A Business-First Approach to Product
Are you striking the right balance between customer focus and business acuity in your product management career? Join us as we welcome Frank Tisellano, a B2B product leader with experience at Google, Kaseya, and others. Frank shares his journey and realization of the importance of this balance. Discover how understanding the impact a product has on a company's business is key for success and prioritization, and learn how to become more commercially focused product people.
We also discuss common mistakes in product management, the need for developing a better understanding of the business side of the work, and the potential impact of product managers entering the field with limited or no business experience. Listen in as we explore building a well-rounded skillset and examine how product managers can use their business acumen to drive success in their products. Don't miss this opportunity to elevate your awareness and understanding of the business side of product management!
Connect with Frank:
Concepts mentioned in the episode:
The Cynical PM Framework — about getting clarity around the business role of every product or feature
Shift left on go-to-market — about thinking about GTM much earlier in the product development process
Books mentioned in the episode:
Intro (the incomparable Sandra Segrest) 00:03
Welcome to Product Voices, a podcast where we share valuable insights and useful resources to help us all be great in product management. Visit the show's website to access the resources discussed on the show, find more information on our fabulous guests, or to submit your product management question to be answered on our special Q&A episodes. That's all at ProductVoices.com, And be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite platform. Now here's our host, JJ Rorie, CEO of Great Product Management.
JJ Rorie 00:35 Hello and welcome to Product Voices. Today's episode we're going to be talking about a business first approach to product, how we, as product folks can embrace the importance of business acumen and understanding the impacts that we're making to the business. The truth is, we have such a focus on customers as we should and what user experiences we can build, what features, functionalities, all of the things that we can build in product to make our customers' lives easier. Those things matter a lot and we can't ignore them. But the truth is, if the product isn't making a positive impact on our business, on our company's business, it's not going to continue to get the prioritization, the focus, the resources needed to make it a successful product. And, at the end of the day, as product folks, we are business people. We are there to provide an impact and a positive return to the business, and so we have to have this level of understanding of how we can sure, of course, always put the customer at the center That's going to lead to success but also to put our business at the center, and how do we balance that and how do we make that happen? So today's conversation is all about that, and I'm so excited to have my guest with me to talk about this. He's really an expert on this. So Frank Tisellano is a New York City area B2B product leader, most recently at Google. He spent the last two-ish years working as a GM and investment partner in Google's internal incubator, Area 120. Prior to his work in Area 120, he led product teams at Google working on developer tooling and infrastructure, and at Kaseya building IT management software for SMBs and mid-market enterprises. Frank, thanks for being here. I'm so excited about this conversation.
Frank Tisellano 02:29 Thanks so much for having me. JJ, Me too.
JJ Rorie 02:31 Yeah, it's going to be a good one and a really important one, and we dance around the subject a lot in product, but I think it's really important to center it in this conversation. So, first of all, just kind of set the stage for us. Tell me about your experience and your journey and how you had learned how important it is to be a business-focused product person.
Frank Tisellano 02:52 Yeah, thank you. It's funny how, when you look back at your life, you can kind of tell a story in a way that feels very neat, where the lines connect the dots very perfectly, But when it's happening it feels like the line's tumbling over on itself and you're taking two steps backwards and it's very squiggly and chaotic. But when I look at where I started, it almost feels inevitable that I came to where I am, sort of as a reaction to where I started. I have been making software for most of my life since I was a kid. My dad worked in software, which I thought was extremely boring. I always wanted to be an attorney, which I thought was super cool and exciting, And so for me software represented a hobby and a craft that I really loved and cared about, And the commercial side was not at all important. It was all about my own enjoyment in building cool Harry Potter fan websites as a kid.
03:51 But what I saw as my life went on and as I started in product management formally, and I saw the folks around me being really successful, I recognized that the folks who really grew in their careers and the businesses that were really successful were ones that you know. In thinking about that spectrum that you described between customer orientation and commercial orientation. Of course the parenthetical there is, we got to do both of those things But that I saw the most success happening for folks who were really commercially oriented, which again that's not my natural orientation. But I think the reason I do my writing and my speaking on these subjects is because it's sort of a counter to my own inclinations and also because it's what I see is most needed in product that the tendency is toward this kind of hyper consumer oriented, even in B2B software consumer oriented, user oriented, design oriented and in a very specific definition of what good design is, way of working. That I think ought to be balanced out by a strong commercial grounding also.
JJ Rorie 05:02 Thank you for sharing that, because I think a lot of times folks become an expert and then it seems as if there's sometimes untouchable right or inaccessible. And I love the fact that you're open about that wasn't your inclination, that wasn't your natural direction, And I think there are people out there listening who are thinking okay, I know I need to understand the business more and know I need to be more commercially focused, but that's not my natural inclination. So I think it's going to help people to hear that someone like you realized it and focused on it and can learn from it, Because I think sometimes we become experts in something and then it seems as if we were always that way And I think people need to learn that or hear that we've all had our journey. So I love that. Thank you for sharing that.
Frank Tisellano 05:49 Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, people are people And I think everyone anyone who looks perfect or appears untouchable, like you said, on the surface they've got the same stuff that we all deal with And they all had to learn, just like we all do. And I was fortunate enough to work with some really really smart and knowledgeable business folks who have been there before and done it many times, and so I got my learning the hard way, where I was kind of the odd duck, you know, fighting for what I thought was great design, when really what we needed was to think about how you know to sell our products better, to position them better or build features that are existing customers wanted. I was just listening to your show from March with Karim talking about innovation versus incremental work, and that really resonated with me And I think that's that's really intersects big time with this kind of commercial orientation that I'm talking about.
JJ Rorie 06:40 Yeah, absolutely So. So one of your. In one of your writings and, by the way, listeners, we're going to post Frank's blog links and all of that in the show notes, so you'll have access to that But in one of your writings that I really enjoyed, you say that every product, even every feature, serves a function in your business and has one of three jobs. So tell me about that concept in general and then talk to me a little bit about those three jobs.
Frank Tisellano 07:06 Sure, so in my time at Google, google has a really strong commitment to focusing on the user and a belief that business success will follow from that, which I believe in and I think is true, and it's obviously served Google very well over the years. I do think, though, that sometimes products get to a stage in their life cycle where you do need to focus really commercially, and so I created this kind of tongue in cheek thing that I call the cynical PM framework that says let's imagine for a second that we're really, really just going to focus on the business to the point of almost absurdity, and that's the goal of the name. Right is to trigger us into thinking about like what if we were, you know, the monopoly man? and like twirling our mustaches and polishing our monocles and saying we are going to only focus on the business very ruthlessly, how would we think about our products in that context? The twist, at the end, is that, by focusing on the business, we end up focusing on the user in an even more valuable and more focused way. So it does come full circle, but we start from this place where we say what function does my product serve in our business, in some businesses where there is just one product, you might need to break that down at the feature level.
08:27 Fundamentally, my view is that every product, every feature, serves at least one, and usually one of three purposes. Purpose number one is to drive adoption, to drive new customers, new revenue. Purpose number two is to drive retention, to keep the customers that you have, to keep your users engaged if you're building a consumer product. And the third is to drive expansion, that's, taking your existing customers and growing their business with you or growing their engagement with your product.
09:02 I think it's really important to understand which role your product serves, because the role that it serves, when you think about it from day zero, will materially shape how you build it, will materially shape how you position it and bring it to market.
09:18 It'll materially shape what you prioritize, because two products, even in the same product category, but that might serve different purposes in different competing businesses, let's say, will receive different kinds of prioritization, different type of go to market. And so it's really important to have a strong awareness of that from very early on in the process, where I see the tendency being to kind of thinking about go to market, thinking about positioning, thinking about your products purpose in the business at the very end And what that? what happens is it makes it really hard to get aligned with the rest of the business. You often see these differences of opinion and what we should prioritize or how we should talk about the product. In my experience, those differences in opinion often come from this much more fundamental lack of alignment around what is this product doing for our business, or And inability or a choice to not make that decision and say every product needs to serve every purpose in the business, which, like any strategic decision making, can make it really hard to focus your team.
JJ Rorie 10:26 Gosh, i really, really love this. So it and I love it for a few reasons. One, it's just, it's just simple, kind of like it drills it down to look your, your, your product is going to have The purpose of adoption, of retention, of expansion, or multiple of those. And? and the second thing I love about this is it's kind of a forcing function to make us think about that throughout the whole thing, right, and and To your last point, or one of your last points, is we make a product and then we start to think about okay, is this, is this going to be good for retention, or is this going to be good for adoption? Well, that that misses the whole boat. So love it. I think this is really an awesome way to look at it.
11:05 So, so this brings me to another question. It's it's first part is like, just generally, how can product managers improve their business acumen and understanding of these areas and what's going to drive, you know, adoption, retention, expansion? But the second part of my question is how can we, as product folks, learn how to better collaborate with the folks whose specific role is to position and communicate the value proposition right? We've got to build it. We've got to build something that has this inherent value proposition. But how do we better work with our teammates that are specifically The folks who are trying to get the market to see that right? so, number one, how do we have a product managers improve just their overall business understanding? and then, number two, how can we work better with our marketing, growth etc. Partners.
Frank Tisellano 11:58 Absolutely so. I think what's really cool about this is that the answer to your two questions is largely the same. I think, of course, the easy answer is you can go read, right, you can go read books on business. You can read books for product managers that are specifically about business. Even in inspired, there are sections that really touch on focusing on business value.
12:20 But I think the best way to improve your collaboration with your cross functional partners on the go to market side, on the customer facing side, is is the same technique you can use to improve your own business acumen, and what I mean by that is think about how you learned as a PM to partner with engineering or with design, i don't know. What we've hopefully learned over the last 25 years of product management being a formal profession is We all work better together when we shift our collaboration left, when we work together, when we bring design into the process, when we bring engineering into the process earlier, we end up making better products when you make them faster because we have a shared context that we all build from, rather than having the pm And maybe you are being like the resource of the research folks who then chuck the research over the wall to engineering and then engineering goes and builds the thing. What I'd say is do that very same thing with your customer facing teams. Bring them into the process much earlier. What you're gonna learn by those conversations, by the kind of feedback you get from them earlier, is how they think. And the more of those conversations you have, the more you really respect what these customer facing teams bring to the table in their early feedback, the more you'll start to internalize how the quote unquote commercial side of the business thinks about your work and about work in general, and then you can start anticipating those questions and bringing that commercial focus to them Rather than just being the recipient of it.
13:55 So in my experience, the way I've learned of course you can always say, read a book, but we all know in product management the way you really learn is by doing it and by making mistakes and by trying different things, and For me it was really about that. It was working in very sales and go to market oriented companies with brilliant leaders who showed me that sales is not, like You know, selling used cars, it's, it's a science in a process. As much as any other profession is Marketing the same thing, maybe even more so, and so just by increasing my exposure to those teams for the very practical purpose of getting feedback on the things we wanted to build, to test out their commercial viability, i was able to start internalizing some of those lessons and bringing that from from first principles to my product work going forward.
JJ Rorie 14:43 That's great advice. I love that, and shifting left and bringing them in more often and just collaborating collectively is really really great advice. So that be or not doing that being one mistake that product managers make, are there other common mistakes that you see maybe some newer product managers making in terms of not thinking about the business impact early enough?
Frank Tisellano 15:13 Yeah, i think that's a really big one. Also echo your previous guest cream again and saying that it's really, really critical that in most of the product we work we do, we're not thinking about ourselves as some like idealized version of Steve Jobs or something like that which, by the way, Steve Jobs wasn't the person that people think he was and they have this thought of him as this guy who Had these perfect, fully realized product visions from day one. That that's couldn't be further from the truth, that if you listen to the interviews with him, what he says is the products are built in the dirty work between the vision and the real and the thing that you ship, not in that very first you know stroke of brilliance you might have, or in your strategy deck. The product really gets built, really gets designed as you start using it and as your customers start using it. That's why I think The biggest mistake is that is, thinking of ourselves is like these visionaries who are needing to be constantly disruptive and feeling like, oh, we don't want our customers to tell us what to do, and of course, i agree with that. It's not our customers jobs to tell us what to build, because we're the folks who've got the best understanding of that intersection between where the value is for them, where the value is for our business and what our technical capabilities are.
16:36 But yeah, i think if I had a sum up where I see those most common mistakes, again, the reason I write about these things, the reason I talk about them, is that I think there is a an extreme focus on one, a very specific type of design, a very specific type of vision that feels very apply to me. That is amazing for Apple, because they're a consumer product company that differentiates on design and on disrupting categories. But for those of us like me working in B2B software, or for folks that are working in different kinds of consumer products you might be a consumer product manager for, like brooms or toilets or something like that. You differentiate in different ways, and design is one of the tools in the toolkit It's not the only one And so I think my encouragement to PMs that are maybe just getting started or that are not super attuned to the business side is to take the value that you deliver to the business very seriously and to let that guide your work kind of in some of the ways that I described.
JJ Rorie 17:44 Yeah, i love that And it actually brings me, because I was wanting to get your take on this. So it brings me to, kind of, my next question. I think you've touched on things, but I just want to specifically ask it and see if there's anything you would add. So one of the things that I'm saying more and more often, and I think it's a product of me teaching at Johns Hopkins and working with a lot of grad students who are going to be getting out into the business world very soon with very limited and sometimes no business experience yet, and so many of them want to get into product now, and it's not just at Johns Hopkins, it's all over the world, really at schools who are now focusing on product management and it's just a very highly visible craft. So, which is wonderful and I love it.
18:33 But historically, as we know, folks who've been in PM for a while, people moved into product, you know, typically from other roles in business from engineering, from marketing, from sales, whatever And so just by virtue of that, they naturally had some insights onto how the business worked.
18:49 Didn't mean they were business first product people, yet they had to learn that, but they did have at least some inclination of how the business worked. So people who are coming into to their careers as new PMs with no background other than education, which is a wonderful thing, but you know again, the kind of practical on the job is is much better. You know, if this trend holds either big or small people coming into their careers with very limited or no business background, do you see that having an impact on how business focus PMs can and will be? Do you think it's more important for people to have the focus that that you've been talking about, to make sure that they don't just focus on design features etc. What are your thoughts on that? are you seeing that and do you have any kind of other thoughts on on that trend?
Frank Tisellano 19:42 Yeah, that is really, really interesting. I feel like in the folks who kind of came up in product management, when I did fit very much the profile you're talking about, they came out of customer support, i came out of design, they come out of customer success or account management or even sales a little bit more rarely, maybe technical sales a little bit more commonly. I think those folks, while they may not fit the archetype that I described in, folks that like really deeply care about design first and foremost, they have a really strong connection with their customers. They really understand especially I'm, you know, i come from a B2B background, so my answer is definitely Here in that direction they really think about the value that their products provide to their customers business. I think, even the folks you're talking about who came up in a particular business and made the leap to product in that business, they're really customer centric because in in general, their roles were very customer facing, and so I actually think those folks are the ones where, like me, which I put myself in that category are the folks that do need to build the business skills, the people coming out of universities now they're coming out of MBA programs to be product managers straight out of the gate. I think what I see is they come with a really strong business focus and maybe less of a customer focus. They come with A kind of almost business management consultants view on KPIs and using metrics and it's a very formal approach to product management that the previous generation, like me, didn't have. Right, we learned on the job through Are are sort of credibility that we had in other areas in the business, and so I think for them I'm sure the experience is our mix, but what I see is that those folks that are coming directly at a business school If when I have PMs on my team that are in that situation, i send them straight to our customers i want them to talk to our customers.
21:51 In fact, when I ran product management at Kaseya, my team which was very senior they were, they were not straight out of school. One of the things i did first when i joined was to create a goal around number of ad hoc customer conversations per month that we reported on in our weekly status emails and that we held a count of help folks accountable to in our Performance review conversations. We never had an issue meeting those quotas. Folks were talking to a ton of customers, but it was really about showing how critical it is to get into the mind of your customer so that you can build things are really great for them, which once you're in their shoes, once you're empathizing, once you're you've really internalized where the value is for them, that actually freeze you up to focus on the purpose of the product for your own business, because the customer orientation is kind of second nature so it feels a little counterintuitive.
22:46 But Really that's been my experience and i think you know the best PMs. Like i said, you were taking this almost caricature of an approach to being really cynical and being really business focused. You really do need to do both and i feel like it's that it's building such intuitive understanding of what your customers need and where the value is for them that you can spend your your kind of conscious mental energy On what your business needs and you use intuition and the benefit of your partners in design and engineering to figure out what the right solutions are to the problems that your customers are facing.
JJ Rorie 23:23 Yeah, that's a great take and i agree with you. I actually think i am doing a lot of work in research with with industry and i personally do you know how my consulting firm so i do a lot of industry work and then i have john so i can so have the academia work, so it's an awesome kind of balance there for me. Personally. I love it, but it's also Leads me to doing a lot of research and work with that kind of industry academia partnership and i agree with you that i think I think there's a huge benefit for this. I think that you know, i teach in the engineering school but we basically teach management engineering right? i mean, we teach business and engineering. We don't just say you know, be the best engineer, we teach you to be well rounded, and i think that's a really important point and I think your your take on this is is really good.
24:10 I do think the industry and kind of the corporate world is a little In terms of hiring new product managers. I think they're still looking for folks from other groups you know are some experience, and so i think there's some some catch up to do there. But i think that the positioning of And the story to be told about how they can come in with that that cynical pm approach and really be successful is there. So i love that story and i'm sure i'm gonna Use some of your thoughts and and and words as i continue that that partnership and that research and trying to bring those together so awesome, i love that. I love that take. So, frank, last question for you is you know just what resources that you've used, that you like this, you've built your product career. You know what would you recommend to product folks? Obviously your resources are awesome, so so mention those, tell us a little bit more about those. But what other resources would you recommend for product folks who want to build their awareness and understanding of the business?
Frank Tisellano 25:10 Sure, yeah, i said earlier, i think your most important resource and in evolving your product practice is to engage as much as you can with the business oriented folks in your business The go to market teams, your marketing and sales teams, your customer success team. Just immerse yourself with them and Get into their heads. Ask them pointed questions, about your finance team even. How are you thinking about the success of this product? what metrics are you looking at beyond the ones that we talk about in our weekly meetings? what keeps you up at night? I think they're your best resource because the things you'll be able to learn from them are so concretely relevant to the work that you're doing every day That you'll get a ton of value from them. And over time, the more at baths you get, the more reps you get with those folks, the more you'll be able to abstract what you learn from them into more general principles.
26:02 Beyond that, there's a couple of books that i've read that have been really important shaping my Thinking around product management. Their books that lots of folks know, of course, inspired is my bible. I've read every single one of marty cagan and silicon valley product groups books, but also blue ocean strategy, which open my eyes to thinking about a product as a tool for increasing the value of your business And as a tool for creating a position in the market and for being strategic, rather than as the end it is the means to success. So blue ocean strategy was really important for me there. And then in terms of how to approach this kind of building new products and but thinking about new products relative to, maybe, an existing market was crossing the chasm, which taught me about, before lean startup existed, what effectively like a minimum viable product might look like, the difference between how early adopters adopt products and later adopters adopt products. So a lot of really good lessons in there.
27:06 Getting to my resources that you talked about, which i have both of these books on my product management reading list in my blog, including in plus inspired and a bunch of other things, i point you to my blog to at ft dot i o very simple domain to go to, and you'll find my blog there. Otherwise, i'm happy to take emails from folks at any time. I've got all my contact information there. I love talking about product management, so i'm happy to chat anytime.
JJ Rorie 27:32 Awesome and that's a great offer. I mean, that's one of the things that i found all those resources, by the way but one of the things i found that i learned the most from Is just talking to folks and and commiserating over what's happening and asking, you know, asking what's what's going on in their world and on it. Honestly, this, this podcast, i learned something every single episode, so it's a blessing to me and, hopefully, you know, to those listening as well. So, Frank Tisellano, this is just been such a wonderful conversation. I've loved learning from you. I've loved Having our conversation about this really, really important topic. So thank you for joining me on product voices. Thank you for sharing your insights.
Frank Tisellano 28:11
Thank you, JJ, it's been great and thank you all for listening to product voices. Hope to see on the next episode.
Outro 28:19 Thank you for listening to product voices hosted by JJ Rory. To find more information on our guests, resources discussed during the episode, or to submit a question for our q&a episodes, visit the show's website, product voices dot com and be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite platform.