expand the product, brand building became more relevant for their business.

If your category is relatively unknown, you may need to consider more branding and education early on. If it is a well-defined space, brand building might be something you can hold off on and devote more early resources to driving acquisition and revenue.

2.Understand your customer and where to reach them:

Sam views Channel Market Fit as the sweet spot where audience and the channel intersect. To identify this, you need to deeply understand your target audience and their state of intent as well as the tooling and targeting available to you.

Ask yourself: Who is your customer? Where do they spend time? And how can you convert them?

For a mass market service like weight loss, it made sense to start with Facebook as the core channel given its large population and sophisticated algorithm to find users.

For other services like B2B, a platform like LinkedIn might make more sense to start with where their is more emphasis on business and professional networking.

For B2C businesses, tapping into the rapidly growing trend of Creators (influencers) is worth considering. It adds new creative and perspectives to the mix, and allows companies to find niche audiences as a result.

Even if a channel isn’t a perfect fit, consider what alternative strategies can be employed to make it work to tap into the audience there.

3.Establish a measurement framework that works for your business:

There are many ways to think about measurement in the digital advertising world. There is no one size fits all, and it can evolve as companies add more channels.

Noom began with a relatively basic measurement model, relying on the data derived from ad pixels and native ads manager results with a Last Touch Attribution model in mind. As they diversified channels, they evolved to a Multi-Touch framework that combines both channel reporting and a post-purchase customer survey. This allows them to allocate credit based on two data points – where they see customers come from as well as where they self-attribute.

4.Get ahead of discussions with investors about how you will use funds to grow:

Having the capital to invest in growth has been critical to Noom’s success. In order to obtain the capital needed to execute on their strategies, they provided detailed information on the inputs required to grow and the expected outputs of those efforts.

For example, companies can project improved conversion rate by X% for every X number of funnel experiments. In order to run X funnel experiments, they need Y number of visits to the website. In order to get Y number of visits, they need Z amount of capital. This will help investors understand a detailed plan to use the funds to grow.

5.Develop hypotheses and conduct experimentation:

Testing has been a central tenant of Noom’s growth strategy. They develop hypotheses as to what will and will not resonate with customers. As they found results from that, they dove deeper into those concepts and developed them further. The duration and design of the test was also dictated by what they wanted to learn.

  • Creative Testing: For example, creative testing is often frequent and fast – Noom runs roughly thirty creative tests per week with four to five ads. They run at a high volume, knowing there will be some uncertainty, but to validate that they are heading in the right overall direction.
  • Lift Testing:
    • Other tests are more time intensive. For example, they utilize Lift testing to understand their incremental Customer Acquisition Cost (iCAC). This helps them calculate the incremental value each channel is adding to their media mix, and allows them to adjust modeling and budgets accordingly.
      • For example, one structure utilized four Lift cells through Facebook – the cells had the same audience size and targeting, but different budgets assigned to each ($10k, $20k, $40k and $80k). They were then able to see the difference in iCAC and create a plot line to see their overall cost curve.

6.Continue putting effort into leads that don’t convert right away:

For leads who provide email to Noom but don’t convert, they continue to nurture those users over a period of time to drive conversions. One way they do this is with a 15 day email drip campaign that includes a series of education about Noom, how it works, and incentives to sign up.

Don’t forget about these leads – sometimes customers take more time to convert, and they are worth pursuing! This is particularly important for B2B businesses, where customers tend to have a higher threshold to convert.

7.Organic marketing can work, but may be too slow for your early stage goals:

Organic marketing is a good strategy to integrate, but has its limits. You can’t scale it the way you can with paid acquisition, and it is not as predictable. Talented organic marketers focus on getting content to go viral. It is amazing if you can achieve that, but it is very hard to do and not a guarantee. It is also challenging to measure the downstream impact of organic on brand awareness and acquisition, which makes it difficult to quantify the impact with investors.

As you grow, businesses often add an organic marketing hire, who can focus on growing your social pages, developing a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) strategy and adding CRM email referrals.

8.Consider what changes in your strategy and hiring as you grow:

As you reach greater scale, take a step back to consider what does and does not change in your strategy and the needs of your team. Does your focus remain on performance? Does it shift to brand building? How do internal processes change if we do shift strategies? From there, determine the talent you need.

When Noom started out, the two co-founders split responsibilities between fundraising and operations. On the operations side, they had a lean team of three in the early days – they had the co-founder, Sam as Director of Growth, and someone focused on product all driving the core operations.

As they grew in scale, so did the team. Questions like “Do you hire a team to manage new channels?” became more relevant. With that in mind, consider building org structure around functional expertise, with heads of each area. For example, you could have a digital pod, an offline pod and an organic pod.

Ask Me Anything: Early Stage Marketing

f7’s Operator Council members, Elise Bergeron, VP Marketing at Snowflake and Jessica Jensen, CMO of Indeed hosted an AMA for f7 founders on the topic of Early Stage Marketing.

Here are 7 takeaways from the conversation:

1. There are so many different roles under the Marketing umbrella that it can be difficult to define …

Simply stated, Marketing is defining and communicating a broad understanding of your company’s unique value and what you can do for your customers.

In tech and product/eng heavy organizations, it’s particularly important to emphasize marketing’s role in driving growth, revenue and great customer experiences.

2. When determining marketing needs at the earliest stages, you must determine what is the most urgent problem you’re trying to solve:

If building in a known category, you need a demand gen focus to take market share quickly.

If you are in the business of category creation, you need product marketing to help define the segment & positioning before you try to activate distribution channels against it.

For certain categories where brand cache, influencers and celebrity make a big difference (e.g., beauty, fashion, sports), you may need more brand-building focus early on — but for most companies brand focus typically comes after you show demand gen and revenue traction.

3. For your first marketing hires, look for creativity — it’s not just paid search and social. Look for individuals that care about messaging, creative and can think creatively about distribution opportunities.

Don’t hire someone that wants to come in and run their standard digital growth playbook. The playbook likely won’t work at a Seed or Series A company. Find someone that’s more experimental and willing to try different things– like social, email and even direct mail (yes it can really work).

The incumbent is rarely what you need to be successful but the pull to hire the experienced incumbent is strong. Resist it — unless they show real creativity and willingness to expand their view and tactics.

4. Do’s and Don’ts of your first marketing hire:

Don’t label someone who isn’t a marketer as a marketer. Ensure your first hire is a good marketer. This sets the tone & expectation of the marketing function. If you don’t establish this as a strategic lever from the start … you will have a lot of work to do to reset expectations later.

MBA interns can be a great way to get high horsepower talent & help at the early stage. Agencies can also help but you need to have someone who has some experience managing agencies or the costs can run away from you.

Founders are often looking for “one marketing unicorn who can do everything.” Sometimes you need two different people / sets of expertise.

5. Marketing’s role to get to Series A benchmarks:

For product marketing – the most important thing is to be crisp on segmentation and targeting so you can show repeatability to raise the Series A. You need to be able to tell the story re: how you’re acquiring customers and how you’re ready to scale.

For demand gen – you need to ensure someone else is wearing the product marketing hat (that someone else can be the founder). Need to ensure you’re pointing demand gen at the right target. If there isn’t a pattern and clear segment with demand gen … you’re missing a clear, scaleable story for the Series A.

For Series B, you need to understand the ratio between marketing and sales, how you’re feeding the sales pipeline and a clear pipeline to sales motion that shows you’re ready to throw gas on the fire.

6. The founder’s role in marketing:

For a marketing team, you’ll need a marketing leader and the three pillars of early-stage marketing: Corporate, Demand Gen, Product Marketing. If as a founder, marketing isn’t your thing, then hire that marketing leader sooner. If you have an affinity for segmentation, marketing, positioning — you can likely have product marketing and demand gen report to you for the first couple years.

Marketing should be a strong leading indicator re: what will happen in your sales cycles. Don’t create too much distance between you and marketing in the early stages. Otherwise, you’ll pick your head up and not have the pulse on the business that you thought you did.

7. Marketing Watch-outs:

Don’t overspend on PR. Metrics can be flimsy. Avoid expensive PR agencies at the beginning. It feels so good but it’s the fastest way to light money on fire. A company needs to have a really unique lens to get a PR story out there — otherwise it doesn’t really matter.

Your product development resources are typically the scarcest. Need to focus your customer segmentation or you risk creating parallel product roadmaps to meet the needs of multiple customers. If you get to your Series A targets with multiple customers/products, you may be on a path to create sprawling product roadmaps and a lot of product debt.

Get your LTV house in order as soon as humanly possible. The companies that do this well make a significant difference in their ramp up and investment potential. It can be a major data undertaking but it will pay off in your growth and fundraising.

If you have/need a sales team, think deeply about the relationship between marketing and sales. Many companies think tension between marketing and sales is good but it doesn’t need to be that way. Alignment in B2B particularly can really allow you to scale quickly. This has been a key factor in Snowflake’s growth where marketing is laser focused on pipeline to feed sales. Likewise, you need to hire senior sales people and marketers so there is equal footing & respect. There is often a tendency to hire senior sales people and junior marketers and then companies have to reset people, partnerships and expectations later on.

Ask Me Anything: Building and Evolving your Engineering Team

In March of 2022, we were joined by Aidymar Bigio, a Senior Director of Engineering at Oculus, who has spent the last 18 years building at Meta and Google. Now working on Meta’s Oculus product, she is building the next computing platform for the metaverse.

During our AMA, we discussed today’s evolving landscape specific to engineering in the start up world, how to find talent and how to adapt to engineering needs as you grow.

Below are seven takeaways from the conversation:

Have a compelling story and be clear on what you need

Engineers are in high demand with the growth of start-ups today, so it’s important to understand what you’re trying to do when you sell your vision.

Engineers these days are not just motivated by salary and company name. They want to solve interesting problems. The more crisply you can explain your problem and vision, the more motivated they will be to help.

Include a clear job description as well as a pitch that highlights the following:

  • Overall strategy for the company
  • Opportunity for this particular position
  • Growth trajectory for both the company and the individual
  • What they are going to be working on, what technologies and what you see as the opportunities for innovation
  • What is the problem space and how their involvement will further the company strategy

Focus on the candidate in your first interview

In your first interview with a candidate, you can kick off with an elevator pitch about the company and opportunity and then shift to getting to know the candidate. Many people make the mistake of spending too much time on their company vision or trying to go deep in the tech right away instead of learning about the candidate. Make sure to have them tell you what makes them excited to determine if they are a good fit.

You can also use this time to assess their risk appetite – one question an f7 founder asks is:

“If you ended up leaving within one year of joining, what do you think we – as a company – would have gotten wrong to push you into doing that?”

This tells you what people value and allows them to reflect in a different way.

All of this will also allow you to adapt your conversations in the future to what will resonate best with them as you shift to selling them on your business.

Leverage your network and third parties to find talent

Not surprising, one of the best ways to find good talent is to leverage your network. It also allows you to get a reliable second opinion on someone from your network to get a sense of what type of worker they are.

Additionally, there are numerous third party companies that can help you source and in certain cases evaluate talent. Some leveraged by f7 founders include Karat, Fletcher.ai, Tryplebite and Tech LA.

Embrace remote work

The rise of remote work allows you to get creative with how you bring people in. Remote work taps into so many new pools of talent that were previously unavailable to companies limited by certain office locations. It is now being seen as an important perk for engineers.

There is a lot of high quality international talent and communities of talent that can be tapped into and nurtured, including in South America, which may be more time zone friendly for US based companies.

Consider hiring a Senior generalist engineer at the early stage

When you are first getting started, it is beneficial to have one of your first hires be a Senior Engineer who is a generalist. This is someone who is a swiss army knife – flexible, adaptable and able to inform your engineering needs as you grow and your product matures.

Once hired, empower your engineer(s) to come up with a plan

If you’ve done your job in finding the right talent, give your engineer(s) the chance to understand the problem space and come up with a plan to solve it. Find the balance between autonomy and accountability. Have trust in them to guide the way in terms of how they are solving the problem. Throughout the process, be sure to ask the right questions to ensure they are testing their assumptions and on the right path (i.e. how long with this take, how much will it cost, etc). You should always ask these questions, but continue to trust their skillset to get the job done.

As you grow, understand engineers’ skill sets and what environments they work well in

The skill sets required to excel in engineering and in management are different, so it’s important to understand where your engineer(s) falls on that spectrum. Some people can play a hybrid role, where they are deeply technical but also enjoy the people side of work. However, some don’t enjoy or excel in that type of hybrid role, and it can be detrimental to take a super productive, technical talent and begin adding management tasks to their workload.

As your team grows, this is something you will need to evaluate. Likewise, you’ll evolve to hiring for specific skill sets as opposed to the more general hire from the earlier days.

Strategic Hiring – How and Who You Hire Matters

Your company is experiencing double digit growth, your team is working hard to keep up with demand, but without additional support from people joining the team, you worry you may be falling further behind. As a hiring manager it may feel tempting to hire the next resume that crosses your path and perhaps more so during this period of unseen labor shortages. While hiring quickly solves an immediate need to bring in additional support and ideally alleviate people who are or may be on the brink of burn out, it’s a gamble. Early on in my career I rushed to hire and then had to spend numerous hours and months trying to unwind not only the incremental work but the morale impact to the existing team it brought with it. It’s not about hiring quickly, but about hiring the optimal candidate that helps advance your company mission in delivering value, acting responsibly and creating connections. 

Within my first few years at Facebook where I built & led Facebook’s Operations team, I interviewed over 500 people and hired hundreds. Each hire was critical in establishing the bar of what we expected out of each other so that we could focus on the needs of our communities. I’ve been fortunate to work with fantastic individuals throughout my 20+ year career and a common thread when finding and hiring them was a clear hiring philosophy, shared here:

  • Know what strengths and skill sets you are hiring for and why

Hire people who will round out the overall team’s capabilities. Some questions I think about are: Where are we heavy on similar skills? Where do we have gaps? Are those gaps critical for the day to day? Having extreme clarity on this may also contribute to increasing cognitive diversity by avoiding hiring people like yourself (as you already bring that skill or strength to the table!)

  • Hire people smarter than you

People have different expertise and strengths and as a leader it’s important to tap into those and empower your team. If you don’t, everything falls on you. This allows everyone to grow.

  • Hire people that are going to elevate the entire team

Great people make others better. It’s like in sports, when you are on a strong team, you push harder and elevate your play. Hiring people smarter than you helps ensure the intellectual bar stays high. Hiring people who are self reflective, humble and kind helps ensure we enjoy spending time with our work family. We collectively raise the bar and grow as individuals and teams.

  • Hire for talents 12-18 months out, not 6 months out

The business changes quickly and the demands increase exponentially. Hiring people who can grow in the role keeps them challenged, provides jungle gym opportunities where they can take on new or different domains, roles, or projects and allows you to stay on pace or even ahead of the external environment.

As hiring managers and those on the interview loop, your greatest contribution is who joins your company. Great teams don’t occur by happenstance. People are your companies’ greatest assets and this occurs through deliberate and intentional hiring. Good luck!

Your Rallying Cry

The single most important thing in getting your team to do their best work is to create a strong rallying cry.  Your rallying cry is a combination of 3 things — an imagination of what the future looks like (vision), what your company will do to impact that future  (mission), and how your company operates working toward it (values).

My first job after college was joining Facebook…back when Facebook was only open to college students. I forgoed higher paying jobs because I believed wholeheartedly in Facebook’s mission at the time of “making the world more open and connected”.  I vividly recall how core that was to my motivation to perform — everything from my day to day job to how I talked to my friends outside of Facebook was a picture of loyalty and fervent work toward that mission.  I stayed at Facebook for 9 years as a result.  As I branched out of Facebook and built teams of my own, I always wanted to replicate that feeling of ownership.  It became quickly evident to me that in building a strong cohesive team, there is nothing more powerful than a north star – a strong vision, mission and set of values. 

As a founder, you aren’t building a company of 1.  When you hire people, they will need to be inspired — compensation and perks are not enough.  It’s also not enough to just have a great product, you need to know why you are building it, what problem in the world you want to solve, and why anyone should care.  As you craft your vision, mission, and values, if you’ve done them right, they shouldn’t change throughout the lifetime of your company.  Get this right day 1 and you will have solved many future performance and retention issues.  Here is how I’ve developed vision/mission/values…

Vision

> What is this

    • Your vision should articulate the mark your company leaves on the world and how you imagine the future.

> Questions to ask yourself 

    •  What do you imagine when you think about your work 10 years from now?  
    • How does this change the world? 
    • What big problem have you solved / what have you changed?

> End result

    • Your vision should be inspirational, memorable, and short

Mission

> What is this

    • Focus on what you want the company to accomplish today.  It’s typically a lofty goal to unite the company

> Questions to ask yourself 

    • What do we do best? 
    • Who do we help? 
    • How are we uniquely positioned to help them?

> End result

    • Describes the core of your business and the impact it has in the best case scenario

Values

> What is this

    • How you / your company operates and interacts.

> Questions to ask yourself 

    • What are the attributes that I care most about?  
    • How do I want this company to be known in the world?  
    • How should I operate in order to get there?

> End result

    • Articulates “how” you want to operate, and describe what you believe makes a company successful. 

 

Without any one of these, you aren’t able to create a strong rallying cry.  If you have a vision but no mission, it becomes too lofty and unclear what your role is.  If you have a mission but no values, then how your team operates will be inconsistent, ineffective, and inefficient. Create your epic rallying cry to supercharge your startup’s cohesion!  

Check out f7’s vision, mission, values:

♠ Vision : The future of innovation is accelerated by creating an equal starting line for bold entrepreneurs to build the next world changing companies.

♣ Mission : Help amazing early stage entrepreneurs focus on their super powers and maximize the impact on humanity

♥ Values : Operate with Integrity, Work hard and Smart, Produce Excellence, Generate Trust

Growth as a Mindset

Facebook Marketplace launched in 2016 to make it easier for people to buy and sell items within their local communities. Today, it’s a top visited online marketplace used by hundreds of millions of people all over the world. As the product leader for Marketplace since it started, I’m often asked how we grew it. The good news is that many of the principles used to grow Marketplace can be applied to any product or company looking to expand.

What Growth Is Not

Sometimes growth work gets a bad reputation in the industry. Growth work is a powerful tool, but it’s important to remember what it’s not.

Growth does not drive product-market fit. A growth team focused on growing a product with poor retention is fundamentally flawed. Great growth efforts on top of a leaky funnel mean more people having a poor experience. This burns through potential customers who don’t find value in your product. Instead, wait for retention to stabilize or start increasing before investing in growth.

Growth is not about manipulating people. In testing growth tactics, it is important to stay true to the job the product does. People signing up and using a product that they don’t understand is a long term negative for both your brand and those who use it. Using tactics like hiding a “dismiss” link or s-out may help your growth metrics in the short term; but they will not help you attract and engage people who actually want to use your product, which is what you need to build a healthy product over the long haul.

Growth is not scattershot “growth hacking.” Spraying and praying can yield short-term gains and move metrics, but without a clear hypothesis of why something works these ephemeral gains will likely fade over time or be unsustainable. Think of growth work as an investment you are making to improve your long term product performance. At its core, growth work is about making it easy for people to use your product and get value out of it.

Best Growth Practices

Organization

  1. Create a growth team for each product. Once there’s product-market fit, a growth team at a minimum should have a product manager, data scientist, and three to five engineers. If you have additional capacity, adding a growth-oriented designer or content strategist can help drive incremental gains. The goal of the team should be achieving a certain outcome (e.g. grow transactions to X). On Marketplace, there are product teams focused on buyer growth and seller growth. They take numerical goals in driving product usage with the ability to test across the breadth of the product experience, wherever they estimate growth opportunities would be most fruitful.
  1. Create a team of growth experts across your company. If you are at a large company, create a centralized Product Growth team. At Facebook, the Product Growth team embeds analysts in the Facebook app, Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus, Ads, and many other areas. Since Facebook now has more than 50,000 employees, it’s impossible for any product team to keep up with what growth wins are happening even in adjacent products, much less in other apps. The centralized Product Growth team allows the company to cross-pollinate wins across multiple products vs. each product team re-inventing the wheel. For example, the team running a popular unit in News Feed made some design changes that increased engagement. They shared this win with the Marketplace product growth team, who then quickly leveraged those improvements in Marketplace’s feed unit as well.
  1. Be thoughtful in selecting a goal metric for the team. One of the more important strategic decisions is what metric to set for the team that best represents your overall business goals in a healthy way. First, the goal should be easy for teams to understand. Avoid fancy composite metrics that combine multiple different actions since it will be difficult for teams to understand why the metric is moving up or down. Make sure your metric is also tough for teams to “game” (intentionally or unintentionally) with bad growth practices. Earlier in Marketplace’s history, the team was goaled on getting a buyer to send a single message to a seller. We saw a lot of growth, but we learned many of the incremental interactions weren’t high intent. So we updated the metric to require multiple back-and-forth interactions between a buyer and a seller, resulting in more meaningful interactions on listings.

Mindset

  1. Be willing to reconsider all your assumptions. A growth-oriented mindset is all about looking at possibilities. At Facebook, we had a saying on our team called “no sacred cats”. When the original members of the team took on more products and started leading multiple teams, the newer team members went back and tested many of the growth experiments. We saw something interesting happen. Features and tests we ran before with a negative result ended up with a positive one from the new team. To celebrate those moments, we started the hashtag #nosacredcats in our Workplace groups each time we had a growth win that was revisiting an old idea. Many teams have a sense that products are immutable, but things that have been tested can be iterated on with fresh eyes. Proactively rotating team members helps bring in new perspectives. A growth mindset means being willing to challenge the status quo and seek improvement without prejudice.
  1. Think of growth as a game of inches. If your product is more established, you’re better off working on growth activities that drive smaller, yet somewhat predictable, gains vs. big “whale” projects such as re-doing your entire interface. In Marketplace, our most common growth wins were from things like taking a feature that worked on our Android app and making it work in Facebook Lite; improving the targeting of an existing notification, expanding eligibility for using the product, and extending the reach of known notification channels. The Growth team’s impact for the half consists of more than a dozen modest sized wins. While the Marketplace Growth team also drives some strategic efforts, they do not bet an entire half’s contribution on large, unproven efforts that might never ship. When the team wants to invest in a whole new experience, they typically ask a more traditional product team to build it, and then invest growth resources in it once it ships and shows promise.

Focus on People

  1. Reduce friction in flows, but be careful not to go too far. One of the tried-and-true growth tips at Facebook is to taking friction out of flows to increase conversion. When we first started offering sellers the ability to ship their products in Marketplace, we had a pretty complex onboarding experience where the seller was required to enter their banking information for payout before they had listed a single item. After we saw limited seller signups we decided to make this information optional in the onboarding flow (deferring it until later) and saw big gains in seller activation. But you have to be careful not to go too far in reducing friction. A few years ago we made it easy for buyers to indicate their interest in a product by clicking just one button. While this was a large metrics win there were some people clicking the button accidentally or not understanding what it meant. We ended up having to further iterate on this feature to increase comprehension, which cost us some growth but was better for people overall.
  1. Listen to consumer reports and take action. It can be hard work to listen to customer feedback, particularly when you’ve got millions of people using the product. But looking into this feedback and being responsive can yield customer experience wins and growth wins together. When Marketplace started we had some pretty restrictive rules about who was eligible to use it in order to avoid fraudsters before our integrity flows were fully-featured. Then Marketplace grew dramatically over the years, and we never re-reviewed those rules. We started getting a lot of feedback from people who really wanted to use Marketplace and couldn’t. Initially it was easy to dismiss as “yes, that’s to prevent fraud,” but closer inspection revealed that we could actually update certain rules to let more people have access while continuing to mitigate fraud. This led to a win for both the consumer experience and Marketplace Growth.

Tactical Tips

  1. No idea is too small to test if a lot of people use that flow. In Marketplace, we learned that sometimes people miss out on opportunities to buy or sell items just because they didn’t see a message. We made a small change where we added an administrative prompt to the message thread if the seller did not reply to the buyer’s message after many hours, noting that the buyer was still awaiting the response. This small tweak drove significant growth in transactions.
  1. Use opportunity sizing to make decisions on what to test. In the prior example the experience changes we made were tiny. But they had a significant impact because these flows have a lot of traffic. You should make sure that opportunity sizing is a required part of your growth roadmapping vs. prioritizing ideas based primarily on intuition. In the absence of sizing, the team ends up focusing on the most recent idea suggested or the most interesting change to build vs. the one that would have the biggest impact. Growth roadmaps are built in a spreadsheet, not in a PowerPoint or a Google Doc.
  1. Develop the right infrastructure for testing. Most companies interested in growth already know they need to do A/B testing, and clearly that’s critical. However, something that people forget about is creating long-term holdouts. Facebook creates long-term holdouts for key features and promotional channels, while being clear not to degrade the product experience. For years we had a holdout where 1% of people globally couldn’t access Marketplace. While we were growing the product and making investment cases within the company this holdout was critical for proving that Marketplace had a positive impact on growing overall Facebook daily active visitors. Over time we opened up the holdout a bit to allow all eligible people access via a bookmark to avoid bad experiences. But we still maintain long-term holdouts where all our promotional growth levers are turned off, and where each growth lever is turned off individually. This allows us to use data to understand where we are getting the biggest growth wins, and to observe the changes in the productivity of these channels over time.
  1. Test the maximum product change that is shippable. If you test small changes one at a time you will move the needle in small, sometimes non-stat significant ways. But if you test the maximum change in the experience that you would be willing to put out into the world and it doesn’t move the needle, you can close the door on that change and move on. Rather than taking months to make changes you can make one massive change and understand the maximum difference you can make.
  1. Think about edge cases. We made a product change where we used a machine learning model to select which photo to make default in a Marketplace listing versus using the first one entered by the seller. This change grew clickthrough rates and product detail page views and it was one of the biggest improvements in our metrics that half. But in one category, art in home decor, we received reports that sellers were posting all of their art not showing the image first. That seemed odd, so we looked into it. It turned out that our auto-selector picked the photos of the back of the wall art, since if those were shown people would click on them to reveal the front, artificially boosting clickthrough rate. As a result, if you went to search for art on Marketplace, the feed was full of images of the backs of artwork. This particular issue was tricky to catch in testing, but thankfully we were able to quickly react based on consumer reports and resolve this edge case.

A great growth team can be a huge benefit across any product with consumer engagement, but growth is a skill like any other; it’s something you learn, iterate, and then integrate into your product.

This article was originally posted on Substack. Subscribe to Deb Liu’s Perspectives here

Best Practices for Developing a Product Strategy

A great product strategy is the foundation of a great product, but a bad product strategy can lead you astray. Product strategies are guides to the future based on the information that you have at the time. They are living documents; as things change and more information comes to light, they should be revisited, revised, and added upon.

This document is a guide for how to build a product strategy.

Section 1 – Understand the Problem

Every product strategy starts with a clear and cogent problem statement.

  • Know what problem you want to solve and for whom.
  • Identify the opportunity and size it.

I often hear Product Managers say that the problem is winning more customers or beating a competitor. That is not why we build products. We are solving real needs in the world, and a product strategy should reflect that.

Define the problem: What problem are you trying to solve?

Think of your favorite product. Then think of the unique problem it is trying to solve in 10 words or less. Some of the following examples are the company’s mission statement, but not all of them. The most important thing is that the problem is clear.

  • Airbnb: Connecting travelers with unique places to stay
  • Amazon: Find anything to buy online at a good price
  • Coursera: Accessible quality online education for everyone
  • Facebook: Connecting with friends and family about things you care about
  • Google: Organizing the world’s information
  • WhatsApp: Private messaging for low connectivity environments
  • YouTube: Sharing videos and finding an audience

You should define the problem in a way that’s unambiguous as to what you are trying to do. A strong problem statement demarcates what you care about, but also what you don’t want to invest in.

Define your audience: Who are you solving the problem for?

Blackberry made a great product appealing to both IT professionals with security and consumers on mobile email. But when consumers moved to other smartphones, Blackberry thought their strength with IT departments would keep them in enterprises. In the end, consumer preference won out.

Ad agencies create ads not to sell products to consumers, but to sell ads to executives who in turn need to believe that these ads will sell products. Knowing whose problem you are solving, and who is deciding if you get to solve the problem is an important distinction. In consumer products, they are often the same person, but in enterprise products, they are often entirely different.

Once you know your audience, segment the market and know who your primary and secondary segments are. It will help you know who you are not serving. Choosing who you will not serve is just as important as knowing who you plan to serve. Eventually, you can choose to expand but start with a beachhead and a place you are likely to win.

Think about a few products and what audience they started with and where they are now:

  • Amazon: Booklovers
  • Facebook: College students
  • PayPal: eBay sellers and small online sites
  • QuickBooks: Small businesses
  • Snapchat: Teens in western countries on iOS

Having a clear audience means you can focus your efforts on their needs first, and then expand from there. Before you build for the world, win in one market. You can later take the capabilities you built and move to adjacent verticals or experiences.

Understand the market: What is the competitive landscape?

Understanding where you stand and what the opportunity can be is critical to a good product strategy. Defining the overall market, and then breaking down the segments help you see who else is in your space. It also helps you see if it is a prize worth winning. Assessing the market is important, so here are elements you should include:

  • Segments – define based on behavioral or needs based on segments
  • Market size – opportunity size, number of potential customers
  • Competitors – leaders in the space, the concentration of competitive strength

Having a clear understanding of the market today and where it is going in the future will help you understand your position as you build out your strategy.

Section 2 – Identify your unique value

Every company brings something different to the table when solving a problem. Understanding and using those strategic assets is what makes your approach unique. For larger companies, it could be scale, organic behavior, or industry relationships. For startups, it may be nimbleness or focus.

Think about some companies and what they bring to a new business:

  • Amazon AWS: Computation capabilities at scale
  • Apple iPhone: Human-centric design
  • Facebook Marketplace: Buy & Sell Groups and profile selling
  • PayPal Merchant Services: Fraud and risk management for small sellers
  • Uber Eats: Millions of drivers on the road with an installed base of consumers

Identify your unique assets and how they can give you the “right to win” a specific space. Understanding the best way to leverage these assets helps you build out a credible plan.

Section 3 – Outline how you will execute

I once worked in strategic consulting. We wrote detailed strategies to help companies win a specific market. But more often than not, we left the engagements knowing the companies could not execute against them. Even if they had the advantage they often lacked the ability to build what we defined.

This is the unsexy truth. Strategy is easy, execution is hard. Many companies have similar strategies, but what separates those who win from those who don’t is execution.

I worked at eBay over a decade ago and at a reunion dinner, we joked that back then, we were all newly minted MBAs at a tech company run by MBAs. The problem was that we spent a lot of time talking about the strategy, but the strategy is only as good as your ability to actually make it happen. I knew it was time to leave when we had just completed a two-year investment in a new checkout system, and we were road-mapping yet another rewrite. When I realized this next project would take nearly three years to build, I decided to leave. I joined Facebook, and in those same three years, I built two different billion-dollar businesses.

A strong roadmap is clear — and not just over the short term but the long term. Two-year roadmaps are not four six-month roadmaps attached to one another. Be clear where you want to be in two years, and then break it down into workable units. Know what you are learning in each six-month phase which will inform the next six months. You should be able to connect the dots between what you do today and where you want to be in two years and then five.

Define success: What does winning look like?

If you are successful, what does your product look like in two years and then five years? Confirm it is achievable and a prize worth winning. Understand what will change in the macro conditions if you do win. Define success as something measurable so that you continuously monitor if you are on your way there.

Identify risks: What are the pitfalls?

In any execution there are risks. Having a clear risk and pre-mortem for your strategy ensures people know you thought through the potential downsides and have plans to mitigate them. Confidence is built through assessment and clear thinking in the face of adversity, not by hiding from potential headwinds.

What a Great Product Strategy Looks Like

When you read a clear product strategy all of the pieces come together like a symphony. From the first notes to the last words the strategy feels complete and actionable.

Here are the four O’s of what I look for in product strategies from my teams:

  1. Opinionated: A point of view about why this strategy is unique is important. Choosing a perspective and an audience to start with is hard, but it also defines the first phase of learning. A strong strategy makes hard calls and clearly explains them.
  2. Objective: Clearly outlining opportunity and risks in equal measure is important. Often we want to sell the upside case, but understanding and outlining the risks builds confidence and ensures that you’ve thought about mitigation.
  3. Operable: A product strategy needs to be doable without expecting lightning in a bottle. The perfect strategy that is not executable is no better than having no strategy at all. I have seen strategies that assume a series of favorable events to line up so that there is little to no chance of success.
  4. Obvious: The last test of a great strategy is how you feel after reading it. I recently shared a new strategy with my team which took me months of selling to get executive alignment. One of the first questions I was asked by an engineer was, “This is so obvious. Why didn’t we do this years ago?” The right strategy at the right time will often feel obvious, and if it doesn’t you should ask why the organization or the world was not yet ready for it and what it would take to prepare them.

A product strategy is a living document that is written at a moment in time but evolves as you build. It is your north star and your compass all in one. Having clarity of thought at the outset ensures you are leading in the right direction.

This article was originally posted on Substack. Subscribe to Deb Liu’s Perspectives here

Six Steps to Superior Product Prototyping: Lessons from an Apple and Oculus Engineer

When Caitlin Kalinowski joined Oculus as the head of product design engineering in 2014, her team was sweating on a challenge: design the controllers that would be paired with the hotly anticipated Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. At the time, VR was largely uncharted territory, with little precedence for what the hardware should look or feel like. Working with designers led by Oculus’s industrial design head Peter Bristol, Kalinowski’s team began to weigh various factors that would determine how the product would ultimately feel. For example, they wanted a broad swath of hand shapes and sizes, from the fifth percentile of females to the 95th percentile of males, to be able to hold the Touch controllers comfortably. Hands had to grip it without interfering with the connection between infrared LEDs and an external sensor. Each new parameter complicated another: the overall weight, the number of buttons, the strap on the controller, the shape and so on.

This is where the magic happened. The team iterated over and over again. Some prototypes were so ugly they were literally a tube of plastic with putty stuck on it. But by the end, they’d created a ring-shaped controller that a user could open and close her hand on in game play, with a sensor on the thumb stick that allowed users to give a thumbs-up. Even more miraculously, they’d iterated enough times that when it came time for the engineering validation test, or EVT, the physical proportions of the controller were nearly perfect. Only a tweak on the diameter of the outer ring was needed.

Kalinowski is a master of the prototyping process, with a deep understanding of where, when and how changes should be slotted in, from the first iteration to the last. It’s made her a highly sought-after engineer in Silicon Valley. Before her work at Oculus, she was the technical lead for Apple’s MacBook Air and Mac Pro. She also led and shipped Facebook’s Bluetooth Beacons, which power location-based prompts for users.

In this exclusive interview, Kalinowski discusses how and why you must define your non-negotiables before starting to build prototypes. She dives deep on specific approaches for squeezing the most iterations and improvements out of the process — the more iterations, the better the product, after all. Kalinowski also lists the warning signs for two of the three bears of this process: prototyping processes that take too long, and also ones that end too quickly. Kalinowski spells out what the just-right scenario looks like and lists the potholes to look out for before you hit the ‘ship’ button. These insights apply to every product development situation, whether you’re in hardware or otherwise. Let’s get started.

Declare Your Non-Negotiables

There is a moment before you start building your product when the deadlines aren’t yet set, the stakeholders are patient and the customers aren’t clamoring. Use this moment to get very clear about which goals you won’t bend or budge on. “Before starting design work, decide what your product absolutely must do before you’ll ship it. New companies are often under a lot of pressure. They don’t always define their non-negotiables clearly at the beginning of the product process. I see this mistake often. Unfortunately, they can get backed into a corner and be forced to ship early without having met those critical benchmarks first,” Kalinowski says. “Choose the product must-haves first. If you do get backed into a corner and you haven’t quite met them, it can be really tempting to ship anyway. Instead, start out with: ‘The product has to do these three things. Nice to have are these next two things. A bonus are these other things.’ As a team, you must agree that if you don’t hit those have-to-haves, you’re not going to ship the product.”

Finding your have-to-haves often means boiling the most critical elements of a product down to one or two key features. In the case of the iPad, the product had to be lightweight enough that customers could hold it up easily. “Apple worked on the iPad for years. Steve Jobs always said it was too heavy. They turned it into the iPhone, worked on that for years, shipped the iPhone, went back to the iPad, worked on that for years and finally shipped the iPad. There probably wouldn’t have even been an iPhone if they hadn’t had that guiding principle for the iPad. They didn’t ship the earlier iPad prototypes because they were too heavy. It was tiring for your hands. It takes a lot a lot of discipline to keep developing until you nail your key features,” Kalinowski says. “Focus on the product and the consumer experience. On the Oculus Rift, if you didn’t experience “presence,” or the feeling that you’re actually in your virtual environment, we weren’t going to ship it. If the Oculus Rift didn’t fit comfortably on a wide set of adult faces, we weren’t going to ship it. Decide at the beginning, what are the goals you must hit in order to deliver those key features? As long as you achieve those product goals, you can have discussions about other matters like secondary features and whether you’ll ship or delay your schedule. Share those must-haves with your entire organization. Get everyone on board with the non-negotiables so you’re moving together towards the same goal.”

It’s the North Star because it points the way. In product development, that’s your one key product feature. Don’t waver from it.

No matter what, always solve for consumer experience. “As a designer and an engineer, I’m constantly trying to think about the customer and how much better or how much worse the product will be depending on the decisions we are making on the product level. That is how you determine your North Star. When I’m thinking about product trade-offs and feature trade-offs, I’m really thinking about the customer. I ask myself, is this change materially going to affect their experience of using this product?” Kalinowski says. “This is why we care so much at Oculus about ergonomics and weight. They affect the software experience and the customer’s sense of presence. If you can wear the device longer, you can stay immersed, play games longer and experience more fluid social VR. The calculus of consumer experience is present in every decision from the fabric we use to how heavy the device is.”

Slide into a Prototyping Plan

Map out your approach to prototyping by determining your point on a speed-caution slider. On one end is caution, and on the other end is speed. Which way you tilt depends on your company, what you’re trying to accomplish, and where you are in your development cycle. “If you’re schedule-driven and trying to beat a competitor to market, slide away from caution. If you’re making a product with a lower volume, you can slide away from caution. For example, making 100,000 of a product versus two million changes your risk tolerance. You cannot recover from problems in the design of a two million unit product the same way you can with hundreds of thousands,” Kalinowski says. “If I’m at Apple developing the MacBook Air, I’m going to be far more cautious about risk because it’s a huge, high volume product. It’s expensive to recover from mistakes. If I’m designing the first VR product, I’m going to use less caution and be more ambitious because my volumes will be manageable enough that I’ll be able to fix problems in flight. I’ll try to move faster. There’s a speed-caution slider and you have to understand where you are in order to master your trade-offs. If I’m making a medical product, my caution slider’s generally all the way to the left, because they typically take much longer to develop and achieve compliance. It boils down to the risks associated with what you’re making and how much development time you’re willing to trade to be faster to market.”

The speed-caution slider

Your management of your team should also shift accordingly. “If you’re super cautious, encourage all assumptions to be checked and double checked. Say to the team, ‘Confront each other.’ Ask, ‘Is this true? Is there enough swell space for the battery? Is this flame rating correct for this part? Are you sure? Have we tested it? Have we sent the part out to a third party and verified it? Three months into the product run, will we re-verify that the manufacturer hasn’t changed the material on us to lower their costs?’” Kalinowski says. “When speed is the top concern, only worry about the most critical issues. In those cases, I give a piece of paper to my people and say, ‘Make a list of all the design issues you are worried about in ranked order.’ Then I rip the page under their first five and hand the top part of the page back to them and say, ‘just focus on those.’’”

The Six-Step Approach to Prototyping

Once you’ve figured out your place on the speed-caution slider, you’re ready to start building prototypes. Your singular goal? To iterate as much as possible before the ship date. Kalinowski spells out her six-step approach to building strong prototypes and how to design a process that fits in as many iteration cycles as possible.

Kalinowski’s recommended approach to prototyping, compared with most typical approaches

First, frontload. Pile on the effort and focus at the beginning of your journey. “My former colleague Doug Field, who was a VP at Apple and now runs engineering at Tesla, had a very useful graph of how to think about design effort. Most people increase their effort and focus as the product develops and they find issues they need to fix or address, peaking at the moment right before you ship. Although this is sometimes unavoidable, this is not what you want to do. Making changes at the end of development is far more difficult, dangerous and costly than in the beginning,” Kalinowski says. “By the EVT [engineering validation test], your goal is to basically be done. Often it’s very difficult to achieve this, but it’s a good goal. If you have to fix major design issues after EVT, you’ll have diminishing returns on your efforts. Ideally, the phases after EVT are a scaling operation in hardware or bug fixes in software. You won’t have much ability to make big changes after this point without causing risk. Focus your effort towards the beginning, where you can squeeze in as many iterations and changes as possible. Go through crazy amounts of work right here. Put the best people on it. Do all of your grinding here.”

The more iterations, the better the product. The fewer iterations, the worse it’ll be. It’s that simple.

Start with what’s hardest. Take one thing at a time with your prototypes, and begin with the gnarliest challenge. “Iterate on the most important, hardest thing first. This seems really simple, but people often don’t actually do it. The best way to look at product development is to say, ‘I want to dedicate the most time to the hardest thing and start to layer in the easier things as I go.’ It’s usually easy to identify the hardest thing. What are you doing that nobody else has done before? This is the thing that you’re not even sure you can do at all. That’s where you want to focus your initial prototyping energy,” Kalinowski. “And momentum isn’t an issue. If you take a typical engineer, show them a problem and say, ‘I don’t know if this is possible,’ they’re usually all in. This principle serves to make sure you’re frontloading the work by putting the hardest, most time-consuming problem first — while also revving up your engineers by giving them a meaty problem to solve.”

Braid in other hard things as you progress. “When you’re prototyping, you don’t need to do everything at once. You just need to prototype the hardest parts of the hardest things. The rest of it can be ugly and unuseful. Then as you iterate, draw in the next hardest thing and the next hardest thing, and integrate those aspects into your prototype — or put them in a separate prototype, then fork them together,” Kalinowski says. “Work forward from the hardest stuff in your prototyping. With Oculus Touch, the team started with a general shape, and once that was close, moved onto details around input, with the electrical innards and sensors split off into a separate set of prototypes. Once we got to far enough along with understanding space constraints, we braided the two prototypes together in our first integration build, proving that everything could fit.”

Make seriously ugly prototypes. No really, your early iterations should be hideous. “You’re focusing on the toughest engineering problems first. You don’t need to worry about how it looks yet. But there’s also a hidden benefit. When something is ugly, people don’t fall in love with it. Especially with influential people inside a company, if you show them something that’s physical and they see it, they will lock on it,” Kalinowski says. “This actually also happens a lot with price point. We have an inside joke at the company, because often, you put a very early estimate for product price on a slide and say, ‘It could be this.’ Then for the next year, everyone’s like, ‘Oh, it’s going to cost this.’ No! Don’t give people anything to anchor to until you’re absolutely ready for it. People do that and it’s detrimental to the process. Add polish when you’re selling something. A strategy for guarding a product’s potential is to keep your prototypes and early ideas ugly longer.”

Let each team own their best-case scenario. When developing Apple’s cylindrical computer, the Mac Pro, Kalinowski had to juggle a multitude of factors. “The industrial design team wanted the device to have a really small diameter. But that meant a small diameter on the heat sink — which was a problem, because we wanted as much heat transfer as we possibly could. When the heat sink was small, more air had to be pulled through to cool the central processing unit (CPU), making it louder. Yet still we needed the computer to be quiet,” Kalinowski says. “The way to solve this problem was to let each team completely own its best-case scenario. There were separate teams inside Apple focused on optimizing for small diameter, focusing on keeping the noise down, worried about the heat transfer — we just let each one own that and drive as hard for their goal as they possibly could. For the thermal team, since this is a high performance machine, we needed the CPU performance as unlocked as possible, and so we let them fight for that. Then the audio team made sure the fan noise didn’t cross a certain threshold. Let everyone work on the best possible outcome for the feature for which they’re responsible, and you’re likely to end up making the best product trade-offs — and that means a better product.”

Smooth the negotiations while merging best-case scenarios. Once each team has come up with their ideal solution, you’ll have to start making tradeoffs — maybe the heat sink has to be tweaked in order to make the computer quieter, for example. “I never go into a meeting where a major decision is going to be made without having pre-baked the outcome. I first do a stakeholder analysis, go to each team, and get my proposal approved by everyone. What I learned at Apple is you really have to go around and explain what you think is right to each team. If you don’t have, for example, buy-in from across the product teams for a product decision, you really aren’t going to get anything out of that meeting. Do a lot of the early upfront negotiation so that meetings are just about finalizing decisions and locking them in,” Kalinowski says. “You also have to understand technical tradeoffs. You can’t just go in to an antenna team and say, ‘We can’t put antennas there. You have to put them here,’ and not understand if that’s not going to work. Do a listening tour and learn from a technical perspective about product tradeoffs. Understand why a team wants something. Form relationships with experts in your team, listen to them, believe them, but also push on them all in different ways at the same time as you’re trying to negotiate for that feature.”

Build ugly prototypes. It’ll keep people from falling in love with ideas that aren’t fully baked.

The Three Bears of Prototyping

While you’re executing the above approach, get familiar with three bears of the prototyping process: you can go for too long, not long enough — but also just right. Below, Kalinowski details the warning signs for the first two and illuminates when you’re on the right track.

Prototyping for too long. You can sense when you’re on the wrong track when iterations start to yield tiny, incremental improvements and aren’t converging towards your goal. “If the results of your first, second, third and fourth tries at a problem land pretty close to each other, and you’re still far from your goal, that means you’ve made the wrong assumptions. You keep making changes but you can’t get there. You’ll no longer be closing on your goal in significant ways every time you iterate. At this point, you’ve got it all wrong. Either change your goal or change your assumptions. Scrap the plan. Back up to the beginning and find a different way to solve that problem,” Kalinowski says.

“Engineering teams will often iterate on one path forever and never hit their goal. It’s hard to go backwards when you’re in a product cycle and you want to ship. If you wait too long, that’s the worst. It’s so expensive that sometimes you can’t even get back to the beginning,” says Kalinowski “For the Mac Pro, we struggled to get the extrusion right. Two components, the heat sink and inner enclosure, were supposed to be made from one piece of aluminum. But it was too hard. We wound up cutting it into two pieces, even though the industrial design team really wanted it to be one. We went so far down the path trying to get it to be one piece, but in the end, it wasn’t working. That’s when Matt Casebolt made the call to stop. It’s because he had that feeling. We weren’t going to get there in time. We all wanted to make the industrial designers happy at Apple, but at a certain point, if you’re not converging, you need to make the call. They made this call. It was the right one.”

How to tell if you’re converging on the right solution in your prototyping process

Prototyping too short a time. Similarly, you can also sense when you haven’t spent long enough iterating. “Your engineers will be too worried. You’ll ask them ‘What do you think? How’s this going to work out?’ They’ll say, ‘I feel really uncomfortable. I don’t know if this is going to work.’ Sometimes, they won’t want to tell you. You have to really ask the right questions, like ‘What do you think we could be doing better?’ They’ll get really uneasy. That’s usually a big warning sign they feel you’re moving too fast. Ask, ‘What are you concerned about? What’s concerning to you right now?’ The answer to that is gold. It’s so valuable,” Kalinowski says. “Just because you’re not hearing about it doesn’t mean everything’s okay. You can encourage people to tell you bad news by improving your response. If you get upset or dismiss them, they won’t tell you anymore. Why would they? Even worse is to have an engineer express a concern directly and your response is, ‘cool, thanks.’ If you don’t do anything, they won’t trust you. You have to be like, ‘Oh. Shit. That’s a problem. What do you think we should do?’ Tell them, ‘Thank you so much, that’s really helpful. Tell me more. I want to fix it.’ And be sure to actually do something about it. It often means connecting people or calling a meeting and making it known that you’ll do everything you can to support your team in fixing the problem. Importantly, this goes double for your vendors.”

Prototyping just the right amount of time. Products are never perfect, but at some point you have to call it. “There are always more iterations we can do and there is always something that engineers are worried about, because it’s their job. Your engineers will never feel like the product’s done. Usually team leaders are okay with shipping with a few minor issues, but engineers will struggle with it. My strategy is to say we’ll get it right in the follow-on product. Let the engineer know that you care. You want to get it right. But this product needs to go out,” Kalinowski says. “They’ll still get to do all this cool engineering. They’ll still get to solve this problem that they’re unhappy about. Every engineer has that feeling of, “Man, I wish I did this differently. This isn’t quite where I want it to be.’ Great. Fix it, but you don’t have to fix it right now in this product. You can fix it in the next product and the next product, and make sure that it’s good forever forward. That helps a lot. Start a list of what you’re not going to fix. That doesn’t mean you’ll never deal with it. Fix it next time. Worst-case scenario, you can roll a fix after ramp, when you’re building up a bunch of product right before the sales date, or iterate off-build.”

If in each iteration you’re making smaller and smaller improvements, that’s a warning sign that you’ve spent too much time on it.

Getting to Blastoff

Under the “just right” scenario, you have to make a call to halt engineering at the right time. That time is most likely sooner rather than later. “Ending your iterations close to the ship date is really dangerous because of all the interdependencies. Be ready to fight for not fixing problems unless they’re non-negotiables. For example, you can decide to change the material a few weeks before the ship date. Then you’ll find out that the material change means the product is no longer waterfast, or it fails drop testing,” Kalinowski says. “You can screw up something else that you don’t even know about. What I see a lot with immature companies is they try to make changes up until the very end and end up causing themselves more problems than they’re solving. Those small changes could bork the whole thing.

Iterate Your Way To Success

Start your prototyping process by pinpointing your North Star. Write down your must-haves and don’t ship until you’ve achieved them. Determine your point on the speed-caution slider, and optimize for the most iterations possible by starting with the hardest, thorniest problems. Frontload your work. Make ugly prototypes and fork in additional features in order of their difficulty to engineer. Watch out for the warning signs of prototyping too long — or prototyping not long enough. Determine your stopping point by evaluating the remaining flaws you still want to address. The later you wait to make changes, the more dangerous your decisions will be. Be willing to fight for not making fixes.

“Look on the desks of your engineers. Are they littered with ugly prototypes? If so, you’re doing something right. Engineers often say they have it in their head how something is going to work. Ask for the parts. Ask to be shown. It often doesn’t work like they think it’s going to work. Push people to get to the prototyping faster. Then there’s convergence. All of your prototypes should allow you to converge, folding in more and more iterations and versions. If they’re not doing that, you might not be asking the right questions about your prototypes,” Kalinowski says. “Finally — and this is critical — prototyping is supposed to be really fun. If it’s not fun, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re over-constraining your engineers and they’re not able to come up with really cool solutions, or they do and you squash them, that’s bad. Free your engineers to come up with things — there should be an grand excess of cool ideas. After you’ve popped the champagne to celebrate your successful ship, you can pick up the next great product from your cutting room floor.”

This article was originally posted on the First Round Review.

You can read more on Caitlin’s blog

Photography by Christophe Wu.

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