We're halfway through Atlanta Startup Week, "a new type of conference that builds momentum and opportunity around entrepreneurship," and it's been a really interesting mix of events, locations and topics so far. One of my favorites was a Tuesday morning panel at General Assembly, titled "Product Chiefs: How to Make It in Atlanta."
If you follow me on social media, you may have noticed that I've recently changed roles at SalesLoft and moved from Client Success to Product. As a blog reader, you probably have noticed how I love networking, learning new things, research and startups (not necessarily in that order). So when an event checked every one of those boxes, you know I signed up immediately.
Moderated by Chidi Afulezi, co-founder of aKoma, the panel featured Atlanta Hawks CMO Melissa Proctor, and Experience Product, Sales & Marketing SVP Junior Gaspard. Chidi is truly a serial entrepreneur, Melissa comes from a long history with the Miami Heat and Turner Broadcasting, and Junior has spent more than 12 years working with SaaS companies (including Scoutmob and Silverpop), so the range of experience was wide.
With a robust set of panel questions (beautifully right-aligned on slides that featured the entire panel's Twitter handles — details I appreciate), Chidi expertly guided the conversation from personal background to high-level strategy, and everything in between.
A few highlights:
Cultural Fit is Important
From Melissa talking about how the NBA originally turned her down because she was deemed "too creative" for their corporate philosophy, to Junior's assertion that you should hire the smartest, hardest-working, nicest people you can find because "life is too short to work with jerks," this theme came up again and again throughout the discussion. Both panelists agreed that you should be deliberate with hires and resources; you shouldn't bring on people just to hit numbers, but rather hire carefully (through recommendations, if possible), and look for what people do on their personal time, what they're passionate and proactive about, and how that could connect to your company and team. You also want to ensure the fit with the rest of the team; while this gets harder to do as your company grows, it's vital to find a process to do it consistently.
How Can You Be an Asset?
Melissa said she's always open to connecting with people and having informational meetings because so many people assisted her, and she wants to pay it forward. But, she warned, you need to be an asset in networking; don't just get coffee, talk about nothing, and leave with no follow-up. When you meet new people, ask what their challenges are, and think about how you could help them with solutions.
Junior concurred, and said you want to make the connection, then find the right cadence and nurture that network. Don't be that guy who reaches out when you haven't heard from him in five years — nobody knows if you're even any good anymore by then, bro!
Empower Your People
Melissa and Junior were emphatic that once you find the right people, you have to give them the resources and the opportunity to do their jobs. If you've hired them because of their capabilities, ensure they understand the strategic goals of the business (Junior recommends discussing this in one-to-ones), make sure they have the right tools, and then be confident that they can execute on it. This all goes back to culture fit, and also making sure you have the right roles in place: Melissa, for example, said she doesn't hire basketball fans, she hires people with the right skills. She needs someone who gets product and social positioning, and can be flexible, smart and figure things out. Loving the NBA is a bonus, but definitely not a prerequisite.
And along those lines,
Don't stifle creativity
As Junior said, people have ideas, and there should be a way to let that out. Melissa referenced her art background, citing the concept of portfolio critiques as a healthy way to collectively come up with the best decision: "The best stuff rises to the top, and you build a better culture at the same time." There's always a tendency for the room to look to the HiPPO, and say, sure, whatever they want, but you need to move past that; get transparency in the process and include feedback from disparate sources. Enable your team to feel a sense of ownership, and merely be there to guide them.
Good things to come to those who hustle
Much like being proactive about your network, Junior said, you have show some initiative. Develop champions; the worth of your network is important. Not only that, you have to have projects and work to back up your reputation. "Personal brand" is a thing, y'all, and you have to own it and be good at it; be the first person who comes to mind when your area of expertise is discussed. "What do people say about you and your work when you leave the room?" is the most important question, according to Junior. Product is truly a small industry, so many of Melissa and Junior's contacts know each other, and they will often reach out for recommendations and referrals in their internal network. You'd better be part of it.
Embrace New Challenges
An audience member asked how, as Junior and Melissa were going through their careers, they knew they were ready for the next thing. Turns out, neither of them went looking for anything; new challenges came to them.
"I was both always and never ready," Melissa said, "Because I'm a planner, so I was always planning for the next thing, but I never applied to anything except my internship. ... When you feel like you can do your role with your eyes closed, you need something new."
"When you get that tap on the shoulder, there will always be nerves about taking the next step," Junior said. "You have to believe in yourself, have confidence in what you do, know your stuff, and make it happen."
GET COMFORTABLE BEING UNCOMFORTABLE
There is no "true" way to gauge the optimal time to move to a new technology or a new product; you risk being ahead by moving too early, and you risk falling behind by waiting too long. In product, Junior says, you have to get comfortable releasing some seed versions and doing learning and feedback loops. You can't assume you know it all without that user experience, and it'll drive your company to evolve; the progression of UberEATS from a clunky tab on the main program to a streamlined standalone app is a case in point. Melissa agreed, and said they use corporate partnerships to do limited releases to test audiences, but that they always go in knowing that it's a risk that could really pay off.
Product Is a Balance
Unlike when Junior was in sales, where he was ultimately responsible for the top-line revenue numbers, now he has a broader voice in what he builds and brings to customers. This means he has to think about not just his own resources, but about what everyone in the company needs and what all of the customers need. But as Melissa said, while she can't control the team's wins and losses, she can impact how the audience feels about the team as a brand (each NBA team operates separately in that regard, so her marketing and product team has a lot of leeway there). That's pretty typical of how product works — you may not be front-and-center in many ways, but at the end of the day, Junior says, you get to impact how people experience your company. There's no organizational role with a bigger impact than that.
Shameless Plug: Want to learn a better approach to product in your company? Join SalesLoft on May 26 for "Modern Best Practices of a Product-First Organization," and come hear from the top product leaders in Atlanta about how prioritizing world-class product leads to more sales, higher customer satisfaction, and greater revenue. Featuring Alan Pinstein, co-founder, Tourbuzz & Showcase IDX; Bruce Johnson, founder and COO, FullStory; Kevin Mann, co-founder & CTO, CallRail; and Robert Swarthout, co-founder, ShootProof.