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Gaining Autonomy as the First Product Person in a Startup

Product Team

22 February, 2022

Andy Allison
Andy Allison

VP of Product at EdgePetrol

Andy Allison, VP of Product at EdgePetrol, describes his experience joining a startup as the first product person, and how he gained credibility and trust within the organization.

Joining an Early Stage Startup

Some time ago, I joined a startup that functioned without a product-facing department. Of course, there was a product, but it was created by the CEO who had conflicting priorities and couldn’t focus 100% of his time on it. It was a daunting task to take the CEO’s product out of his hands and I found myself working in an environment that required collaboration, transparency, and honesty.

Starting a Product Org

When I joined the company, I was onboarded by the CEO and CRO, who shared details about the product, market, industry, problems, and the product journey to date. They also explained both of their visions of the business, which was ultimately a one-product organization to start. Neither of them were product people, and they were looking for advice about the product – which is one of the reasons I was hired in the first place.

My goal when I entered the team was to empower the company with the process to build a successful product. I needed to build a proper product organization that would be scalable as the company grew.

We started with the major steps: creating a product vision and roadmap. It was high-level to start with and focused on the direction. I wanted to capture the ideas of the founders with more process, so we added some tools into our product org as well.

During each step, I hosted workshops that were collaborative, so the CEO and CRO could learn about the product world. I was well aware that both of these individuals were experts in their fields, while I was the product guy. I figured out that during these collaborative meetings, we could learn from one another – so I started building my credibility with them to challenge and engage in high-level discussions.

Gaining credibility with the CEO and CRO was key in building the product org. The closer we became, the more they trusted me with the vision and roadmap and would agree with my decisions.

After the roadmap and vision were fleshed out, the role changed to focus on the next steps of product development. The founders built their product successfully and knew how it should work, but we still needed to test it in the market. Once testing occurred, the entire team was reassured of our decisions and the product team was able to grow.

There were a few times that the CEO came with my team to discuss the product with customers. These moments increased visibility within my new team – and again, built trust for the org. When the customers were appreciative of our product, it amplified my role in the company and the founders were able to focus on the business side of the operation.

Learnings for the First Product Person

  • Throughout the process, I learned that overcommunication was key. Whenever I made a decision, I needed to be transparent about what was happening and the reasoning behind it. The more I communicated, the more the CEO and CRO trusted me and gave me autonomy.
  • Visualizations are essential when building products. Discussions move the process forward but they should be in addition to visuals – such as an updated product roadmap.

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