What is “Seeing The Matrix” For A Product Leader?

Scott Belsky
Sep 24 · 7 min read

You know that iconic scene, at the end of The Matrix (the original!), when Neo suddenly “gets it.” He picks bullets out of thin air as if they are cute and curious little things. As the next installment of The Matrix comes out I’ve been thinking, what’s the equivalent of “seeing the matrix” for product leaders? This question prompted me to jot down a few things i’ve observed or learned (and a lot that I am still trying to learn) that I feel very strongly about, but I thought it would be a fun brainstorm: what essential realizations cause product leaders to see every challenge and opportunity differently?

  • That data helps you iterate, but only vision and clearly articulated strategy (and luck on timing) help you leapfrog. Both are important, but neither is sustainable on its own.
  • That an incumbent can only keep winning if they realize they are now an underdog. It is this inflection in perspective that enables a company to continue leading a category rather than be disrupted. It requires incredible self-awareness, humility, and courage to change org models, business models and product object models. These “Re-inventers” are the true “unicorns.”
  • That, as a startup, you should only do half of what you want to do (only half the options, half the tabs, half the offerings, and half the target audience) to compound your chances of true PMF. Most founders I advise and work with are incredibly ambitious and optimistic — two traits that help and hurt when building a product that really nails its core value. The truly experienced product builders are like Bonsai masters, they prune and cut the most beautiful branches to strengthen the trunk.
  • That you should never outsource your story or any component of your competitive advantage. Outsourcing your press efforts to a PR agency robs you of (1) the practice reiterating and polishing your story, (2) the relationships that will serve you throughout your career, and (3) the chance of emotionally engaging journalists that are pitched all day. PR agencies can do blitzes, but you should do the important storytelling yourself. Same goes for any other part of your competitive advantage. For example, if your product is defined by its design, do it in-house.
  • That a prototype is worth a hundred meetings, and almost all product meetings that aren’t grounded with a prototype are a waste of time (or worse). A meeting without a prototype is like a jury deliberation without a court transcript, you’ll start imagining different things and become untethered. A prototype immediately surfaces gaps in logic or business concerns. It is the fastest way to drive alignment. It is hard to argue with an amazing experience, but all too easy to critique ideas and mince words.
  • That consumer (and prosumer) products ultimately succeed because of how people feel about themselves using them. Ego analytics, surprise and delight, and hooks to appeal to our laziness, vanity, and selfishness in the first mile of product experience are the biggest secret in product. Yep, if you can really internalize and apply this, you are seeing the matrix. Most on-boardings and top-of-funnel experiences fall short because products fail to accommodate these natural human tendencies (read more in-depth about crafting the first mile of product experience here). We’re all busy and skeptical of anything new. All products must (at least initially) capitalize on this truth rather than try to defy it.
  • That raising the bar of what your team ships is f*cking hard. It requires culture change, a few cycles of missed deadlines (which may frustrate customers), and career risk to set a NEW BIT for everyone. “Good enough” is extremely seductive for any business that seeks to ship on time, meet customers’ expectations, and manage risk. To raise the bar and ship something extraordinary requires unnatural motions, churn, and near-term disappointment. From what i’ve heard, Apple’s reboot was an iconic example. If you can survive, it is worth it.
  • That perceived performance matters more than actual performance (perception is reality when it comes to UX!), and can be achieved as much by designers than engineers. We often assume that the hard way to solve problems is the “right” or only way. On the contrary, I have seen some web products (like Pinterest in the early days, and Behance too) become much “faster” products because of design tweaks. I have seen many big problems solved at the interface (using design and psychology) rather than through a massive platform re-architecture! Realize: Technology succeeds because of the user’s experience of the technology more than the actual underlying technology itself. (fighting words, I know) 👀
  • That the best way to review a product experience is to ask 3 questions on EVERY screen: “how did I get here?” “what do I do now?” “where do I go next?” — these questions will reveal flaws in object model, UX, onboarding, and orientation. Customers — whether in the enterprise or as consumers — want to feel safe and confident at every part of a product journey. Can you imagine being transported to different places without any sense of how you got there or how you get back!? It would be scary. And yet we do that all the time to people digitally. The object model of a product is about familiarity, consistency, and orientation. Ask yourself these three crucial questions to find the problems.
  • That if you just keep telling, polishing, and retelling your strategy and story, you end up with the gem of the idea, the gem of the value prop for customers, and the core of what your product needs to be. Be forever refining the narrative of your product and strategy as you pitch investors, update your board, sell to customers, and hire employees. In the act of doing this over and over, you are seeing more of the matrix reveal itself and will be better informed for every key decision you make. Repetition and iteration based on feedback polishes the stone.
  • That every product (and industry) goes through a cycle of bundling and unbundling, and this will go on forever. New products win by being simple, but then they take users for granted and evolve to build their business and satisfy power users…before being disrupted by a new simple product. Disruptive products tend to be simple point solutions that doing one thing incredibly well. And then customers want to bring point solutions together (for value, for perceived benefits of integration…). And then 10x better (and simpler) point solutions emerge. Media. Finance. Housing. Pretty much everywhere. Don’t be surprised by this, roll with it.
  • That the most powerful (and affordable) driver of product growth is surprise, delight, and intrigue. People don’t rave about a product doing what they expected, they rave about it doing something they didn’t expect. Think Tesla’s games, easter eggs in games, etc…these are viral growth tactics that don’t happen unless a product team prioritizes them. And yet we tend to ship products informed by customer research with “MVP” feature lists that seldom optimize for mystery, wonder and delight. Maybe we have it all backwards? Maybe we should make all products fun to breed engagement? You need to add some novelty, edge, and unexpected delight in there to avoid being the better product that nobody notices.
  • That the elements of a new product you launch have more gravity than you think. I’ve had dozens of debates about what an MVP should and shouldn’t include. The argument to “just get something out there and start learning” is flawed in two critical ways: (1) You’ll burn early adopters fast if you don’t polish the few things that distinguish your product the most before launch, and (2) The natural tendency of every product team is to iterate around the MVP. Every MVP drops a heavy anchor in the sea of possibility and it becomes exponentially harder to explore new terrain once you start digesting data and iterating. Launch the minimal required experience for everything but the parts that distinguish your product the most. Remember, a great MVP favors top customer needs, very few customer wants. Optimize for the problems you want to have. You WANT customers to get into your product and adopt it so fervently that they quickly suss out and request features to go further. You DON’T WANT anything that obstruct customers from finding immediate value.
  • That A+ design leaders are actually the cheat code for the best product leaders. Most product leaders and founders I admire have partnered with a few incredible designers throughout their career, and doing so made all the difference.
  • That the best new products ultimately take us back to the way things once were, but with more scale and efficiency. It’s a funny thing; we all basically yearn for a small town life, with the conveniences and relationships that make life full. New technologies that provide some sensation from the past while enjoying the benefits of the modern world (cities, travel, remote working etc) tend to succeed. Dating apps make it easier to stumble into a person at scale. Most networks offer the sensation of a neighborhood at scale. Many DTC brands offer the sensation of knowing your local maker. To create for the future, mine the parts of the past that we long for.

What else? Feel free to lob in any additions on Twitter @ScottBelsky — and may we all find, share, and internalize the essential realizations for building better products.

~~~
Follow and connect w/ Scott on Twitter, check out other recent posts like 8 Themes for the Future of Tech,” get his latest book — The Messy Middle, or sign up for an infrequent newsletter of insights.

Insights on crafting products, teams, and progress.