Prolific as a Product: From Beta to 3.0 and Beyond
by Pat McGann
When receiving humbling awards like Crain’s 50 Fastest Growing Companies in NYC, or Inc. 500’s Fastest Growing Private Companies, it’s easy to simply point to the stats from the last five years to explain our success. During this time, Prolific grew from five to 100 people. Our revenue increased from $1 million to $10+ million. Co-Founders Bob and Eric rented three desks at Carrot Creative when they moved to DUMBO and now we can fill our own floor. We transitioned from building websites for startups and local companies to partnering with leading global brands and releasing industry recognized mobile apps.
All of this is insane, hard to process, and most of the time, none of it actually feels real.
Though data points are simple validations of success, we’ve never lost sight of how we got here. It’s been an endless road of learning from mistakes and trying to prove that nothing is impossible.
I started at Prolific five years ago simply because someone else declined the offer for my role. A sixpack of Brooklyn Lager and an offer letter was delivered to a former intern, but the package showed up a few days late and she had already accepted an offer elsewhere.
From day one, Prolific has always been committed to creating quality products. I joined Prolific as a product manager, and it’s only fitting to look back at the past five plus years in the same way — Prolific as a Product, 2011–2016.
Prolific Beta: Build Anything and Everything
On my first day, there were only five other people in our office on 55 Washington Street. There was no kitchen, no conference room and no matching furniture. I felt right at home.
My first two years were a mix of building local websites, facebook apps, startup company ideas, iPhone apps that we built from scratch, and apps that were hand-me-downs from other agencies.
We said yes to everything. It didn’t matter what the project was. It just mattered that we had an opportunity to build something together. Everyone’s role had a visible, immediate impact on their products and the company, which was and still is so vital to our culture. Our product teams consisted of three people or less, and each teammate was working on multiple products at once.
No matter how small those projects were, we still treated each one as if it was the biggest opportunity in the world. We got to build things, pull pranks, play whiffle ball and learn from each other every day, what more could I ask for?
I’ll never forget Eric and Bobby spending four straight days and nights in the office to make sure we finished a product on time. Our only iOS engineer had left the company two weeks into the project so Bob and Eric were working 24 hours a day with freelancers in different countries to make the deadline.
We’ve made more mistakes than I can count, but if we didn’t constantly test and evaluate everything we did, we would have missed out on countless lessons on even the smallest things. Initially, we didn’t show our work to companies until it was nearly done, instead of throughout the process. No matter what expectations we set along the way, we never felt aligned with our partners when we revealed where we were at. In the same vein, we used to not test the products we were building until the very end of the project. On one product, it took us three months to ‘finish’ an iPhone app, but it took another two months to fix all of the bugs we found when we were ‘done.’ By not including testing in the process, we didn’t get paid for those two months of work. Most of the learnings seem really obvious now, but at the time we simply just didn’t know what we didn’t know.
One of my favorite memories from this time was when we created a Photo Booth iPad app, Boothify, for our holiday party in the office. Somehow we ended up getting paid to run the same booth at a SXSW party in the spring. We had to buy and prep all of the materials from Home Depot when we got to Austin. This included spray painting the booth’s two by fours on the front lawn of our Airbnb the day before the event and showing up in a four-door car rental with pipes and wood sticking out of the windows. That night, we ended up hanging out with Joe Minkie and he joined Prolific a few months later as Director of Product Development and Bobby got introduced to the VP of Product ModCloth.
Millon Lacrosse, CT Capitol Report, Vinport
Brazen Careerist, Knock
Belgard Hardscapes, Fox CT — My Towns, Breeders’ Cup, New Curriculum, Reading Coach
A photo booth app that would stream the photo strips on the wall from a projector and print them out for guests.
1.0: Focus on Partners, not Clients.
After a couple of years, we now had a baseline of learning from a diverse mix of products and companies. We were poised to start honing in on the platform that would give us the best chance to differentiate ourselves and become experts at something.
We made the decision to only take on mobile app work. It was an easy decision at the time because iPhones only had two screen sizes. It was only taking a few months for us to design, build and QA an app even with such a small team.
Our product strategy shifted into a mix of planning, execution and process consulting. Our partners needed help expediting their initial releases. We brought knowledge of getting a quality product quickly and efficiently out of the door, despite knowing their team was going to own everything after we went live.
Though our partner narrative was growing, our internal process had remained the same. Everyone at the company kept working on multiple products at once. After letting down a few existing partners and friends, we quickly realized we needed to adjust our business model to better serve our partners and our people. To keep our reputation and product quality high, we decided to commit dedicated teams to one product, a model that we still use today.
We also wanted to make sure that our team realized the benefit of a true partnership. They’re not a client and we’re not a vendor. We’re all an extension of each other’s teams by succeeding and failing as one. These things are easy to say but much harder to execute. Brands have to be willing to dedicate their own time and resources to the product team and in the cases that they can’t, we need to be flexible with our process to make sure that we find the closest form of a partnership.
With that mindset, we not only set our teams up for success, but it gave our teams the ability to learn even more from the partners we were working with. Eric even ended up creating our own software tool to help our engineers get past API blockers. He lovingly named the product Glenlivet. It’s retained that name to this day.
We were so incredibly lucky to have partners who trusted us and were patient with our process. It was through those relationships that we truly began to take strides forward as a company. We were able to open our San Francisco office and set a true product team process in Brooklyn as we moved into a new office space. We learned more with ModCloth, Rent the Runway and Threadless, than all of our previous experience combined. They worked through our growing pains of facing challenges for the first time and helped solve them with us. We are still in close contact with multiple people from each one of those brands.
Thrillist Best Bloody in America
ModCloth, Rent the Runway, Threadless, Automatic
2.0: Iterate, on Everything.
Our successful partnerships meant that we finally had validation of our model and our team’s value. For the first time we were able to form partnerships where we were going to continue to work on the product after its initial release.
We began to iterate on our product teams by bringing on Product Strategy (Hi, Al!) and UX Design (Hi, Nick!) disciplines into the fold. This allowed us to make more educated decisions before we released and allowed us to measure everything once it was in the wild. More qualitative and quantitative data also allowed us to shift conversations from opinions to real, factual, product value driven conversations. Al even hacked together some predictive analytics models to help us prove the value of commerce driven apps. Our engineering team set up continuous integration servers and started to automate as many mundane tasks as possible so the team could see build progress.
We started iterating on our own internal products. We had multiple products running our Glenlivet API Framework in production and we had our first app powered by our own mobile first CMS, which has since been re-branded as the App Management System (AMS).
We also had to iterate on how we signed on new partners. The industry landscape still hadn’t fully bought into mobile and the conversation was constantly, “We have a digital agency, why would we need a mobile agency?”
That question was and is real because it’s true, anyone could build a mobile app now. There are much cheaper solutions out there. Why should brands pay more money to partner with our team?
We started having to constantly go up against giants in the agency world. Sure, we had a great portfolio, but these agencies had the brand equity and the scale to squash us in any pitch or RFP process if the conversations were all equal.
We knew we had to show our thinking and problem solving skills, so we started asking brands, “What is impossible for your team to execute?” If we knew the impossible, we had an opportunity to prove everyone wrong and tell that story. Not a fluffy bullshit one.
That mentality started with a cold email to SoulCycle asking if we could learn more about their mobile strategy. They agreed to an in-person meeting and exposed us to their biggest pain point for their business and customers. We took those insights and used the two days we had to find a solution before the next meeting.
When we walked back into the room with them, they expected us to present a deck and tell a big story on what our solution would be. Instead, we set a phone on the table and walked them through what our team had already built.
I’ll never forget the first words out of their mouths, “How the fuck did you do that?”
David’s Bridal, Angie’s List, ALEX AND ANI, SoulCycle, Udacity
3.0: Creating Real Value, at Scale.
Human nature always leads us down the path of least resistance. If something’s easier, we’ll instinctively pick that choice. It’s easy to hide your work behind a curtain. It’s easy to blindly say yes to something to keep a brand happy. It’s easy to point the finger outward instead of at yourself. It’s easy to say, “That’s not my job.”
We’re not interested in any of that bullshit. Sure, it’s hard to admit you don’t know an answer. It’s hard to risk getting fired by a partner. It’s hard to fire a partner. It’s hard to do someone else’s job. It’s hard to prove that anything is possible, but that’s the fun part.
We learned early on that taking the easy way was the fundamental problem with building software products in a services model. Brands needed to see what was being built in real time but no one was giving them visibility.
At the end of 2014 we had a team of about 40 people between Brooklyn and San Francisco. All of our current partners were signed with us into the new year and every person that could produce work at the company was on a product team full time.
In the first two months of 2015 we were in the process of signing on four incremental product teams with new brands. Our product teams were about to have more new faces on them than old ones.
The thought of growing fast was exciting, but equally as terrifying. I remember saying to Bobby and Dan that our team’s foundation was solid, but I wasn’t sure if it was going to be able to sustain the pressure that was mounting. Bobby smiled at me and said, “It’ll be okay man. We’ll figure it out.”
We had basic company and department level structures in place, but everything was a skeleton. None of us had experienced what was coming. I was scared shitless.
It was obvious that in order to sustain, we needed to scale. The decision was made to shift some of our most experienced team members to focus their mindset on scaling their departments or the business. This meant taking them off of contributing every day to the products we were building for the first time.
Amazing talent came in from other agencies, startups, universities and discipline specific training programs. While every new “P” was contributing to teams within their first few weeks or days, no one had experience building an end to end product with a mindset of redefining an industry as part of their responsibility.
I was asking myself questions every day. How could we expect every person to understand the experiences we learned over the last two to three years? How could we get everyone comfortable with having the hard conversations with each other, the partner and never settling for the easy choice? What if we mess up worse than we ever have? What if I fail the team? Would we be able to recover? How am I going to keep everyone in this office ‘happy’?
During this time I found myself losing sight of making sure my conversations always tied back to the products that we were building. I spent too much time trying to analyze and make sure everyone was ‘happy’ during such a crazy time.
We proudly shout that we’re a ‘People First’ company. A People First mentality is much less about worrying about general ‘happiness’ and is better defined by hiring great people that can take what exists inside the company and empowering the team to make it better. No one will ever be able to make everyone happy in every situation life brings. It’s more powerful to expose everyone to the problems the company is solving instead of just talking about the good stuff that’s happening.
I also realized that I needed to stop writing things down or saying something explicitly and expect our production teams to ‘get it’. We all have to experience the process together and be okay letting individuals make their own mistakes, just like we did.
We also learned that managing people in different offices is really freaking hard. Our Brooklyn and San Francisco offices have open lines of communication, but we stopped enforcing that the offices had to be connected for everything. This autonomy has allowed our San Francisco team to flourish and take full ownership of their success. The 20 person team just released the Havenly iPhone app, and is working towards releases with Old Navy and Sephora.
Some of the decisions we made were out of necessity. Some of them were because it was the best solution we had with the information that we were given. We also realized that everyone needed to be connected back on a product team, not just a department. We learned that if the leaders in our company become too distant from the problems we’re solving on our teams, we run a higher risk of being disconnected from the core of our business; building and learning. Reducing the amount of ‘pure management’ layers is so important but structure is still necessary to run everything efficiently.
2015 was the hardest and most amazing year I’ve experienced at Prolific. My favorite moments were witnessing people from every area of the company step up and take ownership where the opportunities existed. Even with 150% growth in people, we ended the year with over eight new brands released in the app stores. We even proved the value of a new ‘Innovation Team’ model that focuses heavily on user research and concept validation before our team transitions into production.
American Express OPEN Forum, Lilly Pulitzer, Baublebar, Le Tote, Edible Arrangements, Spire, Kinsa Health, Scotts Miracle GRO, Saks Fifth Ave, Equinox, Home Shopping Network Apple TV, Havenly
Sephora, Scotts — My Lawn
American Express, Overstock.com, BlackRock, Jet.com
If you ask anyone that’s been on this rollercoaster the last five years or less, no one will say that we’ve been anywhere near perfect, but we’ve always found a way to rely on each other and have fun growing through every aspect of the experience.
This year, we’ve been facing new challenges and have taken on new opportunities that span across platforms, service offerings and our partner’s industries.
We’re all back on a product team and starting to talk about the next step, take a deep breath, more offices.
Products Coming Soon!
Motel 6, Old Navy, Scotts — GRO