An Interview with Sebastien Provencher

Our Head of Executive Search, Heidi Ram, recently sat down with the serial startup entrepreneur and mentor Sebastien Provencher to discuss all things product, startups and Montreal: 


Heidi Ram: Hello, how are you this morning?

Sebastien Provencher: Good morning Heidi Ram. I'm really good. Thank you.

Heidi Ram: Amazing. Thank you so much for doing this with me. I just appreciate the investment of your time in our conversation today.

Sebastien Provencher: Absolutely. I'm super happy to be here.

Heidi Ram: Awesome. So, why don't you tell us just a little bit about you? What do you do and who is Sebastien?

Sebastien Provencher: So my name is Sebastien Provencher, I'm a Senior Startup Executive and have been working in the tech industry for the last 20 years. I'm a serial startup entrepreneur as well so I've worked for big companies, small companies, I've had my own startup companies, some of them VC-funded. I typically play product management roles, although over the last few years I've been in operations. I've also done some strategy and business and I mentor a couple of startups. I am part of a few accelerators as well.

Heidi Ram: You know, it's interesting whenever I talk with folks in product management they have different paths into product as many different roads lead into product and people often will ask what can I do to get into a product career? What are your beginnings? What made you decide that product was where you wanted to focus your career?

Sebastien Provencher: It's such an interesting story. I come from a marketing background, so I used to do brand management and product marketing. In reality, I didn't like, you know, in marketing, there are four Ps "Product, Promotion, Placement, and also Pricing" and the whole promotion/advertising, I didn't like. I was recruited by the Canadian Yellow Pages as a Junior Product Manager and I had no idea what product management was all about. I'd been doing brand management and product marketing and discovered that I dearly loved the intersection of building a product; you take customer needs, business needs, and problems and pain points, and then you meet designers and developers and software engineers, and you build these amazing products together. It satisfies both the business side of my brain (the rational data side) and also the creative side as well. For me, it was such an amazing discovery because they don't teach you that in school - I had no idea such a role existed and when I discovered this, I said, this is perfect for me and it changed my whole career.

Heidi Ram: You know, it’s common feedback that people often had no idea that product was actually a function then next thing you know, they're leading and running products, product organizations for some pretty high profile companies, so that's an interesting common path. 

Heidi Ram: What's the market temperature like in Montreal right now for tech or for product? Because whenever I talk with Product Managers, it seems to be a very different sort of place in its development than the Toronto or Kitchener marketplaces.

Sebastien Provencher: I'd say the Montreal market has been hot, really hot in terms of technology since 2016 when Montreal really emerged as an AI hub. I've been part of that space as well for the last few years, but Montreal has grown so much as an ecosystem over the last 15 years since I did my first startup. Now we have this vibrant, huge ecosystem and are part of the top 10 tech ecosystem in North America. It's been an incredible ride for the whole ecosystem and the whole city and I'm really happy where we are. We've been seeing all of these funding announcements and a lot of companies have been opening up offices here in Montreal, so it’s quite exciting.

Heidi Ram: You mentioned AI is a hot sort of market in Montreal, and I think gaming as well, aren't there a lot of gaming companies based in Montreal?

Sebastien Provencher: Gaming has been hot in Montreal for 20 years, starting with Ubisoft who arrived as a French company in Montreal in 1997/98, which was when I worked there. Since then, it created a kind of anchor and a solid base of companies in the graphic ecosystem. Building from the 90s, we had these design software companies and then we added the new game software companies, which sustain the whole 3D animation and special effects industry as well and the whole startup scene. So as you can see, there is a conjunction of a lot of interesting things happening in Montreal that started really in the 90s when you think about it.

Heidi Ram: It's interesting to think about how mature that category would be in Montreal, the depth of skillset and the depth of knowledge in those functions and those types of industries - I would imagine it would be pretty significant.

Sebastien Provencher: Yeah, I think from a video game industry point of view, we're now number three in the world as an ecosystem, which again 25 years ago, there were just one or two players in the whole province.

Heidi Ram: So you've been a long-time product management leader, adding value to different types of companies and different types of experiences. When you join businesses as a leader, or to assist them as a consultant, what do founders or CEOs typically not anticipate that product brings to a business or that the role of a product leader brings to a business and how it may begin to transform a company?

Sebastien Provencher: Over the last few years, I've been joining companies at inflection points. Some companies need to continue growing so they can get to the next level. Or they're on the ground floor and they need to bring senior talent. Or they're struggling and they need someone to come in to help them stop struggling.

The good news is when a company starts to talk with me, they know that I will bring value, so they've gone over that hurdle because a lot of companies, that's the first thing they need to realize. Founders need to realize that product management is actually needed in organizations and there's still a lot of education needed there. So whenever they start talking with me, they know that product management will play a big positive role.

A big thing that CEOs and founders face when they bring their first senior product management leader on board is that they're used to doing product management themselves. Then suddenly you bring a leader that will be responsible for that, so your role as a CEO or a founder is different; now, you still have to care about product, but it's not your responsibility anymore. You have someone else that's coming in and will help structure a team and create a product vision. Someone who will put a little bit of rigor in how the team works and bring cadence, quality and customer focus.

So I think the most important thing that needs to happen when you join a company like that is, in your interview, you need to have this very frank conversation with the CEO or the founders and say, "Look, I know you used to do product management, but now I'll be it. I will involve you. You will be part of these decisions, but I am that person who will be driving this and you need to be comfortable with that. And if you're not, then maybe you're not ready for a senior product management leader." I think that's the biggest piece of conversation that needs to happen in the interview process and then once you're hired, you can always go back to that conversation and say, "Remember, we talked about this."

Heidi Ram: I can only imagine how deeply difficult of a decision it can be for some founders who identify their success, both personally and professionally, in being that product visionary and believing that they have the only point of view on how to build a company around a product. You know, it must be at its core very challenging for some founders.

Sebastien Provencher: It is challenging. It's part of growing up in any startup where the roles always evolve. You become more professional everywhere, not just in product, in finance, and HR. And it's part of growing up and if as a founder you're not ready to grow up, then it will cause issues to your own company. 

By the way, you don't have to lose that vision, you can still be the company visionary, maybe not as much the product, although you can still get involved in all these decisions. Obviously, as a Product Management leader, you don't want to cut your founder/CEO from the discussion completely or you'll get expelled very quickly. But you become the kind of person that carries the north star for everyone else.

Heidi Ram: From my experience working with different founders or CEOs, I think that it's an easier transition to make in releasing a product to a product leader when the decision comes from yourself or when you reach that point of maturity where you say, "We need to do this." Because it's the right thing to do for your business versus what I've also seen happen when an outside party, perhaps an investor, directs a founder to decide to bring a product leader. That's often a more challenging and a bit more friction for a point of entry for a product leader to come in at.

Sebastien Provencher: I'd also say if your VCs are imposing their views on you as a Founder then there's something much more troubling. It's not just about Product Management because VCs are not operators; they're supposed to trust you in operating. So if they're at the point where they're imposing this decision, then there's something much more rotten in what's going on.

Heidi Ram: Good point. So how do you as a Product Leader measure success? What do you look at?

Sebastien Provencher: As a very senior person, you look at the KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) of the organization - are you growing revenue? You're tracking NPS (net promoter scores) - are customers happy with your product? There's always the temperature check of making sure that you do user research. So there's a variety of KPIs that you can set so that as a senior product leader you know you're going in the right direction. But in all honesty, at the senior leadership level, you're aligned with all your senior colleagues as you're trying to grow the business in any way. So number of users, number of paid customers, growing revenues, all these kinds of very high-level company objectives. Then these metrics trickle down to your product management team in two different key results, which have an impact on your objectives in a sense.

Heidi Ram: I'm curious about your opinion on when you're hiring product people, do you tend to favor candidates who come from a more technical background or more business or subject matter experts? This seems to be sort of the tension that so many product leaders have when they're building their teams.

Sebastien Provencher: I come from a marketing background, although I did code when I was a teenager. I just so happened to go into business as opposed to going into software engineering. I don't favor people that don't have a technology background, but I'm okay with having a mix of both; I have no issue having people from any of these types of backgrounds. I think what's important is you as a product manager, need to be able to have conversations with software engineers where you don't look stupid. You need to know enough about the technology and what the technology can do so that you're having these educated conversations with software engineers, and you don't lose their respect.

It's almost part of understanding software culture, high-level software technology terms. Especially in AI, as a good AI Product Manager, one doesn't necessarily need to be able to build an algorithm and train an algorithm, but they need to understand what's doable and what's not to gain credibility. Sometimes that means getting some training, taking some Coursera classes to make sure you're staying on top of the latest and greatest techniques, technical terms, and potentiality as well.

Heidi Ram: You've been a big part of Techstars for several years, so tell us how you got involved in Techstars and what your role is with those entrepreneurs.

Sebastien Provencher: I'm an all-star mentor at Techstars; what I do is participate in their regular acceleration programs. These are three-month programs often around this specific team and I'm involved as one of the mentors. They bring about a few hundred mentors to every program, I believe. 

So Techstars is a network that's worldwide, and they have 15,000 mentors and they've been accelerating companies for more than 10 years, if not more. I was approached by Techstars when they opened up their Techstars Montreal program a few years ago because I was known in Montreal as an experienced startup entrepreneur, but also I had this AI background as well so I came in just as a mentor, and I was nominated as an all-star mentor because of the way I get involved with companies and this idea of giving first, which is one of the values of Techstars. I've always embraced this giving first value since my first company. 

What I do is accompany a company through this three-month cycle where they get accelerated and because it's almost like a dating system, you need to like the company and they need to like you as well. There is a part called mentor madness, where you have a 30-minute speed date and talk and get to know each other. If the company picks you, then you have a 60-minute call with that company every week, for three months. At the end of three months, there is a graduation. After that, the company can decide to continue with you or not. 

This is an unpaid role; this is about giving back. I think this is so important for senior people to always be giving back because it helps the whole community. And you know what? I learned so much from talking to these young entrepreneurs, it's such a great moment because the danger is, as you get to a senior level, you're in the stratosphere where you've lost the view of the ground floor and it's very humbling to be able to talk to people and learn from them. I just love it.

Heidi Ram: Are there any consistent areas where these young founders need or want mentorship? Is it financing? Product? Or more figuring out the revenue model? What does that look like?

Sebastien Provencher: I'd say the places where I get asked for advice are really on the product side. So a little bit about doing product discovery and product-market fit, these kinds of topics that are not taught anywhere. The other thing is the go-to-market strategy where founders often struggle to understand how their product gets distributed. Should they have a sales team? Should they go with partners? Are they a B2B product or B2B2C or B2C? So we talk about a lot of these things and it helps them refine their product-market fit. 

Heidi Ram: Thank you for sharing so much with us today. This has been great just digging in a bit deeper and I so appreciate your time. Thank you so much, Sebastien.

Sebastien Provencher: You're very welcome. I'm always happy to do this.

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