Hubert Palan of Productboard

Founder Coffee episode 002

I’m Jeroen of Salesflare and this is Founder Coffee.

Every two weeks I have coffee with a different founder. We discuss life, passions, learnings, … in an intimate talk, getting to know the person behind the company.

For this second episode, I talked with Hubert Palan of Productboard. I met Hubert about a year and a half ago at TechCrunch Disrupt at San Francisco, and I’ve been considering using Productboard to professionalize product management at Salesflare ever since.

Hubert is a product guy and a thinker at heart. His vision: more excellent products through better product management. We mainly talk about what motivates him, how he manages Productboard, and where he looks for inspiration.

Prefer listening? You can find this episode on:

Jeroen: Hi, Hubert. It’s great to have you on Founder Coffee.

Hubert: Hi!

Jeroen: You’re Founder of Productboard. For those who don’t know Productboard yet, what does your company do?

Hubert: Sure, yeah, thanks for having me. This is a pleasure. At Productboard, we help product teams and product makers make real excellent products. Products that matter to people.

What it means in day to day is that our customers’ product teams at some of the leading companies out there use Productboard to centralize research and user feedback and understand what really matters to their customers, by means of having a centralized repository for insights from the market, customers and prospects through what customer success or customer support team professionals are hearing.

Then based on that they prioritize ideas and feature requirements. And they organize them in a hierarchy that’s actually manageable, unlike flat backlogs somewhere in JIRA.

You can create and organize hierarchy in Productboard, and then put it on the roadmap, and make sure that everyone around the company is aligned on what’s being built and why.

We also have a portal that customers can set up to collect insights from their customers without doing interviews or without talking with customers directly. It helps you collect the insights at scale.

Jeroen: Yeah, cool. So, it kind of centralizes and professionalizes product management.

Hubert: It’s a CRM for product management. Product managers at Zendesk or Shopify are our customers, and it’s their go to tool. Every day, they go there and they go to find out what’s new, what customers are saying, especially when they want to make a product decision. They see all the features that are being considered and then ultimately prioritize and see the status of it progressing. It’s the product brain of the company.

Jeroen: And you normally do use different tools to manage all these things.

Hubert: Correct, no spreadsheets, no PowerPoints, no Evernote notes, no emails floating everywhere. It’s all in one place.

Jeroen: Got it. Is your personal background in product management?

Hubert: Yeah, I got a masters in computer science and software engineering and then MBA at Berkeley. I kind of bridge the tech and business worlds. And I spent several years in product management roles, first in consulting at Accenture in Prague. But then here after business school in the Valley at a couple startups.

And then at GoodData where I went to be VP of Products. That’s the reason why Productboard exists. Because I was a product manager myself and I understood the pain. And I figured, hey, let’s change that. Let’s solve the pain.

Jeroen: At what exact moment was it that you decided to start Productboard? What were you working on? Where were you and with whom?

Hubert: I’ve always been inspired by people who create great products. And real excellent products will resonate with people, not just on a functional level. Not just like “okay, this works well”, but also on the emotional level. On the level where it actually invokes specific emotions.

I’ve read all the books and everything I could find on people like Steve Jobs obviously, but also Phil Knight of Nike and Disney as a company and even other CEOs of fast growing startups. Especially those that have some strong brands or have some promotional appeal.

I always thought: what must it have been like when Steve Jobs walked on stage and launched the first iPhone? And I know that Apple is an overused analogy, but the thought there was: how was the sense of pride and fulfillment and accomplishment? Because the whole team knew that this was going to fundamentally change lives for so many people.

The reason why they knew was because they really very well understood the needs of the customers. They spent so much time analyzing and prototyping and testing and tinkering, with so many different versions. They really put a lot of effort and a lot of focus into creating something delightful.

That’s something that I was always wondering and then when I … after business school and after Steve Blank, the founder of the Lean Startup, was my professor at Berkeley, and the whole lean startup movement was happening: “get out of the building” and “talk with customers” and all that.

I got super excited and then I took off. The reality hit here and I started discovering what it’s really like at many of the companies here. Even in the heart of Silicon Valley. And I found that most companies are driven by sales. Like “hey, we sold a deal and there’s a feature request”. Or they’re driven by engineering where you’re building stuff just because you think it’s cool, but you don’t really know whether someone needs it.

Jeroen: Totally.

Hubert: At the company where I was at, GoodData, we were building a cool BI platform, but the culture was predominantly a sales culture. I was frustrated by that. I wanted to make sure that the decisions were based on the understanding of real customer needs, as opposed to what was sold by the sales team.

That was the inspiration. The inspiration was “hey, let’s create a system”.

And of course, if you have a founder who just tells you “Shut up. This is what you need to do. And that’s how product management is done.”, then your get stuck. You first need to figure out how to create the moment of revelation or enlightenment first. Then slowly go and change the culture. Change it into a product driven, a customer driven one. Make sure that you have the deep insight and that you a have solid product strategy and then you can execute.

Anyway, a long answer but it was the motivation. The company where I was at was a B2B SaaS company, $100 million, well $75 million budget, raised by the time I had left, with Andreessen Horowitz and other top investors. I went to see many of our customers’ business, because we were a BI platform. I interacted on a daily basis with senior leadership at other companies. We were analyzing their businesses and I saw how they operate, and how they ran their product teams as well.

That was the motivation. I said: “Come on, we have all these task management tools like JIRA that are great for engineering, but there is nothing that would help you with deciding what should be on top of the backlog in the first place.”

Jeroen: Exactly. You have a tool to manage your customers. You have one to manage your development, but the product management falls in between.

Hubert: Where is this system where you have … In most engineering systems, you have entities in the logical model like features, stories, tasks, … It’s all solution centric. Here are all the features that you want to have; let’s break them down into manageable chunks and let’s push them through the engineering pipeline.

There is no entity that represents a customer, or a need, or a problem, or an importance or urgency. None of the stuff that product management is tracking is represented in the logical model of the system.

You have some of the stuff in CRM systems. There you have customers, but it’s very sales focused. It’s about what happens before they become a customer and about seeing them go through the stages.

We create a system that will help people to have this little sense of pride and accomplishment for every feature that they launch as a product person. To have something that will back their decisions, to have something that will give them confidence. To have something that will create transparency around the whole team.

During the process of building products, people make decisions throughout the whole development life cycle. From the initial research stages, to design, testing and development and product marketing and the whole go-to-market. If everyone throughout this life cycle isn’t very well aligned around the needs of the customers, and if all the people don’t understand very well what matters to the customers, then they will inevitably make the wrong decisions throughout the product development process.

Jeroen: Got it.

Hubert: Maybe they design a feature in a little different way because they don’t understand the user. Especially if you’re building a B2B system, and you’re designing system for someone who is not you, then it’s more difficult. It’s about creating this shared understanding for everyone on the team. Only then excellent products can happen.

Jeroen: Yeah.

Hubert: I talked to a guy who was an advisor of mine. He was at Apple, 20 years ago. He was on the QA team there. And he said that the difference at Apple was that — typically in other companies the QA, quality assurance team, says “Look, here’s the spec and test it against the spec. It doesn’t work as specified.” — and he said that the difference at Apple was that when he was there that his job wasn’t to sign off on the spec. His job was to sign off on: “Is the customer going to use it the way it’s built?”

That creates a very different mindset, because suddenly you are asked to think about what matters to the customers and about the real use case, the real flow, as opposed to just what’s in the spec. It’s a subtle shift, but it has some major implications, if you create a culture like that.

Jeroen: We try to cope with it personally by… We have issues and features, but then there is an in between point where it’s not broken, and it’s not like we didn’t intend to make it like that. It’s just not working for the customer. We label this a “UX improvement”.

This is a different type of development job we have. This is actually making sure that we build Salesflare the way that people will actually use it, or that we adapt it to the way they would like to use it.

And we take these “UX improvements” even more seriously than issues sometimes.

Hubert: Yeah, yeah, good.

Jeroen: We’re still doing without Productboard, but we’re looking at it.

Hubert: Sure, you’ll come around eventually. [laughs] Everyone will.

Jeroen: Have you always known that you wanted to do a startup or is it something that just came to you when you were at GoodData?

Hubert: Have I always known? Of course, I didn’t know. Well in life, are you asking me at the age of eight, did you know that…

Jeroen: Always, I don’t know. But with always I mean from the moment you were actually thinking about professional stuff. Did you feel like you want to start your own company or did this just come at some moment?

Hubert: Yeah, I think that it was on the back of my mind, but the environment where I grew up… I grew up in Czechoslovakia and then in Czech Republic. I’m almost 40. I’ll be 40 this year. It wasn’t the most entrepreneurial culture to start with.

When I go down to college or my masters, I was like: “hey, what am I going to do”. I studied computer science, so I wanted to be in the digital world, but then I figured: “I want to see how companies are run and how companies operate”. That’s why I went to consulting and then I joined Accenture in systems integration consulting and then in business strategy consulting, but still within the technical realm.

At the moment when I started seeing how banks work, and insurance companies and those large group corporations. Then I figured: “Oh my God, this is terrible. And things can be done so much better.” That was the motivation for me to say “I’m going to build my own company one day.”

I hated politics and I always wanted to be at a company where everyone, including the janitors, would be proud to be working for the company. Where people would identify with the mission.

I never understood people who work at companies just for the money. Why don’t you go do something that you actually love and make money? Of course, in our world, we are lucky in the sense that, if you’re an artist, it’s harder to make money and do what you love. In tech or business, you get both.

Jeroen: We can do what we love and earn money if we’re successful.

Hubert: Right. It’s a big game for us.

Jeroen: For them chances are also there, but they’re much smaller.

Hubert: Yeah, yeah. The scale, it’s the aspect of scale.

Jeroen: It’s maybe also more objective than being an artist. As an artist, you create something and if you can convince people that it’s nice… While probably in our trade there’s much more of a… if you build a nice product, at least you have a bigger chance of being successful, or don’t you think so?

Hubert: Surely.

Jeroen: Or do you think it’s all marketing?

Hubert: No, no, no. I think that in products the art, that’s kind of the emotional side. And taste is acquired, but you can also influence the taste of other people if you’re consistent, if you have a strong vision.

I like creating things that are practical. Both functional and emotional. Products that solve problems. That’s why I love art and architecture and design as a discipline.

But ultimately, I want to see it apply to something that advances people’s lives.

Jeroen: You started as a business consultant and you like art and architecture. Is this something that comes from your family or parents?

Hubert: Yeah, probably. Now we’re getting really deep. My great-grandfather was a diplomat and he died in a concentration camp during the Nazi Germany.

And my mom was in marketing. She ran marketing for Hewlett-Packard in Czech Republic — Slovakia, and then for Olympus. I’ve always thought about the soft side of things more than your typical techy guy. And empathy and emotions. I just think it’s so important in product management. And I talk to many product managers, and they’re analytical and very functionally oriented: “Let’s solve the problem.”

Fast moving consumer goods companies, the P&Gs and so on, they’re much better in general in the discipline of product management. They’ve been doing research and are making sure that they understand the needs. They have been thinking with emotions.

But in the tech world, it hasn’t been the case. Even brands and big successful companies like Salesforce, they have a huge followership, but if I say “Salesforce”, does it make you feel warm and fuzzy or something? It’s not like if I say “Nike”. You have an emotional reaction. If I say “Apple”, you have an emotional reaction.

Zendesk had a great brand with the buddha and Zen, because that resonated so well with the customer support people. You’re under stress and people complain, unless your product or service is excellent.

Intercom is doing a great job. It’s being human, but there’s not that many companies like that. The kind of traditional brand and emotional marketing… you don’t see it that much in tech. It’s always about the functional benefits.

Jeroen: Maybe that has a bit to do with the type of companies they’re marketing to. If you’re like Salesforce, you market to enterprises. They find specs lists interesting. While small companies will go much more for the more consumer type marketing where you have emotions and not ROI or something.

Hubert: Totally, I get it, and of course you can say that in enterprise and in B2B the customer is not the user. The buyer is not the user. Therefore, it’s much more about functional requirements and of course this is the case if you’re selling large enterprise deals. You’re dealing with procurement people and that’s a different persona.

At the same time, I think that the consumerization of the enterprise is happening and I read this article just last week in Harvard Business Review. It was a pyramid of needs and you still have the emotional aspects high up. The sense of pride and showing others that you’re competent and just striving at your job and feeling amazing. It’s important even in the enterprise.

I think that it’s changing more and more. And you see it, really in the long term. The user experience I believe is the only sustainable competitive advantage. Because functional aspects can be copied. They are being copied. More and more and faster and faster.

But the emotional piece, the appeal. How it makes you feel and what you got to believe in and why we’re using the tool, that’s something that’s much, much harder to copy. Look at Apple. That’s been their play all along. Of course, the products are great in terms of functionality as well, but the emotional appeal, the delight that it creates…

Of course, it’s a different segment, there’s multiple segments in the market. Not everyone is their ideal target customer and not everyone cares about that. But for the segment that they go after, it matters a lot.

If you just match the features but don’t match the emotional appeal, then people are going to switch.

Jeroen: Which other startup or founder do you look up to and why is that?

Hubert: I mentioned the big guys. The big successful companies because there’s a long history of what you can study, and there is a history of what they did and how they turned out.

Of course, in hindsight it’s always 20/20, and you kind of forget the bad things, and maybe you connect the dots in a more idealistic way than it really happened.

But still there is more to study. So that’s why I mentioned companies like Nike, Apple, and I even mentioned Zendesk and Intercom.

The Intercom team is inspiring to me. I’ll also look to companies that are in different industries, not necessarily just who’s around here in the Valley.

I put together this blog post and it’s on my Medium. I collected videos of 20 top unicorn companies’ CEOs. I put it all on this one feed and I watched it. I really wanted to see how the CEOs and founders of all these top companies, how they are and I wanted to see how they speak in real life, because there’s so much more you can get from the sense of who they are as people.

Jeroen: You’ll be happy to follow this series as well then. The founder of Intercom, well one of them at least, Des Traynor, is also going to be on.

Hubert: Yeah, I know Des. Des is great.

Jeroen: That’s going to be cool.

Hubert: I just read this book called “Mastery”. There’s a lot of examples and case studies about the biggest people overall. The biggest inventors and stories of the biggest people of humanity.

I look for examples of people that I know are amazing and I spend more time studying them. I obviously see founders around me who I think are real people. But for me, personally, the biggest inspiration comes from people that really dedicated their lives. Veterans in medicine or architecture or biology. It doesn’t matter. The passion and the focus and the excitement with which they live their lives. How they really stay focused and how they didn’t waste their life doing things that are not important.

They really realized that life is short and that we need to work hard. It comes down to excellence for me. And the strive for excellence in everything that you do. Sorry, I didn’t give you examples of recent startup founders that I find inspiring. But Darwin was super inspiring to me in what he did and by his persistence.

Jeroen: That’s cool. In terms of how this reflects on your ambitions: where do you want to go with Productboard? You want to make it really big?

Hubert: Yeah, I think we are creating a whole new category.

The product management discipline is at the heart of every company. Whether you’re creating digital products or physical products or even services; you are combining the deep customer insight. Your strategic approach to how you’re going to get to where you want to go. How you’re going to form the vision and the execution.

In every company there’s people who are making product decisions. It doesn’t have to be necessarily someone who has a “product manager” title. But there are people who make product decisions.

I think that the market for us is huge, in the sense that we have customers who are not just digital.

Although our ideal customers are people who are making digital products. Don’t take me wrong. Like SaaS products or e-commerce platforms or apps.

The fact that software is eating the world and that everything is being digitized helps us.

There’s what I call digital product managers. But we even have customers like an RV manufacturer up in Canada or an exoskeletal device company. Because with physical products, you collect feedback and you improve that as well. You have more constraints.

The market in a sense is big. Product management is one of the last functions in any company that hasn’t had a very good toolset.

You have CRMs and you have engineering task management tools. You have Workday in the HR realm. You have analytics business intelligence stuff. Then we have marketing automation. We have customer success.

All these fields have dedicated software to help do their job better. But product management has been stuck. So, I think that we have a potential to really own this category.

Product excellence. I want companies to think about product management as product excellence.

Jeroen: Your ambition is basically to professionalize product management and have the world full of great products.

Hubert: You’re an expert in sales, right? Think before CRM how sales were done. You would have a spreadsheet and you would have a Rolodex. You had business cards and you would try not to forget things.

And then CRMs, customer relationship management systems, standardized the process, created transparency, increase the predictability, lowered the risk that you’re not going to hit your number. Because you have the system in place.

Of course, you always have genius outliers, who will sell because they’re charming. They are the outliers. But most of your sales team is going to sell well if they have a good process, if they’re consistent, and if they do the hard work. If they follow up and do the day to day.

Product management is the same thing. I’m not saying that because of a system, you will suddenly turn into Apple, and you will be turning out the best of the best products. But I’m saying that thanks to a solution like Productboard, for product excellence, the chances of launching better products in the market and the chances of eliminating the risk and increasing the predictability of success are going to go up.

Like in sales, like in customer support… If you suddenly have a system, it’s organized, there’s transparency. If a product manager leads your team, the knowledge stays in the company. It doesn’t walk out of the door. All that is contributing.

That’s a big opportunity for us.

Jeroen: Yeah, totally. Very nice. It would be great if more software products would actually be better products.

Hubert: Yeah, software is hard in the sense that it has so many more constraints than hardware products.

There’s this joke in the design world. There’s this picture floating around of a remote control that has hundred buttons or so. You need just two to change the channels and change the volume. You can screw up and you can create an over complicated product even in the physical world.

But in the software world, you don’t have the physical boundaries and it feels easy and cheap to just shove another feature into the product. And think “That’s okay, not everyone will use it.” That’s a danger and that’s why it’s harder. The constraints are much more relaxed.

If you do it right, you can actually create infinite variations of your product and the user experience wouldn’t be impacted for any of the customer segments that you’re serving, as long as they would be exposed to the complexity of all the different variations.

The only problem is that it’s very difficult to create a product like that and make sure that the features are really hidden completely, so that you don’t end up with the ribbon in Microsoft Office, where you have so much stuff and you don’t need most of it.

If I didn’t see it, if I’m not the type of customer who needs it, I shouldn’t even see it. Then it’s fine.

But that’s not the reality. That’s not how the software products are built.

Jeroen: They’re more built to show a lot of features that people are looking for, instead of making it easy to actually use those features.

Hubert: Yeah, most products. Not all of them. There are exceptions, but most.

Jeroen: Cool. Do you think that if you win the lottery tomorrow you’d still be working at Productboard, or would you choose to do something else?

Hubert: It’s like a baby. You know it as a founder. It’s your baby. You want to see it grow up. I want to see it grow up.

If I won the lottery, I might raise less money from VCs and put the lottery winnings in my company.

But I really like what I’m doing. I believe in the vision.

Jeroen: That’s cool.

Hubert: Maybe I wouldn’t put all my money into it.

I actually I read the previous interview that you did with Adam Hempy. You guys talked about VC funding and all that. I actually like the aspect of bringing VCs on, not just because of the money, but I believe that your chances of succeeding are higher if you share the success. If you involve more people, and if you interest more people in your success.

I found the investors that I’ve had so far helpful in that regard that more people are on your team. More people are trying hard.

Of course, it’s got trade-offs and you’re losing control and all that. But the fact that more people are investing into your success… I think it’s a huge deal.

Jeroen: Do you think they’re really invested in your success? Are they not more invested in their overall portfolio than in specific cases?

Hubert: They look at it from a portfolio perspective. They need someone in their portfolio to succeed. Then the portfolio math works out and they can deliver the ROI that they promised to the investors. That’s something else driving it.

But that means that they want you to succeed, because they want you to be this successful company in the portfolio. I think that from that perspective the incentives are aligned, and I don’t see friction here.

Jeroen: Okay. What is it that you’re busy with right now? What keeps you up at night lately for Productboard?

Hubert: I sleep well. I manage to get my life under control and I manage to distance myself from the stress. There’s this huge business stress. And so many things are happening at the same time. But I told myself that if I’m going to be worried about it, and if I’m going to be stressed out…

Don’t take me wrong, I was so stressed in the early days of the company. There was so much pressure. Everyone tells you, “You’re nuts. This is never going to work.”

I always joked about it. It’s like you have a baby. You just had a baby and you’re walking around and showing it to people and some people say, “Oh my God, this is so beautiful! Congratulations! I wish you all the health.” But with the early stage start up, unfortunately there’s more people who look at the baby and say, “Oh man, I’m sorry that the baby is so sick. It’s not looking good.” Right. You need to get over it.

But right now, we’re doing well and we’re growing. That stress went away a little bit and I managed to distance myself from the day to day.

I have a very strict schedule that I stick to. I planned all my work time, family time, friend time. I have everything in my calendar. I follow the schedule and then I don’t feel like I’m not attending to my family or vice versa to my business. I made a conscious decision of how much time I’m going to dedicate to each.

Of course, it’s not ideal. Sometimes you need to break the rules. But it just gives me this confidence.

I get up at five and I go for a run. Then I go to the office. I have mornings that I have meetings and then in the afternoon, I have a block of four hours of time.

There’s this great book called “The One Thing” that inspired me to do all this. I have an uninterrupted block of time for the most important thing that I’m working on every day. And I have a scheduled time to rip up and plan. It really helped me. I’ve been doing it for several months now and I love it.

Jeroen: What’s that book called?

Hubert: I think it’s called “The One Thing”.

Jeroen: And who is it written by?

Hubert: The book is by Gary W. Keller and Jay Papasan. The One Thing.

Jeroen: Okay. So, you get up at five, you said?

Hubert: Yeah, well. I’m here in San Francisco and we are distributed. Part of the team is in Prague, in the Czech Republic. So, I need to have an overlap with Europe and in the SaaS business you have customers all around the world. That dictates my schedule.

I’m on the early morning schedule. And I even go to bed early. And I also have a two-year-old baby boy. You can’t sleep in the morning anyway.

Jeroen: You have aligned with the baby.

Hubert: Exactly.

Jeroen: At what time do you get to bed then? Do you sleep eight hours or?

Hubert: I try to, yeah. Like I shoot for nine, often times it’s ten, but I shoot for eight hours. I just think you’re more productive.

I’ve done my crazy, crazy years, where I didn’t sleep much and I saw the toll. The physical penalty. You make more mistakes and you don’t think so clearly. It’s not worth it. It’s so not worth it.

I’ve changed. I said: “Look, when I work, I’m going to put the most and best of my skills and effort into it.” At the end of the day what I achieved is what I could have achieved. You can always spend more time, but you can do it tomorrow and not instead of sleeping.

But again, if there’s a big launch. We had a big product launch in November. That is a big deadline and we didn’t sleep and all that, but that’s an exception. It’s an exception. You don’t do that on a regular basis.

Jeroen: What do you do to stay sane? You go running, you said?

Hubert: I run and I work out. After my run, there is this little playground by the lake I run around. I do squats and pushups, pullups, and all that stuff.

Then I get relaxation, it’s time with my kid and my wife. It’s amazing. It’s a different world.

My wife is a nurse practitioner, which is like a physician or family doctor. That gives me also a perspective, because I come from work and I complain like “Oh, this customer is making it so difficult. The legal contracts. There’s so much friction. I had a bad interview with someone.” And she looks at me and she tells me how people are struggling in their lives and dying.

It’s a completely different perspective. That keeps me in check as well. It brings me to reality. That it’s not all just about making products. And that the vision that I have, that is it’s a big vision, but at the end of the day, you’re in a society with people.

I also pay attention to politics a lot, because it’s just frustrates me that there’s so many things that could be done better. I spend time on that. Even though I wouldn’t say that politics is relaxing. It’s not fun and relaxing unfortunately.

Jeroen: At this point in your startup, what are the responsibilities that you mainly take up? What do you spend your day on?

Hubert: Mostly, it’s hiring because we’re growing and we just need help on so many fronts. I spend most of my time hiring.

And then, we’re like 25, I think, right now. We still don’t have processes for everything.

And some of the more complex legal stuff. I need to be involved and review contracts. I like to understand everything that’s happening in the company. Maybe I should be delegating that more, but I just don’t feel comfortable leaving it just to the lawyers. I actually take the time to really understand every negotiation point that we’re discussing with our large enterprise customers.

That would be the biggest things: hiring, complex contracts, and processes.

Another big chunk is communication, especially with the distributed team. We have regular updates. I make sure that everyone understands what’s happening in the company.

I’ve seen the different teams create their own culture. There’s a danger that the engineers would start looking down at marketers. “Engineering is the hard shit” and stuff. “Marketing is the easy stuff.” I don’t agree with that at all. I think that every part of the company contributes and I want everyone to understand what’s happening.

So, we take the time to communicate what’s happening and what every team is doing. We make sure that everyone understands the complexities. Everyone can come up with ideas for how to improve anything anywhere, whether it’s marketing, sales, engineering, design, … I spend a lot of time making sure that I know who heard what and making sure that everyone’s involved.

Those would be probably the biggest areas.

Jeroen: What are the main processes you use or tools you use to do this? We have things like standup meetings. Do you use Slack?

Hubert: Yeah, yeah, so we’re on Slack. Everything’s on Slack.

We have a regular all-hands meeting on a weekly basis. On a monthly frequency, the all-hands meeting is more detailed and longer and there is a wrap up for every month and it’s on progress towards the bigger objectives. On a weekly basis, it’s a little more tactical.

We have a product call on which we discuss product specific things. We have a customer success call. We have a marketing call. All the different parts of the business.

One thing that we started doing that I really like is that every team sends every day, a very short daily update into a Slack channel. With just a few bullet points of the main things that they achieved that day. That’s a way for everyone in the company to quickly read it every day in the morning. For me, it’s morning. In Europe, it’s the afternoon. To read it and to get a pulse of what’s happening in the company. It’s been working really well from my perspective. I feel like I know what’s happening and I would recommend doing that.

Jeroen: Yeah, that’s kind of like a standup meeting, but on a team level instead of on an individual level.

Hubert: Yeah, but it’s asynchronous. It’s not a standup meeting in the sense that everyone’s in the room and standing.

Jeroen: Yeah, but standup meetings can be asynchronous as well. Here in the office we do it synchronous, but you can use a software like Standuply. You could do it asynchronously. You just basically do it electronically like you’re doing. And it tracks your progress over time. You say what you’ve been doing the day before. What you’re going to do the next day. And that way it helps to stay up to speed with what’s happening.

Hubert: What’s it called? Standuply?

Jeroen: Standuply, yeah. They’re pretty cool guys.

Hubert: I’ll check it out.

Jeroen: They’re from Greece. I met them at a few conferences.

Hubert: Alright, yeah, I remember. I saw that somewhere. I’ll check it out.

Jeroen: We also spend a lot of time communicating, because it’s really important that everybody knows what everybody is up to. Getting to work as a team.

Hubert: Yeah.

Jeroen: You mostly talked about communicating the planning. What’s the schedule for the planning? Do you do it bi-weekly, monthly?

Hubert: Sure, yeah. We have three teams right now. This changes, but in the big picture, we plan in six-week cycles.

In the six-week cycle, we always set big initiatives or objectives that we want to achieve. Each team has this one big objective, one big area of focus towards which we prioritize and then plan the tasks.

Of course, along the line, there’s always a continuous stream running in parallel with opportunistic things I call initiatives, which is something that maybe you’ll prioritize over others, as long as it’s aligned with the strategy and the direction that we’re going. That goes into the prioritization.

There’s several bug also and there’s regulatory things, right. That’s compliance and now GDPR is happening and so all that stuff is running.

Or something that’s external, like a partner of ours is going to be doing a big launch and they need us to prepare something.

Things often happen at the last minute. That’s something that we will then try to squeeze in obviously.

We’re of course using Productboard. We have all the initiatives side by side in columns. It’s like a matrix. You have all the initiatives side by side, and then in rows, you have all the tasks, all the features that we’re working on. You see which feature contributes to which initiative and you see whether it’s a must have, or should have, or nice to have. And then you also have, next to it, columns with progress.

You have this one big picture view of everything that’s happening across all the teams. It scales beautifully, even if you had 10 teams. You can have them side by side and you see it all in one place. And you can filter it and you can slide and dice it the way you want. That’s how we run it.

Jeroen: Everybody can see what everybody is up to.

Hubert: Yeah, absolutely.

Jeroen: You’re working in three locations, you said?

Hubert: Well, right now, technically, we have people in Prague, San Francisco, and Boston.

Jeroen: Why Boston?

Hubert: We just found a teammate who lives there. And she’s great.

Jeroen: Okay.

Hubert: She reached out to us and she’s in Boston. That’s the way it is.

And two of our developers are in Sri Lanka, working remotely. They’re taking some time off as well, but otherwise they’re working remotely.

It’s the digital nomad approach. It’s not like they do it all the time, but as long as they commit and deliver, my attitude is: “I don’t care where you are in the world.”

Jeroen: Is it different teams that are located in different places? Is development in Prague, customer service in …

Hubert: No. We now have three teams. That team is product management, UX and engineering together as one team. It’s cross functional. Ideally, I would also have product marketing on all the teams, but that’s a shared function right now. That’s how I envision to grow the company.

We might add a team like that here in the US, but it would again be the whole team: product management, engineering and design all together.

I’ve seen at my previous company, we had the separation roles. Product management in the US, and engineering and some of the design, or most of the design, in Europe. It’s not optimal, because you need a super short feedback within the team.

I think Zendesk, they did it differently. They had the team. I believe they still have teams in Denmark, but they have a whole team there. Or like Intercom, when you talk with Des, you can ask him about it. They had the onboarding or growth team here in San Francisco. And they had product management, design, and engineering together here. And then other teams like the platform teams, and the other product that they have were co-located in Ireland.

Rather than separating it by role, we co-locate people by teams.

Jeroen: Yeah, got it.

Hubert: That’s how we’re going to do it as well.

Jeroen: Did you start off in Prague and then you moved to San Francisco?

Hubert: No, I got here 10 years ago for my MBA at Berkeley and then stay afterwards.

But I found a co-founder coincidentally at … How things start in life… I was a judge on this startup competition in Prague years ago, and I met Daniel there. Then when I started looking for a co-founder, I wasn’t sure where, location wise.

But I reached out to my next network and he said hey I’m looking for a new opportunity and I’d love to work with you on this. It started when I was still at GoodData and I posted on Facebook “a friend of mine is looking for a co-founder for his startup”. Kind of like secretly. That’s how it started. We started working together and it just went from there.

Daniel is now in Prague, and we travel back and forth. That’s how it’s set up.

Jeroen: You didn’t consciously choose the two locations of the company and then Boston neither. It just happened.

Hubert: Yeah, it’s just life.

Jeroen: Nice. Let’s start wrapping up. We’re almost at one hour.

Hubert: Cool.

Jeroen: What is the latest book you’ve read and why did you choose to read it?

Hubert: I’m reading multiple books, because some I read for enjoyment.

The book Mastery that I just mentioned. I’m almost done with it. I’m at the very end of it. And I really liked it. Again, I talked about it already, but it’s so inspirational to hear stories of people who really achieve mastery in their lives. And they really make things happen.

I read a lot of sales books recently. Here on my desk, I have the Sales Acceleration Formula, which is the story of how they built sales at HubSpot.

I listen to books. That’s what I like. When I go for a run. I run 5K three times a week, and I listen to audio books. Let me quickly pull up what’s there.

The Challenger Sale. The Sales Acceleration Formula I mentioned. Spin Selling. Sell or be Sold. I read all these sales books recently.

I haven’t read “Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built”. I have this lined up to read.

Then I found this book Insanely Simple, which is the obsession that drives Apple’s success. I haven’t read. I’m definitely going to do that.

It’s mostly business books, but I try to sneak in some more. Sapiens: A Great History of Humankind. I had read that, that was awesome.

Jeroen: Yeah, I still want to read it as well.

Hubert: And design books. I bought this book. It’s another book that I have on my desk. It’s called “100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People”.

I decided that I’m going to read, now, for 20 days, five points every day. I’m going to get through it in 20 days. Let’s see how that goes. I literally bought it yesterday or two days ago.

I listen to audiobooks like double speed, or one and a half, or one and three quarters, to save time. Trained my brain to do that. I really enjoy that.

Jeroen: Is there anything you wish you would have known when you started out?

Hubert: Oh, man, there’s so many things. It’s just…

Jeroen: One thing.

Hubert: One thing.

Jeroen: The first thing that comes to mind.

Hubert: I don’t know.

One thing that I’m still struggling with, when I’m hiring people, I always still judge people or I evaluate them… I think of them as myself.

I need to keep reminding myself that different roles need different people. I know that this is kind of like a big thing.

I have three interviews after this call. I’m hiring even some very junior people right out of college. And I really need to remind myself what it was like when I was 23. Everything was new to me. Because I tend to treat everyone as equal and my expectation is that people know a lot and that they have a lot of experience already. I just need to keep reminding myself that it’s not the case and that people are different in that sense.

You ask me the first thing that comes to my mind. Right now, at the moment.

Jeroen: No, it’s good advice. Hiring is not an easy thing to do correctly.

Hubert: Yeah.

Jeroen: In terms of advice: what’s the best piece of advice you ever got?

Hubert: I remember one piece of advice that I got: to constantly build networks and partner with people and just nurture relationships. That’s definitely something that’s paid off so much in my life.

I just mentioned that Daniel, my co-founder, I met him because I did this free thing. I’m going to go and judge a startup competition. And I stayed in touch with the people and that’s how it happens. Winston who is here with me building the company. We worked together at a previous company, and it’s been great and I stayed in touch. So just the value of “you never know what you’re going to do in the future”. And reaching out to people and staying in touch maturing their relationships being a good citizen.

That’s valuable and I would encourage everyone to do it and even more so if you’re young and starting.

It’s the value that your personal network will have for you in the future. It is so huge and you should nurture their relationships. You should even not only just focus on your discipline, on your narrow focus that you have, but even outside in different disciplines. It only creates value for you and gives you perspective.

You take the people that you value the most with you from company to company, and from team to team.

And friendships as well. Nurture friendships.

Jeroen: Thank you for the advice! And for joining me on Founder Coffee.

Hubert: My pleasure. Thanks for doing this. This is awesome. I’m really looking forward to listening to the other interviews.

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Jeroen Corthout
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