Highlights of INDUSTRY Europe 2018 Product Conference in Dublin

The first INDUSTRY Europe conference took place in Dublin from the 23rd to 24th of April. 2 days of product presentations and a chance to meet 300 product people from all over the world. I was looking forward to listening to inspiring talks from industry greats such as: Bob Moesta, Ryan Singer and Des Traynor.

The venue in Dublin (source: INDUSTRY).

The conference was focused on building world-class software products and split up in three themes: build, launch and scale.

I saw many thought-provoking presentations at INDUSTRY Europe. It is hard to do them all justice. I will share the highlights of the talks I found most interesting.

Special thanks to BESTSELLER E-commerce and Product Camp Amsterdam for making it possible to attend.

Product strategy when scaling a company — Des Traynor

Product strategy seems very vague and abstract. What is product strategy and why does it matter?

Des Traynor (source: INDUSTRY).

When scaling up, your organisation moves from few to many departments. All these departments suddenly need to work together. Without a clear product strategy, each department will follow their own strategy. As a consequence, each department will march to the beat of their own drum.

To ensure alignment of different departments and teams, you need to have a clear product strategy. Des Traynor phrases this as follows:

“Build what you sell and sell what you build.”

If you worked at a SaaS company, you probably have seen this go wrong many times before. The sales person promises an amazing feature to close a deal. The product team gets angry as it does not fit in with their strategy.

Or the opposite happens. The sales team sees new features being released that do not help close deals. The sales people start to question the decisions and priority of what the product team is working on.

There needs to be an overall product strategy across all departments. Otherwise the strategy differences across departments will add up to big problems as you grow. The more parts that need to work together, the more important alignment becomes.

When people come to Traynor to make decisions about the product, this may be a signal the product strategy is not clear enough. If the product strategy is clear, people should be able to make a decision about the product without needing you. As Traynor summarizes:

“Every decision you have to make, highlights a missing principle.”

Communicating just a decision is not enough. You should communicate the reasoning behind the decision. This reasoning might help to make other decisions as well. By explaining the principle powering the decision you distribute knowledge and make decision-making scalable.

Building products that people love, want and need — Giacomo ‘Peldi’ Guilizzoni

Peldi is the founder of Balsamiq, a popular wire-framing tool. He is an engineer who moved to product. Balsamiq helps people to express their ideas without needing a designer. What really stood out was Peldi’s unique philosophy towards building a product.

Giacomo ‘Peldi’ Guilizzoni (source: INDUSTRY).

Most companies spend a lot of time on analyzing the competition and making decisions based on what the rest is doing. Peldi expressed the following opinion on analyzing your competitors:

“I spend zero time on competition. It’s a loser mentality. Is the best you can do copy someone else? I believe you can do better than that.”

When Balsamiq started, Peldi was upset about people cloning their features. He became less angry once he realized that their best was ‘’to copy’ and his best was ‘to innovate’. You will find many unique features in Balsamiq that separate Balsamiq from the competition.

A concrete example is the help menu in Balsamiq. Imagine you are working till late at night on a mock-up. You are tired and still need to eat. You do not know what to make for dinner. Hidden in the help menu is a ‘What should I make for dinner’ option. It contains YouTube videos how to make certain dishes created by the head chef of Balsamiq.

Will a feature such as this be the reason somebody purchases Balsamiq? Probably not. Will it be one of the reasons he will talk about the tool with other people? Probably yes.

Balsamiq follows a human approach towards building products. Balsamiq does not have a sales funnel. The aim is not to grow, but to build a product users love.

Peldi loves how in Italy you can find restaurants and stores that have been passed on from generation to generation. He favors longevity over growth. Peldi expressed his allergy to tracking numbers and focusing only on growth as follows:

“Balsamiq tracks nothing. We do not use metrics, we make friends. After spending an hour with a customer, you made a friend. You can’t make friends with analytics.”

Balsamiq does not use data, apart from talking to customers. The product should connect to customers as a human and evoke positive feelings. Analytics cannot replace talking to customers. The better you understand your customer, the easier everything else gets.

How we work at Basecamp — Ryan Singer

Ryan Singer showed some of the specific tools and practices Basecamp uses to ship their products. Ryan Singer focused on two important topics that matter when shipping products or delivering projects:

  • Breaking up work. How do you break up work in smaller chunks that can be picked up?
  • Tracking uncertainty over time. How do you track the uncertainty that influences the timelines of your project?
Ryan Singer (source: INDUSTRY).

Before starting on a project, it is important to have an overall (rough) plan. Ryan Singer drew a parallel to having a big piece of meat you need to cut in different pieces. The meat represents the overall project.

Start with the big piece of meat and then identify the different cuts you need to make. When making a cut, you need to respect the bone structure of the meat. By identifying the cuts you need to make, you can make an overall plan.

Some parts of the meat are interconnected, but many are independent. Each different cut of the meat can be seen as a separate project with their own scope. By treating each cut as a different scope with a separate priority it may turn out that some cuts are unnecessary or have a very low priority.

Another very helpful tool Singer walked us through was the Hill chart. Unknowns can appear and block your whole project. These unknowns may create more bottlenecks down the line than tasks that not have been completed. The Hill chart helps making uncertainty caused by unknowns visible.

Work is like a hill with two sides. There is an uphill side where you are still figuring out what you need to do and how to do it. After you reach the top, it becomes clear what to do and how. Downhill you are in control because the unknowns turned into knowns.

Hill Chart explanation (source: Ryan Singer).

By visualizing the outstanding work in terms of uncertainty, you get a clear indication of how much still is unknown in your project. You can use uncertainty to prioritize work. The more uncertain a piece of work is, the earlier you should start to minimize the uncertainty so you have more control over the project.

Visualizing different work items on a Hill chart (source: Ryan Singer).

In the example above, you can see a lot of work is close to being finished. The traditional ‘flow efficiency’ approach is that you should focus on finishing the stuff that is close to being finished. If you take into account uncertainty, it may make more sense to spend time on an uncertain work item. This way you can reduce the effect of unknowns that affect the overall delivery of your project.

Key takeaways from highlights of INDUSTRY Europe

  • Product strategy is an essential ingredient for scaling up. Without a clear product strategy, everybody will pulling in a different direction. The more rowers in your boat, the more important it becomes all strokes to be aligned to move in the right direction.
  • Do not just communicate decisions, communicate the reasoning behind those decisions. Make your decision-making scalable.
  • Even though we are in the era of analytics and data, it still pays off to be human. You can’t make friends with metrics. You can make a friend by talking to a customer.
  • Make the uncertainty of work items visible using Hill charts. Reduce the impact of unknowns by prioritizing these over work that is clear and more certain.

Further reading