Being A “Product Person”

The best founders I’ve had a chance to work with pretty much only want to talk about the product their team is building. They oftentimes shy away from social media or making any non-product announcements, and definitely prefer to be approached by people who are, first and foremost, genuinely interested in their product. This product affection cannot be feigned. They can actually tell who is truly interested (and a user of) their product.

As I’ve interacted with these types of founders, it’s forced me to think about some conventions. First, people often like to label themselves as a “product person” because they were on a product management team at a large company. Fair enough. But, that doesn’t mean someone who has never built nor managed a product couldn’t be a product person. For instance, MG Siegler was probably the first major tech blogger to not only pick up on the potential of Instagram, but also predict its adoption, success, and hyper-growth inflection point before many other people with traditional, demonstrable product experience. MG is as much a “product person” as someone who builds them or manages them, if not more.

Second, a good “product person” has intuition about both the product itself in a vacuum as well as external context in which that app can and should perform within. They understand the conceptual differences between the competition, the technologies, and how consumers will (or will not) distinguish between them. This is a hard balance for a person to strike, to balance their intuition about what should “be” against what they think the market will bear.

Finally, a “product person” gives and/or receives actionable feedback on product bugs and improvements, usually with great zeal. They could use the product for a week and then fire off a huge email listing all the things they’d like to improve, remove, or add. This attention to detail cannot be bought. But, it can come from anyone. The person doesn’t need to be a traditional “product person” or someone who is technical or an investor, and so forth.

I should be clear in writing this that I do not consider myself a “product person.” I think that comes with years of experience, not titles or middle-management roles in other companies. To me, in my world, being a “product person” is someone who obsesses about the theory and practice of building, distributing, and improving software or hardware products that touch other peoples’ lives. These people want to be as close to that interface experience, to continually make the product better and, in the process, make the user more productive, or happier, or both. Yes, they are competitive and want to win (or dominate), but they know there’s only one path — and that’s building a great product, improving it relentlessly, and surrounding themselves with people who will lead every discussion with a “product first” mentality. I am not that person today (I’m more of a “markets” person), but I hope with enough experience, it will just happen naturally.

Haywire is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2014 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus