Graham Gnall, on Product Management During Uncertainty
Even in the best of times, product management at a startup means making big decisions under ambiguity. During COVID-19, product managers face an entirely new business landscape, where the answers aren’t clear. In this month’s employee spotlight, we talked to Graham Gnall, our Head of Product extraordinaire, who’s seen his fair share of uncertainty in the market over his career. We talked about how he approaches product management, and how to adjust your strategy when things change fast.
How do you approach product management?
The thing that’s always appealed to me about product management is how wide open it is. I’ve always had many wide-ranging interests that seem unrelated, or – worse – as distractions.
Working in Product, you constantly have to switch modes and dive into different types of thinking. In order to deliver an excellent product, you need to dip into psychology, marketing, systems, design, and strategy, not to mention whatever problem space you’re working in. I’ve always found this to be energizing and a way to leverage what otherwise would be a weakness – a lack of focus – into a strength!
What makes a good product?
Good products solve problems in thoughtful ways. That holds whether the problem is boredom at home (Netflix), the difficulty of collaborating away from the office (Zoom), or anything else.
One thing that people – either new PMs or people who haven’t done this type of work before – get wrong is getting hung up on the design or polish instead of the problem solving. Some of my favorite products (Drafts is a good example) are relatively ugly, but beautifully functional and customizable. When people love and use these, it’s telling you that there is a painful problem being solved, or that it’s being solved in a better way than existing alternatives.
So I often try to have PMs simplify whatever they are trying to solve into the smallest release and crappiest version you can think of. Once you figure out the essence of what people need your product to do you can develop it further.
Of course, technology has evolved so quickly that in many industries, particularly consumer, you actually need the beautiful, elegant solution people expect. Games for instance, need to be incredibly polished to get off the ground in the first place. But it’s a helpful reminder to start from the basics and build progressively.
What makes a good product manager?
It’s one of those things that you know when you see it. Good product managers tend to share a few common traits:
- An entrepreneurial bent. PMs need to understand and be responsible for the holistic success of their product. New PMs or people used to getting orders often have blind spots for things they should be paying attention to. The best PMs make sure every aspect of their product is accounted for and optimized.
- Endless curiosity. Similar to above, PMs need to constantly seek out information from their users, their market, and the state of technology. They also need to borrow ideas from all over the place. The more they expose themselves to, the more creative they get.
- Problem solvers. They take the time to unpack problems and all of their nuances before even starting to think about a solution. If you do the first part, the second part flows easily.
- Humble. PMs often don’t “do” anything, meaning we don’t usually code or design. They need to figure out how to make their team members the heroes and do all the grunt work to keep them moving.
- Decisive. We never have enough information about a feature design or whether to launch a new product. Good PMs make decisions with incomplete information, and more importantly, ship to learn so they can make the next decision with better information.
How are you thinking about product management in this time of massive change and uncertainty?
This is obviously an unprecedented time for businesses and the world at large, but teams always need to be prepared for massive change because it’s inevitable. The uncertainty has led many companies to cut costs, re-focus their strategy, and keep moving forward. Optimistically, this kind of hard reset can actually help teams get back on track.
When you are forced to question what you are building and even kill projects entirely, it is painful but can be healthy. Good PMs need to focus on doing the smallest possible things to deliver an outcome. When teams need to cut back, they often can refocus with ruthless prioritization. Whether through past successes or available capital, teams can get bloated and start chasing all kinds of non-core things. So, if nothing else, it’s an excuse to get disciplined again.
The downside is that it becomes difficult to justify long-term strategic projects when teams are struggling to keep the lights on or make payroll. But even the smallest, highest leverage tactic for moving towards those projects will make a bigger difference.
What brought you to Braavo? What do you like most about working for Braavo?
Braavo’s mission – helping entrepreneurs achieve their dreams – was at the top of my list. My initial interest in product was about tools, toys, and games being made by creative indie developers. I was thrilled about the idea of helping those teams grow and distribute their products to more people all over the world.
Braavo is also at an incredibly unique intersection of many industries I wanted to learn: Mobile, Gaming, Fintech, and Analytics. This means there are never-ending areas and combinations to explore. I typically work in one or two week sprints, and often that means focusing on an entirely different – and often brand new – problem each time. This has continued to pay dividends in my time at Braavo: I’ve been able to build progressively and combine what I’m learning on the fly while never running out of things to explore.
What is your go-to drink and why?
50/50 martini. It’s classic, incredibly easy, and certainly makes a clean break of the roughest (or best!) day. I like to make them in advance so they are ready to go. (Step 1: put gin and vermouth in bottle. Step 2: put in freezer.) I’m a sucker for certain old-fashioned things and this is one of them. Oh, and a lemon twist.