Case study on applying Lean — From Netflix, to Nextdoor, and now theBoardlist

This is part three (part one here and part two here) of a three-part series with Lesley Grossblatt, VP of Product and Business Operations at Boardlist. We chatted with Lesley about using Lean methodology in her current role at theBoardlist. You can listen to the entire conversation on the What I Know Best podcast. Be sure to subscribe and learn from other experts across the Quibb network in coming weeks.

After working in product management for close to twenty years at companies like Intuit, Netflix, and Nextdoor, Lesley Grossblatt recently went back to her roots to work at a small startup. She’s the VP of Product and Business Operations at theBoardlist, a curated marketplace for the discovery of highly endorsed women for private and public tech company boards. It’s very different from her previous roles and companies, in that it has a big, ambitious, socially driven mission, one that would overwhelm many people. However Lesley is the perfect person to tackle such a complex problem, as in her words “I would say my super power, if there is one, is really about going from insight to reality in a very efficient and fast way.” We chatted with Lesley to understand exactly how she’s applied this ‘superpower’ to work on theBoardlist’s product, and how she’s angling to achieve product market fit as soon as possible.

The first step to product market fit

Lesley is a seasoned product person, able to “get from an insight about people and what they want and what they need and getting to an offering that’s real, whether that’s a product or service, in a very fast, scrappy way.” It’s a compelling and useful skill in the startup world. And one that a lot of people struggle with. It’s tough to choose which first step to take, and to push yourself to be scrappy. Lesley has been firm in her approach to working on theBoardlist’s early product, making sure to focus on the right things at the right time. She knows they need to use their limited time and resources in the ways that will have the most impact on their mission.

“The challenge is to really have focus because again, at the end of the day we only have so much time and so many more resources to get anything accomplished, so what are we going to do? How are we going to spend that? How am I going to allocate my time and resources?”

As a self-taught product manager, Lesley has always attacked her goals from a place of pragmatism. Her approach is to figure out your goal and work backward from there, one step at a time.

“The best way that works for me, and I think is very consistent with Lean Startup principles, is to really start from a place of understanding what is the big picture. What are we trying to accomplish here as an organization? Our big picture goal is getting more women represented on private and public tech company boards. Okay, so that’s a really big goal. I could either just stop there and be spinning my wheels working on 300 different things that could theoretically get me closer to that, or we take the next step of saying, ‘Okay, well let’s break that down.’”

Getting to first principles by getting your hands dirty

Lesley waked through how she thinks about the 2-sided marketplace that is theBoardlist, and how the core needs of their users drive her early process. The first step is to make sure they have the demand in place — people who are looking for a woman to sit on their private company board. Simple enough. From there, it follows that those people need to be able to find quality information about possible candidates. Again, fairly straightforward. With this core understanding of the problem, many people would just build out a product that allows these two groups to reach each other. Lesley has purposefully not done this, as she thinks it’s important to resist that urge. Before investing time and money in building out more tech, you need to understand how people are using the product, and that requires manual work.

“If I come at it from trying to figure out what product I’m going to build first without really understanding the way that people search, and what they’re looking for, and how hard it is to match people up, then I’m going to probably build the wrong product. That’s where Lean becomes really important. You don’t invest too early on or too heavily before you really know what you need to build. It’s thinking about product in the sense that, the greatest thing technology can do is make things that you’re already doing faster, and easier, and better.”

Now, as Lesley is just getting started building out theBoardlist it’s a lot of time spent talking to users. She’s working to understand how they searching, what criteria they’re looking for, which variables matter.

At one point, she noticed that people were starting a search but weren’t adding candidates to their list. So she set out to understand why. Are they not at that point yet? Do they not know how to use the product? Is the product unclear?

“These are the kinds of things I spend my time on, from a really nuts and bolts perspective, I’m deep in the product making the machine work, just me, but as I do it I learn so much.”

While doing so much manual work might seem like a waste of time to some, in the end you save so much time and energy because you aren’t building things that aren’t used. You aren’t moving forward until you truly understand what you need to build, and why. In short, you’re focused and working strategically.

When you’re not your audience

theBoardlist is not a simple product, where people know that they need what the product is offering. Oftentimes, they are asking people to make a really big change — to go outside of their normal process for hiring board candidates, and use an unknown platform instead. Therefore it’s crucial to get buy-in from the people who typically run that process, so that they can convince them to shift their current process to one that includes using theBoardlist. What’s interesting and challenging is that most of the people who are going to make that decision are men.

“The fascinating thing about the Boardlist is a lot of our challenge is: how do we talk to men, and what’s going to resonate with them to get them to change their behavior? The nice thing is there’s plenty of men who we don’t need to to convince to change their behavior. We just need to tell them we exist, and they will come, because they already believe in it.Then there’s a lot of people, if we’re going to really have impact that we want to have, we’re going to have to change people’s minds. That’s going to be about us focusing our messaging on why it’s important to have diversity of experience and insight on your board. Why is it important? Why is it important to look at women candidates?”

It’s not easy to change people’s minds, especially when it comes to huge issues like diversity. So theBoardlist goes back to the basics: The pain point. What pain do these decision makers have they can help with?

“The pain is going to be: ‘Hey, you’re leaving money on the table. You’re leaving performance on the table. If the candidates you’re looking at are only men, you’re missing half the population of awesome people.’ That needs to be the focus of trying to get that group of people to change their behavior.”

theBoardlist has an ambitious task ahead of them: Getting more women to sit on boards. But when approaching their goal with clarity and sticking to the basics of product development such as pain point, customer, solution, message — they are able to put one foot in front of the other, making small steps towards a great big goal, and having an impact on the world along the way.