What Podcasting Has Taught Me About Building Great Products

We all use multiple products each day. It might start with our Alarm app on our iPhone, or Amazon’s Siri waking us up. Then, we might check our Google Calendar. Next, our Gmail. We’re living in a world where product is more important (and apparent) than ever. 

Over the past year and a half, I’ve hosted a podcast called Product Love, which you can check out on iTunes or Spotify. Each week, I talked to a product person about their job. We’ve delved into the evolving craft of product management, trends in the industry, and insights on how the modern PM makes you feel “product love.”

How did they create our favorite products? Why did they become product people? How did they climb the corporate ladder? What are their thoughts on product management as a field? What could their answers reveal to us about what the future holds for our own products and how we should be making them? 

Product management is no longer based on gut instinct, or simply an afterthought. It’s not just an art, but it’s not yet a science. It’s a craft. 

Here’s what over 60 fantastic conversations with the top product leaders in the field have taught me about building great products.

Product Leaders Build Inspiring Teams

One of the major themes in my conversations with my guests was around how they built their teams. These people were product executives who had a seat at the table, so what did they look for in product managers? How did they evangelize product within their company? 

Sachin Rekhi, CEO of Notejoy, said that influence is one of the most powerful skills a product manager can develop. Product managers tend not to have formal authority, so they must rely on influence to get the job done.

How do you do that? Dheerja Kaur, CPO of theSkimm, had some ideas. Dheerja shared that alignment is incredibly important to building strong product teams. Each member of her team has to know why and how they’re contributing. But that alignment must extend to the rest of the company. She suggested product team spotlight presentations, where each member presents to the company about what they’re working on. This answers the ubiquitous question of, “What does product actually do?” It’s a matter of selling your own product and product vision to your whole company.

Supriya Uchil, CEO of AccelerateProduct, told me that promoting teamwork and gaining influence can also come from being present and practicing active listening. She’s had her product team sit with people in different departments to build positive, bi-directional relationships. In addition, she’s worked to get to know her colleagues outside of the office. 

Product Managers Are Problem-centric

The best product managers don’t fall in love with their ideas. Instead, they fall in love with the problem. And the only way to be problem-centric is to empathize with customers and understand what they’re going through. Product managers should constantly be talking to customers and acting as their advocates. 

Jeff Lash, CPO of the SiriusDecisions, told me he has a whiteboard in his office that says, “I’ve gone X days without talking to a customer.” And Teresa Torres seconded that point. Best known for her customer discovery workshops and writings, she said that product managers should adopt the perspective of co-creating with their customers. Many PMs think that speaking to customers a few times a quarter is enough. In reality, problems are constantly evolving and use cases are always changing.

But how are we talking to these customers? When I asked about customer feature requests, Ryan Singer of Basecamp said that we need to retire the “why?” question. Why? prompts a general answer like, “This needs to be faster,” or “Because it helps me.” When? prompts a series of events, an anecdote where customers can tell you when they began to have a certain problem. Customers are brilliant at telling you their issues, but you need to prompt their best answers. 

Build Products to Last

Thousands of products launch every single day. So how can we build them to last? How do we make them stand out from the crowd?

April Dunford told me that the answer lies in product positioning. She said not to think of it as a simple Madlibs fill-in-the-blank exercise. Rather, determining your product’s market position must be a strategic process. It affects how customers, investors, and even your team views your product. 

Gibson Biddle said that products should be made in hard-to-copy, margin-enhancing ways. This means that your product has to have a competitive edge. What did Netflix have over Blockbuster? Streaming. It’s an obvious win today, but it was unclear when Netflix initially launched. Today, there’s a hard-to-copy advantage in the technology that Netflix employs to encrypt and deliver video. And customers love watching movies instantly — anytime, anywhere.

Understand Your Impact

Cindy Alvarez told me that we can’t build impactful products without impactful teams. Team building goes back all the way to the hiring process. When we conduct interviews, we tend to gravitate towards candidates who remind us of ourselves. We might say it’s because we went to the same school or shared the same major. Most of the time, however, it’s because they share our gender, sexual orientation, or ethnic background. Our comfort around them can be enough to overlook their shortcomings and extend them the benefit of the doubt. We don’t give the same courtesy to candidates who don’t resemble us in any way. To combat that bias, Cindy suggested that we make our hiring and promoting process as objective as possible. We should be carefully examining candidates based on their skills and qualities in order to ensure we aren’t blindsided by our own level of comfort.

Benjamin Earl Evans of Airbnb discussed the importance of inclusive design. The entire goal of inclusive design is to have it already in the process of creating great products. If we want our products to have maximum appeal, then shouldn’t we be designing for all?

Radhika Dutt of RadicalProduct shared a revolutionary perspective on product. She asked me to think about doctors and how they vow by the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm. We product people are constantly creating new strategies to make our products impactful and lifechanging, so shouldn’t we be bound by ethical responsibility? If we know our products are addictive or have the potential to disrupt someone’s day-to-day, do we need an oath of our own?

A New Era for Product Leaders

This all confirms that we’re in the golden age of product. We can recognize that product management is no longer an underappreciated role — it has a real seat at the table. And as the craft grows in importance and influence, it will need to evolve and be ready to meet new needs and challenges. We look forward to discussing all that and more on Product Love!