I'm Hubert Palan, Co-founder and CEO of Productboard. AMA! 👋

I’m Hubert Palan, Founder and CEO of Productboard. AMA!

Hi everyone!
I’m Hubert Palan, Founder and CEO of Productboard, a customer-centric product management platform that helps teams get the right products to market faster. Over 4,700 companies including Zendesk, Zoom, Quicken Loans, and Disney use Productboard to understand what users need, prioritize what to build next, and rally everyone around their roadmap. We are approaching 300 people and have raised $137M from Tiger, Sequoia, Kleiner, Bessemer, Index, and Credo. We are growing at a rapid pace.

Originally from Prague, I got my start in management consulting and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to get my MBA at UC Berkeley. There I met Steve Blank, the father of Lean Startup, who inspired me to build products with a customer-first mindset. I followed that thinking throughout my career, and as I experienced a lot of the pain points product managers face, I realized there really wasn’t a centralized system for product managers, which is what prompted me to start Productboard.

I’m excited to chat about all things

  • product management and the need for strategic product alignment
  • remote vs in-person work (and why you need to spend time in person)
  • importance of customer feedback and input
  • building a strong culture at a diverse, global company
  • defining and dominating a new market category
  • fundraising, scaling, hiring, and more!

I’ll be back on September 9th at 12pm PT to answer your questions — looking forward to it! :rocket:

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Note: This AMA is closed for new questions, but you can check out the existing conversations below.

This September 9th, we’re really looking forward to hosting Productboard’s co-founder and CEO, Hubert Palan. Having closely observed the intertwining of the tech and business worlds as an engineer turned consultant, Hubert first marshalled his unique grasp to master product management. And then scaled up the canvas to co-found Productboard, a system of record for that very discipline. Across his work, Hubert has continued to meditate on the collaborative cultures and systems that shape better product thought and, by extension, better products.

AMA Index (Hubert’s brain-pickings) :brain:

( Hard-won insights, opinions, and observations; thoughtfully examined and articulated )

The non-obvious dimensions to tease apart when assessing customer segments
“…pricing can always be improved.”
Notes on Productboard’s evolving tech stack
On choosing the venture capital path; “I also really believe that having a boss is a good thing and while it creates stress it also drives focus and productivity and so I searched for the best bosses (VCs) I could”
How to sort through the complex tangle of segments, personas, ecosystems, and most critically, user behaviours
Want to build an all-in-one, SaaS? Deeply grasp the “closeness” of workflows
Balancing the the IFs of PLG vs enterprise; “you don’t want to go upmarket too fast”
Two resources that have informed Hubert’s thinking on category creation
On the passage of Productboard’s sales motion
On recognizing the founder’s curse of knowledge
Furthering Steve Blank’s thinking on customer-centricity with the Product Excellence framework

Further reading/listening/pondering from the interwebz :open_book:/:headphones:

(Other insightful excerpts drawn from blog posts, interviews, and conversations)

On the perils of merely stumbling upon product-market fit:

The strategic aspect needs to be there. If you just go and you stumble into it [product-market fit] by accident because you saw something or you tried something. And you don’t really have a system in place that allows you to consistently go forward and validate and test and iterate, in a smart, strategic way, you’re in trouble.

Because what happens when you get to product-market fit is that the market at that point starts pulling you in all these different directions…

People start asking you, ‘oh, can you do more use cases, kind of more broader.’ And other people who’re not really the persona that the product is for, see it and they like some aspect of the product and say, ‘oh, this is great, I know this is a sales tool, but I can also use it for marketing.’

Or for us, with product management, ‘oh, this looks great, I would also like to use it for my personal task management. Because you guys have this flexible hierarchy and I can put in a mind map.’

So, if you don’t have the muscle of thinking strategically and systematically about it, the risk is that you will start responding to all these asks. ‘This is great, the market will pull us where we need to be.’

But without a strong strategic lens, you’re in trouble…

If you’re not focussed on the ideal customer segment, you hopefully should have defined, then you’ll…be throwing random stuff into the product, the product starts bloating, and you slow down.

I would argue that this is the biggest challenge for most companies…

[Product-market fit] is typically just a sliver of, if you want to build a big company, the initial PMF is just a small subset of the company that you’re going to build. It’s a small, small segment. And it’s a small set of needs that you’re satisfying. But how do you go from there?

Source: 20VC | 2021

On why founder insight is a tad overrated:

It’s important to have an insight. If you don’t have an insight, you cannot uncover something new in the market opportunity and then you don’t have a business.

While you may have the early insight, you don’t know whether it’s going to be the foundation of the large, big company that you will scale.

And so to me, it’s much more about the flexibility of the founder and not holding these insights too strongly. And there’s many people who’re very stubborn, who hold their opinion super strongly…

The second thing I would like to highlight is that it isn’t just the founder. The people I named, there’s the teams around them. From what I see, the best product teams… are those that have figured out how to share the insights. How to unblock the communication lines between people.

So it’s not like, ‘as a founder, I know what to do. There’s a directive. And I’m like a general telling the teams, you go here, you go here.’

It’s much more around: ‘here’s the model, here’s the structure, here’s a segment of the market and the personas. Here are the needs. Here are competitive alternatives. How can we all get together and figure out what is a superior solution?’

And it requires much more collaborative thinking. So that’s where I say, the founder insight is there but it’s a very small part of the whole story.

Source: 20VC | 2021

On what Newtonian physics can tell us about product strategy:

Now we have two products, Slack in the messaging space and Asana in the task management space. And if you think of them as planets, Slack would be a bigger planet and Asana would be a bit smaller planet because the product value [importance x frequency of usage] is like the mass of the planet.

And if you think about the broader space that they operate in, it’s Internal Collaboration. In it, there’s Slack, there’s Asana for task management, maybe there’s Trello, there could be calendar systems. All the use cases that are relatively close to each other when it comes to how people collaborate….

I find it useful to think about this way because just like planets, if you have two gigantic use cases, it depends on how close they are two each other. And the closer they are, the more they interact with each other. And the more they influence each other.

Again, to give you an example…me as a worker in the modern era, I’m spending my time and I’m sending messages to Slack and then here and there I jump to the other planet of Asana and I make a note that, ‘this is my task.’Then I go back and chat again. Then I go back and forth and so on…

Imagine that you’re a PM at Slack and you’re thinking about, ‘should we introduce task management as a feature for Slack. So now, we have a messaging use case and Asana is doing that other thing, should we do it strategically or should we stick to what we have?’

Am I risking losing people to Asana if they introduce messaging? Or vice versa. And now what position am I in?

When you’re thinking about this and the jobs-to-be-done and needs, make sure to identify this system that you’re playing with and make sure that you understand what are the other planets circulating your little planet of use cases and make sure that you don’t spread yourself too thin.

I argue that if I’m a product manager at Asana, I’ll be actually very worried. It seems to me that because of Slack’s use case and the need that Slack satisfies is of bigger and higher gravity, because it’s more important and more valuable.

If Slack starts making strides towards my task management system, the task management needs, if they deliver a really well designed or even a simple way to deliver on task management, because Slack as a messaging use case has higher gravity, it’s much more likely that people are going to abandon Asana and stick with Slack.

Vs the way around, if Asana builds messaging, they’re coming from the worse position comparatively. At the same time, if I’m at Asana, I would want to invest into messaging because in the long term, this is going to be super hard for me to compete, as Slack grows, they add new functionality to it, whether it’s directly or through acquisitions. Or strong integrations.

People will be absorbed by the gravity of the core [Slack] use case of messaging more and more. If I don’t start building my mass and fighting proactively, I’m likely going to lose in the long term.

So if you think about the value of the needs and what you’re protecting, you kind of think of Newtonian physics, you can actually have an informed conversation with the rest of your team.

Source: Empower | 2020

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Hey Hubert,

Thanks for doing this! So glad to have you on Relay.

Loved hearing about the founder-market fit you’ve identified with Productboard.

It’ll be great to hear your thoughts on:

  1. You’ve mentioned somewhere how it’s critical to deliberate on the day one, day two, and day three of approaching customer segments. Can you unpack that a bit with how that has played out at Productboard over the years?
  2. On a related note, what inputs have helped inform the pricing structures, given that Productboard deals with both primary (makers?) and secondary (contributors?) personas?
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Thanks for taking the time, Hubert!

Really liked your systems-thinking approach to startup challenges. As orgs grow, taming complexity becomes a core focus for founding teams.

Now that you are approaching 300 members at Productboard, if you were to look back and review some of the initial systems and routines you had invested in, what are some that have lasted and what are some you’ve outgrown?

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Hi Hubert, thank you so much for offering to do this Q&A! We are huge fans and active customers of ProductBoard here at GoSquared :wave: :partying_face:

I was reading your intro and the thinking around categories being like planetary objects in a wider system. I love the analogy – you’re thinking is so crisp and clear. I love it – you can tell you know your product thinking!

In terms of taking funding and growing to your current size – how deliberate were those decisions? I can see how ProductBoard could have been a lovely bootstrapped, profitable business perhaps with a smaller team, but you chose the VC backed route. I guess there are many pros and also risks to that approach. Would you be able to share what led you to this route? Was it a decision from day one? Or did it come once you felt you had product-market-fit? Or later?

Thank you in advance – reading your intro has already been incredibly valuable!

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Hey there, Hubert! :slight_smile:

Thanks for taking the time. Your thoughts on being deliberate with PMF really resonated with me. It would be really helpful if you could share some of the questions that one should be asking to “systematically and strategically” approach PMF.

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Hi Hubert,

Really looking forward to the AMA! :slight_smile:

Productboard looks like a great example of what many may term “all-in-one SaaS.” Which is to say, each of the core features represents a product category of its own. Was this the case from the beginning or did you start with a more singular focus? And what have been some of the top-level challenges (and benefits) of scaling this bundled, “all-in-one” approach to software?

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Thanks for doing this Hubert!

Would love to learn from your thoughts on how should one think about PLG and a top down sales motion running in parallel and how should an early stage org approach it so that they complement each other instead of going after entirely different user segments.

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Hey Hubert,

Had another one in mind on the category-creation thread.

What’s often emphasised is that for a company to successfully create a category, strong differentiation must be evangelised between the legacy category/ways of doing things and what you’re attempting to bring about (on-prem vs. Salesforce); which, of course, is very different from competing with immediate, alternative products. Definitely one of the trickier balances to strike.

How have you come to handle these two kinds of distinctions (b/w categories and b/w products) when it comes to messaging and GTM, at Productboard? Is there a mental model you’d share with your 2014-self?

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Hi Hubert - I’m a big fan of the work y’all are doing at Productboard. Thank you for taking out the time. :slight_smile:

a. Would love to hear your views around balancing natural product-led adoption in teams vs. a top-down traditional sales and how Productboard manages it across the customer lifecycle (acquisition, adoption, retention).

b. Separately, another question I love to ask founders of high-growth companies like yourself is around changing your beliefs as the company grew rapidly. You mentioned that it is important to not be too stubborn around insights as the product/company scales – what are some of the culture learnings from the rapid headcount growth at Productboard that made you change your strongly held beliefs?

Thank you!

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Hi Krish,

As I am sure we all know the world out there is not a homogeneous place where everyone has the same problems and needs. And while this is obvious on the surface, when it comes to understanding of the customer segmentation within a specific area seems to be quite challenging for many startups.

Teams often jump to building a solution for a customer they know, which is typically themselves, and they struggle to understand how other people out there might differ. Or they make some very simplistic assumptions about the differences based on obvious proxy variables like company size or industry. And then as they start learning deeper about the market they start realizing that the needs of the different customers can vary wildly and they get pulled into zillion different directions trying to satisfy them all. Especially in software this is a big challenge, because there are no constraints - you can literally pack unlimited amount of features into your digital product.

In my mind the very core job of a founder is to understand the structure of the market - the segments/clusters of people who have similar problems/needs that can be satisfied by specific product/functionality.

To give you a more specific example from our market - in the case of product managers, there is a core set of needs that everyone shares - you need to understand 1. customers, 2. their needs and 3. what products or features you are going to deliver. noone argues with that. but then as we learned about the market we saw that the needs differ along not so obvious dimensions like:

  • digital first vs digital transformation company
  • b2b vs b2c
  • complexity of the product portfolio and product organization
  • product management maturity/sophistication and related customer centricity
  • power dynamic at the company - engineering vs sales led
  • etc.

My point is that the sooner your company understands the segmentation the better strategy you are able to formulate and the tighter alignment you can achieve when it comes to how you are going to prioritize the different segments and their needs.

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To this second question, all this understanding was absolutely foundational to our pricing decisions. We are in a new market and so we had to do a lot of research and iterations to understand the value drivers and willingness to pay and optimize our pricing. and it still evolves as we follow our strategy and satisfy needs of the broader product stakeholders, we still have an immense opportunity to capture that value better. As I am sure you guys know very well, pricing is never finished, and like my marketing professor Rashi Glazer at BerkeleyHaas would say, pricing can be always improved :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes:

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Good question. In the early days we’d go for the coolest tools regardless of maturity of the company. That had to change as knowledge of the tools became an important skill to hire for e.g. our early CRM was early pipedrive but then we switched to Salesforce. Started with Pardot and then switched to Marketo. Or we started with support on Intercom and then had to switch to Zendesk for better reporting and routing. For SaaS analytics we used to use ChartMogul, but eventually needed more sophisticated BI and implemented a stack with ETL in Keboola, Snowflake DW, and Looker on top. Design - I started in balsamic, then Keynote, then Sketch, and now Figma.

Some that lasted - Stripe was a good bet as the functionality continued to grow and we were able to iterate our pricing, revenue recognition, etc. on top of it. We’ve been happy on Slack and obviously all our Product collaboration is in Productboard :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes:

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It’s great to learn that you were in a Steve Blank class; someone who has single-handedly influenced and shaped a great deal of founder thought. As the lean startup principles were meant for the highly uncertain, early stages of a startup, I’d be curious to hear how you’ve adapted those principles today when much is settled in terms of direction? In other words, how do you think about sustaining innovation at this stage?

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Hi James, so great to hear you are a fan! Thanks for the compliment on the Product Gravity concept - I really want to work it out into a deeper framework as I find it a super useful analogy.

Re funding - I always had this big vision (which wasn’t fully formed in the early days obviously) that there is a better way to approach Product management - don’t start with features, but put customers at the center and collaborate across the entire company in a much more productive way. And given the nature of this vision I knew that if I want to impact the product world in a meaningful way and win over other competitors that will inevitably enter the space, I need to build a massive company faster than others. The confidence in the opportunity gave me the confidence to raise VC funding, rather than bootstrap. I also really believe that having a boss is a good thing and while it creates stress it also drives focus and productivity and so I searched for the best bosses (VCs) I could to drive me and the company hard. Do I have more great hair because of it? yes. But I really believe we are making a bigger impact because of that and that to me is worth it.

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Hi Akhilesh, take a look at my earlier response to Krish about segmentation. That is the foundation of it. so the key three questions are:

  1. Customers - Who are the people that will become your customers?
  2. Needs - What needs/problems are you going to solve for them?
  3. Products - What products or services are you going to offer to satisfy their needs?

I know it sounds obvious, but segmenting customers and your go-to-market motion, based on the data that you get from clearbit or other data enrichment sources is just a proxy that is likely not the best one. You need to have a much more nuance understanding.

Here is a snippet from my work in progress book on Product Strategy where I use Salesforce as an example:

Salesforce has different types of customer segments that differ on many dimensions. For example:

  • Company size - Very Small businesses, Small Medium Businesses, Mid-market business, and Large Enteprises.
  • Industry
  • Georgraphy
  • etc.

They also likely differ along a less-easy-to-identify set of dimensions like:

  • Willingness to pay
  • Technology adoption
  • Security vigilance
  • etc.

Further though, within each of the companies there are different personas that differ for each of the different markets Salesforce serves. For example just within the Sales/CRM market we can identify distinct personas:

  • Individual Sales Reps
  • Sales Managers
  • CRO/VP Sales/Sales leadership
  • Sales operations
  • Other non-sales users
  • etc.

And to complicate things even further, there are also other personas that might interact with the company and its CRM system:

  • Suppliers
  • Partners
  • Customers
  • etc.

Customers can be described by a combination of descriptive and behavioral characteristics.

Descriptive characteristics are typically demographics that are available externally. Think information on a LinkedIn or Facebook profile of an individual or a company or information available from a marketing data provider like Dun & Bradstreet. For individuals it can be title, location, education, years of experience, family status, income, etc. For a company it can be number of employees, funding, revenue, industry, technology stack, etc.

Behavioral characteristics are a set of behaviors that a specific set of customers exhibit - knowledge of topics, likes and dislikes of specific products, response to a specific product, service, or a promotion, purchasing behavior, etc. They are additional characteristics that can help you identify the right set of customers even more precisely.

You want to understand the characteristics of your customers as closely as possible because you need to be able to target them as precisely as possible. The more you understand who they are the more personalized and targeted your messaging and campaigns can be and the more focused can your product efforts be to make sure that you satisfy really well the needs of your chosen target customer segment.

For example if you were to start a new CRM company that will one day take on Mark Benioff’s Salesforce, you might want to initially focus on a set of sales needs of a narrow target segment where you can be highly differentiated:

  • Individual sales reps (persona),
  • at Small & Medium-sized businesses, in the online retail industry, in the USA (descriptive characteristics),
  • who are technically savvy, but dissatisfied with existing, complex, difficult to use CRM systems like Salesforce (behavioral characteristics).
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Hi Aditi,
To me what matters is the overall workflow and how tight that workflow needs to be. In the ideal world we would have one digital platform for everything so that we wouldn’t have to switch among tools for the individual steps in the workflow. So the way I think about it is how “close” the individual steps/use cases are to each other and how well I can satisfy them within one platform. If they are very close, if there would be a lot of manual work/friction for the user to switch from one tool to another and if we have the resources and skills to build a good enough solution than it is a candidate for us to deliver. It might not be all at once, it all depends on your product strategy. In our case we picked the use cases that are very close to each other in terms of Product Management flow and use cases that share common underlying data model and thus benefit from having the data available between the steps of the flow. Some of the decisions are very hard because it is difficult to understand the details of all of the processes and your ability to deliver good enough solution in advance. But this is the framework I use.

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Oh a great question Gaurav, and a tough one. I feel like I talked to over a hundred sales and marketing execs about this topic in the last few months…

It really depends what is the nature of your market and business and how good your product is for the different audiences - e.g. dropbox vs box, dropbox is much more PLG and layered sales on top, vs box had a lighter PLG and more top-down sales motion.

It really depends on your case - you can have a healthy pure self-service business and help expand the most engaged and fast growing customers with sales, or you can have your Product leading just the initially trial and intercepting with sales early on if your product requires a more complex human touch e.g. due to complex buying process.

I don’t think there is an issue in having a bottoms-up product-led motion and a tops-down sales motion if the needs of these two segments are not wildly different. I know this is a big IF. If they do differ a lot you might need to choose where you will focus, or at least be strategic about timing - you don’t want to go upmarket too fast, especially if there is an incumbent sitting that will win every RFP against you until your product becomes much more competitive. It is different if there is a green field upmarket, then you might be able to expand faster, but again don’t underestimate the effort that comes with enterprise functionality. a much more to talk about here…

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Man good question - I feel like my mental model on the approach here hasn’t really changed, I was exposed early on to the concepts of marketing strategy and read the great work of David Aaker on branding, e.g. his amazing book Brand Relevance and have done work with PlayBigger and Cunningham Collective, but the actual category creation work is very hard especially early on when you have very limited resources and you are just figuring out what your business is. We still have a lot of work ahead of us, but now we also have the funds, and that makes a difference.

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Hi Divyansh,
check out my earlier response here. but to add - in our case we were able to build a singular platform that supports the needs of small and large organizations (and obviously we keep advancing the product experience). We have self-service, light-touch, and heavy sales touch based on what buying experience is right for the customer and similarly, we have low touch self-service customers success resources as well as an enterprise customer success team to help our large customers.

We started bottoms up, then layerd on top a light-touch sales motion and then layered on top a heavier touch sales motion, similar with CS. It was a deliberate process and we let the market pull us up. (but we know we would go upmarket and were intentionally building the foundation for it).

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