When you’re scaling a company, a lot can go right, but a lot can also go wrong. This post is a distillation of the lessons I learned from scaling two product teams, first at Zenefits and then at Ravelin.
I joined Zenefits when we were ~50 people doubled up on desks in the Mission in San Francisco. The next three years were a blur. The company grew from 50 to 1,000+ employees and the product team from 2 to ~40. I joined Ravelin when we were 16 employees huddled in a basement in Clerkenwell, London. We grew from 16 to 41 employees in two years and I led the product team from 1 to 5 people.
While Zenefits and Ravelin were different beasts, three principles rang true for building and scaling product teams:
At early stage startups, adding process is counterintuitive. You’re moving fast so why add hurdles that slow you down? As the Navy Seals say, “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” In reality, process can help you speed up by:
Each hire is an important decision, so investing time upfront to define a process is worthwhile. Once you’ve defined an initial blueprint for your process, use each candidate to validate and improve it with your team.
What should your hiring process look like? And how do you close top talent? More to come on this in future posts.
Hiring is hard. You need to attract top talent in a competitive market. You need to decide whether a person’s right for your company with limited information. Product hires at early stage startups are critical to the success of a company. TLDR… hiring is necessary, but easy to screw up.
So why not mitigate this risk by hiring internally? Internal hires come with several benefits:
So you’re probably thinking “but if an operations manager’s never been a product manager… isn’t that a risk?” Yes, it is. I’m not saying that everyone can successfully transition to product management, but people who have potential — analytical horsepower, curiosity, hustle — are worth taking a bet on.
You can also do things to help internal hires succeed:
I made the transition into product management at Zenefits because our CEO made a bet on me. I’ve since made bets on teammates at Ravelin and couldn’t have been more happy with the outcome.
Being a product manager can be isolating. Building out a team can be chaotic. As you build your team, be sure to carve out time for your team to minimise this isolation and chaos.
“Team time” generally has three purposes: alignment, creation, and celebration.
This is typically a weekly team meeting. The goal is to align on:
You can use 1:1s with individual team members to get a pulse on these questions, but the team meeting is an open forum for the team to align — both mentally and tactically.
Building a team is like building a company. If you don’t intentionally craft your team’s vision, values, and guiding principles, things are likely to going awry.
For example, let’s look at guiding principles. What are the principles that guide your team’s behavior? “Ship to learn” was one we stood by at Ravelin. Your team is likely already operating under these, but until you take the time to define them, they don’t exist.
If you haven’t defined them, get the team together for an hour to brainstorm. Draft a laundry list of principles. Choose your top 10. Test them out for a week or two. Refine them. Make posters. Broadcast them to the rest of the company. Live and breathe them.
They’ll inevitably evolve over time but will serve as a compass for your team’s decisions.
Celebrating wins and progress are important! And yet they’re easily forgotten in the day-to-day hustle of startup life.
Celebrations come in various forms. A team lunch or dinner is a great way to reflect on accomplishments from the quarter. Cookies or cakes are always a hit for celebrating a milestone. Publicly recognizing your team’s progress at a company all hands meeting or on Slack are also ways to celebrate.
No matter how big or small, celebrations can go a long way to keep morale high.
Have you scaled a product team? What lessons have you learned? I’d love to hear from you! Feel free to share here, Twitter DM @natsandman or email me at natalie.sandman[at]gmail.com.
This post was originally published on Medium on May 13, 2018.