Each month at General Catalyst, we host functional leaders from high growth startups across New York for a discussion on a relevant industry theme or challenge.
Our most recent working session, led by former CTO & Digital Product Lead of Birchbox Liz Crawford, centered around structuring product teams and best practices for product management. When Crawford first joined Birchbox, the startup had just 15 employees and thousands of subscribers. During her five years as CTO, Crawford helped scale to a 300-person company with offices in four countries and a million monthly subscribers.
Crawford’s perspective was complemented by Chief Product Officers from Classpass, BarkBox, Oscar Health, Abacus, Squarespace, and more. Hailing from startups ranging from a few to a few hundred employees, from seed to growth stage, and representing both enterprise and consumer businesses, these CPOs shared shortcuts with wide applicability.
1) Institute planning processes across the organization
When starting a new project, dedicate time to outline milestones and stakeholders, and align the team around clearly articulated goals. By frontloading this work, you can anticipate issues that may arise and address them ahead of time.
Here are some of the best practices the group uses in product planning:
- Maintain a problem-driven rather than solution-driven approach to development. Build a “hypothesis roadmap” ahead of each project. “Keeping a broader team aligned around the problem at hand prevents folks from getting wedded to a single approach for solving it and allows for more autonomy,” Sarah Schwarzbeck, Senior Director of Product at Plated, says.
- 1stdibs has adopted Amazon’s famous “press release” approach to product development planning, which involves having developers draft a hypothetical press release or news article covering the product, before writing even a line of code. This backwards approach ensures products are customer-driven rather than PM-driven and encourages developers to articulate the product’s broader impact, Xiaodi Zhang, Chief Product Officer at 1stdibs says.
- “Define a project’s metrics for success in advance. That way, you know when to kill it,” Idan Cohen, CEO & Co-founder of Grow, says. “One of the worst things that can happen to an organization is if you get too committed to something that isn’t working.”
2) Build institutional memory
Documenting and sharing best practices across the organization enables teams to learn from the past, better understand customer behavior and preferences, and avoid repeat mistakes.
While the benefits of routine knowledge sharing may not be immediately realized, these lessons prove a vital resource when scaling from one product to two, onboarding new employees, or when opening a second office.
Here are some of the procedural hacks the group uses for effective knowledge sharing:
- At Classpass, product managers send company-wide updates following every major meeting, recapping key decisions made and highlighting relevant documents. These communications are then pasted into a Google Doc, so the entire process is documented. “If you’re new, you can just click on the ‘customer acquisition’ section and see how we arrived at what we’re doing today,” Justin Chang, Head of Product Management at Classpass, says.
- At Flow, product managers share pre-launch briefs with the entire company and follow up with true, transparent testing results. Whether you work as a back-end engineer or at the front desk, this helps everyone in the company build a comprehensive understanding of their customer and the processes that work best, Andrew Chen, SVP Product Management at Flow, explained.
- Abacus runs Net Promoter Score (NPS) results through a company-wide Slack channel. Posting these results sparks productive side conversations across teams. “The good ones feel really good and the bad ones feel really productive,” Co-founder & Design Lead Ted Power says.
3) Structure your team to own different points of customer experience
When building your product organization, consider aligning teams around different stages of the customer journey. Jeremiah Zinn, Chief Product Officer at BarkBox, divides product into two subteams. The first focuses on getting a customer to their site to subscribe. The second focuses on retaining customers for as long as possible. Zhang’s team at 1stdibs separates product into user acquisition-centric and conversion-centric teams.
Whatever the structure, be sure each team is oriented around relevant KPIs, Crawford emphasized. This way, it’s clear which team drives and owns each metric of success.
4) Team structure isn’t one-size-fits-all
As companies scale, products and goals scale too. The product team’s structure should evolve to reflect these shifting goals. “In the early days, product strategy is driven by urgency. As your business scales, thoughtful product strategy becomes really important, and a bigger part of your job,” Crawford says.
The hiring criteria for product managers often change as your company transitions through various stages, Crawford notes. In the early days, startups rely on managers with versatile skills that can support operations across the organization. As you enter the growth stage, teams become more specialized allowing for strategic hires.
What defines “early” vs “growth” and how can you anticipate this transition?
Jeremiah Zinn of BarkBox suggests an 80-person team is the breaking point where infrastructure becomes essential. “At that point, you no longer have everyone sitting in one scrum asking ‘what’s the most important thing to do next?’,” Zinn says. “When your customer base has scaled and you have a bigger organization suddenly you can and need to focus on more infrastructure-oriented projects like billing, inventory or user authentication”
The “DACI” (Driver, Approver, Contributor, Informed) model to product management helped Classpass successfully navigate this transition, Chang, explained. This taskforce-esque model includes creating groups comprised of at least one representative from each role involved in the project. This group meets regularly throughout the project and is involved in all major decisions from planning to launch. The DACI model increases accountability and ensures all relevant parties are informed throughout the process, Chang said.
5) Don’t underestimate the importance of internal PMs
As companies transition into the growth stage, developing the infrastructure to support high velocity product development is essential.
Having an internal product or platform manager can prove really effective, especially for companies that leverage third party services, Zinn says. This is someone dedicated to building software product to make internal operational workflows more efficient.
Managing internal PMs alongside external PMs requires thought, Crawford highlights, because their projects, goals, skills and concerns are often very different.
6) Don’t build anything… [dramatic pause] yet.
The best advice Zinn has ever received came from one of BarkBox’s earliest advisors, a founder at Urban Outfitters, who said “making their first store perfect almost prevented us from openning a hundred more.”
“The best opportunities are ahead of us,” Zinn says. “We risk missing them if we overbuild what we have now.”