Building Great Products into Great Companies, With Albert Wang
For our latest Menlo Ventures Product Assembly, we hosted a virtual wine tasting with special guest Albert Wang. Albert was the founding PM for Datadog’s APM product and, most recently, VP of Product at Materialize. Amongst a small group of product leaders focused on dev and data tooling from the likes of dbt, Starbust, Grafana, Databricks, Hashicorp, and more, Albert shared some of his key takeaways from working as an entrepreneur, an operator in high-growth startups, and an investor. Read on for the highlights from our conversation.
Speak the same language as your customers and create a culture of feedback
One of the impressive things about Datadog was its early ability to create thought leadership and capture mindshare at the right time, just as companies were migrating to the cloud. Datadog’s primary users, engineers, are known to be a tough audience to crack. Engineers tend to be skeptical and can see right through traditional marketing messaging. So Datadog hired technical writers, many of whom were former engineers, and created a world-class content marketing team to capture the voice of the customer, speaking to engineers in an authentic way that didn’t feel salesy. Engineers were also often encouraged to talk to users.
Albert says while he was at Datadog, everyone was expected to learn how to talk about the product. From the sales team to product managers, engineers, and marketers, employees were encouraged to speak to customers, learn about the market and understand the nuances of what differentiated Datadog from its competitors. You’d often see the entire company at industry conferences, staffing the booth, and speaking with prospective customers.
Take big bets to avoid becoming identical to your competitors
Most organizations will agree that customer feedback is critical to success. Customer Advisory Boards, where users share product feedback and sometimes weigh in on future development plans, are standard practice now across all areas of business, especially as companies mature. But how much weight should you give customer feedback, especially if it conflicts with your company vision or product roadmap?
In the early days of a startup, it’s much easier to stay connected with your first customers than when you’re a mid-sized company trying to scale for rapid growth. If you have a good product or are solving a critical pain point, says Albert, customers are happy to give you feedback, and as a PM you should have easy ways to find it. However, interpreting that feedback—distilling the signal from the noise—is more complicated than it seems.
Albert encourages PMs to think about big bets and don’t get too hung up on what customers want from you or your competitors in the moment. “There are the features that all your customers want, the table-stake features, but if you just focus on those, you’re just going to build another competitor. You’re just going to develop the existing horse and chariot; you’re not going to build the car,” he says.
Look for incremental catalysts
A good product is a bombshell of incremental things that add up to being something incredible over time. At Datadog, Albert mentioned they were constantly looking for those incremental catalysts. They knew their competitors were not supporting Python 3 or asynchronous I/O at the time. Also, they were riding the microservices trend and made a bet on Docker early.
Take big product swings and bets but realize a great product is also the constant amalgamation of a bunch of differentiated incrementals.
Balance product planning and building
As a product manager, you might be thinking about how to align what you’re actively building with a future vision or product roadmap. And how can you adjust the product roadmap quickly if things fail or don’t go as planned? According to Albert, PMs should work to find the right ratio of planning to building, adjusting the lever back and forth to ensure your organization is focused on the task at hand with an eye toward future strategy.
Structures for keeping product teams moving in the right direction are critical, particularly for larger companies. At Materialize, Albert’s team spent time writing hypotheses to help uncover the problems their customers were facing and how products could solve them. This long-form communication can help product teams organize their thoughts while keeping other groups within the company apprised and bought into product strategy.
When you’re balancing these two motions effectively, you can start to make bigger bets around emerging technologies. Good product managers will anticipate future customer needs, note where competitors are falling off, and where there may be opportunities to capture market share.
Management should present a unified front
Disagreements that spill out from senior management to the rest of the company will cut a company at its knees. You say one thing, and another person says another. Engineers don’t know who or what to believe.
Startups are murky. You are constantly iterating in an unknown environment. There is a lot of stress on making the right decisions at the right time. At Datadog, they handled disagreements by giving direct feedback via one-pagers that were distributed privately. Once a decision was made, management was always careful to portray a unified front.
Cultivate an investor network
Product leaders and other operators often ask Albert where they should look to find their next job opportunities / next unicorn. If you have a core group of investor contacts, he says, that can be a great place to start. Investors often have insight into what’s happening within private companies and can help share recommendations. In fact, if you talk to any investor at any point in time, they probably have a handful of companies in mind that they can immediately point to as great places to consider working.
Albert originally heard about the role at Datadog from such an investor contact. The person had seen the deal and knew the founders. “He was impressed by the company metrics and told me to take a second look,” says Albert. “And so I actually turned down other VP of product roles that paid better for the chance to be part of what seemed like a rocket ship.”
There is No “Right Time” to Start a Company
As we look toward a looming economic downturn, would-be entrepreneurs might be thinking to themselves, “Is this a bad time to start a company?” But with public markets down, many investors are turning away from late-stage opportunities. Great companies like Airbnb, Uber, Stripe, and Datadog were founded in the last great recession. There is more capital flowing to the early stage and runways have extended. So in a lot of ways, if you’re thinking about starting a company, now is ideal.
Albert can relate—both he and his wife are working on startups right now. He encourages entrepreneurs to focus on building something they’re proud of and not to get hung up on valuations, which can be humbling for new founders. Surround yourself with people who are in it for the right reasons, he says, and remain hopeful that over the long term, quality teams and quality companies will win.
Many thanks to Albert as well as the other product leaders who joined us for this event. Stay tuned for more from our Product Assembly series soon!