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Last summer, we sat down with Ooyala co-founder Sean Knapp to pick his brain on product strategy and the future of video. Nearly a year later, we caught up with Sean to learn about his new company, Ascend, and chat about measuring success as a founder-entrepreneur as well as a product leader.

Watch the video to hear Sean's take on:

  • Best practices for launching a new product (hint: when it comes to proof of concept, think of the Wright Brothers)
  • Harnessing personal experiences and anecdotes to better identify and understand market needs
  • The two things he looks for when building out an MVP


Full transcript:

Adam Sewall: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Behind the Product. Today, we are talking to Shawn Knapp who is an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. I've known Shawn for a number of years so thank you for coming by.

Sean Knapp: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Adam Sewall: So, Shawn, you are an engineer by trade and you obviously have been a successful co-founder of a business before with Ooyala. What are you thinking starting another start up? Are you crazy?

Sean Knapp: Conventional wisdom would say yes. Just as Wizeline really helped solve a lot of the pinpoints that we felt at Ooyala, very similarly Ascend for a lot of the challenges we faced as we built out a very large, big data infrastructure and data driven product.

Adam Sewall: Yeah.

Sean Knapp: I saw very similar trends across a number of other companies that, you know you can't be the only ones that bump into this challenge and you start asking what could we accomplish if we solve this problem. Not just for one company but for thousands of companies.

Adam Sewall: Using that personal experience to identify the beginnings of a market need and then figuring out what the true underlying problem set is.

Sean Knapp: Yeah. In our industry, when we first started to look at the space, every company has a sort of evolved set of needs. You could even pair them into a Maslow's hierarchy if you will.

Adam Sewall: What is Ascend doing? What problems are you guys solving?

Sean Knapp: We looked at it and said a lot of the world has bought into this in the next 5 years, I will have a data driven product. I will use data to run a more efficient business. I will use data to drive a more customized product for my users and to build a more personalized service for them. Now they are really struggling with how do I build, whether it's a fraud detection system or an experimentation framework or a content recommendation system, to build data driven applications is still incredibly hard and usually requires a very specialized skillset with very limited resources.

Adam Sewall: They are very bespoke or incredibly general right?

Sean Knapp: Correct. What we figured out is by creating a certain layer of product that we compare with existing big data infrastructure, we can provide a 10x reduction in the time it takes to build data driven applications. That was our.

Adam Sewall: Sign me up. Let's go. Let's do this.

Sean Knapp: All right. Where's that paper somewhere around here.

Adam Sewall: I sent a PO. In your current where you guys are at Ascend, what's your role in the product development process?

Sean Knapp: At this stage, we are a very early stage start up. We have 6, hopefully 7 and then 8 people in the company. I will say that while slightly more involved than the rest of the team, everybody's still very intimately involved in the product definition and development process. Every engineer, before they even check in their code, has a full deployment of the product that they are testing the end to end aspects of and using the product.

Adam Sewall: They are kind of their own power user right now of what you're ...

Sean Knapp: Yes and we're actually working on ... Our aspiration is as we are releasing our beta at the end of this quarter and as we roll out our beta, is to even start to build more of our own internal product on more of own internal systems leveraging our own product itself and to dog food a lot of what we do.

Adam Sewall: If you were going to go talk to a CEO at a Fortune 500 business, how would you be articulating hey, here's Ascend and here are the problems we can solve for you?

Sean Knapp: Yes. I think you highlighted it. How you are you articulate your value prop is very different to different members of the organization. To the CEO. I think the biggest challenge is we start to look at not just the market but many markets. We're finding that the market is not short on availability of data to do something with.

Adam Sewall: Data is exploding. People have too much data.

Sean Knapp: Exactly. They aren't short of ambition and vision for where they want to get to. The huge chasm today is how do we actually connect those two? By taking just as cloud surfaces have up leveled, product and engineering teams and got them as Bezos said, almost 10 years ago, out of the muck. We can, very similarly, take your team out of the muck in building data driven applications and get them solely focused on business value.

Adam Sewall: How would that be different from ... I'm a CEO. I've invested into some Hadoop architecture even. Obviously, I've got a bunch of other databases. I'm trying to centralize them into some sort of view. Where would Ascend fit into that ecosystem that they already have in?

Sean Knapp: Really good question. We've seen a lot of companies in various industries drop in and really try to replace the existing ecosystem and I think that's very very hard especially as an early stage start up. We look at it and say look. We're a complimentary component of your existing investment. Whether you want to run on-prem or in cloud, what we look at is. We say look. Even if your existing big data engineers are very happy doing what they're doing today, they shouldn't have to change what they're doing nor should you have to port over your applications or your architecture but if you're able to bring us to sit alongside as a platform in an abstraction that sits on top of your existing infrastructure, we can now bring the power of all of these systems to your app developers beyond your big data developers. We can give it to your app developers, your product managers, your data scientists and provide them the ability to build far more sophisticated products faster without a reliance on what are still some of the most limited resources you have in your company. The big data team.

Adam Sewall: Those initial ... Getting something off the ground is so challenging. How do you approach that. What would your advice be to somebody who's like, "I want to launch a new product. What do they need to figure out?"

Sean Knapp: What I'm a big believer in is you're looking for constant checkpoints and validation. In the really early days, we actually built towards demos. When we really starting building a lot of the core product in January, a lot of the feedback we received from the market was we don't think it's possible. Most people were telling us we don't even believe that you can automate 90 percent of this.

Adam Sewall: What black bag is this?

Sean Knapp: Exactly. In essence, everybody says yeah, we think you're crazy which is great. That's a great business because if everybody thinks you're crazy and you actually can do what you say you can do, you've done something pretty magical. We sat down with the team and said, for our first demo, the alpha, we want to in Wright Brothers terms, prove flight. Just prove we can take off. We don't have to land. We don't to even steer.

Adam Sewall: Basic proof of concept.

Sean Knapp: Prove scientifically that the hardest component is in fact possible and that we can build it in a productized version. We built really hard towards a demo and actually put a stake in the ground and had a demo with a future potential customer and said we want to show you our alpha on this date. Hell or high water, we will  make this date.

Adam Sewall: I think the notion of a finish line is incredibly important. How else do you know as an engineering team, as a product team, that you've done something. What is that line?

Sean Knapp: We started with a very long finish line for the first stage. Almost 6 months because it's a lot of ground work. Now, we've actually started to pull these incremental deliverables in closer and closer. The next one was 7 weeks and the one after that, which is our beta release, was 5 weeks after that one and we're getting to faster and faster deliverables. Getting something new in the hands of your customers that validates your and their input around is this truly of use for the people that are willing to pay us to create value for them.

Adam Sewall: As an engineer, you've worked with a lot of different product teams, a lot of different marketing teams but when it comes to product management, what are the attributes of a product manager or product team that you look for?

Sean Knapp: Good question. I think empathy to truly be able to empathize with your customers. There's the sort of Jobs-esque the world doesn't know what product they truly need so I will build it for them and they will just see it. I think you have to be able to empathize and understand, first what are their pinpoints? How are they solving it today? A really great product manager I think can take a step back and say, "So let's sandbox that for a second and think, if we started from scratch, how should this be?" This is originally how we thought of our business was we know how the existing world solves their data driven talents.

Adam Sewall: Disassociate yourself. Pull yourself out.

Sean Knapp: Disassociate for just a moment and think through. If we could just redesign this from scratch. If we thought top down organizational design and theory and how we want people to collaborate and work together. Similar to how Slack rethought communications. You then think through how could this be? And then the job of product is to say well, I understand this pinpoint. Can we create a connective bridge from here to here and how we at least rephrase their pinpoints into a solution set that we can take them there such that they may not understand this entire vision today and we may also be very off but how do we solve enough of their immediate pinpoints.

Adam Sewall: And bring them along.

Sean Knapp: To bring them along that journey.

Adam Sewall: That's fantastic. Well, Shawn, thanks so much for coming by. Founder of If you're a CIO, go check it out for sure.

Sean Knapp: Thank you.

Adam Sewall: Thanks much.

Posted by on Friday, November 4, 2016.


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