How to be a product driven company in NYC

Bo Ren

The current landscape within New York tech is diverse and lively. We are thriving because founders hail from different backgrounds and industries. The types of companies that get built out here simply would never exist in Silicon Valley. NYC tech companies experience leadership from every pillar of the company instead of SV’s singular focus on product/engineering. Our strength comes from the diversity of backgrounds, talents, cultures, and industries. New York wins because it embodies Darwin’s term “hybrid vigor” in startups. However, to truly “win” in tech you need a big exit where a liquidation event happens for investors and the founding team. IPOs like Uber and Facebook are elusive because a consortium of variables have to align — right go-to-market strategy, right product market fit, hockey stick growth curve, and profitable revenue (although questionable these days). Despite the sheer number of startups in Silicon Alley, New York companies still chase the one big exit that got away. The four biggest product-driven companies have failed in their own respective ways in yielding a big exit: Tumblr (acquired by Yahoo and Oath), Foursquare (never IPO’d), Jet (acquired by Walmart), and Fab (RIP). New York desperately needs a big win so it can sit on its own pedestal without the shadow of Silicon Valley.

I arrived in New York in 2016 after six years in SF. My formative 20s were spent at a solar finance startup called Sunrun, energy efficiency Saas startup Opower (acquired by Oracle), fintech startup called SigFig, and Facebook. After being trained at some of Bay Area’s best companies, I wanted to learn to build product in a different way from the Silicon Valley mold. Two and half years later, I’ve made some observations on what differentiates New York tech companies from Bay Area tech companies from a product manager’s perspective.

Companies that are world class and long lasting have one thing in common — strong product thinking — an ability to analyze a problem, develop and test solutions in R&D setting, and make data driven decisions. With product thinking a company can innovate and deliver the right product for their users. Product thinking is a defensible moat for a startup against competitors and market volatility. Unfortunately, New York startups are fast to spin up with great marketing and brand strategy but fail to stay relevant with a lack of product thinking. Early on New York companies hit their growth curve with strong brand positioning and marketing. However, marketing alone can only get you so far in the company life cycle. For sustained growth, New York companies need to rely on product innovation, cultivating “stickiness” within a product to drive quantum leaps in user acquisition and engagement.

What does a NYC startup look like with Silicon Valley product thinking? This hybrid company would be a unicorn with a defensible moat. A company that has the heart and soul of NYC with the disciplined way of SV product thinking will be the big exit NYC awaits.

To build this unicorn startup, we need the following:

  1. New York will win by mixing its diversity and hybrid vigor with the SV rigor of product thinking. New York startups are great at experience design — the end to end user journey of brand, marketing, and storytelling. Good experience design helps get you from 0 to 1 when you’re still a scrappy seed stage startup. However, to scale from 1.0 to 1.1 and expand internationally, New York companies need the experimental rigor and incrementalism of SV product thinking — a more analytical perspective of user behavior. On the spectrum of gut intuition to data, NYC companies stay too long in the zone of gut intuition. Without proper logging, scientific method, and data driven decision-making, NYC companies stagnate at a certain growth stage.
  2. In New York, we need to overcome our skepticism towards data and start building products with the analytical rigor of SV. Even at our worst, NY tech companies will be way more human and empathetic than SV tech companies. A rejection of SV’s growth hacks, data analytics, and experimentation will mean New York companies inevitably lose out to SV companies devoid of the human parts. I’ve seen many designers and brand strategists distrust data which is a troubling limitation to the company’s growth trajectory. After a startup grows to a certain size, you need to lean on the data to point to where the company needs to go directionally instead of following gut intuition or user stories. I highlighted the need to balance both gut and data in a blog post on the art and science behind product development.
  3. While strong in pragmatic business models, New York startups lack the imagination, delight, and whimsy of SV product development. Why? Because there are few true PM roles. Often, in a New York company, a PM role is really a GM role. A PM focuses on a more microscopic level e.g. product feature or product line than a GM. The GM role is a combination of ops and finance owning a PNL of a business unit, oftentimes a product line. When the PM and GM roles are blurred, often there is no one left doing the real PM work, which is oftentimes trying to solve a hard problem through a nonlinear product development process. Instead of tying every product feature to revenue, New York companies can benefit from giving PMs the room to roam, develop products in a non-linear R&D method, and explore green spaces. I never have to worry about a New York company not making money. I worry about them not imagining and innovating enough.

New York tech holds a special place in my heart because it will never be Bay Area tech and that is a good thing. NYC has a different breed of founders who are more diverse and business oriented. I hope that as more people decide to move their companies from SF to NY that we infuse both the soulfulness of New York with the rigor of product thinking in SF. I’m very bullish about NYC tech which is why I left a lucrative path in SF to pursue a more diverse and eclectic path in NYC. I want to see the startups here thrive with more product thinking early on instead of retrofitting product into the company. I’m betting my career on New York’s tech ecosystem producing the biggest exit yet.

If you are a founder or startup looking for consulting or hiring a product leader, please contact me. I love to work with and serve the NYC tech community as a product consultant, advisor, and investor. You can email me at bo.ren.2010@gmail.com or DM me on Twitter @ bosefina.

Cheers to more product driven companies in NYC!

— bo

Bo Ren

Written by

Bo Ren

Serving founders @samsungnext, writer, advisor

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