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

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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This is not much of a strongly held belief, but I definitely had to realize that I need to be patient with new people joining the company. It is easy to get frustrated by how long it takes to onboard new people, and it is easy to forget that I have spent now 7 years thinking about product management and learning everything about it. I am not smarter than others on our team, I just have spend much more time in the space and so as a result I have a naturally deeper contest. The advice I would give myself earlier on is to spend more time transferring what I’ve learned about the market to others. Actually I should be doing more of it even now. Thank you for reminding me!

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Steve was (and is!) awesome, you are right that lean startup (or Steve’s Customer Development process) is focused on the early stages of a venture. Which btw is the gap I saw when starting Productboard and what we then captured in the Product Excellence framework - What I learned from Steve is the customer-centricity, the maniacal focus on customers and their needs, and then I added to it the aspects of longer-term vision and importance of a clear product strategy that gets you to the vision. The framework of 1. Vision 2. Strategy 3. Execution with the three key entities cutting across (1. Customer 2. Need 3. Product) works regardless of the stage of your product and you need to be very systematic about it. Which btw doesn’t mean that following a specific process will turn you into Steve Jobs, you still need to have the empathy and be obsessed by observing the world, but it does lower the risk of building something nobody needs.

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Collectively, these responses aren’t just great urgings to acknowledge the complex nature of customer needs but they also offer accessible models to think through those complexities. Can’t wait to read the book you’re working on (and more interplanetary analogies :rocket: :)).

Thanks so much for doing this, Hubert! :slightly_smiling_face: And thanks to all the Relay founders who could make it with an excellent set of inquiries. :raised_hands:

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Thank you for having me, Akash, awesome questions and community, I’ve learned a lot here myself!

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Thank you Hubert – the grey hair doesn’t show, honest! It’s clearly been an amazing journey so far, thank you for sharing and we look forward to seeing the platform continue to get stronger!

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