20 Product Scott Belsky on How to Hire Your Product Leader and Team, 3 Questions All Great Product Leaders Ask, How To Structure and Run Effective Product Reviews & Is Product More Art or Science

Summary Notes


In the inaugural episode of 20 Product, host Harry Stebbings converses with Adobe's Chief Product Officer and EVP of Creative Cloud, Scott Belsky, about the nuances of product management and development. Belsky, who founded Behance before its acquisition by Adobe, shares insights on maintaining product simplicity amidst complexity, the importance of customer empathy, and the balance between intuition and data in product decisions. They also discuss the significance of design in product development and the challenges of integrating new talent into existing teams. Acknowledging the role of product leaders in driving both customer satisfaction and revenue, Belsky emphasizes the need for alignment on product vision and strategy. The conversation touches on the evolution of product roles and the convergence of design and product management, with Belsky praising Carta's product strategy for leveraging its cap table management tool to create a secondary marketplace.

Summary Notes

Introduction to 20 Product and Scott Belsky

  • Harry Stebbings expresses excitement for the 20 Product episode and introduces Scott Belsky.
  • Scott Belsky is the Chief Product Officer and EVP of Creative Cloud at Adobe.
  • Belsky founded Behance in 2006, which Adobe acquired in 2012.
  • Behance has over 25 million members.
  • Belsky is an advisor and investor in companies like Pinterest, Uber, Sweetgreen, and others.
  • He is also the author of two bestselling books: "Making Ideas Happen" and "The Messy Middle."
  • Thanks are given to Tony Fidel and Lenny Rujitsky for their question suggestions.

"There is literally no one that I wanted more for our first 20 product episode, a longtime friend, co-investor, and so thrilled to welcome Scott Belsky to the hot seat."

This quote highlights the anticipation and enthusiasm Harry Stebbings has for welcoming Scott Belsky to the 20 Product podcast, emphasizing Belsky's significant experience and expertise in the product and creative industries.

The Evolution of Scott Belsky's Career

  • Scott Belsky's interests lie in design, business, and human psychology.
  • His experience in crafting product experiences began as an entrepreneur with Behance.
  • Behance required simplification of a complex product for a diverse audience.
  • Belsky's work with early-stage companies like Pinterest contributed to his product obsession.
  • At Adobe, Belsky manages a wide range of products and introduces them to new paradigms.

"So started a company called Behance back in 2006. Behance is now over 30 million creatives showcasing their work, and it's actually a pretty complicated product, if you think about it, that needed to be radically simplified."

This quote explains the origins of Behance and the challenges faced in simplifying a complex product for a large creative community, highlighting Belsky's approach to product development and his focus on user experience.

The Lifecycle of a Product

  • The product lifecycle often begins simply and becomes more complex over time.
  • Products start by attracting users with simplicity, then evolve to cater to power users and monetization, which can lead to complexity.
  • The lifecycle is cyclical, with new entrepreneurs eventually offering simpler alternatives.

"That's the product cycle that is both fascinating and frustrating."

This quote encapsulates the ongoing challenge of balancing simplicity and complexity in product development, illustrating the cyclical nature of the product lifecycle.

Retaining Simplicity in Successful Products

  • Retaining simplicity while scaling is challenging.
  • Companies that succeed in this area focus relentlessly on the first-mile experience.
  • Snapchat is an example of a company that rethinks the first-mile experience for new customer cohorts.
  • Twitter's evolution to focus on topic following instead of building timelines is an example of revisiting the first-mile experience.

"Snapchat, I think, is probably one example of a company that I feel has consistently rethought their first mile experience for a different cohort of new customers."

The quote points to Snapchat as a company that successfully maintains simplicity by adapting the initial user experience to meet the evolving needs of new users, emphasizing the importance of the first-mile experience.

The Importance of the First Mile Experience

  • A great product leader ensures every screen answers three questions: How did I get here? What do I do now? What do I do next?
  • The first-mile experience must cater to users who are "lazy, vain, and selfish," meaning they want intuitive and effortless interactions.
  • Presumptuous defaults are crucial as they shape the initial user experience.

"And I think that if a great product leader always is making sure that the compass exists in every moment of the product experience, that's number one."

This quote highlights the importance of clear navigation and orientation within a product, likening it to a compass that guides the user through each step of the experience.

The Devil is in the Defaults

  • Defaults are critical because users tend to stick with them.
  • LinkedIn's persistent interstitial is an example of a default that users did not dismiss.
  • The default experience should make users feel successful, smart, and good-looking.

"My friend Dave Marin likes to say that the devil is in the defaults."

This quote suggests that the choices made in setting default options have a significant impact on user behavior and product experience, emphasizing the importance of thoughtful defaults.

Adobe's Approach to Defaults and New Users

  • Products like Photoshop initially presented users with a blank canvas, which was not user-friendly.
  • Adobe shifted to providing quick actions, templates, and tutorials as defaults to better orient new users.

"And then we said, okay, well, instead of this big stark page, let's actually have a sort of set of quick actions that people are likely to want to do."

This quote describes Adobe's strategy to improve the first-time user experience in Photoshop by offering immediate, actionable options, showcasing the application of the principle that defaults shape the user experience.

Conducting Product Reviews

  • Scott Belsky believes in the value of prototypes over meetings for product reviews.
  • Discussions should be centered on tangible prototypes to avoid unnecessary debates and to gain clarity.

"The first thing is I deeply believe in the fact that a prototype is worth 100 meetings."

This quote emphasizes the efficiency and effectiveness of using prototypes in product reviews, advocating for a hands-on, visual approach to discussing and refining product features.

Customer Experience and Product Reviews

  • Starting with a prototype is critical for building the customer experience.
  • Presenting the experience within the broader context helps understand the customer journey.
  • It's important to consider the customer's path through the product: entry points, first impressions, follow-up communications, and subsequent steps.
  • Questions to ask during a product review include customer awareness of their location in the product, what actions to take, and what comes next.
  • Discussing the object model and changes needed to reduce cognitive load for the customer is essential.
  • Determining whether the customer is overwhelmed by options and whether constraining the experience could be beneficial is key.
  • The people executing the project should control the discussions, with designers presenting prototypes and product leaders explaining problem-solving approaches.
  • Implementation discussions should follow, revealing practical realities and potential compromises in the product experience.

"It's also important that you present that experience in the context of the broader experience."

This quote emphasizes the importance of understanding the entire customer journey, not just isolated parts of the product.

"Do they know how they got here? Do they know what to do? Do they know what to do next?"

These questions are crucial for evaluating whether the customer experience is intuitive and clear at each stage of interaction with the product.

"You have to make sure that the people that are executing this are also in control of the discussions."

This quote underlines the importance of having the right people, such as designers and product leaders, guiding the review and discussion of the product experience.

Meeting Dynamics and Team Composition

  • In the remote work era, the number of participants in product review meetings may vary.
  • Initial product reviews should ideally involve only the product and design team.
  • Engineers should be consulted about the cost implications after conceptualizing the product experience.
  • The Disney model of three distinct phases (idea generation, critique, and reconciliation) is a useful framework for product development.
  • Concepting phase allows for imagination, followed by an engineering phase for feasibility, and finally, a reconciliation phase to form a plan.
  • The balance between creative freedom and practical constraints is managed through this phased approach.

"Engineers are really there to discuss the cost of something."

This quote suggests that engineers should be involved in the discussion when it's time to assess the feasibility and resources required for the product.

"I believe that some of the initial product reviews should only be with the product and design team."

This quote indicates a preference for limiting early product review meetings to product and design teams to focus on the creative aspects without immediately considering the costs.

Maintaining Focus and Capturing Action Items

  • Aligning around the right prototype experience is crucial for team alignment.
  • Project and program managers should capture actionable items from conversations and circulate them promptly.
  • Ensuring that feedback is recorded during meetings is vital to prevent loss of critical information and delays.
  • Regular follow-ups on action items are necessary to avoid having to revisit the same issues.

"You want to have a situation where customers come in and start using your product and start nagging you about certain enhancements or additional features or capabilities."

This quote emphasizes the idea that customer feedback on enhancements is a positive sign of engagement and should be addressed after achieving product-market fit.

"It's really important. They're great ideas, but just do them later."

This quote suggests prioritizing essential features that enable initial customer success over additional enhancements that can be implemented later.

Prioritization and MVP Considerations

  • Determining the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is a key debate in product development.
  • Prioritizing issues that prevent customers from finding value in the product is essential.
  • The goal is to optimize for problems that indicate customer engagement and interest.
  • Features that would prevent customers from successfully using the product should be addressed first.
  • Achieving initial success with customers places a product in the top tier of the market.
  • Customer feedback should guide further prioritization after achieving initial success.

"My trick that I ask myself all the times or not trick, but core question is always around how to optimize for the problems you want to have."

This quote suggests focusing on problems that indicate customer engagement, which are preferable to fundamental issues that prevent product use.

"You are already in like the top 10% of products out there."

This quote implies that simply enabling customers to successfully use the product initially is a significant achievement.

Balancing Data-Driven Decisions and Intuition

  • The balance between using data and trusting intuition is a common challenge for product leaders.
  • Intuition can guide product leaders to promising opportunities, while data helps in refining and improving the product.
  • Engaging with customers to understand their struggles is more valuable than directly pitching a solution.
  • Intuition is necessary for innovation, especially when customers may not yet recognize their own needs.
  • Data should guide iteration and improvement once an MVP is launched.

"Intuition is what brings you to a mountain to climb. Data is what helps you climb it."

This analogy illustrates the role of intuition in identifying opportunities and data in executing and refining the approach.

"And then based on what you're hearing building something out of your intuition that the customer doesn't even know they want."

This quote reflects the idea that product leaders should use intuition to innovate beyond what customers can articulate.

Learning from Mistakes

  • Mistakes are an important learning opportunity for product leaders.
  • Overextending by adding too many features can dilute customer attention from the core product.
  • Insecurity can lead product leaders to hedge bets by implementing various features.
  • Strategic focus is critical; sometimes, eliminating features can increase engagement with the core product.
  • Learning to prioritize and focus on the core value proposition is key to product success.

"I think a lot of the biggest mistakes that I made, especially in the earlier days of building products, was just doing too many things."

This quote acknowledges the common error of overcomplicating a product by adding too many features, which can distract from the core value proposition.

"And so it was one of those perfect examples of asking the customer what they're struggling with as opposed to pitching your solution."

This quote highlights the importance of understanding customer pain points instead of assuming the product's value, which can lead to more effective solutions.

Insecurity in Leadership and Product Teams

  • Insecurity as a leader can cause mistakes and a lack of focus on what truly matters.
  • Product teams often struggle with insecurity, leading them to work on too many things at once.
  • Reducing insecurity within product teams involves identifying and focusing on core values and functionalities.

"And all of my mistakes are really around that insecurity as a leader."

This quote emphasizes the negative impact that insecurity can have on leadership effectiveness and decision-making.

"Well, I think that once you learn a lot of these lessons the hard way, this is where experience helps you, because you start to see the patterns."

Scott Belsky suggests that experience helps leaders identify patterns of insecurity and address them more effectively.

Assessing and Killing Products

  • Leaders must learn to identify unnecessary features and focus on the core value of their products.
  • It is crucial to recognize when to kill off features or products that do not align with customer needs or the company's long-term vision.
  • The concept of a "smelly fish" refers to a product that lingers without success and should be dealt with promptly.

"I instantly can see the stuff that they should probably kill."

Scott Belsky discusses his ability to identify which features or aspects of a product are unnecessary and should be eliminated.

"You have to set metrics, objective metrics of what you believe progress looks like upfront for a few different reasons."

Scott Belsky highlights the importance of setting clear and objective metrics to evaluate a product's success and know when to make changes or discontinue it.

Hiring the Right Product Team

  • Founders should consider whether they need to hire a product leader or if they should continue to lead the product themselves.
  • Different product leaders are suited for different stages of a product's lifecycle.
  • The hiring process should explore a candidate's values, their approach to design and engineering, and how they integrate customer empathy into product development.

"One pushback I oftentimes give to founders is that they should be hiring a product leader so soon."

Scott Belsky advises founders to carefully consider if and when they need to hire a product leader, as the founder may still be the best person to lead the product.

"There are different types of product leaders for different stages of a product."

Scott Belsky explains that product leaders have different strengths and should be matched with the appropriate stage of the product's development.

The Hiring Process for Product Leaders

  • The hiring process should involve understanding the candidate's values and how they measure the quality of products and teams.
  • Potential hires should be evaluated on their past projects, operating model, and relationship with design and engineering.
  • Customer empathy is a critical aspect of product leadership, and candidates should be assessed on their understanding and application of it.

"I would ask about projects they're really proud of. Why are you proud of it?"

Scott Belsky discusses how to gauge a candidate's values and priorities by asking them about past projects they are proud of.

"I believe that my cheat code as a product leader has been design all along, and my relationship more specifically with designers."

Scott Belsky shares his personal approach to product leadership, emphasizing the importance of design and a collaborative relationship with designers.

Empowering and Integrating New Talent

  • Successful integration of new hires into a high-performing team involves overcoming the team's natural resistance to change.
  • Empowering new talent requires giving them ownership and accountability.
  • The focus should be on how well new hires are grafted into the team, not just their individual talents.

"I think we focus too much on hiring talent and not enough on grafting talent once you've hired it."

Scott Belsky points out the importance of integrating new hires into the existing team to maximize their potential and impact.

Team Dynamics and Leadership

  • High-performing teams have a rhythm and understanding that can be disrupted by new members.
  • Leaders must encourage openness and a period of acclimatization for new hires.
  • It's important for teams to integrate new best practices brought by newcomers.
  • Leaders should avoid immediate judgment of new hires and allow time for adjustment.

"Some of the best, most critical hires I've made over the years were instantly rejected by the team at first. And what I had to do is suppress the immune system, so to speak, and say, hey, listen, so and so is coming with some amazing best practices that are just different than ours, and they need to acclimate."

This quote emphasizes the leadership challenge of integrating new hires into established teams, highlighting the need for a period of adaptation and the value new members can bring.

Optimal Onboarding Process

  • Onboarding should include a cheat sheet for the first 30 days, outlining key people to meet, logistics, and resources.
  • Leaders must clarify jargon and provide context to new employees to help them understand ongoing projects and customers.
  • Empathy is crucial for integrating new team members who are expected to join ongoing work without prior context.

"Well, I think that it starts with giving a sort of one pager cheat sheet of things to do in your first 30 days, people to meet, even the logistics of who to go to for what things, how to get set up with your computer, your accounts, things you should download, the rooms you should join, all that kind of stuff."

This quote outlines the practical steps of an effective onboarding process that provides new hires with the necessary information to integrate smoothly into the team.

Balancing Revenue Generation and Innovation

  • Product leaders must balance maintaining revenue from existing products with innovating for the future.
  • Startups often face the opposite problem of Adobe, having novel technology but lacking a customer base.
  • The challenge is to manage the transformation of legacy products while leveraging a large customer base to adopt new technologies.

"Adobe has an incredible legacy of these desktop products that require download... And now fast forward... we're also still very early in this transformation."

This quote reflects the ongoing process of transforming traditional software products to modern, cloud-based, collaborative solutions while acknowledging the challenges and opportunities it presents.

Revenue vs. Product Development Narrative

  • CEOs and product leaders should align customer happiness and usage with revenue generation.
  • It's essential to have a narrative that integrates usage and conversion strategies.
  • The debate over paywall placement should be informed by competitive landscape and business cycle.

"And the narrative, especially in an early stage venture, needs to be about how one leads with the other and they can't be at war, right?"

The quote emphasizes the importance of creating a cohesive strategy where customer satisfaction and revenue goals support each other rather than conflict.

Investment Mindset and Product Leadership

  • Investing in various startups provides a learning experience that can be applied to product leadership.
  • The speaker identifies as a product investor, focusing on product development rather than transactional investment aspects.
  • Leveraging one's strengths and unique abilities is key to adding value to a startup.

"I'm a product obsessive. So I'm trying to be more of what I am and less of what I'm not in the context of investing."

This quote reveals the speaker's self-awareness in his investment strategy, focusing on his passion for product development to provide value in his investments.

Hiring Mistakes and Advice

  • Product teams should avoid hiring too quickly and hiring people similar to themselves.
  • Diversity in skills and perspectives is valuable for early product teams.

"Early product teams, hiring too quickly, and hiring people like them, as opposed to people that complement them."

This quote advises against common hiring mistakes, suggesting that teams should seek members who bring complementary skills and viewpoints.

Customer-Centric Product Leadership

  • Product leaders should spend significant time with customers to understand their needs and perspectives.
  • Close customer engagement is essential for successful product development.

"Spend more time than you think you need to spend with customers."

The speaker advises new product leaders to prioritize customer interaction, indicating its importance in the product development process.

The Evolution of Product and Design

  • There is a need to break down the barriers between product management and design.
  • The roles and titles in product and design should evolve to reflect their interdependence.

"The dichotomy or theoretical wall between design and product."

This quote calls for a more integrated approach to product management and design, suggesting that traditional distinctions between the two are becoming outdated.

Company Product Strategy Impressions

  • Carta's strategy impressed the speaker, evolving from a cap chart management tool to a secondary marketplace for private company transactions.
  • The successful execution of leveraging a platform for additional services is notable.

"And now the strategy of leveraging that ledger, that communal ledger of private companies as a secondary marketplace and platform for transactions to me is just really a brilliant strategy and execution."

The quote praises Carta's strategic evolution and its effective use of its platform to expand its market and services.

Podcast Promotion

  • Productboard is endorsed for helping product managers and leaders create impactful products.
  • Maze is recommended for conducting continuous product research and gaining user insights.

"Product managers love product board, and product leaders trust product board to help them create products that matter."

This quote is part of a promotion for Productboard, suggesting its value to product managers and leaders in bringing successful products to market.

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