Monday , November 30 2020

About startups and Silicon Valley with Dan Hale from Productboard

How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your business?

Our growth slowed temporarily in the spring as many customers suddenly had to face burning issues. For example, how to switch to a distributed business and home office. Since then, we have returned to the same growth as before the crisis.

How many people does Productboard employ today and how do you share leadership roles in the company with other co-founder Hubert Palán?

About two hundred people. Hubert is the CEO of the company and of course he is in charge of everything. On the one hand, I help manage the entire Prague office as CEO, and I am primarily interested in developing new things, new products and services.

The productboard has clients from worldwide corporations. Where are you the strongest, where are you in the best position?

In North America. It houses a number of large software companies that are actively thinking about how to address customer needs and better prioritize. It’s something we help with. This is the grave of our functioning.

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Is being from Europe, from the Czech Republic, an obstacle in the US?

Interestingly, customers do not consider us a Czech, but an American company. Even a large part of our sales team is from America. So, optically we are an American company. There is also a huge change in thinking. Over the last few years, people have begun to realize that it is extremely difficult to build a company that is everywhere in San Francisco because it is one of the most expensive places in the world. It is already so expensive that it has outgrown all reasonable measures. It is very difficult to hire developers there. And when we tell someone we have events outside of San Francisco, they say, yes, that’s right.

If you are dealing with clients in the US and want to get them, what is the difference compared to the Czech Republic?

I think it’s mostly a difference in the maturity of product management thinking, where American customers already have processes in place and know exactly what they want. On the other hand, here in the Czech Republic, customers very often hope that, when they start using the Productboard, they will solve even procedural things that they have not yet tweaked.

This can be reflected in the fact that clients actually misunderstand what you are doing, what are you actually doing?

We help centralize a company’s knowledge of customer needs. And then work with her so that it is clear how the product should be developed to best meet the needs of the market. I would somehow define us. For off-field people, this may be harder to understand.

As a result, how does it help a company, actually someone?

This way, the company will not use thousands of hours of programmer time to build functionality that no one needs. We are a tool that helps in the digital world to show where development needs to go forward. Since in the world of physical things it is clear that the table must have some parameters, there it must have legs, and the physical world is limited. In the digital world, like Instagram or Sony, I’m going to deal with the way Stories are created, the click and buy feature, or tagging and swiping up. There are simply a billion ways you can decide that what you want to do is right. And we can help with that.

You founded the Productboard in 2014. Is what you are doing evolving?

The beginnings were in discovering and studying best product management practices. And figuring out what a Productboard should be. I spent about a year and a half with Hubert (another co-founder and CEO) in Silicon Valley, where we had fun with about a thousand different people as potential buyers, whether they were startup founders, product and project managers. It was terribly interesting to hear how they manage the development of their products, how they decide what the product should know, how they listen to their customers and learn from their experience how to build a system that will help achieve a better result. Since then we have been working on that basis somehow.

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How did the idea for the Productboard actually come about more than five years ago?

We both actually worked with Hubert on digital products. My part was that I was a programmer for many years and it was very interesting to me how we developers spend a lot of time trying to be faster and more efficient. We are adopting new technologies, new languages, libraries and tools. We automate things and then we always work 10, 12, 14 hours a day to deliver code, functionality, just to find out that no one cares that those customers don’t use it. And it’s terribly frustrating. I started thinking about how the process would work properly and how to check if someone really needed it – before they started building it. Hubert had previously held the position of vice president of project management at another company, where he was the person responsible for it when developers were building something, and no one used or needed it. And Hubert already knew a better way to do it.

If I imagine that the alternative to the Productboard is Excel, then, for example, Asana or Evernote, or through other software tools, what makes you better than these variants?

The whole process is quite complicated. The asana will always deal with only one small part. How can I communicate with the whole company there, so what do I do? Well, to do that, I need a signpost. The point is that Productboard is a tool where I can do this very effectively. It will allow some forms of analysis and reflect customer feedback, which I wouldn’t normally do in an Excel spreadsheet. Excel is not collaborative, so it does not allow sophisticated analysis and segmentation.

So would you say you provide the most comprehensive overview of the solution to the problem?

To explain, if you owned a pool as a company and are now thinking about how to make a better pool. What can I add to make it better? And now I’m going to put a feedback box there and someone will write there: I want a stopwatch so I can measure how much I need to swim in the pools. And someone else will say: I’d love a drink here with umbrellas and more loungers. And another says: I would like the water to be colder and deeper. As a result, it turns out that there are different customer segments in the market that have different needs, and it is never possible to build a product that satisfies everyone at once.

It is always a decision. It takes a lot to focus on one segment and try to conquer it, especially at the beginning of product development. To be the best product on the market and only then it is possible to continue to grow and meet other needs. This is actually the thinking structure that product managers need to work on. And we help them with that. So if I used a Productboard for a pool, I should be able to see that there are different segments, here are the needs of mothers, and there are so many, and there are some other needs of professional swimmers and so on.

Who are your customers today?

For example, Microsoft, Avast, Dell, and then smaller companies like Envoy.

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The well-known American fund Sequoia Capital has recently become one of the investors in the development of the Productboard. You are the first Czech company in which Sequoia has invested. What attracted them to them?

I think he likes that we’re a whole new category. They like companies that create their own market, i.e. those that are really first in the market. Just a few years ago, a whole new category of product management system began to emerge. And we will be the best system on the market. They love when someone comes up with something new and wants to conquer the market. It is simply not another customer database or other application for shared scooters.

Why should developers go to the Productboard when there are a lot of startups? In essence, quite similar.

It is a unique opportunity to see a company with a truly American culture and an opportunity to build the best product in its category in the world. It is possible to be in a company where English is the common language. We have about 28 different nationalities in the team. It’s a great chance to know how manufacturing companies are built. For example, we have a lot of people who would like to have their own startup, and one of the knowledge they need to learn is product management. And since it’s our domain that we’re studying here and that’s the thing we’re building the product on, it’s going to help them really understand how to think about it and how to build it. It also records product vision, strategy, market positioning and sales to customers. That is why it is very interesting for many of them.

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Can the Czech labor market create enough potential for companies with global ambitions?

It is a pity that we here in the Czech Republic have excellent developers, but a huge number of them work in development agencies that deal with tailor-made development and there they can never have such authority to decide how to do it. Because there is always a client who gets what he wants. However, our model is the opposite. We don’t tell our developers exactly what needs to be done, but we tell them, here are some customer issues that need to be addressed and some metrics because we know we’re doing it well. Try to solve it and they can actually use all their intuition, curiosity and thinking to come up with different ways to do it. And that’s motivating. So I think it’s more about the lack of opportunities for such creative work.

How do you look at work from home at home?

We try to recruit the best people in the world. So we are open to recruiting people outside of Prague and San Francisco. We also have teams that are in Amsterdam, some in Berlin, some in Slovakia. However, we are also aware of the importance of face-to-face meetings, especially in an informal environment where people are not limited to 50-60 minutes of meetings, where they must be productive quickly, say what they want, and then work quickly. But it is also important that people get to know each other and have the opportunity to exchange a few words together while sitting and working. These looser discussions often bring out the best ideas. When they go out for lunch, for coffee. We try to combine the two worlds. Before the crisis, we had a lot of distributed companies, but we traveled a lot. A lot of people flew from Prague to San Francisco and back, to have personal contact, to always be together, to go to dinner to talk about these things in detail. This is something we still consider very important. I think companies that act solely as so-called distributed, but are never actually seen, so they don’t have teams, but groups of individuals who don’t collaborate as much.

What, even given the new investment from the Sequoia fund, are you planning to further develop the Productboard?

We are now building a bigger team here in Prague. We employ product managers, designers, developers. We have a new office ready for that, but people can work with us remotely. We will always work on our product, because in the digital world the product is never finished. There is always room for improvement. We are now working to make the Productboard work well even in the largest companies. We’re not doing well yet.

Daniel Hale

Daniel is the co-founder and chief technical officer of Productboard, a company that develops a system for effective product management. It helps companies move products in the right direction and market them faster. The system is used by over 3,000 companies such as Microsoft, UI Path, Dell, Zendesk or Twilio. The production board helps them understand the needs of their customers and guides them on the optimal path of further development. Daniel previously worked as a senior programmer at Trumaker. He lives in Prague, where he is in charge of the Productboard technology team.

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