The Most Important Job in Technology

Courtesy of “Oaky the Truffle Pig”

The most important job at a technology startup is one that you probably haven’t heard of: the “Product Picker.”

To illustrate, imagine you are an investor and a company with two co-founders walks into your office to pitch you on their new startup.

The technical co-founder is a wizard. She has been building apps since grade school, has godlike status on Github, and can do anything from high-level architecture to hands-on coding. She is a strong leader and has a team of engineers who can’t wait to join her at this new company once the funding round is closed.

The business c0-founder is a charismatic leader straight out of central casting. He is a clear and confident communicator, can pitch like Steve Jobs, and the people who have worked for him admire him. You know he’ll be able to sell the company to customers, recruits, and investors.

The company gets multiple term sheets. You invest.

At first, their monthly investor updates are bubbly: they assemble a great team, they add features to their product like crazy, and their calendar is full of customer meetings.

Then gradually the updates take a turn for the worse. Customer meetings don’t turn into second meetings. Deals get delayed. Competitors enter the market and confuse buyers.

The dogs are not eating the dog food.

Eighteen months later, with no deals closed, the company gets absorbed by a competitor who just wants to get their hands on the engineering team.

What went wrong? After all, a startup needs people who can build products and sell products, and this team had those bases covered.

But, there is a third skillset this team didn’t have: picking the right product to work on in the first place.

Think about what constitutes a great product:

  • A clearly defined user who has a problem you can solve.
  • An innovative, beautifully-designed solution that solves that problem.
  • A business model that allows you to reach customers and close deals profitably.
  • Clear differentiation from the inevitable competition any good market attracts.
  • Enough customers who will pay enough to make this a large market.

This is, of course, product/market fit.

A product can have great engineering, great design, and be sold by a powerful sales and marketing team but still not achieve product/market fit if the founding team either didn’t pick a problem worth solving or built the wrong product for the problem.

Companies that find product/market fit in a large market are rare. Andy Rachleff of Benchmark Capital has stated that every year only about 15 technology companies are founded that eventually achieve a $100 million revenue run rate. A quick scan of IPO filings in a typical year seem to bear this out.

When I was an Entrepreneur in Residence at Benchmark, I often heard Andy and the other partners use the term “Product Picker” when debriefing after a pitch. It was their way of asking if the team had strong product instincts and who the product leader on the team was.

Companies don’t succeed if they don’t have one or more early team members who can “product pick.” But where do these “product pickers” come from?

Not all technical founders are product pickers, but some are, with Bill Gates as an obvious example. Bill is certainly a technical genius, but the world is full of technical geniuses who never find a product worth working on. Bill’s first epic product pick, MS-DOS, wasn’t even a product that Bill and his team developed: they licensed it from Seattle Computer Products. An attribute of great product pickers is that they care more about getting the product to the customer than they do about who developed it, even if they need to swallow their pride and partner or acquire to do it. Mark Zuckerberg is another example of an engineer-turned-product picker who has built (Facebook), acquired (Instagram, WhatsApp), and even “borrowed” (Instagram Stories) a compelling series of products.

Some product pickers come from a design background, such as Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky from Airbnb, Evan Sharp from Pinterest, or SnapChat’s Evan Spiegel. Some come from product management backgrounds, like Josh McFarland at TellApart or Pete Koomen and Dan Siroker at Optimizely. These jobs require you think about customers, not technology, so form a good foundation for product picking.

Sometimes a startup’s product picking capacity comes from an amalgamation of different talents of the founding team, for example, Twitter, where each of Noah Glass, Jack Dorsey, Ev Williams, and Biz Stone made contributions to developing and promoting Twitter the first few years. Twitter is often used as an example of the role of luck and pivots in product picking — the team was willing to quit a product that wasn’t working and throw out something new to see if it stuck. It did.

And some product pickers come out of nowhere. In 1976, few would have looked at Steve Jobs’ resume, with little formal education or industry experience, and predicted he’d become perhaps the best product picker of all time. For years, many serious engineers were driven crazy by Jobs’ success, portraying him as a slick salesman coasting off of the prodigious technical talent of co-founder Steve Wozniak. Today hardly anyone would argue that Woz would have invented an iPhone, iPad, iTunes, or Pixar, where Jobs was present at the birth of all of these landmark products.

But putting out a job posting recruiting a “product picker” is unlikely to yield your startup the next Steve Jobs. So what can you do to make sure your team picks the right product?

  • Take product picking seriously. Assume that it is hard and is unlikely to happen without lots of focus and trial and error. Avoid falling into the trap of believing that once you’ve done the heavy lifting to build an engineering team, product success is just a matter of turning your vision into code. Most startups are working on products that no one wants, so remain paranoid that you are until you have contrary evidence.
  • Have a methodology for product picking — Steve Blank’s Customer Development methodology and Eric Ries’ thinking on Lean Startup are good starting points to help you understand what your assumptions and risks are and what you can do to validate them. This doesn’t guarantee you’ll succeed, but if you get something in front of customers early and often and ask lot of questions, you may at least avoid some dead ends.
  • Keep your finger on the pulse. Become an aficionado of great products by keeping up with the latest and greatest apps being launched (Product Hunt is a good place to start). Don’t just look at your competitors — look at what is happening with product in other markets for inspiration — for example looking at the features and designs of the best consumer apps and bringing them to B2B software is a reliable startup play.
  • Decide how product decisions are made at your company. Decide who on the team will make the final call on product picking decisions and how everyone else will have input into those decisions. You want lots of discussion and debate, but avoid an expectation that you will always reach consensus. Someone needs to choose.
  • Include a designer on your founding team. While it is still possible to build a beautiful and usable product that fails because it doesn’t solve a large customer problem, including a great designer on your team makes that less likely since that designer will focus on understanding user problems and validating solutions. This tends to pull the entire team along to making better product decisions.
  • Work on problems you are passionate about and understand. The best products usually come from “organic” startups where the product is a natural outgrowth of problems the founding team was uniquely qualified to understand (“founder/market fit”). Startups born outside of Silicon Valley, like the ones I meet at my work as an advisor at Point Nine Capital, usually are organic since all but the most dedicated founding teams are winnowed out in locales where seed capital is scarce. Few great products have been built by a founding team brainstorming product ideas on a whiteboard, which can result in what Paul Graham calls “Sitcom product ideas.” This is also why startup from serial entrepreneurs who have a long track record working in a market (like my company, Gladly), have a higher-than-average success rate.

Thousands of startups are born every year, and only a few build compelling products for large markets. Most of the failed teams had the technical chops to build the product, but most never find a problem worth sinking their teeth into in the first place or don’t solve it well enough to grab buyers.

Make sure this doesn’t happen to you: make product picking a core part of your DNA from day one.