Hiring product builders who have great product sense is one of the most critical, make-or-break moves that a startup can make. A great product is the foundation for a successful tech business, and great products can only be built by teams with great product sense.
I define high-quality product sense as the ability to do two things without having extensive data (i.e. without running lengthy research upfront):
- Generate many solid, highly profitable ideas for ways to make money
- Intuit whether a product is likely to be successful with a high degree of confidence
The detail of accurate judgment without extensive data gathering is important. Many people can get to a great product eventually via guess-and-check. The best product minds reliably take a more direct and much faster path.
Lacking sufficient product sense on your team is a devastating and pernicious problem. Without product sense, your team will act as optimizers – picture your company being driven by bus drivers instead of fighter pilots. Incremental optimization will work well enough (barely) until you come up against a real challenge: A market downturn, a strong competitor, a technology sea change. When this happens, you need product inventors who can find and implement step function changes, rather than optimizers who will never fundamentally change the arc of your product.
Hallmarks of Great Product Sense
People with great product sense tend to share a few common traits.
Lots of Good Ideas
First, they have a very high volume of reasonably-good-to-great ideas. People with the strongest product sense usually have a wealth of ideas that make sense from first principles. Some of the best product thinkers that I know can come up with interesting business or product ideas essentially endlessly, across a variety of domains. An inability to immediately and continuously figure out ways that one could make money from a situation is a bright red flag.
In addition to the obvious signs that good ideas are bursting out of them as if they’re an overstuffed suitcase, people with lots of good ideas tend to not actually harp on their good ideas. They view great ideas as a renewable resource, rather than a scarce luxury, so their egos aren’t all wrapped up in having any one idea be deeply respected.
Structured Product Opinions
Second, strong product thinkers have structured opinions on the products that they like and those they don’t. This structured thinking is a tell, even when it leads to the same conclusion as more emotional reasoning. Think of explicit chains of logic based upon incentives (“Developers are expensive; companies will invest in even tiny efficiency gains from AI assistance; AI needs to be integrated into DevOps workflows”) rather than gut feel (“AI is exciting; we should make sure that our product has AI in it”).
One sign of structured product opinions is that people with great product sense can let go of ideas very fast. If your product opinion is based upon a logical chain, a single assumption being off breaks the entire flow. Many of the best product thinkers are willing to change their minds quickly and without drama.
I find that people with great product sense tend to draw from a much broader solution-space when deciding how to solve problems. People with poor product sense tend to look for playbooks: If I see X I do Y then Z. This worked for us at other company. People with great product sense tend to be first-principles thinkers and will draw from a wider range of sources for inspiration.
One of the best signs I’ve seen for non-linear solutioning is a tendency to cross domains, and find human solutions to technical problems or technical solutions to human problems. For example: “We can skip building a huge project by creating a report that someone will review every month.” Or, “we don’t actually need to try to improve this product with poor adoption. We can grow faster by eliminating this product line entirely, churning the customers, and redistributing our resources.” Great product thinkers view the world in terms of outcomes and incentives, rather than optimizations.
Great product thinkers are also often very technical – many of the best product minds I’ve seen have intense training (typically as engineers or designers), and not a single one was in any way intimidated by technical details. This expertise helps them see solutions where others can’t.
Easily Testable Solutions
People with great product sense are good at finding solutions that are feasible, if not downright easy to build, because they’re good at distilling problems to their core pain points and defining MVPs.
A highly predictive trait is that people with great product sense win hackathons all the time; another common pattern is the situation “after we talked yesterday afternoon, I put together a prototype in the evening and it’s ready to go.” People with great product sense also often come up with solutions that solve multiple problems at once, because they understand how small tweaks to a product can dramatically expand its utility.
What To Do With People With Great Product Sense
Once you have a good handle on how to bring strong product sense into your organization, there are a few steps to take:
- Make sure to create an organization where great product minds want to work. Talented builders demand autonomy; it’s worth creating an environment of extreme independence to keep them around, even if it means a less controlled or more chaotic working style.
- Realize that great product sense is a one way street. You can get someone with great product sense to tweak and optimize a product if necessary (in fact, they’ll likely do this themselves when warranted), but you can’t get an inveterate optimizer to become an inventor. A grizzly bear will happily eat a salad; a rabbit is never going to hunt and eat a deer.
- Provide outlets for people to try a lot of net-new ideas. Great product thinkers are fine tossing out a lot of ideas, but they need to see high-upside opportunities pursued.
- Pay people with really great product sense very well. Your competition isn’t the same job somewhere else; your competition is them starting their own business or taking your job elsewhere (even if, and perhaps especially if, you’re the CEO).
Is Product Sense Teachable, or Innate?
I have a theory that great product sense is trainable / learnable, but that it seems innate because most people aren’t willing to take the steps to get better. I’ve seen people improve their product sense over time, but many people aren’t willing to take the steps necessary.
From what I’ve seen, to improving your product sense requires that you:
- Launch a ton of products – this takes a lot of time and effort, as well as a willingness to fail.
- Understand the fundamentals of both business (customer incentives & how companies make money) and technology (what’s possible in your domain) really well. This also takes a ton of time.
- Be very open-minded to motivations – for example, if you’re going to build expense management software, you need to be open to empathizing with Procurement teams, which might be completely alien to you. This requires openly admitting that you know basically nothing, and learning about other people’s goals from first principles.
All of these steps either take effort or require that you risk embarrassment, which prevents many people from taking the leap. Many startup people build strong product sense over time because the existential risks of a startup force you to get over the hump of humility and hard work required to build these skills.