About startups and Silicon Valley with Dan Hejl from Productboard

How did the coronavirus pandemic affect your company?

Our growth slowed temporarily in the spring as many customers suddenly had to deal with more pressing issues. For example, how to move to distributed work and home office. Since then, we have been returning to the same growth as before the crisis.

How many people does Productboard employ today, and how do you share leadership roles in the company with co-founder Hubert Palán?

About two hundred people. Hubert is the CEO of the company and of course he is in charge of everything. On the one hand, I help manage the entire Prague office as a general manager, and I am primarily interested in the development of new things, new products and services.

The productboard has clients from global corporations. Where are you strongest, where are you in the best position?

In North America. This is where a number of large software companies are based, which are actively thinking about how to solve customer needs and better prioritize. That’s something we help with. This is the grave of our functioning.

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

It is interesting that customers do not consider us as a Czech company, but as an American one. Even a large part of our sales team is from America. So optically we are an American company. There is also a huge change in thinking. Over the last few years, people have begun to realize that it is extremely difficult to build a company that is all over San Francisco because it is one of the most expensive places in the world. It is already so expensive that it has outgrown all reasonable measures. Getting developers there is very difficult. And when we tell someone we have developments outside of San Francisco, they say, yes, that’s the way it is.

If you are dealing with clients in the USA and you want to get one, what is the difference compared to the Czech Republic?

I think it’s mainly a difference in the maturity of thinking about product management, where American customers already have their 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 solve even the procedural things that they have not yet tuned.

This may be reflected in the fact that clients actually misunderstand what you do, what you actually do?

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

As a result, how does this help the company, in fact anyone?

In that the company will not use thousands of hours of developer time to build functionality that no one needs. We are a tool that helps in the digital world to show where development should move forward. Because in the world of physical things it is clear that the table must have some parameters, it must have legs there, and physically the world is limited. In the digital world, I, like Instagram or Sony, will be tackling how to make Stories, the click-and-buy feature, or doing tagging and Swipe up (a swipe up that launches a link in Instagram). There are simply a billion ways you can decide that what you want to do is right. And we can help with that.

You founded the productboard in 2014. Is what you do evolving?

The beginnings were about discovering and studying best practices around product management. And figuring out what a Productboard is supposed to be. I spent about a year and a half with Hubert (second co-founder and CEO) in Silicon Valley, where we had fun with about a thousand different people as potential customers, whether other startups, product and project managers. It was terribly interesting to hear how they manage the development of their products, how they decide what the product should know, how they listen to their customers, and learn from their experience how to build a system that will help to do better. Since then, we have somehow worked on this basis.

How did the idea for the Productboard actually come about more than five years ago?

We both actually worked with Hubert on digital products. My part was that I was a developer for many years and I found it very interesting how we developers spend a lot of time trying to be faster and more efficient. We adopt 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, just to find out that no one cares that those customers don’t use it. And that’s terribly frustrating. I started thinking about how the process was going to work properly and how to verify that someone really needed it – before they started building it. Hubert previously held the position of Vice President of Project Management at another company, where he was the person responsible for it when developers built something and no one used or needed it. And Hubert already knew a better way to do it.

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

The whole process is quite complicated. Asana will always deal with only one small part. How do I communicate to the whole company there, so what am I doing? Well, to do that, I need a roadmap. It’s about the Productboard being a tool in which I can do it very effectively. And it will allow some forms of analysis and also reflect feedback from customers, which I would not normally do in an Excel spreadsheet. Excel is not collaborative, so it does not allow sophisticated analysis and segmentation.

So would you say that you provide the most comprehensive view of the solution to the problem?

To explain, if one owned a swimming pool as a business and now would be thinking about how to make a better swimming pool. What can I add to make it better? And now I’ll put a feedback box in there and someone will write there: I’d like a stopwatch so I can measure how long it takes me to swim the pools. And someone else will say: I would like drinks with umbrellas and more sunbeds here. And another says: I would like the water to be colder and deeper. And as a result, it turns out that there are different customer segments in the market that have different needs, and it is never possible to build a product that satisfies everyone at once.

It’s always a decision. It is necessary to focus a lot on one segment and try to win it, especially in the beginning product development. To be the best product on the market for him and only then is it possible to grow further and satisfy other needs. This is actually the thinking structure that product managers need to do. And we help them with that. So if I use the Productboard for the swimming pool, I should be able to see that there are different segments, here are the needs of mothers and there are so many, and then there are some other needs of professional swimmers and so on.

Who are your clients today?

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

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

I think he likes that we are a whole new category. They like companies that create their own market, ie those that are really first on the market. Only a few years ago, a whole 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 simply not another customer database or another application for shared scooters.

Why should developers go to the Productboard when there are plenty of startups? In essence, quite similar.

It’s a unique opportunity to see a company with a truly American culture and the opportunity to build the best product in its category in the world. It is an opportunity to be in a company where English is the common language. We have about 28 different nationalities in the team. It’s a great chance to know 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 to learn is product management. And because it’s our domain we’re studying here, and it’s the thing we’re building the product on, it’s going to help them really understand how to think about it and how to build it. Also captures product vision, strategy, market positioning and sales to customers. That’s why it’s very interesting for a lot of them.

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 developers, but a huge number of them work in development agencies that do custom development, and there they can never have such powers to decide how to do it. Because it’s always some client who enters what he wants. However, our model is the opposite. We don’t tell our developers exactly what to do, we tell them, here are some customer issues that need to be solved and some metrics as we know we’re doing it well. Go and try to solve it and they can actually use all their intuition, curiosity and thinking to come up with different ways to do it. And that is motivating. So I think it’s more about the lack of opportunities for such creative work.

How do you look at work from home in the company?

We try to recruit the best people in the world. So we are open to recruiting people outside of Prague and San Francisco. We also have teams that are in Amsterdam, some are in Berlin, some are in Slovakia. However, we are also aware of the importance of face-to-face meetings, especially in an informal environment where people are not limited to 50-60 minutes of meetings, where they must be productive quickly, say what they want and then work quickly. But it is also important that people meet and have the opportunity to exchange a few words while sitting and working. These looser discussions often bring the best ideas. When they go to lunch together, for coffee. So we’re trying to combine the two worlds. Before the crisis, it was a lot that we had a distributed company, but we traveled a lot. A lot of people flew from Prague to San Francisco and back, so that there would be personal contact, so that we would always be together, go to dinner to discuss these things in depth. This is something we still consider very important. I think that companies that function purely as so-called distributed, but in fact they never see each other, so they do not have teams but rather groups of individuals who do not cooperate so much.

With regard to the new investment from the Sequoia fund, what are you planning for the further development of the Productboard?

We are now building a larger team here in Prague. We hire product managers, designers, developers. We have a new office ready for it, but people can also work remotely with us. We will always work on our product, because in the digital world, the product is never finished. There is always something to improve. We are now working to make Productboard work well in even the largest companies. We are not doing so well yet.

Daniel Hejl

Daniel is the co-founder and CTO of Productboard, a company that develops a system for effective product management. It helps companies move products in the right direction and place them on the market faster. The system is used by over 3,000 companies such as Microsoft, UI Path, Dell, Zendesk or Twilio. The productboard helps them understand the needs of their customers and point them to the optimal path of further development. Daniel previously worked as a senior software developer at Trumaker. He lives in Prague, where he is in charge of the Productboard technology team.

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