Hubert Palan (Productboard): Going Beyond User Research
Hubert Palan: Product market fit is not a single point in time, it's a continuum. It's basically the optimal path that you're choosing.
Blake Bartlett: Welcome back to the BUILD podcast. I'm Blake Bartlett, a partner at OpenView. The world of SaaS is all always evolving and we are here to help you adapt, compete and win with your startup. The BUILD podcast brings you stories and insights from my conversations with the most successful people in SaaS. In today's episode, I chat with Hubert Palán founder and CEO of ProductBoard. ProductBoard is a customer centric product management platform. Everyone today talks about being customer centric but Hubert actually walks the walk and has dedicated his entire company to the endeavor. Hubert shows us how to make customer empathy a team sport by framing company objectives around customer problems rather than a brilliant founder's own intuition. All that and more on this episode of BUILD so let's dive in with Hubert Palán. Hubert, thank you so much for joining us here on the BUILD podcast. It's great to have you on the show.
Hubert Palan: Thank you for having me.
Blake Bartlett: The goal for today is to talk about what do product teams build next? How do they make that decision? Which sounds easy, just build what's on the product roadmap. That tells you what to do next but how does something get on the product roadmap? There are a lot of paths to the roadmap. And so we're going to be talking about that. Now, the first thing on that journey is to talk about the role of founders. You've said that brilliant founders are overrated. What do you mean by that?
Hubert Palan: Yeah. Surprising, huh? Everything is about the founders and the special snowflakes. What I mean by that obviously you want brilliance in any person in any role, right, that's given. But oftentimes people think of founders as the unique individuality that has the deep customer insight and is just going to make a lot of the decisions and is going to unite everybody in the company and march the one direction. But what turns out to be much more important is to teach everybody else at the company, how to find the next big insight and how... if the proverbial founders strike the goal or strike proverbial goal for the first time, how do you teach everybody else who joins the company to also search for gold and not just to dig and follow the guidance and follow the advice. And so that's what's important that the brilliance needs to be not in being founder, but in being able to scale what you know and teach people how you came up with the idea and really it's about scaling the understanding of the customers, their needs, their pain points, their jobs to be done, their use cases, how you want to call it. So that's at the core of it.
Blake Bartlett: I think you said it really well. You need to find how do other people in the company find the next brilliant insight? How do you not have this bottleneck being created where the only person that's allowed to be brilliant in the startup is the founder. And if it didn't come from the founder, then it's not a good idea because that culture develops a lot of times. And so it sounds like the goal is to both figure out a way to scale and transfer that ability to the rest of your team. And then the second step is get out of the way and let others execute because that's the goal.
Hubert Palan: Yeah. Look, obviously you want to be involved, right? Like you have by definition, the longest context and the deepest context, because you've been around the longest and that's how the world works, experience matters. And a lot of the times the intuitive decisions are the right decisions, but they need to be informed by the internalized experience. That's the right intuition, right, internalized experience. And so you need to figure out how to expose everybody, the company, everybody on your team to the same at signals and to the same insights directly from the customers, looking at the competitors, just observing the market around you so that they develop the same intuition so that they can make decisions. Right. Because the slowest way, how to build products is to go surprisingly... is to go and test everything with the customers because the fastest feedback loop is if you can make the decision within your own brain, right? Like," Hey, I got an idea. It seems like there's a problem. Oh, let me figure out if I can figure out a solution and is it the right one?" And your kind of like iterating in your head, that's the fastest, right? Obviously you're not always right. You don't understand what the customers would say, so you need to get out. But it's, if you go out for everything, if you have no experience, if you are not continuously observing the market, if you haven't taught everybody else to do it, it's slow. As you know in business and startups in life, the speed is critical the more these days than before. So again, it comes down to your ability to get everybody on the same page and have them understand the customer needs in the first place themselves.
Blake Bartlett: Well, it's the classic advice that you're successful based off of the speed and quality of your decision making. And I think it's easy to solve for one versus the other at the expense of the other. And what we're saying here is that you need to be fast, but you need to be right. And the best way to do that is through ultimately be becoming customer centric and letting that guide the next brilliant insight. Anybody can be customer- centric anybody through customer centricity can have the next brilliant insight. Doesn't just have to be the founder. That's how you scale it out. But this leads us to our next challenge. It's easier to say that you're customer- centric than to actually be customer- centric. So what does this look like in practice? How do you not just make it a tagline, but how do you make it a way of working?
Hubert Palan: Right. So, you hear probably people a lot of times saying," Oh yeah, we are customer- centric, we do a lot of user research and we talk to the customers all the time," but that's obviously important. You need to talk to customers, but more importantly, you need to listen and need to understand what is really the need. And a lot of people just talk and they don't listen. So I would mention that in the first place. So like the first aspect of being really customer centric is to gain a really deep user insight. That means that it's not just doing user research and by the book go and talk to customers and it means to develop empathy. It needs to have real genuine curiosity. It means to make a habit of interacting with the customers and really almost think of it as if you were to measure like the customer engagement index, right? How frequently, and on what level you're interacting with the market and with the customers out there, are you observing the people in their quote unquote natural habitat? Or are you just listening to things that are through a middle person there? And so that deep customer insight is foundational. Then, and we can talk more about it is a lot to discuss, right? And again goes beyond just do user research. But then the second key piece here is that you need to turn that understanding of the customers into a structured understanding of the segmentation of the market. And you need to implement and include that in how you define your company's strategy and then product strategy, which may means, okay. So you understand now that there's some specific needs that the different customer segments have. So think of them as, okay, segment one, put them in a row in a simple matrix and you need to think about, okay, where I'm going to start? Segment one and which customer pain points am I going to satisfy, and then where I'm going to go, am I going to satisfy next customer pain points of the same segment or am I going to satisfy pain point of the next different segment. Now, to give you an example, right? We are all product people here, kind of maybe. And so the needs of product managers differ if it's a B2B versus B2C. It differs if you're a digital first company, or if you're a digital transformation company. It might differ by industry. It might be differ by seniority. It might differ by geographic, right? It might differ by, have you been exposed to lean startup and customer- centric mindset or not? Are you coming from the kind of the old school engineering first approach? And so that's what I'm talking about when I talk about segments. Frequently people probably hear personas and in the product world, we are used to that. Right. Okay. What's the user and is it the administrator or editor and so on? That's important as well. But what I'm describing here is more the segmentation on the... almost like the business segmentation, which customer segment you're after, and that needs to be the foundation of the customer, the customer understanding, but the foundation of the company strategy and product strategy. And every objective that you have at the company, or specifically for product strategy, needs to be framed around the segment and the pain point that you're solving and that evolves over time. And so this is critical and I don't know about but when I talk to... we have so many... we have 4500 companies as customers. Very rarely there's clarity around the customer segment that the companies after and the set of pain points that they're solving at that given point in time. And even less frequently, there's an understanding of what are the segments that we said no to and that we're not focused on right now, or the pain points that maybe one day in the future, we're going to expand there, but we strategically and intentionally decided that it's going to come later, that it's not the current focus. And so that's the second piece I would say, so first is the gain deep insight. Second is the incorporated into your company and inaudible strategy and third is invest into customers and get them invested into your product, close the feedback loop, create a community, turn them into your fans, really engage them again, on a very frequent level. But with the right frequency, right? You don't want input for everything. You will engage the right customers. You talk to prospects, you talk to non- customers and all of that and created engagement. So these three things are critical to understand that customer centricity is not just," Oh yeah, we talk to customers here and there and use research."
Blake Bartlett: That first piece, you had me at that part where it was not just talking to customers, but listening to them. It's very easy to make those two things interchangeable. And they're not. It is very easy to go through the motions and say, I'm doing user research. Look at me I have the 30 minutes on my calendar. I have an agenda and I talk to them. But did you do all the talking or did you do all of the listening? Because there's a big difference there. Just doing the motions, just having the call, doesn't make you customer centric. And so first step get on, listen to the customer. What kinds of things are you... I mean, what are you listening for? What are you looking for in those types of sessions? How do you actually hear your customer and not just go through the motions?
Hubert Palan: Right. It's like, how do you become good listener and practice actively listening? And it's like in life, right? Like how do you become a good partner to your spouse? It's always skills that you need to work on. And I don't want to go into the techniques of user research and so on. There's a lot of thinking about it. I want to tie it to the second point about the segmentation and that is, I listen and I look for attributes that help me understand whether it's a unique thing or whether it's a repetitive thing. And whether that, whatever the person's saying, whether it's a representation of a bigger, broader segment than opportunity, or if it's an isolated thing. And I feel like that's frequently where people fail, because there's this thing that if you do five, six user research conversations, that patterns start to emerge and it's enough. And it's true. It's true for user testing, but it's not true for understanding the market at scale. It's like, if you wanted to do polls for elections, and you would talk to just six people, you need to develop a more statistically significant understanding of the market, right? Which means that you need to look for the patterns and capture those patterns. And then share that understanding with everybody at the company, because otherwise these are anecdotal things, and it's kind of questionable. Whether you just really talk to somebody who represents the ideal target segment that you're after or not. And then you end up in this sales talks to prospects, customer success, talking to customers, you, product manager are talking to everybody or trying to figure it out, but then marketing's telling you what competition's doing. And so the patterns are important. The segments, the criteria, the attributes that are similar across all the different groups. So focus on that.
Blake Bartlett: Yeah. I really like this redefinition of a segment because I do think that it's very easy. You mentioned that it's easy to confuse segments and personas and I agree. It's also easy to just use generic segments. Enterprise segment, mid- market segment, SMB segment, and then try to force fit everything you hear into those segments or industry segments, financial services, manufacturing. And those might be correct, but they also might not be correct. And so instead of just trying to fit somebody into a pre- existing bucket, take a step back and say, what are the common patterns that I'm hearing? And start there.
Hubert Palan: This is hard, right? The reason why we use company size number of employees or industries, because these are the attributes that are available in all the databases, right? We can enrich your customers or prospects with Clearbit, you get all this data. They don't have in the databases what I mentioned, whether you are undergoing digital transformation or not, or whether you are lean customer centric type or you understand design, like that's not part of it. That's why it's hard. And that's why we use these as approximations, right? We use the whatever industry as a approximation, but like your job as a product manager is to really uncover what's down there behaviorally and understand the segments based on that way. I gave you the example of Tesla as a electric car and it's not just age and willingness to pay or how much budget people have when they decide along the product line of Tesla, is what is it they're trying to do? Are you a speed aficionado junkie and you're really interested in impressing friends that you have a roadster or like are you family with kids who need to have really big trunk and that's a different need fundamentally, right? But again, the correlation between the descriptors that are available out there and what is it that you're trying to get done might be different. And you need to figure it out.
Blake Bartlett: I also really like this idea that when you identify the segments and then you hear through your active listening, you hear what their pain points are that this creates a bit of a matrix. And then when you start to populate the matrix, it starts to turn into a chess board. And that becomes your product roadmap. It's not this singular thing. The only thing I can do is go from point A to point B to point C and that's the only way I can prioritize. You kind of now have optionality. And I like the way you described it, which is okay, we shipped this feature. So now decision time, do I want to do something and go deeper for the same segment? Or do I want to go focus on a different segment? Do I want to focus on a different pain point? And it creates that optionality based off of your continuous listening to customers, you can make the right next decision, not just the decision I made six months ago when I built this roadmap.
Hubert Palan: Yeah. I mean, this is very... we are on a podcast, right? It's so difficult to visualize it, but regularly, as you're mentioning, it's a matrix, it's a checkboard. And so think of it almost, as you say, okay, I'm starting in A1, and then I'm going to whatever, A2, and then I'm going to go to C3 and that's how you need to think strategically when you're putting together your strategy and you need to consider the size of the segment, how painful that pain point is, right. Or the problem that people have, you need to consider the willingness to pay as like, the business size of that opportunity. So it would almost be like a chess board with different square sizes. It's obviously then where the that's where the analogy breaks, but that, I mean, the world is complex. Right. But it's amazing what happens when people share this understanding. When they see not just what is on the roadmap, because these are the highlighted pieces right. In the matrix, but also what you're leaving behind and you're actively saying," Hey, we're not going to go here. We know that there's a segment. We know that there's a prospect in the pipeline. We know that they're asking, that they would fail a lot of money." But we also know that it's not the segment because we see a bigger report to the ideal segment because we see a bigger opportunity elsewhere and suddenly, people kind of get it. So that's an interesting thing about roadmaps, by the way, what is on the roadmap is as important as what is not on the roadmap, what was left out. And that conversation frequently doesn't happen. That conversation is," Oh yeah, let's build this and so on and like, yeah, we figured it out. We looked ourselves in a room and this is what the outcome is. Right. But like that context, why something and why something isn't there is critical.
Blake Bartlett: Okay. So this is all about how do you decide what to build next? Then you ship the thing and you did understand, okay, did we hit the mark or not? And obviously the most fundamental end of the day, like litmus test for this is product market fit for your entire product. Or you can think about it for an individual feature. So how does this concept of customer centricity and the matrix that we talked about and some of these things, how does this translate to product market fit?
Hubert Palan: Yeah that's the thing that product market fit is not a single point in time. It's a continuum. It's basically like the optimal path that you're choosing. Just like what we just talked about, the chessboard, right? Like what is the sequence at which you're going to go from A to a C3 and so on and so on. That's what you need to make sure. So to the product market fit, it's almost like the way that... you need to stay on the path, right? If you step left or right, you're going to follow a cliff and that's important. And that's why when you ask me it, that's the first question, like the founder insight and how that's overrated? Well, that's exactly why because the founder started and maybe they set the right direction, but then the whole path needs to be discovered and you need to train the team and you need to stay on that path. And so that the correct market fit, think of it as a continuum. And every time you're making the next decision, you need to think about, well, is it the next best thing for me to build? Because the market is going to be pulling you zillion different ways. There's going to be people who will try to use your product for something completely different. And you're trying to build a business software, and they're going to pull you into a retail space, consumer software. And you need to have that strategy needs to be guiding you, right. If there's a new cluster, a new segment that appears new pain points, like you need to be able to say, okay, interesting, interesting. There's a new opportunity that we didn't know about, but does it mean that we're changing our strategy or not? Right. And so it's the example is when was the time when Salesforce decided to go from sales, use cases to marketing and then from marketing to support or from the data cloud and so on, it's not random. It's if very deliberate thinking, just like, how well did you satisfy the needs of the particular segments that you focused on? And the pain points are you entrenched there? Can you defend it competitively? Do you have big enough differentiation? What's the gravity at which the other use cases you, or like other companies are pulling your users away and do you need to go there and kind of you build your own product and planet to stop that league to the different company. Like all of that is in play so simple product market fit might not be as simple.
Blake Bartlett: Yeah. I think it's easy for founders and for anybody to think about product market fit as a one time thing. You describe it as a point in time, but it's also easy to think about it as a gate. You go through the gate one time, once you've gone through the gate, you never have to think about it again, congratulations. You have arrived at product market fit and that's not how it works, right?
Hubert Palan: Not at all. Yeah. It's also the topic that sometimes comes up like, is this a product or is it a feature, when you have a startup, basically what you're trying to say is that if you're saying it's a feature, it's because the segment and the pain point might not be big enough to sustain itself as a independent viable business. Right. And that there's really a stronger, adjacent use case than bigger segment that this thing that you just discovered should be part of. And if you don't move there fast enough, well, somebody else will, and eventually the gravity will pull you in, or like pull your customers, away from your little feature and your're toast. So there you go.
Blake Bartlett: Okay. So to wrap up here on customer centricity, deciding what to build next. So say you get all that stuff down, but then you still have this open question of, okay, well, is this just really a product team thing? Or does this have a bigger, broader reaching impact? And so what's your view of the impact of this conversation and what we're talking about on things like go to market.
Hubert Palan: Well, as the thing that it is. And obviously, I mean, I don't know if it's obvious, but you know, most companies, unfortunately don't operate like that, but you hear a lot about ideal customer profile on the sales side or the marketing side, but it's somehow it breaks between go to market and between the R and D you know, products, EPD, product engineering, design organization, there's some, the personas up here and so on, but broader segmentation is kind of not that present. And so that's fundamental that what we're describing the understanding of the segments and the pain points really pyramids through the company and that everybody at the company, whether it's sales, marketing, customer success, support engineering products, product marketing, like all of these functions, understand the segmentation in the same way, because inevitably these people throughout the customer journey, with your company inaudible, through like a customer experience map, they will face consequences of the decisions that these different departments made. And if the different departments understand the ideal custom profile differently, or if the use different messaging that doesn't address the pain points, well, the experience is not going to be consistent. It's not going to be great. It's not going to be excellent experience. Right? And so there you go. That's why it's important to have this unification. I remember I had this mentor and who was a... in the early apple days, a QA engineer. And he said that typical QA departments, quality assurance engineer, typically the charter is okay, here's a spec, make sure that it's built to spec. And he said, no, our charter wasn't that our charter was would customer use it and be satisfied with that outcome, which is a subtle difference. But suddenly the quality assurance engineer is empowered to make the decision. Well, maybe it's built to spec, but the spec is incorrect and people would never use it that way. And so there you go again, that means that if you make the right decision, you need to understand the segmentation. You need to understand the pain points, right? So that you can make the right decision, whether people would really use it and enjoy it across the whole company,
Blake Bartlett: The consistency, which, again, sounds so obvious. But then when you're in practice, it's so hard. And I you described it really well. You know, we think about personas when we're building product. And then we think about ICPs and personas when we're doing distribution. And it's amazing how sometimes those don't overlap and there isn't consistency, or maybe you didn't get specific enough to realize that there was misalignment, realizing we're building a sales product. And one side is building for the sales rep, but then the sellers or the distribution is trying to sell to sales management, to the VP of sales. They think about things very differently. You built a product and you're trying to sell it to a different persona. And so you need to get specific and you need to make sure that there's consistency. And again, it does not sound like rocket science, but if you build the wrong thing, because you want customer centric, then it's going to make, go to market harder. Either. You won't be able to sell the thing because you're selling the wrong thing. And the market wants something that you don't have or say, you have the best marketing in the world in the best sellers in the world. It's going to bite you on the back end because you didn't build the right thing. Even though they signed the contract, they never got off the ground. It didn't deliver any value it's going to lead to churn. And so...
Hubert Palan: Or you're just going to be safe Going to be slow.
Blake Bartlett: Exactly.
Hubert Palan: Even if you do it, you're just going to do it too slow because the alignment is going to be difficult and, miscommunication and so on. That's the second piece, get it right. Get it fast.
Blake Bartlett: It's back to the beginning. Part of success is all about the speed and quality of your decisions and this idea of customer centricity through a repeatable framework enables both of those things. And it doesn't just affect the product. It affects the entirety of the business. So in closing, I think this is a great place to leave it. Hubert. Thank you so much for taking the time with us here today on the build podcast.
Hubert Palan: This is wonderful Blake, thank you for having me.
Blake Bartlett: Thanks for listening to this episode of build. If you like what you've heard, leave us a review on apple podcasts and subscribe to stay up to date with all the new episodes. Want more insights from OpenView. Follow me, Blake Bartlett on LinkedIn for daily PLG content and head to our website to sign up for our weekly newsletter.
The key to customer centricity is empathy. But where does empathy come from? Actual knowledge of your customer, their pain and their goals. Everyone on your team shares responsibility in developing this knowledge. But most companies delegate this to user research, annual surveys or maybe the founder’s gut. It’s not enough.
[1:45] Hubert explains why he considers that brilliant founders are overrated.
[3:30] Hubert shares how to avoid the bottleneck where the only person that's allowed to be brilliant in the startup is the founder.
[5:45] It's easier to say that you're customer-centric than to actually be customer-centric. What does this look like in practice?
[10:55] Hurbert speaks about how to become a good listener.
[13:32] Hubert highlights the importance of segmentation.
[15:44] Learn to think strategically considering all the involved variables.
[17:26] How do customer-centricity and the matrix translate to product-market fit?
[20:13] Hubert talks about the common question: Is this a product or is it a feature?
[21:04] What is the impact on go to market?
[23:11] Consistency sounds obvious but it can be really hard to achieve.
Mentioned in this episode:
Hubert Palan, Founder and CEO at Productboard
Follow Blake Bartlett on Linkedin.
Podcast produced by OpenView.
View our blog for more context/inspiration.