We invited Kamil to share his experience at the ScaleX Product Leadership Summit. This article is an insightful reflection of our conversation and an opportunity to share our learnings with founders to assist them in establishing effective product management.
Today, he serves as the Chief Product Officer of Forto – a Berlin-based start-up offering digitized freight forwarding and supply chain solutions. He has already experienced a great deal of success over the last 20 years he has worked in technology, and Kamil is ready to share his diverse experience with product management and leadership.
"The product manager is a very general term. In other words, it is something that changes a lot according to the company, product group, B2B or B2C, and the structure of the company. I would like to mention that the answers that I will give will always be based on my experience, according to the companies I have worked in."
Kamil experienced a variety of product management styles when he worked for different companies. Coming from the tech giant Microsoft, he tried to explore working with startup companies. "Back in the day, I have seen some of the greatest people at Microsoft unable to leave the company even if they wanted to. When they applied to, especially start-ups, they will face the doubt of, 'I wonder if this person can adapt from Microsoft to a smaller and more agile company'," Kamil explains. "After sensing this and learning about the startup ecosystem in the United States, I wanted to jump ship and challenge myself in a smaller company. That was the transition from a hundred thousand person Microsoft to a hundred person Glassdoor.”
Kamil's history of building and scaling new revenue-generating product lines under subscription, pay-per-use, and flat-rate pricing models is highly relevant in bringing in best practices in product management and product lifecycle management.
“A product manager is a person who is responsible for the success or failure of a product without any excuses.”
For example, one of the essential things to consider is the high level of ownership. When we give a job to someone, do they improve it and feel excited about it? Do they understand the need to talk to customers without anyone telling them to do so? Are they trying to understand the data about their product, the industry and the users? Companies want to see that if they give a problem to a person, can they make the right decisions and more importantly manage the right decision-making processes.
What does managing the right decision-making process mean? Deciding on what problem or opportunity to focus on requires being close to the customers/users and stakeholders. In certain domains, the product manager is expected to have deep domain experience or knowledge, but in domains, the product manager is first and foremost expected to ask the right questions to the stakeholders to lead the conversation based on the first principles. Product managers with that capability, in most cases, can lead the discovery, inception, and prioritization successfully - of which all are part of decision-making for a product area.
Not every decision is going to be the right one, but the more the product manager knows about the customer and the data, the lower the risk of "screwing up" in decision-making.
In a product-based approach, you start by asking questions like who might be our customers, what might be their problems, and how we can solve them. The nature of this approach forces us to think long-term and ideate solutions that serve a broader customer base. This also allows engineering teams to future-proof their solutions and make conscious technical trade-off decisions based on the potentially upcoming iterations of the product.
On the other hand, the project-based approach to product development creates debt and challenges the future scalability of the solutions. At an early stage, startups might choose to go after customers that aim to prove their fit, building quick and customer-specific solutions. But as the product market fit is established, the teams should take a step back and ask "how what I built so far matches the future evolution of my product".
The most important thing is to have your company’s founders committed to actively managing the culture, especially at startups as the company matures. What worked for a ten-person startup may not work for a 100-person startup anymore. In my experience, the company culture at startups is rooted in the founders and their values. Not everyone can quickly adapt to the approach established in a company—that is why the founders' commitment from the beginning is significant. It is crucial to talk to the founders about their expectations from the start and share your values and principles.
Whenever Kamil starts in a new product or company, he first observes and avoids any quick judgments - especially when the change is as significant as moving from the US based start-up ecosystem to the European start-up ecosystem. He then drafts a document based on his observations and ideas. Kamil shares this with the founders, the executive team and his team leadership for discussion.
After my observations in the first 60 days, the document I wrote had statements like ‘Digitization is not innovative.’ So, if you want to digitize a paper form, you turn it into a web form. But when you remove that form, you start talking about redefining the existing workflows.
The statement above is provocative by design to trigger reaction. As founders, are you ready to discuss new approaches and perspectives? Once there is alignment for change, which could include rollout of the new ways of working together, changing decision making practices and even tracking company performance, the change management is critical and should be planned to minimize impact to the existing business.
We will continue our conversation with Kamil in the next article in this series, so keep an eye out for updates.