What Product Leaders Should Do When Sh*t Hits the Fan

A Conversation with Tatyana Mamut, SVP of New Products at Pendo

Tatyana brings over 20 years of product experience, leading Product at several world-class organizations including Amazon, Salesforce, and IDEO. Today, Tatyana is the SVP of New Products at Pendo.io. Prior to Pendo, she was Chief Product Officer of Nextdoor. She joined the FirstMark Guilds to dive into frameworks for navigating crises.

To put it lightly, a lot of sh*t hit the fan in 2020. Large-scale crises like these can throw your company into chaos. But even amidst all the turbulence of 2020, Tatyana led the Product org at Nextdoor to new heights. She increased new user retention by over 20%, increased engagement of daily active users by over 60%, and launched more new features than ever before in the history of the company.

According to Tatyana, three frameworks led to her success: Staying focused on Customers, Prioritizing the Big Rocks and not getting distracted, and the right North Star Metrics to stay accountable to the long-term vision.

Stay Customer-Obsessed: The Product Development Process

When COVID struck, Tatyana received calls from Nextdoor’s investors, CEO, Board, and everyone in-between, asking how she planned to weather the storm. Her response was simple:

“All that matters is what customers value, the rest is just noise.”

In keeping with her philosophy, one of the first things Tatyana did at Nextdoor was rebuild the product development process to incorporate the voice of the customer. Rather than running experiments based solely on OKRs, Tatyana’s team carefully observed customers, documented their problems, and ran charrettes to brainstorm potential solutions.

What is a charrette?

A charrette is a cross-functional design exercise where teams examine customer needs and ask “How might we…” questions to map out potential solutions based on real customer research and insight. At Nextdoor, Tatyana ran charrettes that lasted 3–5 hours, allowing team members to explore their ideas as much as possible, before starting to prototype a specific solution.

Putting customer obsession into perspective

When COVID began, Nextdoor wanted to enable neighbors to help each other during the lockdown. Two ideas emerged from a charette. Each had strong factions behind them, and both made good arguments. One group advocated for a map model, where users could mark their households as needing help, while the other advocated for a group model, where neighbors could form small support groups. To overcome the gridlock, the team created quick prototypes for each idea and tested them out with users over a weekend. To their surprise, both ideas were well-received. Neighbors seeking help preferred the group model, while the neighbors offering help favored the map. In the end, the team incorporated both features into the platform. From ideation to launch took only 2 weeks because the team stayed focused on understanding what members want and did not waste any time on internal debates.

Focus on Your 3 Big Rocks: The Rock/Pebble/Sand framework

As a Product leader, it’s easy to be pulled in hundreds of different directions at once — especially during a crisis. Knowing how to zoom out and identify top priority issues is an essential skill for any Product leader.

Tatyana advocates for the Rock/Pebble/Sand framework to categorize team goals. This methodology is particularly useful when so many priorities compete for Product’s time. Big Rocks represent the two or three most important priorities. Rocks are the things that come to mind when you ask yourself, “What do I really want to accomplish this year?” Pebbles and sand, on the other hand, are medium and small priorities that fill the extra space, space that inevitably arises in any development process.

Identifying your top priorities makes it much easier to stay focused, even during a crisis. Product teams can frame their strategy around one central question: “Given this new state of the world, how can we still achieve our three big things?” Be sure to cap your number of rocks at three. Tatyana astutely points out that:

“If you have more than three big things, you don’t have big things.”

Putting rocks, pebbles, and sand into perspective

As you might expect, Tatyana had lofty goals for her team at Nextdoor. She shared that her three big rocks were:

  1. New Member Retention
  2. Neighborhood Vitality
  3. Reaching Profitability

Now, increasing member retention, ensuring neighborhood vitality, and reaching profitability are no easy feats, but they fed directly into Nextdoor’s overarching company strategy. If Tatyana could pull off these Rocks, she’d ensure that product was making a substantial contribution to Nextdoor’s future.

Where you’ve heard this before

If you’re a product veteran, you may have used the Rock/Pebble/Sand framework in an agile context. Typically, Rocks represent projects that take between 6–12 months to achieve. They are often tied to company OKRs and are broken down into more manageable chunks (Pebbles) to be scoped and assigned to individual engineers. Product teams re-evaluate and prioritize Pebbles on a regular cadence, adding in “Sand” (tech debt, small bug fixes) where applicable. While the terminology might sound silly, the practice was popularized by a company you may have heard of一PayPal. Other companies like Shutterfly and Bigcommerce are known for using this approach as well.

Measure What Matters: The North Star Metrics Framework

When choosing your top goals, it’s important that you can measure them. Tatyana’s team used the North Star Metrics Framework to select high-priority goals and assign “leading indicator” metrics to gauge their value. Not only does the North Star framework encourage product teams to devote themselves to only the most critical projects, it also enables them to report on their progress in a way that shows them the actions they took that truly moved the needle.

Putting North Stars into perspective

One of Nextdoor’s North Stars was “Product Value.” On its own, Product Value seems nebulous, but the leading indicators for this North Star made the desired outcome very clear: Daily Active Users and Week 4 Weekly Active Users (how many users remained active on the platform after week 4). Because the North Star had defined metrics, Tatyana’s team could quantify and substantiate their progress month over month. When active user metrics went down, her team could interview users, run charrettes, and find new ways to potentially improve Product Value. Ultimately, this iterative technique led to faster development and better customer experiences.

Another of Tatyana’s North Stars was “Neighborhood Vitality”. As such, she launched several new neighborhood-related features, revamped content moderation, and even created a specific advisory board. Tatyana considers selecting Neighborhood Vitality as a North Star to be a pivotal moment, giving her the clarity to drive and measure her success in what was a tremendously tumultuous year.

Related read: Waze’s 5 Essential Product Frameworks

Bonus: How to Hire Your First Product Leader

Before you start: Ask yourself, how product-oriented is the founder?

For product-oriented founders

In this scenario, you want a Director or Senior PM who is great at execution. Remember, it’s not a bad thing if the founder is product-oriented; in fact, it’s amazing! The founder has likely done the completely unnatural act of creating something from scratch, convincing people to pay for it, and creating jobs along the way. So even though you want top-level talent, he or she needs a healthy dose of humility to work with a founder/CEO who is somewhat the CPO as well.

For non-product oriented founders

This is a trickier situation because, even if a founder has no formal product background, they still have strong opinions on the product (and rightfully so).

Even if the founder is a salesperson, they’re likely a salesperson who thinks that they have better product ideas than most product people. And guess what? They probably do. So even in this case, Tatyana still advises against hiring a C-level person. Instead, hire someone with strong execution, some management experience, and enough wherewithal to build out the team as the company scales.

At some point, you may need a CPO, but maybe you won’t! For example, even when Tatyana worked at Salesforce, Marc [Benioff] was involved in many product decisions一even at a massive scale. Some companies may never need a true CPO.

If you’re still on the fence, ask yourself: Are you really looking for somebody to take over the critical and long-term product decisions? If so, hire a CPO.

During moments of chaos, it’s essential that Product Leaders block out the noise and become laser-focused on the things that matter most to your organization. By setting up frameworks to guide the product develop and prioritization process, you can set yourself up for success一even when sh*t hits the fan.

Are you a leader at a venture-backed tech startup? Apply here to join our Guilds. Members gain instant access to world-class private events, a full archive of playbooks, templates, and frameworks, inclusion in a private forum with 850+ CXOs across top tech companies, premium vendor discounts, and much more.

To be eligible for Guild Membership, you must be a C- or VP-level leader at a technology company that has raised significant venture capital and/or grown to tens of millions of revenue.

Early-stage venture capital in NYC. firstmarkcap.com