Former Google Product Manager on What Makes Product Managers Successful

Videos, Product Management, PM Confessions

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In our final episode of Product Management Confessions with Adam Smith, we hear his final thoughts on how product teams succeed and his predictions for 2015.

As a Venture Partner at Bowery Capital and former Google product guy, we’re glad to have gotten Adam to share his insights, including:

  • The role of Product: Get a high-quality product out the door
  • The role of Product Marketing: Make sure the story is told in the appropriate way, so the product being launched can achieve its full potential
  • Where and when Product overlaps with Marketing
  • On being the “CEO” of a product and deciding which 10 things you’re going to do well
  • The direction that B2B software is headed

Missed Part 1 & 2? Watch using the links below:

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

Part 2: Adam Smith of Bowery Capital on Building Product and Product Teams at Startups

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Full transcript:

Adam Smith: It's hard for me to say. As a product guy, I'm like, "Product guy is 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. I think UX people quite often can be as good or better than product managers.

Matt Pasienski: You haven't brought up marketing. Where do you see product managers failing in their responsibilities to tell the story of the product.

Because we've talked a lot about information collection and going out and understanding the users. But then, there's the flip side, which I think often is the responsibility of management, is to go out and tell the story about "this is the product, here's why you need it right now."

Adam Smith: Well it's funny, so Bismarck and I worked together. He was a product marketing manager and I was a product manager on a few things, and I felt like ultimately my job was to get a high quality product put together and out the door. Fundamentally that was my job.

And his role was to make sure as he saw this coming, that the story was told in the appropriate way. So I would always want there to be that person, but whether they visit or not I'm still gonna to get that thing shipped out the door no matter what.

I think where marketing plays a role is making whatever it is you're launching, making sure it achieves its full potential.

Matt Pasienski: You know, there is this statement that the PM is the CEO of the product. And maybe that's a little bit too severe but they certainly have ultimate responsibility for a given product, say something like Google Alerts actually succeeding. No one else is gonna say, "Oh that was my bad." They're gonna look at you.

Adam Smith: Yep.

Matt Pasienski: And, we always talk about how you should name things, kind of not only the look and feel but the story that's told around that, is really conceived at the genesis of the product. And it's not something you bolt on after the fact. So where do you see product managers ... it could be that you have to have a great product marketing team and things like that, but where do you see themselves setting themselves up for failure, especially early on where they absolutely are in total control, from a marketing perspective?

Adam Smith: It's interesting. In my career, early on there just weren't, like, your marketing ... So, Google Alerts is a good example. We had no marketing resource because we just weren't a sort of Level One product. We were not ads and we were not the search results page. So those sort of things, they would starve you for resources.

Now as it got bigger, I got assigned a marketing person to help tell the story in a better way. I take that anecdote to, sort of, things ... small companies starting up, I think you can survive sometimes without it.

It's interesting. I think it's one of those things where there's a thousand things you can do, and you can try to do a thousand poorly or you can do like 10 percent of them well, and you have to decide how important is the story for whatever it is you're building.

Matt Pasienski: Okay. I'll just say, we were talking about one thing, but maybe just to close up on this. I think it's an interesting situation. We've talked to a lot of people from Google, we have a lot of people from Google at our company.

But that was a very special time, where you had a product that nailed it. And in particular, Google at that time, especially for you, was a B2B company. You were out, on ads quality; you're taking something to companies that are buying all of the ads that keep the search engine running. And like any good B2B company, when you really hit it, you have a lot of control over that relationship, and you don't need to be as responsive and you don't need to market it well. It just works.

What is it like to be in that situation and how does that change ... and maybe should that be something the product manager can aspire to, being in a situation where you have all of the control 'cause your product just meets the need and you don't need to market, you don't need to be that nice.

Adam Smith: Well ultimately, you're building something that creates a certain amount of value, and you're charging them some percent of that, right? And if it doesn't create that value, you're in trouble. There's a whole bunch of things that can cause problems.

Google was lucky. For every dollar you put in, you got two dollars out. It was pretty tried and true; our job was to make sure that we could handle as many dollars as you wanted to put in, and it would in fact return that money back. And at the same time that the users that were getting this experience were getting a better experience that they were seeing a greater and greater speed of retrieval of whatever task they were trying to complete.

And so as product people it was very clear at Google, make sure users are happy and make sure, in keeping them happy, that our advertisers can meet their objective.

Matt Pasienski: So the user, the person you kept happy was the Google consumer user who's out there on the field, and then everybody else, one dollar in two dollars out.

Adam Smith: I think Google's a unique company, I think when you get to a certain size ... I think Facebook is certainly there right now, I think even Twitter is there. When you have a product that people really love and really use actively.

As long as your can improve that ... we talked a lot about an ad's quality, are they made better or worse in values or experience? And how do we know that, what's the judge of whether they're doing better or not.

And honestly, sometimes we would say, "Well, we can make twice as much money or we can show half as much ads, what should we do?"

Well we'd just the split the difference, 'cause we didn't know. We knew that less ads is probably good and we knew that making money for Google ... that's another area.

Matt Pasienski: When you built the Ads Quality product, you made a specific decision. We're gonna show way fewer - not necessarily ad spots - but we're gonna take a lot of the ads that would be shown and not show them. Because they aren't appropriate.

And you know it's a lot of money on the table, ask Google. Despite how much they made it was a lot of money. Is that a decision that every company can make and should it be a decision that you make that's, "We're going to make the right long-term decision."

Adam Smith: I think this is the biggest challenge for successful companies, is how do you know what you're doing is improving the ultimate experience that you're providing? And sometimes you can get in your own way by not innovating.

I was talking to a PM at Yahoo! Mail and we were building Google Mail, G-Mail, and he kept saying, "You guys are so lucky. All my users have been using my product for years and if I change it they freak out."

Whereas Google has this idea of "we're crazy, we'll do all sorts of things." And so the user base was one that was much more open to that change.

It's interesting, G-Mail has almost gotten so mainstream that they had to create inbox to let the people who wanted ultimate change come again.

It's this sort of, you have to keep innovating and not let your user base slow you down. But it goes back to, what service are you delivering and how do you know whether you're improving it? Versus kinda getting stuck in a rut.

And so the ad side, we could keep showing more and more ads, right? And users may be okay with that or may get ad blockage and stop clicking on them. We just don't know. And so at Google with always we're like, "We roughly know that, here's things we can tune, so let's just make sure we're always improving what we think is better user experience and proving what we think is good for advertisers.

And honestly at some point our algorithm was like, fifty-fifty. We'll take half of it in user experience and half of it in. And that was just a business call 'cause we felt like that was the right thing to do.

But that's hard, I think that's what companies have to really think about, is even you guys at Wizeline, what are you doing, is it actually making it better or are you adding so many features you're actually making it less usable.

Matt Pasienski: That's absolutely something we run into, is just there's all these check boxes that you can check, and you go out in the field and you talk and you write down all the wants, but at the end of the day, if you build something that meets all of those needs, a lot of times you get bit because it's just more than anyone can handle.

I always like to ask this question to VCs, 'cause you see everything. You have a lot of deal flow, you're out in the field, you're having coffee. What's the biggest thing in the next year that we should be excited about, based on your experience?

Adam Smith: The easy answer is B2B software is just gonna get so much better. The number of companies, the number of entrepreneurs improving the experience is huge, so the old-school company you joined five, ten years ago had all of these silo products who didn't communicate. Now, all of a sudden, all of them communicate.

It is a good example of "let's just make a super simple way to connect into everything and provide transparency. And the innovation on top of it has been customers who are like "wow, all of a sudden my tickets are accessible by my engineering team with like no work."

So I think the biggest change in the B2B space is everything will be working together and it's just gonna be a heck of a lot better than -

I don't know, when I started at Google we used Oracle calendar because it was the only thing that worked for Linux and PCs, 'cause we had very few Macs at the time. And it was like, the lowest common denominator.

Well the lowest common denominator now is actually getting infinitely better.

Matt Pasienski: I love it. So, 2015, B2B software, that's a good answer for me. I like it.

Thanks a lot.

Adam Smith: Thank you, sir.

Jen Chien Posted by Jen Chien on Thursday, August 27, 2015.

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Jul 24, 2017

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