Adam Smith of Bowery Capital on Building Product and Product Teams at Startups

Videos, Product Management, PM Confessions

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We continue along with our Product Management Confessions featuring Adam Smith, Venture Partner at Bowery Capital! With his experience in product at Metamarkets and Google, Adam is a great product management resource.

We were lucky enough to get him to share some of the lessons and insights he’s learned over the years, especially as he continues to advise and work with other startups:

  • In order to build a better product, turn engineers into the user, e.g. Google Finance
  • The merits of shadowing a customer: “Until you meet the person with the problem, it’s just not real. It’s just data on another task list”
  • The common mistake that companies make in hiring a product person too early and the assumption that “if we hire this product person, our problems will go away”

Missed Part 1? It’s linked below:
Bowery Capital’s Adam Smith On What It Was Like To Be a Product Manager at Google

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 Adam Smith of Bowery Capital

Full transcript:

Adam Smith: If you're not an engineer that happen to have been in the ad tech space, who knows what real-time bidding is, and knows what a publisher needs, and what an advertiser wants, how these connect up, it's unlikely that team is going to have the expertise, and that's where a product manager has to basically figure out, not only to know it themselves, but how to translate that information, how to bring that to the team, so you're all working from a knowledgeable standpoint.

Matt Pasienski: That can send in, I think the role of design and representing the user, what do you think the right role is for a product manager, given that you do need to represent the user and a good user experience? Not just the UI, but a good user experience flows from the jobs that that user's trying to get done. How do you work with a remote team, or someone who doesn't necessarily understand that user's role? What are the types of communications that you're going to send? Is it a PRD? Is it a [JAW 01:01], is it description of the job of that person if you take him on-site, and have them sit next to him? How do you communicate that to especially engineers?

Adam Smith: It's interesting. With my Google Maps example, it's easy because everyone needed maps. I can have the trend and and tell the people in Sydney, "Hey, this is what Google Maps does." They knew what it was. They lived there. They knew what their signage look like, and so it was easy.

I think of Katie [Stanton 01:23], who's a Twitter now, and she used to work on Google Finance, and Google Finance had a team in India building it, and none of the people in India had ever invested in stocks, and so the idea of what information is relevant in any given time is just... They were completely just away from the user, away from the product. She had an idea where they created a brokerage accounts for each of them to go and buy and sell stuff, and made them all go through the experience, and basically turn them into the user. If you can do that, if you can make your team be users of the product...

Matt Pasienski: What year was this?

Adam Smith: That was early, I want to say 04, 05.

Matt Pasienski: They probably did pretty well.

Adam Smith: Yeah yeah. No, it was pivotal for Google Finance. It was with Google in one box, and as they started bring that together, it got a lot more play, and the reason it did is because of the quality of the product improved because I think the team knew what it is the users were doing.

Matt Pasienski: That draws a decision for a product manager. You can either be the one who is going in and filing bugs, and complaining, and say, "Hey, the quality's not here, guys. Why aren't you think about that," or you can be... I think that's a great anecdote, probably one of the better ones I've heard. It's just go and set up a brokerage account, and give the money to invest, like you're going to get far fewer bugs if you set up the team with a knowledge on that hand. It's incredible.

Adam Smith: Absolutely, and this is what I tell my startups. Founders, they realize very quickly their job is to go get users and the B2B world that I work in is to go... They're the sales team. They're the ones going out there, so they know the problem set, and they just assume they can tell their teams to go build it. That doesn't take you very far. You how to figure out how these teams understanding what this is to do. In B2B, it's more challenging, but it's something I think quite a bit about. One of my team does ITSM management, and their new engineer, they'll actually send them over to go shadow an ITSM manager, and show them what they do during a day. The output they get of that engineer the next week is phenomenal because all these bugs those guys were yelling about, they're just knocking them down. You can have a great bug tracker, and you can have P4's, and P1's, and P0's, but until you meet the person with the problem, it's just not real. It's just data on another task list.

Matt Pasienski: That's a great insight, and it's like that is that the product manager's job is to facilitate that more than anything else.

Adam Smith: I think so. I think it's easy. I don't know. They always say there's two kinds of product managers. There's the ones that go visit customers, and the ones that make it up, but I think that you have to not just be the expert, you have to figure out to communicate that. If you're such a good communicator, and people believe you, you're sort of a Steve Jobs like, "I have the answer. Just do what I say," that works for a lot of PM's, and they can do very, very good at it. I think Evan is of Twitter, and now a medium in this latest venture, he had an insight and had a personality that when he spoke, he was very clear, so knowledgeable, so inspiring that teams could just go and build the product.

I think there are different archetypes of product managers and ways you can be. For me I'm a big person on getting to know people, and getting to know what their skills are, and figuring out what information they don't have. I think smart people in general, given all the same information will converge on the same answer.

Matt Pasienski: At least if they don't, you know you're in trouble.

Adam Smith: Or they don't, then we might not be doing... You might now have the right answer.

Matt Pasienski: You invest a lot of B2B companies, then you probably see a cross-section of the type of entrepreneurs who come into that role. Do you think the fact that... I think there's so much more interesting being the next Snapchat because the young entrepreneurs just don't have that empathy for the business world where there's actually a lot of really low-hanging revenue that could easily sustain a business, whereas they're trying to build things that they understand implicitly because they don't have the techniques of a great user experience researcher product manager who can bridge that something I don't understand about, but I can then go out and empathize with the user.

Adam Smith: We haven't worked in a company for five or 10 years. The odds of you knowing what the real pain points are is just low, or you just don't know the problem, whereas Snapchat and in an apps like... Anyone can dream those things up. Not anyone can do them, but you can just brainstorm, and if you have the intensity of actually executing and seeing if your idea is any good, I think, consumers are in more natural place to work.

Matt Pasienski: You think there's an over-allocation of either interest, or work, or even funding into those types of businesses, given the efficiencies that could... Just working at B2B, you see exactly where you could make huge impacts.

Adam Smith: I definitely think there's a pendulum that there's a little bit of time in the iPhone to the first set of consumer companies really got going. I think there's sort of a, "Wait, wait. B2B's been ignored," and you saw all these copycats of consumer apps but for enterprise. I think that raised the awareness, so I think it's gotten a little bit more natural. Now, there's a lot of companies on both sides. The challenge is and it's... One of my companies again, like why three 22-year-olds chose to ITSM management. It baffles my mind. It's not like they had worked in IT for 10 years, and whereas like, "Oh my God. This job is terrible. If I could only produce this product, it would be great." It was just cheer entrepreneur like, "I'm going to go find problems, and if I find a problem that's big enough that I'm passionate about, I'm going to build a company and solve it." I think that nowaday...

Matt Pasienski: That was not what I was thinking about when I was 22.

Adam Smith: It was now what you, well, exactly you're like... [inaudible 07:14] for another cast. Cut?

Matt Pasienski: What are the biggest mistakes, and I say this because you talked to enough people. You see enough companies that are either they have product managers, or they're doing product roles, and I think we're defining that as determining what the needs of the customers are, turning that into something that an engineering team can really latch on into, and take the next [inaudible 07:37]. What are the biggest mistakes that you see by people taking that product role, either young companies, big companies? What are things that the avid viewer could take away that will improve, on average, their performance the most?

Adam Smith: For small companies, I think the most challenging thing to do is go from a team of founders and a team of engineers to having that first product tire, and then to actually developing a team of people that do product. Every company's a little different. Every CEO's a little bit different. How founders... They started this company. They have an idea. They have a thesis. How they're able to set the culture in this large strategic vision, but then bring in people who can come in and really run with that, or course correct if it's not right.

Matt Pasienski: What are the main modes that people make mistakes there though?

Adam Smith: I think there's a lot of what he hire this product person, our problems will go away, like, "Well, we don't any [inaudible 08:34], so we'll just hire this person who will magically look at us and go this is what you're doing wrong." I think that product managers at the end of the day will help do as well as basically facilitate the communication between the groups. As a young company, like you're four or five people sitting around a table, you do whatever you think is right, right? At some point, you're a hundred people, and you have to have a plan, you have the rest to agree what the plan is because they can't all sit around the table and change their mind.

The mistakes that people make, I think, is hiring a product person too early. I think, quite often, it's better to start a product. By the time you hire them, you should really felt like you had needed them a year ago.

Matt Pasienski: What's a role that should be hired when the problem is less severe, just to give comparison?

Adam Smith: What I see, and it really depends on the founders, if founders have been around the second or third time, like they'd manage large teams, there's no problem. If you have founders that haven't managed teams, having somebody who's built a company, shipped a lot of code to run the engineer organization, I think quite often, that can be a hire that's better. It's [inaudible 09:46] as party guy, I'm like, "[Coparty] guy's the best, that's what you should want," but sometimes having that person who has a product proclivity can do better than actually having a product manager, a UX person.

Matt Pasienski: That makes a lot of sense when you're first developing a company. You're heavy on engineers because there's not much to sell.

Adam Smith: You do need to think about how you manage people because people come to work, they have career goals, that part of a company. I think UX people quite often can be as good or better than product managers.

Posted by on Friday, August 14, 2015.

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Dec 12, 2017

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