Early stage companies, with the best chance of success, are typically led by strong founders with a clear vision of where they want to be – they are not afraid to take risks, they see the bigger picture and they have the ability to lead others to deliver their vision of the world.
To get initial investment the founder CEOs create a clear business plan articulating the market opportunity, the competitors in their space, the problem or need the company is going to address, the technology they will use to solve this problem and how they will make money. The founder CEO will generally start by hiring a few engineers to deliver their vision. They might have one or two sales and marketing people but predominantly the company is focused on executing a defined product strategy.
As the company grows the founder can sometimes move into a different role in favour of a “professional” CEO (often appointed by the board) or they may become more focused on general business development, with perhaps less time for defining the product vision.
In this hiatus, where there is potentially a lack of product strategic direction, one of Sales, Engineering or Marketing may step up to fill the void. However, allowing any of these groups to dictate the product strategy brings risk:
- A company that adopts an engineering-led strategy runs the risk of focusing too much on the “next cool technology” with little understanding of the needs of the market.
- A sales-led strategy may simply focus on the needs of each individual customer leading to “bespoke” and “one-off” solutions and driving the company down a services route.
- A marketing led strategy may focus too much on external messaging with little understanding of technology innovations or the needs of the customer.
So how does the CEO “get it just right”?
CEOs like Larry Ellison of Oracle, Bill Gates of Microsoft and Steve Jobs of Apple managed to scale their companies and remain involved in core product strategy. As their companies grew they ensured they played a key part in defining the “vision” for the product, whilst ensuring that they built a strong team that were equipped to address their core strategic vision. These CEOs knew that, without innovation and the right product vision, the company would die.
The success of early stage technology companies is often a result of a founder CEO who has managed to get the balance “just right” with product strategy. To ensure the product strategy meets their vision they maintain an active involvement in:
- Articulating the problem they are trying to solve
- Understanding the competitive landscape
- Defining the market opportunity
They also have a deep knowledge of the technology that will help them to successfully address the market need.
Continuing to get that balance right as the company grows is crucial for continued success.
Although Steve Jobs was actively involved in defining the vision for Apple’s products, he recognised the importance of adopting a supporting framework to deliver on his vision so that he could also focus on other aspects of business development. He is quoted as saying:
“You need a very product-oriented culture… Lots of companies have great engineers and smart people. …..there needs to be some gravitational force that pulls it all together.”
As the company grows and the CEO has less opportunity for acting as the “gravitational force”, adopting a product management discipline is an important next step – it is never too early to ensure it is part of the DNA of the company.
Successful CEOs naturally adopt aspects of the product management discipline from the moment they write their first business plan but ensuring it is engrained in the organisation takes focus and alignment across the leadership team.
As the CEO becomes increasingly involved in other aspects of business development, it is so important that they have adopted and resourced a framework for product management that will ensure their vision continues to be executed.
Rather than usurping the CEO, Product Management supports them by understanding their vision and ensuring that a product strategy captures and articulates that vision. They help the CEO to understand the market opportunity, they maintain oversight of the creation and delivery of the product through engineering and they support the positioning of the product to market through targeted messaging and sales execution. Product Management listen to many stakeholders and help the organisation to make decisions based on the “right data” – they are the “gravitational force” that pulls everyone together to drive the organisation’s strategic objectives.
Whether the CEO is the ultimate product visionary or whether this is driven from within the organisation it is essential that there is an established discipline for managing product strategy.
Finding and nurturing the right product management team will enable the Goldilocks CEO to “get it just right” and to allow them to maintain the right level of engagement on product strategy.
To be really effective the relationship between product management and the CEO must be strong and bi-directional
- The product manager must be able to understand and reflect the CEOs vision and objectives through a clear product strategy. They are a critical resource in supporting the CEO to deliver on their vision.
- The CEO must understand the value that product management adds to the organisation, they must be actively involved in setting their objectives and reviewing their effectiveness. They must champion the product management discipline in the organisation.
For product management to become part of the DNA of an organisation it needs the support and “buy-in” of the CEO from the start.