Monday , November 30 2020

On startups and the Silicon Valley with Dan Hejl from Productboard

How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your business?

In spring, our growth slowed temporarily as many customers suddenly faced more pressing problems. For example, how to switch to distributed work and home office. Since then, we have returned to the same growth as before the crisis.

How many people are employed by Productboard today and how do you share your company’s leadership with co-founder Hubert Palán?

About two hundred people. Hubert is the president of the company and of course manages everything. On the one hand, as the general manager, I help manage the entire office in Prague, and most of all I am interested in the development of new things, new products and services.

The Product Board has customers from global corporations. Where are you the strongest, where are you in the best position?

In North America. It is here that many large software companies are actively considering how to meet customer needs and prioritize better. We help in this. This is the tomb of our functioning.

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Is it because you are from Europe, the Czech Republic, an obstacle in the USA?

Interestingly, clients consider us not a Czech company, but an American one. Even a large part of our sales team comes from America. So optically we are an American company. There has also been a huge shift in the way we think. In the last few years, people have begun to realize that it is extremely difficult to build a company that is all over San Francisco as it is one of the most expensive places in the world. It is already so expensive that it has exceeded all reasonable resources. Getting developers there is very difficult. And when we tell someone we have a development outside of San Francisco, he says yes, it is.

If you’re dealing with US customers and want to get one, what’s the difference to the Czech Republic?

I think this is primarily the difference in our advanced thinking about product management, where US customers already have processes set up and know exactly what they want. On the other hand, here in the Czech Republic, customers quite often hope that when they start using Productboard, it will even solve procedural issues that they haven’t worked out yet.

This may be reflected in the fact that customers actually misunderstand what you are doing, what are you actually doing?

We help to centralize the company’s knowledge about customer needs. And then work with it so that it is clear how the product should evolve to best suit the needs of the market. I would somehow define us. This may be more difficult for people outside the area to understand.

As a result, how does this help the company, actually to anyone?

Thanks to this, the company will not use thousands of hours of programmer’s time to build functionality that no one needs. We are a tool that helps in the digital world to show where development should go forward. Since in the world of physical things it is clear that the table must have some parameters, it must have legs there, and the physical world is limited. In the digital world, like Instagram and Sony, I’ll be in the field of creating stories, click-and-buy, or tagging and moving up. There are just a billion ways for you to decide what you want to do is right. We can help with that.

You created an array of products in 2014. Is what you are doing evolving?

It started out with discovering and studying best practices in product management. And coming up with what Productboard is meant to be. I spent about a year and a half with Hubert (second co-founder and CEO) in Silicon Valley, where we played around with about a thousand different people as potential customers, be it other startup founders, product managers, and project managers. It was incredibly interesting to hear how they manage their product development, how they decide what a product should know, how they listen to their customers and learn from their own experience how to build a system that will help them perform better. We’ve been working on this basis somehow since then.

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Where did the idea for Productboard come from over five years ago?

We both worked with Hubert on digital products. My role has been that I have been a developer for many years and I was very interested in how we programmers spend a lot of time trying to be faster and more efficient. We implement new technologies, new languages, libraries and tools. We automate things, and then we always work 10, 12, 14 hours a day to deliver the code, the functionality, to find out no one cares that these customers aren’t using it. And it is terribly frustrating. I began to wonder how this process should be done correctly and how to check if someone really needs it – before building it. Hubert previously held the position of vice president of project management at another company, where he was responsible for it when developers were building something and no one used it or needed it. Hubert already knew a better way to do it.

When I imagine that an alternative to Productboard is Excel, followed by, for example, Asana or Evernote, or a number of other software tools, are you better than these variants?

The whole process is quite complicated. An asana will only ever take care of one small part. How am I supposed to communicate with the whole company there, so what am I doing? To do this, I need a roadmap. The point is, Productboard is a tool where I can do this very effectively. This will allow some forms of analysis as well as reflect customer feedback which I wouldn’t normally do in an Excel spreadsheet. Excel is not a collaborative tool, so it does not allow for advanced analysis and segmentation.

So would you say that you present the most comprehensive picture of the solution to the problem?

Let’s make it clear if you used to own a pool as a business and are now wondering how to improve your pool. What can I add to make it better? And now I will put a feedback box there and someone will write there: I would like to have a stopwatch so I can measure how long it will take me to swim in the pools. Someone else will say: I’d like drinks with umbrellas and more sunbeds here. And another says: I wish the water was colder and deeper. As a result, it turns out that there are different customer segments on the market that have different needs and it is never possible to build a product that will satisfy everyone at once.

It’s always a decision. You have to focus a lot on one segment and try to win it, especially at the beginning of product development. To be the best product on the market for him and only then can you continue to develop and satisfy other needs. This is actually a thinking structure that product managers have to do. And we help them in this. So if I were to use the Productboard for a pool I would see that there are different segments, here are the needs of mothers and there are so many, and then there are other needs of professional swimmers and so on.

Who are your customers today?

For example, Microsoft, Avast, Dell, and then smaller companies like Envoy.

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The renowned American fund Sequoia Capital has recently become one of the investors in the development of Productboard. You are the first Czech company that Sequoia has invested in. What drew them to them?

I think he likes us being a completely new category. They like companies that create their own market, that is, companies that are really first on the market. Just a few years ago, an entirely new category of product management systems began to emerge. And we will be the best system on the market. They like it when someone comes up with something new and wants to win the market. It’s just not another customer database or any other shared scooter app.

Why should developers go to Productboard when there are tons of startups? Quite the same, in fact.

This is a unique opportunity to see a company with a true American culture and build the best product in its category in the world. You can be in a company where English is the common language. We have around 28 different nationalities in the team. This is a great opportunity to learn about how product companies are built. For example, we have a lot of people who would like to have their own startup and one of the knowledge they need is product management. And since we’re researching our domain here and building a product on it, it will help them really understand how to think about it and how to build it. It also includes a product vision, strategy, market positioning and sales to clients. Therefore, it is very interesting for many of them.

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Can the Czech labor market generate enough potential for companies with global ambitions?

It is a pity that we here in the Czech Republic have excellent programmers, but a large number of them work in development agencies that deal with custom programming, and there they never have the authority to decide how to do it. Because there is always some customer entering what he wants. However, our model is the opposite. We don’t tell our developers exactly what to do, but rather tell them, here are some customer issues that need to be addressed, and some metrics as we know we’re doing well. Go and try to solve it and they can use all their intuition, curiosity and thinking to come up with different ways to do it. And that’s motivating. So I think it’s more about not being able to do this creative work.

What does working from home in a company look like?

We try to recruit the best people in the world. That is why we are open to recruiting people from outside Prague and San Francisco. We also have bands that are in Amsterdam, some in Berlin and some in Slovakia. However, we recognize how important face-to-face meetings are, especially in an informal environment where people are not limited to 50-60 minutes of meetings, where they have to be productive quickly, say what they want, and then work quickly. But it’s also important that people get together and have the opportunity to exchange a few words while sitting and working. These casual discussions often bring the best ideas. When they go to lunch together, for coffee. So we’re trying to connect these two worlds. Before the crisis, there was a lot that we had a distributed company, but we traveled a lot. Many people flew from Prague to San Francisco and back to make a personal contact, we would always be together, go out to dinner to discuss these matters in depth. We still consider it very important. I think that companies that function only as so-called Scattered but never really see each other, so they don’t have teams, but rather groups of people that don’t work together that much.

Regarding the new investment of the Sequoia fund, what are your plans for the further development of Productboard?

We are now building a bigger team in Prague. We employ product managers, designers and programmers. We have a new office prepared for this, but people can also work with us remotely. We will always work on our product because in the digital world the product is never finished. There is always room for improvement. We are currently working on making Productboard work well even in the largest companies. We’re not doing so well yet.

Daniel Hejl

Daniel is the co-founder and CTO of Productboard, a company developing an effective product management system. It helps companies steer products in the right direction and get them to market faster. The system is used by over 3,000 companies, such as Microsoft, UI Path, Dell, Zendesk and Twilio. The product board helps them understand the needs of their customers and show them the optimal path for further development. Daniel previously worked as a senior developer at Trumaker. He lives in Prague, where he leads the Productboard technology team.

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