How product managers can gain influence, solve problems, and propel their organizations to success
What would you do if you were the first product hire in a rapidly growing company? Our guest, Kenton Hansen, was in that position at Roll20 three years ago. The company now has more than 9 million users on its platform, providing the best of tabletop gaming in an online environment.
Kenton is now the Product Director at Roll20, and over the last three years, he has built the product management and UX processes and teams the company uses. We’ll talk about what that journey was like and what he has learned.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[1:34] What was going on at Roll20 that caused leadership to hire their first product person?
It was a time of targeted growth, and leadership was excited about growing the platform. The business had already grown significantly, and we had just announced our 3 millionth user. There was a product vacuum as one of the co-founders was becoming CEO, and development management was moving out of product into more technical aspects. I was happy to come in and provide support across the organization to make sure growth could happen.
[4:08] What were your first few months like, bringing a product management process to the organization?
I treated the position as a consultancy role. I talked to a lot of people and wrote down the problems people shared with me. I learned product knowledge and understood the vastness of the company and the various customers you might never think about. We’ve been a virtual company from the beginning, and that virtual environment is challenging and interesting. You have to be more targeted in understanding how other people contribute.
After understanding the problems that needed to be solved and the flow of business, revenue, and innovation, I started a punch list of the main problems. I took an approach based on the three horizons model, and focused on accomplishing innovation in horizon one, which is everyday iteration. I focused on how we could deliver features and projects to our users immediately and how we needed to change our process.
[7:08] How did you get to know people and problems in a virtual environment?
I tried to listen more than I spoke or type less than I read in an online chat. I wanted to internalize the happenings in the organization, and I started to see people’s characters and personalities emerge. Quick coffee chats or volunteering for simple tasks to work alongside others was effective, especially in a small organization.
[8:49] What were some of the main problems you discovered, and what did you do about them?
I knew our goal was massive growth and scaling, and the punch list to get the product process organized was a small part of the larger goal. I understood that what got us here (the growth we had already seen) was not going to get us there (to more massive growth). I relied on other members of the team to help me create new processes and get some work off my plate. Our strategies and philosophies needed to change to accommodate the stage we were in then and the stages I expected in the future.
[10:37] How did your level of real authority compare to your level of gained influence?
The authority given to me was not enough to make effective changes, so I knew I needed to show I could handle myself. Volunteering for tasks with others is the best way to build trust. Everyone is going to make mistakes, and showing up for mistakes as much as for successes is key. Great product people understand you share victory and you carry defeat yourself. Influence is gained in small, intimate settings.
[13:47] As you were trying to scale dramatically, what was wrong with the processes in place?
We needed to understand that pre-optimization is waste. I could have designed a process and slammed it through the organization, but baked into that are assumptions about how the world will change. No one would have been able to pre-optimize a feature roadmap for 2020, because no one knew how the world was going to change. Instead, I focused on solving the problems that were emerging at the time, trying to understand the next problems, and preparing possible solutions.
[15:41] How did you avoid constant firefighting (focusing only on what is urgent at the time) rather than putting processes in place for the future?
Our leadership team was great at helping us distinguish between an actual fire and a perceived fire using key performance indicators and standard operating objectives. We re-approached how we expect to see change happen within our organization to solve the problems that keep coming up over and over again. Our CEO, Nolan Jones, says, “It’s fine to have 100 problems every quarter. We just want them to be 100 different problems.”
[17:21] What were some of the actions you took to solve problems?
We needed to change the way we listened to our community. Our community has been crucial to Roll20. People like the software and become part of the community in an amazing way. From the beginning, our product research was heavily influenced by our community. As we grew, we had to start soliciting additional feedback and listening to it in a different way. Someone who’s willing to type their opinion on the internet has a strong opinion, and those are good, but we also want to get the opinions of people who aren’t ready to expose their thoughts and feelings. We have to seek out those opinions. The most vocal people in the community may not represent the majority.
[19:41] Is there any other key problem you’d like to highlight?
Hiring was a big challenge. Unless you have an infinite budget, hiring is always a compromise. You always have to coach new hires and bring them to the level where they can add to the organization in a great way.
[23:38] Do you have any additional advice for a product professional stepping into an organization with immature product management processes?
Like I’ve said before, listen more than you talk, read more than you type, connect with individuals, and build allies. As a product person, know that smaller is bigger. It might be fun and exciting to reach for the stars, and you definitely can, but you have to build a launch pad before you take off.
Action Guide: Put the information Kenton shared into action now. Click here to download the Action Guide.
“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” – Andy Warhol
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