Since its publication in 2011, “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries has determined how startups are built. The idea is that little can be known up front about what customers really want, thus a series of cheap and quick experiments are in order. Minimally viable products (MVPs) are slapped together and put in front of trial audiences with the goal of having them “fail fast”. This rapid experimentation may lead the startup to change directions repeatedly. These changes in business direction have come to be called pivots.
Now a team of experienced product people are challenging some aspects of the Lean Startup Method. Among those voices are Geordie Kaytes, Radhika Dutt and Nidhi Aggarwal. They have seen the problems that blind adherence to the Lean Startup Method can bring, such as aimless and unproductive pivoting. They propose a rebalancing towards a more deliberate approach. In our interview Nidhi, Geordie and Radhika tell us what drove them to fashion this new approach to product creation.
Transcript of Tradical Report I
GUESTS: Radhika Dutt, Nidhi Aggarwal & Geordie Kaytes
SAL DAHER: Hi, this is Sal Daher, host of the Angel Invest Boston podcast. Today, we're doing something new. A series of podcasts called the Radical Report. It will run concurrent to our flagship podcast, but it will take a different approach. We are going a bit deeper here. I'll be collaborating with the founders of Radical Product, Geordie Kaytes, Radhika Dutt, and Nidhi Aggarwal, who are on a mission to help founders and product leaders develop vision driven products.
The Radical Product approach is a bit of pushback to the Lean Startup movement. While it recognizes the value of MVP's and failing fast, etc... The Radical Product people want to speak up a bit more about deliberation vision. So, if you're interested in the art of building product, if you want to recognize when a product is headed to greatness or to despair, this podcast is for you.
On the Radical Report, I'll ask questions that startups often have. And Radhika, Nidhi, and Geordie will respond with tools, tips and frameworks to help founders build inspired products. I think an interesting way to do this is to introduce the team. So, Radhika Dutt, why don't you do the introductions and then each person tells us a little about herself or himself.
RADHIKA DUTT:Great, thanks Sal. I'm Radhika Dutt. The short version of my background is that I started off with my undergrad and grad in Electrical Engineering from M.I.T. And my first startup was Lobby 7, where we built the early version of Siri. So, you could interact with your mobile device using voice and text. And this was back in 2000, so we were entirely too early for the market. But the company was acquired by ScanSoft, which is now Nuance. And I've since been in many different industries, from Broadcast and Media Avid to Telecom et Starent, which was acquired by Cisco. My second startup was likely where we built a Netflix for wine, and that was acquired in 2014. And I've since headed up product at an ad tech company which was acquired by Axiom. And later, at a robotics and warehouse automation company called Symbotic. I guess the theme here is that you hear a very wide range of industry verticals. What I'm now doing is, I advise startups and I'm working with Nidhi and Geordie on building this framework Radical Product.
SAL DAHER: Tremendous. This is very exciting and I met Radhika, now almost five years ago when she was working on Likelii. And I can tell you that she made a big splash, I don't mean to be cliché, but it was a very compelling idea and it was very interesting. And so, Radhika has a lot of experience. Why don't we go on now to Nidhi? Please tell us about your background.
NIDHI AGGARWAL: Sure, thank you, Sal. I, at heart, am an entrepreneur. And I'm very passionate about building Radical Products that enable successful businesses. In my past, I've co-founded a Cloud configuration management startup called Qwiklabs. Qwiklabs was acquired by Google, and is also the platform used by Amazon web services customers and partners worldwide to create and deploy on-demand lab environments on the cloud. I have led almost every function in different companies, including product, strategy, marketing, and finance. By way of education, I have a Ph.D. in Computer Science and most of my experience is in high tech. With some experience in other industries to my work at McKinsey. So, a combination of big company and startup experience which I think gives me some unique insights.
SAL DAHER: Outstanding. Geordie, please tell us about yourself.
GEORDIE KAYTES: This is Geordie Kaytes. Thanks for letting me go last because I'm the, obviously the guy with the most impressive education and resume, compared to Nidhi and Radhika. Yeah, I studied Political Science at school, it turned out to be much, much less useful than Nidhi's Comp-Sci Ph.D. After college, I started my career off in management consulting. Made the jump over to UX, after that, because it seemed more interesting than just making slide decks all day.
So, I ended up at a UX design studio called Fresh Tilled Soil, in Boston. That's a company that focuses on UI/UX for digital products and I helped build about ten or fifteen products across a wide range of industries during that. Over the years, I've found myself gradually moving into more of a product strategy and product management role for clients. So, I would kind of bridge the UX design and business worlds. And, a lot of this products that I built didn't really need to exist, in my opinion. That was where I started getting the itch to help people create meaningful products. And ran into Radhika working on one of those products that may or may not have needed to exist, and uh...
SAL DAHER: It's a delicate area... It's a little bit like being a doctor talking about the pathologies that they observe.
GEORDIE KAYTES: Exactly.
SAL DAHER: It has to be anonymized. In the interest of science, but also observing the privacy of the suffering patients.
GEORDIE KAYTES: Exactly. Well, Radhika and I have worked together in three different companies, so you can take it however you want. For which of these that I'm referring to.
RADHIKA DUTT:And Geordie was hands down the best UX strategist I've ever worked with.
SAL DAHER: So this is sort of like the A-Team with very broad set of experiences, but also have gotten very deeply into particular areas. And so, I think that you guys are really ideally suited to dig down to the roots. Radical means "down to the roots," and to sort of push back a little bit against the sort of seat of the pants, throw it against the wall and see if it sticks, and instead do something a little bit more deliberate, with a little bit more vision. So, if you want to take turns now, Geordie, why don't you tell us the particular experience that really set you off in this path with Radhika and Nidhi.
GEORDIE KAYTES: Yeah, sure. So, the big trigger for me, obviously a few different client projects that sort of ended up making me realize that something needed to be done about the way we were approaching creating products. But the big one that really triggered me was, one particular case where our product leader just really had no idea what he was doing. He was really confusing his team, couldn't really set priorities, and there didn't seem to be any real strategy behind what metrics he was trying to capture.
So, this particular case, I was working with the VP of Product in a really, really, highly funded Boston startup, can't say which industry because they're by far the leader in their industry. If I tell you what it is, then you'll know what company it is. But this VP of Product really did not have any intuition for how to make good product decisions. So, he really seemed to be leaning on Agile, big A Agile, as a way of fundamentally setting the direction of the product. And we all know that's not really what Agile is for. It's a great tool to build a product in a relatively low risk way.
SAL DAHER: Geordie, give us a little primer on Agile and it's limitations.
GEORDIE KAYTES: Yeah, well I think Agile is a product management tool, not a product strategy and fundamental tool for getting you to the right thing.
SAL DAHER: Okay.
GEORDIE KAYTES: It gets you a really effective way to build things when you're moving in the right direction. And it helps you course correct when the market is giving you feedback, that okay that thing that you're doing is not necessarily the best thing to address this problem. But it doesn't help you...
SAL DAHER: Would it be fair to say that it's a tool that helps you implement but doesn't help you find out what you have to implement?
GEORDIE KAYTES: I think, it actually does help you find what you have to implement to achieve the goal, but it doesn't tell you what the goal should be.
SAL DAHER: Ah.
NIDHI AGGARWAL: I liken it to being an execution methodology.
GEORDIE KAYTES: Yeah. Exactly. It's a great execution methodology for solving the goal that you choose to solve, effectively. But it doesn't help you set the goal in the first place. And I think a lot of people, and this VP of Product, in particular that I encountered, were over using Agile in an almost circular way. Where the results of the Agile process were considered to be the reason why we're building things in the first place. As opposed to really thinking of Agile as a way of iterating towards a goal that you set from the outside based on a coherent vision and strategy.
SAL DAHER: Aha. Okay. So how did that work in your mind, Geordie? To try to go in a different direction.
GEORDIE KAYTES: Yeah. So, that was obviously creating some problems because it was ruthless. It didn't have a great foundation on to why we're doing what we're doing in the first place. And I think
SAL DAHER: Okay
GEORDIE KAYTES: I hypothesized, and speaking with Radhika, this was something that she had observed, too. We thought that probably the reason why people can't seem to develop a good intuition about what product decisions to make, and what goals to have, was because it was actually a really difficult thing to do. It wasn't just some skill that emerged as soon as you became VP of Product.
SAL DAHER: No. No, it's not. It's not.
GEORDIE KAYTES: As we had ongoing conversations. As Radhika and I talked about, is it even possible for someone to even learn this idea of product intuition? So you could make good, big picture product decisions. We started kicking around this idea. What if we could teach people how to do this in a repeatable way? That was a lot easier than going through fifteen years of product leadership experience before you're actually able to build anything that has a big impact.
SAL DAHER: Ah. Okay. So, Nidhi, can you please tell us your story? What is it that brought you to Radical Product?
NIDHI AGGARWAL: Very similar to what Geordie talked about and what Radhika had experienced. In my experience, I had seen Agile being abused and being given this role that it wasn't meant for. Like I said earlier, it's a great execution methodology. And if you think about it, it's common sense. Take small steps, iterate, measure and then course correct, if you have to. And, that's really the essence. But, people were using it to really set the vision. And I can give you an example of a company called Anon Machine Learning, obviously, I can't tell the name. But, what they did was, they started with a mathematical proof of a Deep Learning algorithm. And in this current craze for everything Deep Learning, they got huge funding based on that. Now, in their mind, they could solve any problem that could be classified as a learning problem with this technology.
SAL DAHER: Yes.
NIDHI AGGARWAL: Now, when you have such "limitless opportunity," they had a really hard time identifying any particular pain point, any particular customer, or even a market to target. They were, what they used to call, continuously pivoting. And, in my experience, it was based on the last conversation they had had, whether with a customer, or an investor, or even one of their advisors. What bothered me about it was, in their mind, it was okay to keep doing these pivots. Because that's what Lean Startup told them, it was okay to do, as they interpreted it. Right? So, I'm not saying that Lean Startup advocates for that.
SAL DAHER: Yes.
NIDHI AGGARWAL: What I am saying is, that people have abused it to take permission to not set any strategy or think about vision, or to deliberate. And to keep doing these pivots and burn cash, as long as they can convince the investors that there is some elusive market opportunity that they can chase. It will be very different than the last one they talked about, but there isn't a market opportunity.
SAL DAHER: You know this brings to mind a little bit of company that I'm involved with; That I'm an investor in. A company called Poly 6. And, these guys are really, I hope in the future perhaps to get into this a little bit more, but this is like your Anon AI. It's a technology that has just a lot of different applications. It's a type of chemistry. And it can be applied to many, many different areas. And, this is a danger when you're spoiled for choice.
NIDHI AGGARWAL: Ah right.
SAL DAHER: Figuring out really what is the most effective first use case. It becomes really important, and you need to watch out. Because if you're sort of like a consumer company that's trying to find what it is that the consumer wants, that's a different story. There you can experiment, throw things against the wall, see what sticks all the time, and you might be lucky and find something. But, when your customers are large enterprises, you can get a lot of shortcuts. And kind of map out what the sales cycle is in different areas, how long a product stays in place, and so forth, and how rewarding a product can be given the cost structure that you have. And then you can zero in. All of the sudden, it is not this infinite horizon that you had. All of the sudden it's a few small degrees in the horizon that are really available to you. So, yeah, I've seen this in real life.
NIDHI AGGARWAL: I would even say that, I mean, you gave a fantastic example of how in enterprise things are more structured. And things should be easier to find a pain point. But, even in consumer, right? Unless a company really understands what pain point they're trying to solve, I think that's when they go to this get lucky throw things at the wall. And like the Instagram story, of them starting off with completely different product, and then zooming in on the pain point of photo sharing.
SAL DAHER: Right.
NIDHI AGGARWAL: I think, as a philosophy; Unless you really understand who is your customer, and it can be very broad in consumer, right? Nobody is saying, "There has to be one type of customer." But, you have to understand the customer, their pain point, and what they are actually trying to achieve. In all cases. And, yes, in enterprise it is far easier because you have a limited set of people to deal with.
SAL DAHER: Right. And Radhika, what is your story that brought you to this really interesting enterprise?
RADHIKA DUTT:Yeah. For me, what really highlighted the need for an instruction manual on product management was that I was seeing the same product problems across both big and small companies. I think the way Nidhi described it, the execution and the absence of product vision, that was exactly what I kept seeing. And the symptoms, they manifest themselves differently in big vs. small companies. But, definitely I was seeing the same problems. So, in smaller companies, Nidhi talked about Lean Startup being used as the way to try something and pivot. And it's used as the execution method, so that you can actually find your product vision along the way, as you find what works in the market by just trying different things. And larger companies, very often I see Agile being used the same way as Lean Startup, as an execution methodology, in the absence of product vision. And there, the symptoms show up as untamable backlogs, priorities swinging, you know, every two weeks based on customer feature requests and so on.
SAL DAHER: Okay.
RADHIKA DUTT:But, you know, for our podcast today, maybe I'll talk about a specific example in the startup world. And actually, it's also an AI startup. But, you know, the reason I picked that as an example was because I think in Boston, we do tend to have a lot of high tech startups that start with some amazing piece of technology and then trying to find a use case. And Lean Startup is often used as the method by which we try to find that use case.
SAL DAHER: Yes.
RADHIKA DUTT:In this particular case, you know, this was before AI was hot and every company was doing AI. But this company had built this amazing technology where they could find signal in noisy data when no one else could at the time. And they could make accurate predictions. And again, you know the possibilities were limitless. You could use it in advertising, finance, scheduling, e-commerce, you could just pick a vertical. So, in their approach to using Lean Startup, they built a prediction engine. You could train it using test data, and then you could give it actual data and get predictions as your output.
And the plan was to find a use case by going off to one industry, trying it out, if it's not a fit, then moving on to the next. But it turns out that this approach to trying to find the right problem to solve, is actually really hard. It's so much easier to first find the problem that you really want to fix, and then you obsess over fixing that problem. And what we found in seeing if my working with that startup made sense, we together discovered that as you try to go after these different use cases, every time you explore the use case, you have to really understand business drivers. Evaluate those drivers, and then when you move on to a new industry vertical, you rinse and repeat this process.
SAL DAHER: Right.
RADHIKA DUTT:And this process just takes up a lot of momentum and not to even mention funding. So this particular startup, they had to build a SaaS tool. And their first paying customer was in the advertising space. And they were going to use it for optimizing click through rates. And so, since they had a paying customer, that in itself sounded like validation. Right?
SAL DAHER: Yes. Yes.
RADHIKA DUTT:But it turned out that advertising was actually not a good use case. And that was because of the business drivers. What they found was that when you have large campaigns, where you have good margins, most of those campaigns are focused on brand awareness, where Click Through Rates (CTR) don't really matter as much. That [CTR] is not the point of the campaign, and that's not how the agency pitches this campaign to the client. So, that's not really a valued pain point to go optimize click through rates. On the other hand, the smaller campaigns, they actually do need to optimize Click Through Rates. But they don't have enough margins where they'd actually want to pay for a SaaS tool to optimize those Click Through Rates. So we discovered that advertising is not a good use case. So, then you just move on to the next one right. But it's really hard to lose this kind of momentum. What happens with your team, is that they've worked really hard delivering on customer needs. In this case it was advertising, but...
SAL DAHER: Maybe they might've sharpened their vision a little bit, if they had actually talked to people who were experts in advertising and pitched the idea to them. And say, "Is this something that has value to you?" And someone might've said, "Oh, geez, you know, that's great, but for us a click through rates is not important. Since, it's basically brand building, it doesn't pay." Do you think that talking to experts in the field, if that might've been helpful?
RADHIKA DUTT:I think in advertising, yes. If you talk to enough customers, you would be able to discover this. So, I agree with you. In advertising, that could've worked to actually build out your strategy. And then you discover actually this isn't a valid enough business model because of the user research we've done. But, we just recently actually wrote about a startup where they used the same principles of Radical Product and Lean Startup together. This founder had a different start up called ContractBeast, and decided to shut down the company because they found it wasn't a valid enough business model.
SAL DAHER: Was that in your medium post?
SAL DAHER: I love your Medium posts. I really, really love them. They're really very sharp, very focused. I can't speak well enough of them. People should look up Radhika on Medium. So please continue.
RADHIKA DUTT:So, on that post, what we talked about was this startup Contract Beast. They had an idea in the contract lifecycle management space. Their customers in all of their user research before they started the company gave them a thumbs up, saying this would save us a lot of time. But in reality, you know, it was after they actually delivered a beta to them, they discovered through usage patterns, that the customers weren't using it. And that's where they found that, oh, you know, what it would take them to use the product was basically a consultative sales approach. Which was completely the opposite of what their differentiation and their approach to the market would have been, and would've killed the price point that they wanted to go in at and kill the market that they wanted to go after, basically.
SAL DAHER: Yes.
RADHIKA DUTT:So, I think you're exactly right. I think some things can be predicted so that you can reduce the number of iterations before just executing with Lean Startup alone. But, other things, you might actually have to try it in the market to discover what will and won't work. And that's what we advocate for, using Lean Startup. But, anchored in a vision and a strategy.
SAL DAHER: This is very eloquent and I think well said. As an investor, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of having an efficient mechanism for discovering product market fit. And, if that requires a balance to the Lean Startup approach of throwing things up on a wall and seeing what sticks, and having a little bit more deliberation, a little bit more digging into what can become a vision for the product, I highly applaud that. Where can people sort of get more into this information? Geordie, do you want to address that?
GEORDIE KAYTES: Yeah. The best place to get started with it is to go to: www.radicalproduct.com. From there you can get a link to the blog, on Medium, and get some of the initial thinking behind it that we've been kicking around. And, most importantly, that's where you can get hold of the template. The Radical Product toolkit, which is actually this useful guide that you can actually fill in the blanks for your vision, for your strategy. And through that, you can work through this process of creating a vision-driven strategy. That's how I would recommend getting started with it. We've written a post fairly recently that you can check out on the blog about how to use both the toolkit and the overall methodology. Couple of weird things like, for early stage startups, we don't actually recommend starting with the vision. We recommend starting with the strategy and then thinking about the vision. Because super early stage companies tend to ideate a lot. There's a lot of noise and not a huge amount of value when you just purely start with a vision.
SAL DAHER: There isn't a lot of data yet, at that point.
GEORDIE KAYTES: Right. Yeah, and I think it depends how immersed you are in the industry. But, a lot of people, when asked to come up with a vision, get really, really, overwhelmed when they're in the very early stages. And that's why we recommend kind of, don't put it on yourself to come up with this grand vision that is going to change the world. That's really not at all what we want people to do because it's going to paralyze you. We've seen it happen over and over and over again in our workshops. It almost requires us to say, "Alright, well calm down. It's fine." Like you don't need to freak out about whether your vision is good or valuable, or whatever. Let's sit down. Let's move on to the strategy piece and see if we can come up with a appropriate approach to solve the broad class of problem that you're looking at. And then let's take a step back and think about, you know, why we're doing this in the first place. Because, if you really, truly start with the why in an early stage startup, you end up floating in space.
SAL DAHER: Infinite loop.
GEORDIE KAYTES: Yeah.
SAL DAHER: It's too, fundamental a question. Nidhi, what thoughts do you have to wrap things up?
NIDHI AGGARWAL: I would say, download the toolkit. We've gotten a lot of downloads recently, and a few people reached out to us with questions. So, in our mission to help founders and product managers, we've actually set up office hours. And, we've sent an email around that. But, folks who want to sign up can sign up for a free 30-minute slot with any one of us. If they want help in working through the RDCL framework to craft their vision, strategy, roadmap, and a measurement plan. All you need to do to sign up is to send us a ping on Twitter @RDCLproduct, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll send you a link to sign up for a slot.
SAL DAHER: Wow. If I were a founder, I'd be on that like a duck on a June bug. I don't know if anyone has ever seen a duck eating a June bug. Google, "duck eating June bug," video and you'll see what I mean. Oh, Geordie, I understand that there's something else you wanted to bring in here.
GEORDIE KAYTES: Yeah. If you actually want to work with us directly on some of this Radical Product vision and strategy work, we are running a three-hour workshop at the O'Reilly AI conference in New York, this April and May. So, April 29th to May 2nd in New York City. So, definitely grab some tickets, and we'll see you there.
SAL DAHER: Tremendous. So, I'm really grateful to everybody for joining us today to listen to the Radical Report. And, we'll be announcing the schedule as the future Radical Report episodes are going to be coming out. If you have questions, or you want to tweet, once again: @RDCLProduct and they will get back to you. And, I think this is really a great opportunity if you have problems, and every founder has problems trying to figure out product strategy or what their product vision is. This is Sal Daher, from the Angel Invest Boston Podcast, and I look forward to getting your feedback. All the best.