The Art of Product & Leadership: Interview with Product Leader Michael Park

When a Founder and CEO decides to hire a CPO, it will forever reshape the trajectory of a business. The intricacies of hiring a Chief Product Officer, adopting Product-Led Growth strategies, and determining whether to pursue a horizontal or industry-focused approach are pivotal considerations that will define a company's success and growth (or failure).

In this interview-style article, we delve into the expertise and insights of Michael Park. With over two decades of product management and leadership experience, Michael is an accomplished product executive with a strong commitment to creating exceptional products that delight users, drive revenue, and foster the growth of product teams. His experiences and recommendations provide a roadmap for navigating the challenges and opportunities when pursuing exceptional product development and organizational success.

When a first-time Founder decides to hire their first CPO, assuming they have product market fit, what are the experiences and skills you recommend they prioritize to enable the greatest likelihood of achieving growth and scale of the business - and why?

In my experience with entrepreneurs, a standout trait among early Founders is their resilience in the face of failure. This ability to rebound sets them apart from other employees who may be less tolerant of pivots. When Founders bring on their next product leader, they essentially outsource this innate resilience and recovery capacity.

For first-time Founders, it's crucial to assess how a potential product executive has navigated and improved decision-making during career setbacks. To borrow from Mike Tyson, "We all have a plan until we get punched in the face." Founders should establish their own expectations for a rebound or bounce-back Key Performance Indicator (KPI), as they will subconsciously measure their executives against such a metric. Understanding how a prospective leader rebounds from challenges should be a top priority in the hiring process.

While conventional hiring practices focus on challenges and learning experiences, it's equally vital to delve into the recovery process from failure. Instead of fixating on defining a failure situation, engage in the specifics of the CPO’s recovery process. This sheds light on their approach – whether it's reactive, defensive, blaming, systematic, reflective, or transparent.

Curiosity about the candidate's emergence from failure is crucial. Pay attention to how they discuss it – does it come across as arrogant or humble, a gloss-over, or an appreciation of the experience? The ability to fail fast and learn aligns with agile methodologies, but Founders need to assess if this extends beyond product processes into the character of their product leader.

For SaaS companies on a journey towards offering a self-serve version (adding a PLG motion to how they acquire customers), how does the addition of PLG shape a product management organization?

Revamping BombBomb's self-service customer journey took 18 months, initially gaining momentum but facing challenges in achieving consensus on prioritized problem-solving as the effort progressed. A critical factor for regaining momentum was identified: the introduction of a Growth Designer into the process.

While dynamic Growth Product Managers are often prioritized in hiring strategies, my experience emphasizes the complementary skills of a Growth Designer. They excel in translating abstract concepts, untangling stakeholder interests, and navigating complex outcomes in what I term the "War on Paper." This is particularly crucial in self-service efforts where numerous stakeholders can bloat the product roadmap.

Product-led growth (PLG) strategies have broad implications across marketing, sales, and product. However, obstacles like billing processes, data warehouse implications, and user workflow dependencies (to name a few) impede progress without stakeholder involvement in product discovery. A skilled Growth Designer, proficient in visually distilling complex ideas and options, improves the PM’s tempo and transparency in decision-making. If your organization is still developing product discovery practices, I highly recommend Teresa Torres's book, "Continuous Discovery Habits."

When seeking an effective Growth Designer in PLG, consider the following must-haves:

  1. Business acumen: Previous roles as an independent contracting Graphic Designer contribute to heightened financial acuity and a deep understanding of business strategy, complementing the financial expertise of the Growth Product Manager.
  2. Visualize it: A successful Designer actively participates in stakeholder meetings, visually recaps directional approaches, and facilitates stakeholder buy-in through early dependency identification.
  3. Breadth over depth: Seek Growth Designers who prioritize breadth over depth, as Engineers and Designers often lean toward the opposite.

Ultimately, for the PLG team to function effectively, engaging in distillation and provocation before engineering begins is crucial. While this is a general principle for all product development, it becomes even more acute for PLG topics, as explained above. Hiring the right Growth Designer streamlines this process, becoming pivotal in topic discovery and supercharging the iterative process. I strongly advise against skipping this role.

What advice do you have for a Founder/CEO at the crossroads of making the big decision of whether to apply a horizontal approach to the product or pick an industry to dominate in their category?

Being a pioneer in a category, as emphasized by one of my business mentors, comes with a hefty price tag! The funds invested in development not only serve the innovator but also establish the playbook for future competitors, potentially resulting in a crowded landscape, if successful. As competition escalates, CEOs and Founders encounter a pivotal decision – adhere to a narrow focus to emerge as a category leader in a specific industry or broaden their horizons by incorporating complementary segments; go wide.

In my role as BombBomb's Chief Product Officer, we strategically positioned ourselves as the top personal video solution in property tech, aiming to dominate that specific category. This strategy proved effective until increased competition and the shift to remote work prompted by Covid. In response, we embarked on an 18-month journey to broaden our scope across industries. However, as our customer base gradually returned to office settings, we decided to revert to our original approach, primarily motivated by the loss of clarity in addressing customer pain points due to a broader focus.

Discussions on narrow versus wide often center around marketing and financial considerations. However, having experienced both approaches, I suggest considering the customer and product perspective in these discussions. Here are some questions to consider with the executive team and Board:

  1. Can our product team effectively and affordably address customer pain points in multiple verticals simultaneously? Do we have a process to enhance our team's qualitative data gathering?
  2. Are we at risk of diluting our understanding of the customer's pain point as we standardize what we hear from the voice of the customer?
  3. How confident are we that our unique product solutions appropriately address problems across multiple industries simultaneously? What process do we have to prevent tailoring solutions to each vertical, avoiding tech bloat?
  4. Do we risk making our once-differentiated product more common, and is this acceptable? Have we defined our willingness to dilute our special features to attract new customers?
  5. Considering competitors may have replicated much of our technology, do we become more competition-motivated, moving away from what made us stand out – solving the customer's familiar pain point? Can we truly cater to everyone?

While business development perspectives appropriately take the forefront in these discussions, I believe the questions raised above will spark your curiosity as you grapple with these impactful customer considerations. The decisions you make, or even those you choose not to make, will inevitably shape the experience of your customers with the software you develop.

Michael Park's wealth of experience and keen insights shed light on critical considerations for Founders and product executives. Whether it's navigating the hiring process for a Chief Product Officer, reshaping product management organizations in the era of Product-Led Growth, or deciding between a horizontal or industry-focused approach, his perspectives resonate with practical wisdom.

Looking to hire your first product leader to help scale? Get these value insights from top tech product executives.