Rival IQ, six years in — A product team backstory

It’s not very often we get to read a genuinely transparent and insightful conversation about product management mistakes, founder challenges and culture iteration. In this interview with Seth Bridges, Co-founder, Head of Product at Rival IQ, we discussed what it takes to lead a customer-driven product team.

Sofia: Why don’t we start talking about you and a bit about your role at Rival IQ?

Seth: Sure, Rival IQ is a social media analytics company. We focus on competitive analytics and competitive benchmarking, helping people understand the context of their metrics. Not just, ‘I have this many followers’ or ‘I earned this many retweets’, but actually understanding models for success. Competitive analytics, basically.

I’m one of the founders and I run product. I also run marketing as of about six weeks ago — this is my third stint of running marketing here. In some ways, for a company that serves marketers, it’s good to be able to feel their challenges first hand, to have a team that’s working through some of the same challenges.

Sofia: Since starting the company and changing roles as you go, is there anything that’s been successful around making sure the team understands customers? Do people have any processes or habits that help them get closer to customers in general?

Seth: Yeah, I think we do a number of things. From a product perspective I’m always looking to talk to customers. That happens in two ways. First, there are the customers who want to talk to me. Those conversations are no problem to get but I need an introduction so our customer success team works very closely with many of our customers. They use things like beta programmes as a carrot to get people to come and have conversations.

Then there are the conversations that are tough to have but very important for a product person. Like, ‘Hey, you tried my product but you didn’t buy it’ or ‘Can you give me your honest thoughts about our pricing and packaging?’ or ‘Why did or didn’t you pick a particular plan?’. Getting those conversations is the hardest.

Something I’ve found very effective is virtually offering to buy people a cup of coffee. I send them an email in which I offer a $25 Starbucks card in exchange for a 15-minute conversation. It’s been an incredibly effective way to get people on the phone. I have a set of questions prepared but rarely get through them because the first question often leads down a road. I usually follow wherever it goes because good things always come of it.

That’s one way in which I stay close to customers. Obviously, our customer success team stays very close to the customer because they offer support as well as do onboarding, quarterly check-ins and all kinds of other strategic guidance. A lot of feedback flows that way. That’s a place where EnjoyHQ is really useful for us. We’re able to mine a lot of those Intercom conversations to find people to engage with more deeply.

We also have a small inside sales team. Obviously, they spend all their time talking to prospects, not customers, but they’re an incredible source of information. And then, of course, our marketing team does a lot of outreach for case studies or customer co-authored pieces of content. They’re always finding people who are excited to chat. I don’t always have those conversations. A lot of the time, product marketing people will have them, bringing a perspective that doesn’t filter through me. That’s a good thing.

We don’t really have a UX team — it’s basically me, a couple of agency designers and a product manager — so our engineers get involved too through FullStory. They watch a lot of videos. You might think that’s not involved, but you should see some of their notes! Our engineers feel the pain of our customers. Their notes say things like, ‘I was sad for this person who went here and there. I just wanted to send them an email to apologize for the fact that they didn’t find what they needed’.

We recently had some engineers working on our registration process. It’s really long — a lot of clicks, a lot of decision-making, people wasting time when they could be focusing on the product. The engineers who were building it were designing and refining it from watching FullStory videos.

The engineers get really into it, and there’s no better feeling as a founder and as a product leader than to watch your development team, your engineers stepping up into that UX space saying, ‘There are problems here and I’m going to fix them’. That’s incredibly rewarding.

Sofia: Can you tell me a little bit about your process behind defining the product and organization vision?

Seth: I have this fundamental belief that customers can’t tell you what to build. They can talk at length about the challenges they’re having, but it’s our job to listen for the patterns, to distill, and figure out how to do solve the product’s shortcomings.

A good data collection process is useful and having the confidence to say, ‘This is the pattern that I’m seeing’ or ‘We’re not doing that because I think their pain can be solved another way’, that’s key.

To help decision-making, I think it’s important to collect data from our sales team, our customer success team, our marketing team, speaking with customers, surveys, and NPS — and also from the whole industry. It’s important to speak with other influencers and read a lot about social media and analytics. We have to figure out everything that’s going on to add the most value to our customers and to our company.

Inevitably, themes start to build when you’re collecting all this input — and that’s where we start to gain focus. For us, our major themes are things like competitive analytics, workflow, proactive alerting, and integrations. Also, agencies are a large part of our customer base so we have that persona as a theme focus as well. Getting the buckets right is an ongoing process, but working on getting them right helps everything else downstream.

Once you have themes, you can focus on evaluating business priorities against your product work without having to think about every single feature. And, when new ideas come up, you have a place to put them if your theme structure is well defined. Making decisions about features is hard but gets way easier once you’ve created and shared your vision focus themes.

Continuing to reinforce themes is also a great way to get the whole team thinking: ‘Are the things I’m doing aligned to the overall themes we said we’re going to tackle? Because those themes are going to deliver value to the customer.’

Sofia: How do you communicate the focus and thinking behind the vision to the team?

It’s usually a quarterly sync. I produce a handful of slides around the strategy, reaffirming our mission and the product vision that we’re trying to achieve — and our focus themes for the quarter. The more I can communicate where we’re going and why, the easier it is to get the team thinking about every product decision from the same perspective.

For example, our customers are marketers, not data analysts. We’re going to make them the happiest by building features that are less about charts and graphs and more about filtered, translated insights — finding the things that are actually of interest and finding a way to communicate them simply. If everyone on the team understands who we’re helping and why, even the most junior engineer can say, ‘I thought that we were helping our customer find an insight, I don’t think this table/chart/widget I’m working on does that?!’ It’s really beneficial when the team understands the vision because then everyone knows how how the work they’re doing helps the mission.

When it comes to presenting themes and features, I’ve found the best way to present my ideas is a theme-feature wheel (see picture below). In one simple visualization, you can quickly provide guidance on theme priorities along with features in those themes. The idea is that your themes define the slices, and your major feature initiatives go inside the slices. The inner core contains your near-term focus areas. The outer ring provides a place to communicate things that are important, just not the top priority now.

By highlighting your focus themes, you’re helping everyone make a tangible connection between the vision and the work. Of course, you’ll do some work outside of your focus areas from time to time, but if you’ve got a spread of features all the way around the inner circle, you’re doing something wrong. You’re lacking focus.

I think it’s just as important to be clear with your team about what you’re not doing. In fact, it’s probably more important, particularly when it comes to customer success and sales teams, because they can say, ‘Hey, I understand X is really important to you, but we’re not going to be delivering anything in the next nine months’. Sure, you might lose a renewal because of it or you might not land a customer that really needed that thing, but you can’t let yourself be pulled in a million directions.

Sofia: What’s your advice to any product leader, product manager, anybody who’s trying to drive a better organization and focus around customers? Where do they start? What are the things that really matter?

Seth: If I think about what’s been my biggest failing in terms of leading product, and particularly this product, it’s the mistake that everyone says not to make but is hard not to — never assume you’re the customer. Maybe every once in awhile you’re in such a lucky place that you are the embodiment of your target customer, but I think that’s probably a 1% case for all of us.

And it isn’t just product, marketing, sales — anyone who helps craft the customer experience. Do the work to figure out what’s best for the customer. For example, the other day we were looking at website flow for free trials — we’re a free trial driven business — and I was curious about some refinements we’d made to the presentation on our pricing page and how that was affecting conversion rates.

I pulled data for our site on what percentage of people sign up for a trial without looking at the pricing page. It turned out to be almost 90%! I said, ‘But I always look at the pricing page for any service before I sign up for a trial!’ A bunch of other people in the company also guessed that, everyone looks at the pricing page. Remember, you are not the customer. You are not the prospect, and I can come up with some other data points that continually remind you that what you would do is not what the customer is doing.

Another thing I think that product leaders need to invest in is clarity and communication around missing and vision.I think that in the early days of Rival IQ, we didn’t do an amazing job of reinforcing the mission and vision of the product for our internal team. I say this because I’ve had a couple of exit interviews over the last year with people who said, ‘I didn’t always know why I was doing what I was doing’. I think that’s a really bad thing. I think that everyone should know why they’re doing what they’re doing because that helps them become more of an owner in the decision-making process.

The last thing I think product leaders can do to make their companies more successful is to empower others to do product work. I think it’s crucial that people feel enabled to step up and move beyond their supposed role. As a founder or leader, it’s your job to ensure it’s culturally okay for everyone to push on things outside their title and that the team knows where the business is headed.

As an example, I love our engineering team. They’re always thinking about the customer from a very empathetic perspective. In this last year, we were building a feature on Facebook ads analytics. There’s a person on our team who was constantly reading through the marketing API documentation of Facebook, constantly using the native tool. They were saying, ‘Have you seen what they’re doing here? Did you know that X was possible? Having an engineering team that feels empowered to push on why and what we’re building, just as much as how, feels very rewarding.

I’ll wrap it up with one last thing: continually communicate your mission and vision. Supporting and enabling people in your business to feel empowered to make an impact from a product perspective. If people aren’t suggesting improvements, if your own company is not fully engaged with your product, you’re probably not going to be that successful.

If you would like to learn more about how EnjoyHQ can help you put your customer at the centre of your product development process, come and say hello here https://getenjoyhq.com/ 👈