Jonnie Bryant talks to David Vismans about the Product Development advice that he offers scale-ups, drawing on his 9 years of hypergrowth experience as Chief Product Officer at Booking.com.
What is the role of product in a product-led company?
Product, depending on your definition, is the materialization of a (growth) strategy. This means that strategy leads, and the product follows; like org follows strategy. The customer insights coming from the product org. are critical to business strategy and the product org. plays a critical role in validating strategic hypotheses in the fastest and leanest way possible.
This can often lead to course correction. In that sense, there is a circular relationship between product and strategy, depending on what stage the company is at. If a business has found product market fit, there is more emphasis on validating “optimization” hypotheses. When the business model is not well understood the hypothesis validation will focus more on strategic hypotheses which may lead to pivots of the business.
What was the role of Product at Booking?
Product at Booking is a highly converting marketplace for travellers and accommodations: the
materialization of a growth strategy described in a typical two-sided marketplace flywheel. Product’s role is to outcompete the market on the growth drivers it owns: conversion. It does this by improving convenience for both parties. Product more specifically has “diagnostic” ownership of conversion, meaning that the function closely follows the conversion trends and runs analysis in case of unexpected movement in the trend and will then be the first to find the anomalies, typically in close collaboration with Marketing and Supply. The actual “treatment” of a conversion issue may sit within departments outside of Product.
What do you look for in exceptional product leaders?
I look for a couple of key things. Exceptional product leaders have typically seen the full product lifecycle from cradle to grave several times and have learned that most intuitions you have about what will make a product successful are, unfortunately, wrong. Therefore, these folks are very well versed in data-driven decision making but also know that sometimes intuition is the best you have. In addition, I think true product people cannot help themselves – when they see any type of product – to think how it could be done better. This is a reflex, a blessing, and a curse. You need this intrinsic drive because most of the time you are wrong and you need to experience this several times.
Exceptional product leaders understand how critical it is to create maximum clarity around what you are trying to achieve and why. They resist the temptation to just build and instead spend most of their time in hypothesis “development” – they know that once the first line of code is written product development becomes orders of magnitude more expensive, and so they control the cost of failure.
Exceptional product leaders know, and this is how they steer their organization, that they create most value for the business through a rigorous focus on highly disciplined hypothesis development first and foremost, and much less in hand-holding execution.
How do you hire exceptional product leaders?
Ask the candidate to describe the process they use to go from strategy to a successful product, or put differently, from imperfect ambiguous information to perfect information: machine executable code, and how their approach has evolved over time. I like to think of their approach as the product they will be optimizing and innovating against their whole life. Then you need to feel that their approach is one you subscribe to. This is the core of it – there’s several other things to look for around ability to simplify, ability to reflect, think strategically, communicate and lead naturally but those are table stakes.
Exceptional product people will have created exceptional products, but will also have much more frequently built products that failed for the right reasons: there was insufficient interest from the target audience which is mostly the result of a flawed growth strategy. Unexceptional product leaders fail for the wrong reasons but are unable to reflect that back to their approach.
What advice would you give to someone about to hire their first CPO / VP Product?
Do you know what good looks like? The CPO plays such a critical role in materializing your business strategy, he or she may make your business fail for the wrong reasons if you are not careful, and you will never know. Get someone to help you make the assessment.
What are some of the things that great product leaders consistently do that help to elevate their craft?
Great product leaders spend time with customers a lot, constantly deepen their analytical skills, find ways to communicate more effectively all the time and hire great people.
What do you look for in high-potential product leaders?
Deep passion, humbleness and high EQ and IQ. Driven by the inexhaustible energy to build.
How do you get the best out of high-performing product leaders?
Give them space to build and learn, help them reflect on their approach both in the case of success as well as failure, be explicit about the fact that they have to be fully bought into the why behind the business as well as the strategy and that it’s ok if they are not and for them to move on.
What do you wish you had known when you were a first time VP / CPO?
You are wrong most of the time!