A couple weeks ago I had the privilege of hosting a webinar sponsored by Traction Conference. The guest: Asana chief product officer Alex Hood.
We chatted about 10X products and 10X companies: products and startups that grow exponentially faster than the competition. The interesting thing about Asana is that it’s a startup by a former Facebook founder that explicitly decided to growth slower, valuing people over a grow-fast-and-break-things mindset.
And yet, that’s resulted in an organization that’s now IPO’ing, has over 75,000 customers, and is used by massive corporations like Google but also nimble startups like Slack. And, of course, one or two-person lifestyle businesses.
Enjoy our chat, now also shared on TechFirst with John Koetsier.
Get the full audio, video, and transcript of our conversation below …
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John Koetsier: How do you build 10X products, 10X startups, exponentially better products that grow way faster than the competition?
Welcome to TechFirst with John Koetsier. In this episode of TechFirst, it is a very special episode because we are talking to the chief product officer of Asana. His name is Alex Hood. I actually recorded this as part of a session that I did with Traction Conference on top startups and top products, and he’s an amazing guy who knows a ton about servant leadership, about product management, about growing startups.
And so without further ado, I’m going to drop you right into the show with Alex Hood, from Asana, chief product officer. Enjoy!
John Koetsier: I’m going to kick it off this way. Look, every startup wants to build high growth products. It’s kind of the reason why you exist. It’s kind of the reason why you’re a startup. Well, we figured … who knows more about that than the company that manages all our projects. In fact, they’re a high growth startup themselves. Asana has over 75,000 customers and, you know, small little known names among them like Google or Slack. Twitter is there. Harvard is there as well.
So today we’re chatting with Asana’s chief product officer, his name is Alex Hood. And we kind of want to learn, hey, what’s your playbook for building high growth products? How does it work? What’s it look like? And frankly, what can we copy for our own startups? Maybe not so much that way, but welcome, Alex! How are you doing?
Alex Hood: I’m doing great. Thanks, John. Good to be here.
John Koetsier: Excellent.
Alex Hood: I don’t know if my head’s going to fit inside the Zoom frame anymore with all the…
John Koetsier: Your head fits, it looks great. Your background looks much nicer than most of ours, but hey, happy to have you on. You’re in San Francisco right now, so you’ve got some smoke going on, but it’s pretty clear at the moment. So…
Alex Hood: Yeah, I woke up this morning and there was a little bit of ash on my car and it’s unseasonably warm here, but you can’t open up a window. So, trials and tribulations of the Bay Area living.
John Koetsier: Wow. Well, thanks for spending some time together with us. Let’s talk a little bit about Asana just to get started here. How’s Asana working together right now? I mean, obviously you’re probably using Asana, but how are team members working under Coronavirus?
Alex Hood: Well, we’re all at home. So yeah, that’s a big change for us. We invest a lot to have teams share oxygen, but our mission is around helping teams collaborate effortlessly. So it feels like, man, it is the time for Asana to thrive.
John Koetsier: Yes.
Alex Hood: For, like, if there’s ever been inspiration to build out our roadmap, it is now.
John Koetsier: Yes.
Alex Hood: We use Asana for everything. You know we dog food all the new features and everybody uses it as infrastructure at Asana. So, you know, I think it helps us do some things.
It helps us create barriers between work and life. It helps us optimize what we should be collaborating on async versus sync. And it helps kind of keep us organized, like a plan of record of who’s doing what by when.
Because if you have that magical combination clarity/planner record then you don’t have to be pinging each other all the time for like, hey, what’s the status of this? Can you fill out the status spreadsheet? Hey, Friday afternoon, can you join the status meeting? All that stuff is so … old school, energy zapping, and there’s just like better ways.
So, I don’t like working from home, but I couldn’t imagine doing it without a tool like Asana. So that’s our Asana ad, but it’s also how I feel.
John Koetsier: I totally get it. I totally understand. I love working from home myself. It almost sounds like you’re dissing Slack there, but I totally understand, it integrates very, very well with Slack.
Alex Hood: Yeah we use Slack all the time. We use Slack interchange with Asana all the time. They both play a role and we have a nice integration between the two.
John Koetsier: Yeah, exactly. Let’s talk about you real quick here, so people understand where you’re coming from and where your insights are coming from. Give us a brief history, your journey from NASDAQ, Intuit, Asana.
Alex Hood: Yeah, sure. I worked at NASDAQ as a kind of a product manager. I don’t know if they had that role there, but I was a data analyst in the economic research division where we would take a look at the stock market and we would break down all the data, and then we would see, hey, if we change the way that the market operated this way or this way or this way, would it be faster, more fair? Would buyers and sellers meet each other in a new and inventive way that the New York Stock Exchange at the time, which wasn’t automated, couldn’t replicate?
So that’s kind of where I started to think about and get some skills around data and product strategy.
I went to business school here at Berkeley, and then joined Intuit and started off in a corporate strategy role. And then started working on QuickBooks Desktop back when it was sold on CD-ROMs, and that was a real great experience. And I started to fall in love with the process that Intuit uses to create great products, you know, human-centered design, they call it “design for delight.” That made a big impression on me.
Also, my time in corporate strategy made a big impression on me because I learned how to apply the scientific method to business and product problems. And that is now kind of part of my wiring now.
John Koetsier: Interesting.
Alex Hood: Worked on QuickBooks, helped transition it to be a SaaS product. Left QuickBooks and Intuit for a little while and worked at a company called TubeMogul which went public, was acquired by Adobe, and then came back to Intuit for a little while. And by that time, QuickBooks Online was kind of the name of the game, core of the strategy, it was growing rapidly across the world.
So, you know, I led some of the product team there to help it grow internationally.
John Koetsier: Very cool. Very cool. And now of course, you’re at Asana and one of your goals is to change the way teams work together. And you didn’t realize what that goal really meant until maybe February or March of this year. But what do you want to change about the way that teams work together or used to work together?
Alex Hood: Well, I spend so much of my time trying to assemble amazing product teams.
So you look for really creative people who have shipped a bunch of things in their background, who bring a unique philosophy to things, very creative, collaborative, but you put them into a situation where information workers, a billion and a quarter of them in the world, spend 60% of their time on work about work.
John Koetsier: Wow.
Alex Hood: And that is all the nonsense and BS where you’re actually manufacturing information about the things that you’re supposed to be doing, instead of actually doing the things that you’re supposed to be doing.
John Koetsier: Wow.
Alex Hood: Stuff like status meetings, trolling through email to find the last plan of record, getting hit up for status notifications and everywhere. And for me, that’s a shame, because here I am trying to find the best team to do the most creative stuff. And I’ve already taxed them at a 60% rate.
John Koetsier: Yes.
Alex Hood: So, how might we create a new set of tools for how we work together? And how might those tools reduce the burden of work about work so that people can be more inflow, teams can be more efficient, organizations can have higher engagement which leads to better performance. That’s what we’re really focused on at Asana.
So, totally fires me up in the morning because I care so much about building product teams.
And I feel like, hey, if my contribution to this world here is teams can invent 10% faster because of 10% less BS, you know, that sounds great. I’m happy with that contribution.
John Koetsier: That is amazing. I have typically hated project management throughout my life and my career, just because I love doing the things I do, what we’re doing right now, this is the sort of thing I love to do.
The things that are core to the difference I can make, that’s what I love to do and all the work around it that still needs to happen at some level I’ve hated. But that is great — just take that 30 seconds of that billion and a quarter knowledge workers spending 60% of their time on crap — that’s a great ad for Asana.
Alex Hood: You know what, I think about what fires me up, it’s building things.
And I also have two young kids and I think about the energy I bring home after a day where I spent 60% of my time on work about work versus where I spent 60 or more percent of my time on creative problem solving big customer problems with teams.
And I’m a different person.
John Koetsier: Yeah, yeah. I totally get it. Excellent. So for everybody joining us, thank you for joining us. It’s wonderful. I see a lot of you are introducing yourselves. That’s awesome. If you haven’t, please do so. We’re going to go through a bunch of different questions that we kind of crowdsourced and added. I might have snuck a few in there as well. You know, maybe I’ll trip up a little bit here and there, and we’ll see how we go.
But you probably have some questions as well, and maybe some really, really good ones. Throw those in Q & A and we’ll get to those before we’re done. Awesome.
Let’s kick off with product. It kinda starts with product, right? We’re product focused in a startup world. I’m going to give you the real easy one first off, Alex, how do you build a hyper-growth product?
Alex Hood: Yeah, easy.
John Koetsier: Hahaha.
Alex Hood: Well, this might not be rocket science, but starting with a massive customer problem. That is the biggest way to build high-growth product, you know? Something where the pain is so difficult that people might not even know it’s a pain, you know. Back to the Asana thing of like 60% of time people spend is work about work. Then when we actually have people label their work about work, they say it’s only 30%, and they say 30% is still too high. Right?
In QuickBooks it’s about small businesses being successful and prospering. What’s a big unmet need out there where you can present something that is, you know, number one, has a benefit that people care about.
Number two is “super easy to grok and get started with.”
And then number three, the delight, like has a big emotional outcome, like after you experience it, you’re like, yes, god, I can’t imagine that way I did things a week ago in the old system. You know, that’s kind of the recipe.
John Koetsier: That’s really interesting because I mean, if I think about the problems that we try and solve, if your audience, if all of us pretty much, or many of us are doing 60% of our day-to-day work just to do the work that really matters, we might start thinking that that’s the work that matters, the 60%. That’s what I do, that’s what I focus on. And we start building structures around that. We start building job titles around that, and that’s really interesting.
We don’t even, we’re fish, we don’t even see the water.
Alex Hood: Well, exactly right. And I feel like in my career I’ve hired some really great folks, and I’ve also made some hiring mistakes. And reflecting on that, I have learned that you can really easily over-index hiring product folks who are great communicators/politicians, who are evangelizing their work above all else to really evangelize themselves. Instead of finding people who have bold ideas and know how to bring them to life for their customers.
John Koetsier: Mm-hmm.
Alex Hood: But you bring out sort of those bad elements if you have a lack of clarity in your organization. Like, if everybody’s not clear what the priorities are, then you’ve created a situation where someone can use in-office politics to make their thing a priority. And instead of really awarding product rigor that will create a great customer outcome, you might reward communication rigor around how you evangelize something to get your way.
So I’m really, you know, we’re really clear on what are the things that we expect in the interview loop and reward our product folks on versus what are the things we just want to shy away from.
John Koetsier: Yeah. Yeah. Really interesting. So, you talked about hyper-growth products and finding a massive problem to solve. Let’s talk about the actual product that let’s say solves it.
When you look at a product that really succeeds, it gains hyper-growth, it gets there. Is that product typically an order of magnitude better than the competition, or not?
Alex Hood: Yeah, it’s a good question. Well, let’s take a look at a couple of examples here.
Let’s take like Zoom and Slack. Those are two categories where there are a lot of entrenched competitors who were doing that — trying to offer those kinds of benefits to customers, but then really got kind of tossed to the wayside when Zoom and Slack emerged. And, you know, I laid out a little framework there answering a previous question. You have to have a benefit that people care about, big problem. You have to make it very easy to consume your solution, and then you need to have an emotional outcome on top of that. That’s the recipe to the best products out there.
So I think Slack and all of its competitors had benefits that folks care about, same with Zoom and all of its competitors. But the ease of actually consuming that benefit was quite different for Zoom versus its competitors.
How many minutes have you spent in your life like, do-du-di-de [sound effect] getting the video conference to work and somebody’s on mute? Zoom just figured that stuff out and because they figured out basically UI flow, they dominate. Slack went to the next piece, so I think Slack and its competitors had benefit and a lot of ease, but they were able to deliver an emotional outcome of feeling connected to your team.
That sense of belonging, that’s one of the reasons people work and love their work, is because they feel like they belong to something that is greater than just themselves. Slack gets that.
John Koetsier: Yep.
Alex Hood: And they capitalize on that. So that’s the difference, I think, between the good and the great.
John Koetsier: You know, what’s really interesting there, is that Zoom did do that. It made things easier. It actually, to accomplish that, broke some rules. Broke some rules about sandbox, you know, of how apps should act, how they should update, how they should be invoked and other things like that.
And it brings up an interesting question — I’m not presuming to answer it right now, but it brings up an interesting question — do you need to break some rules sometimes in order to get where you need to go and then kind of fall back and fix those? I don’t know if you have a thought on that. I don’t want to put you on the spot, but that is an interesting way of looking at it.
Alex Hood: Well, you certainly are not going to get as far if you’re thinking about it the same way as everybody else. And then your thing is like an increment better and just an incremental add-on to other things. It’s very replicable.
But if you come at maybe a problem with a whole different hypothesis frame-of-mind mental model, then that’s durable, you’ll build something that’s different.
We have a really high caliber UX research team at Asana. They report directly to me, they don’t report in through design, and that’s purposeful because I want them to just generate these amazing insights and create a mental model on which we will innovate or build our solution and put that aside from just looking at competition and seeing how we could fit, you know, in a way that’s different or better than them.
That is another way to build durability around how your solution will win. I was just having a conversation on my way in with a designer on our team, and we were thinking about calendaring and we were actually discussing how might we build a calendar in a way that protects an individual contributor’s flow time. Whereas calendars are basically meant to have meetings dominate your day.
John Koetsier: Yes.
Alex Hood: So that’s an example of how we’re trying to think about breaking the construct of calendars now. So that we can have it serve a different purpose.
John Koetsier: Really, really interesting. And a good segue actually, because you’ve talked about hyper growth coming from a hyper focus on design. Talk about that. What’s that mean?
Alex Hood: Yeah. Well, and when I say design there, I want to be clear, I’m not just talking about pixels. I’m talking about process.
You know, one thing I picked up at Intuit was what they call “design for delight,” and really it’s the double diamond process. There’s two aspects to that. You focus on the pain, get a real understanding of the pain before you go into solutioning and you give yourself a time of converging thinking in research before you narrow in. That allows you to make sure you understand everything really well. And we do a lot of brainstorming then you start to narrow in on a particular rubric of like why these things should be the things that you shift.
That process is how product teams more than likely will deliver the right thing, versus like some solution that’s in some founder’s head that they think is uniquely right for them but might only serve a customer of one, or it might be just kind of like a crazy something that the public they’re not attached to, will never use. But what’s endemic in that double diamond process is that you are iterating with customers along the way. You’re like you’re paper prototyping, you’re shipping a beta, you’re using Figma designs and treating it like product and having customers click through it and all the way you’re just looking for is there any surprise? Is there anything that we can sink our teeth into? That process, that’s the winning process in my view.
Then on top of that, what’s the right amount of pixel excellence? For a lot of time, like just shipping it out there and getting quick learnings, Eric Ries’ Lean Startup style is the way to go. But, you know, at scale, we want to have a product experience that’s excellent. So making sure that while you are adding in complexity or more features to your product, you’re actually decreasing the complexity to the user, for instance.
That’s like the pixel piece of making sure that you’re building something that retains all that ease, while you are expanding the benefit delivery.
John Koetsier: So really, really interesting. And there’s a tension there between the process that you need to go through and some kind of timeframe, right, for delivering something, for the product that you want to ship. What comes to mind … I remember reading about Twitter and the development process and literally a thousand prototypes or a thousand stages of a team before they shipped something, you know, and months working on some tiny feature or something like that.
Maybe that’s why we don’t have an edit button yet.
I’m sure that’s political, but can you go too far and slow down development? How do you manage that tension?
Alex Hood: Well, the processes I described is not a waterfall process. It’s an agile process. So you can be shipping all the way through. The most important thing is by understanding customer pain really well, understanding your customer really well, doing a lot of great brainstorming, you are creating and figuring out what’s the ideal customer experience. And then you’re working backwards from that to figure out what’s the minimum scope you need to get out.
John Koetsier: Mm-hmm.
Alex Hood: That’s kind of how we run the show.
We don’t go and iterate on something a thousand times before we ship it.
There are some very successful companies out there, you know, Apple creates beautiful and elegant user experiences using that methodology. We’re younger and scrappier than they are. So we use a methodology where we launch and learn. We run betas, we run alphas, we have paper prototypes, but the prototypes are sacrificial in the name of learning. And it’s meant to accelerate process to the best solution.
Only in means of acceleration, not for the sake of coming up with the most beautiful and elegant right out the door.
John Koetsier: Yes. Yes. So let’s talk to the founders, in the audience, who are building a company and building a product. What should they focus on when they’re trying to determine whether it’s product market fit or feature market fit?
Alex Hood: Well, Eric Ries does a nice job in lean startup methodology talking about finding customers who will pay for your product. That’s one way. Maybe even before that, it’s like, if you’ve gone through the work of finding a big unmet problem out there, and you have decided that you can really create a benefit out there in the market that other folks have not done, you’ve got to find a way to measure that benefit.
John Koetsier: Mm-hmm.
Alex Hood: So, the measure of the actual delivery of the goodness of the product is the most important thing, even before people will buy it. If it’s a big enough problem, people will buy it. But start — I think my tweak on the lean startup methodology is if you just work benefit backed on a big problem, that might actually be more pure to get to a better product than working from can I monetize this back?
John Koetsier: Mm-hmm. Interesting. One thing that just blows me away about what you do, you’re super successful, 75,000 customers, but the customer mix is so varied. There’s tiny startups. There’s young Series A, Series B startups. There’s one-person companies that I know of that use Asana. And there’s massive enterprises, right? Google. There’s NASA. There’s major organizations that use Asana.
How on earth, in this age when you’re supposed to build a product specifically for a particular audience, how on earth do you make that fit? How do you make that scale or be stretchy across those different needs?
Alex Hood: Yeah, I mean, good, good question. I’m very thrilled to have some of the partners that I have at Asana. The counterparts on the business, you know, sales and marketing, go-to-market team are really awesome.
And we have a shared process where we look at all the customer feedback that we get, called “voice of the customer.” It all comes into Asana, as you can imagine. We also look at our UXR findings and we develop a “voice of the business” list. And every six months, I get a stack ranked list in a great order of detail of what the business actually wants to accomplish. That takes into consideration all the customer types, all the verticals, all the opportunities for growth, and that list distills the thinking of what is most important to growing Asana from a revenue perspective.
And when you don’t have that, you have what I was talking about before, you have like politics and chaos and competition between teams.
Getting that list is really helpful. We then take that and we marry that with our product vision. So we have a product vision that we always announce. I just did it fairly recently, a few weeks ago, it’s on YouTube, it’s called “Future of Asana” and we have articulated where we want to take this product in the next few years. It’s those two things taken together that allow us to create a roadmap where employees and stakeholders at Asana are like, yeah, I get it. Yeah, I see how the trade offs were made. It’s very transparent, and it’s based on where we want to grow this company, grow this organization, service to our mission.
John Koetsier: Interesting.
Alex Hood: Process kind of matters there.
John Koetsier: Yes. At scale, especially. So you’ve talked about flow a lot as well. You’ve got the vision, you’ve got the little bit more tactical feedback on where to go, what to do, but you’ve actually got to build it. And you’ve talked about flow a lot, in fact, you’ve mentioned it in this very conversation that we’re having, that how do you build an opportunity for allowing flow into people’s calendars, which is a tool kind of designed just to take away their time.
Talk about flow. How’s that tie into how you’re building product and how others maybe could do that as well?
Alex Hood: Yeah, I’m kind of a leadership buff. So I’m always just trying to, it’s my job, and I’m always trying to think about what’s the team need from me? And I think servant leadership is a concept, servant leadership before … COVID, might’ve been, what are the decisions that are blocking your team? How can you help them get to that decision or make that decision for them? What are the resources that that team needs?
Now that we’re all at home and we have a finding at Asana that 60% of the time is spent at work about work, I think servant leadership is all about how do you protect the flow time of creative people to do great things.
The decision stuff, that stuff should just actually take care of itself with the processes you’ve already put in place. So like if that stuff’s broken you have bigger problems. But I don’t think the world’s information workers have people who are shepherding their time for creative work.
What if you had a leader that did? What if you had tools that’ll help you maximize that?
So what’s fun in the sun is we’re trying to build this culture and then the things we love about the culture we productize in the product so that others can feel the manifestation of what we’re trying to do. And we do things at Asana like No-Meeting Wednesday. We do things at Asana like it’s very okay if somebody proposes a meeting, to say like, hey, we should just do that async in Asana, if that makes sense.
We have optimized async versus sync.
We use Loom and Zoom. Loom allows you to take video of what you’re saying and allow it to be consumed async, versus having all of your in person stuff feel like it needs to be sync. Well, because of that, culturally at Asana, we try to protect creative time so engineers can do more coding, designers can do more designing, product leaders can do more bold thinking. But we’re also trying to then focus on that as a customer benefit.
John Koetsier: Yeah.
Alex Hood: It makes it fun.
John Koetsier: Very, very interesting. I want to dig into that just a little bit more because as a startup, there’s an interesting and challenging and difficult and treacherous time of scaling. You have early days when you can fit in a room, or in a small office, and everybody wears five hats and everybody’s in every meeting, or just about, right? And you work that way. You’re all pretty synced and all that stuff happens.
But as you scale that changes and you have to build the culture in over time. How have you seen that happen successfully in your career?
Alex Hood: Well I’ll tell you a big ‘aha’ I’ve had over the time, which is, you know, you mentioned that the startup time, kind of like high pressure, everybody’s in a room and they all feel very viscerally, you know, the anxiety of that moment.
And I think it’s very easy then to lead via anxiety. Like you create a bunch of hard stop deadlines for folks. You always are ratcheting up the pressure of what excellent looks like.
You know, the promotion is always kind of being jerked away. That is a way to manage, you know, and a lot of the folks who end up in product roles tend to be achievement oriented. So it actually, that is a way to manage those folks and you do get a lot of them. But I’m just trying to change my tack to be what if the folks who worked on my team knew that I honestly am there to support them and feel great about their contributions, love their intellectual capacity. I’m here to add to, and maybe guard rail some of their ideation. What if they knew that when they’re not in the room, I talk about them with great appreciation. A
nd what if they knew they could make a big difference and have a lot of autonomy to innovate themselves. First of all, I’d much rather work in that second shop, but it’s also more authentic to who I want to be, part of my personal mission and how I’ve had the most luck. So I sometimes put pressure on myself to get outcomes, but for the team, man, I want them to feel respected — deeply, authentically respected, because I think that produces the best work.
So I’d say founders, yeah, it is hard work, hardwire to get this thing going, but if the culture feels highly supportive, your peeps are going to take more risk. They’re going to come up with the best idea. They’re not going to be incremental in thinking. They’re going to stretch themselves out and they’re going to make better decisions when you’re not in the room. And that will help you scale faster.
John Koetsier: Really really interesting because especially for early stage, the founders typically know the problem the best. They understand the customer the best, they’re very in tune with the sales process so they’re talking with them all the time. They’re very in touch with the one or two or three developers they have on the team. You need to build this feature this way and do it, those sorts of things.
And that does need to change over time because that approach doesn’t scale. And we’ve seen that time and time again, the Series B, the Series C that just craters because there’s not that team, there’s not that trust. And it’s a great transition because guess what? The second part of what we wanted to talk about was not just building great product, but the second part was building great product teams. And maybe we can continue this conversation around how do you start building a great product team?
Alex Hood: Yeah, I mean, I knew that you were going to ask this question, so I brought along something. I have right here, the competency…
John Koetsier: The answer. Can you just share that really high, really big that’s the answer. That’s how you do it.
Alex Hood: These are the competencies that we use for product management. There’s another set of competencies for design. This is like our hiring rubric. This is how we decide who gets promoted, who gets which projects. Here they are, this is what we care about.
Number one, for product managers, growth mindset. Number two, strategic rigor. Number three, get things done. Number four, ability to grow Team Asana. Number five, customer centric. And number six, collaborative. So…
John Koetsier: I didn’t hear like a degree from a certain school in there.
Alex Hood: So, we really value people who are open and curious. And you know, above all else, if you can find folks who are great at their craft and who are open and curious about it and don’t have an ego about it, are lifelong learners, that’s the recipe for great teams. I’m fortunate, particularly here at Asana, our team is a series of like delightful human beings who are extremely competent at their craft. And they’re delightful human beings because they’re collaborative and they have a growth mindset.
That means like, they don’t take it heavy on their heart when something goes wrong. They just take a look and like, hey, what did we learn from this?
We’ve institutionalized when a mistake happens at Asana or something goes that was unplanned, we just do a “5 Whys.” Like we ask ourselves “why” on the team five times, then we publish the results in the company. And that just, you know, instills like, hey, let’s just take a look at this, see what we can learn.
Move on. No blame or finger pointing.
And that allows us to attract people who really want to build product and really are customer focused, you know.
John Koetsier: What’s really interesting about that, because the terms that you’re using to describe the people that you want to hire, and the people you want to promote, and the people that you want in Asana, somebody could look at it and say, ‘Oh, those are unicorns.’ You know, they’re highly competent and they’re nice, right, and they have all these other qualities as well. That’s great!
You know, and I’m hiring in San Francisco or I’m hiring an Austin or New York City or something like that, and it’s a limited pool already and here — but the, kind of the silver lining maybe of the COVID cloud is maybe we can expand a little bit where we’re looking for people. Maybe we find somebody in Arkansas who fits that list and can work well with the team.
Alex Hood: Yeah. I mean, and I would caution against settling. If you hire a PM who doesn’t have a growth mindset, thinks they’ve got it all figured out, doesn’t listen to research. You have a designer who isn’t collaborative, goes away and comes up with a solution themselves and then springs it on the team. You’ve got an engineer who thinks about strategy all the time, can’t get things done. I mean, you’ll end up with outages.
John Koetsier: Yup. Yup.
Alex Hood: It’s probably better to wait a little while to find the right people.
John Koetsier: Interesting. Of course, every entrepreneur wants to hear ‘wait awhile.’ Ah, that’s just…
Alex Hood: Yeah right.
John Koetsier: They love that sound hahaha.
Alex Hood: Or find a portfolio of people that will work well together.
John Koetsier: Yeah.
Alex Hood: But substantial outages in any one of the areas might come back to bite you. Unless you don’t share the same values that I do in how we assemble the team, then you have your own competency.
John Koetsier: A hundred percent, very possible. So you talk about something that is interesting that struck me as somewhat unique. Somewhat unique, I know, is a crazy characterization, but you talk about hiring role models and typically we think of role models as somebody, whoa that’s amazing, I look up to that person.
And you talking about hiring them, talk a little bit about what you mean there and how that works.
Alex Hood: Yeah. Well, the process of building product is two things, really, deconstructed. There’s the actual building of the experiences and there’s building capability on the team. Those are the same thing done right. They’re not two separate exercises. So if, by the very nature of the way that your team builds things, they get better at their craft because of the processes they use, the leaders that are on the team, the frameworks that the company uses, the outside influence that we have and bring in of supporting mechanisms, how product reviews are run, that allows somebody to build great things for the customer and at the same time, get better.
But if you think about those things at the same time, you know that role models are important, because the folks who are building up the craft in others are making important customer decisions and also making really important growth path decisions. And they’re managing two roadmaps. They’re managing the feature roadmap and the roadmaps of individual folks as they’re managing their career ladder and gaining competency. But if you think about those two things as separate, you’ll probably hire some wonky folks.
Think about those things as together, you hire role models who are excellent at their craft.
John Koetsier: Very, very interesting. So you’ve got to find these people, and there’s different challenges at different stages. You’re a startup. You’re brand new, you don’t have a lot of track record. Maybe you can give away a significant chunk of equity, but there’s also a minuscule chance of that actually getting big. If you’re Asana, you’re a big name, people want to come and they’re attracted to it.
But you could be at all different stages there. What hacks have you kind of picked up on for finding talent that worked well for you and maybe work well for remote teams as well.
Alex Hood: Well, you know, if you’re founding a startup, you’re probably pretty passionate about the customer problem you’re trying to solve, right? Probably keeps you up at night. It flows through your veins.
The biggest hack is finding people who share that passion around the same problem.
You know, above all else, folks will then want to learn the capabilities that they need to learn to help you. They’ll go and stretch in different ways. But if you can find folks who are really passionate about the problem, man, that’s eight tenths of it. You know, I mean, I would have never thought in this whole world that I would have spent so much time in my career working on accounting software, because whenever I took accounting classes, I thought they were boring.
But man, what got me fired up was learning so much and interacting with small business owners who had cash flow problems and were coming up with their own operations, you know, as products in themselves and were struggling. And like seeing my dad run a small business, all that stuff inspired me to want to make the lives of small businesses better. So, you know, with that mission, Intuit’s got fantastic mission of power and prosperity, and that allows them to attract a lot of talent. So I think use your mission as a hook.
John Koetsier: Yep. Very, very good. So just a quick note to the audience here. We’re going to transition to questions from you fairly soon, not immediately, but fairly soon. So, hit up that Q & A button and add in your questions there. And by the way, if it’s about 150 words long, I probably can’t read it, and Alex won’t remember the beginning of it when I get to the end of it. So try and keep it a little bit short, that’d be great.
So, let’s talk about the goals that you set for yourself and for Asana. How do you define success? It’s obviously a little different because you’ve talked about hard deadlines and some of the challenges with hard deadlines, but how do you define success for yourself, for Asana, and what KPIs do you measure?
Alex Hood: Well, for myself, there are definitely business and growth KPIs, but then there’s also, we’re starting to orient our product teams around just like measuring the benefit that’s delivered. We have a way that we actually measure adoption and collaboration, for instance.
We have a whole team, some of whom I know are listening, who measured the amount of steps that they save customers.
And that’s what great looks like. You know, I think having product teams who are actually measuring the benefit that they are out there in pixels advertising to those to go and try, and if folks can find a way to consume that benefit and then they would actually deliver the benefit … that’s what a home run looks like.
John Koetsier: Nice, nice. And going to ask this question, you’ve mentioned a couple already, but what are some of the tools that you use right now and that you recommend for asynchronous communication, institutional memory — we kind of assume that Asana’s on the list, and you’ve mentioned that already — any others?
Alex Hood: Well, great teams, I think needs three things.
They need a place where content lives, so they need, you know, they need drive, they need cloud storage. They need G Suite. They need a place where their communication occurs synchronously. So, you know, like Slack. Some folks use email. Zoom. And then they also need a coordination layer, so that’s where the plan of record lives. That’s where people can go to understand who’s doing what by when. That’s where if you wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning, and you’re worried about the project instead of pinging seven people and ruining their morning, you can look and see a real time view of like how all these things are manifesting, and then you can dive in and provide clarity or troubleshoot straight in that system.
Great teams have all three of those things. And I think what’s interesting is now with work from home, teams that were shared oxygen for 9 hours a day, 10 hours a day, everything was sync.
And I think now, that coordination layer, or the plan of record, you know, there’s more importance around that because async becomes a better and more important part of your day. I mentioned with that, we also use Loom and Zoom.
John Koetsier: Yep.
Alex Hood: That’s a way to express your emotions and outpour, inspire maybe, be well understood without having to call a meeting.
John Koetsier: Yes. Yes. That is super helpful. I love the thoughtful way you answer that, the layers of what you need. I’m going to turn to questions from the audience right now, and we’ve got a lot, actually. And we got some really, really good ones.
And this one is really interesting, it’s about personal development and personal achievement within a team. And it’s a bit of a sad one, and I don’t think that the person here is alone … this one is from Michael, but I bet you there’s a bunch of others who could say the same thing. He says, “I’ve always been passed over. I’m very competent, but I’m very nice. I’m seen as either threatening or weak.” And can you give some personal advice to somebody on a product team or in a startup who, you know, they’re super competent, but they’re super nice, and for whatever reason that’s either threatening, or that’s seen as weak.
Alex Hood: Well, if you’re competent and that is seen as threatening, you’re probably not in the right spot. Get out. World’s littered with companies that are much better than the one that you’re at, frankly. And know enough to do that because it’s a shame to end up in a culture like that. But, sometimes nice and competent might manifest as like you don’t speak up. Here’s an exercise: do your boss’s job in your head.
So, as you go about your day, do your job and then when you see your boss has a bunch of decisions to make, what would you do? Come up with a perspective of what that would be. That will allow you to grow in terms of the scope and scale of problems that you’re dealing with, but also you’ll have a point of view. You will come into a meeting with a point of view of all the things, not just the things on your plate, but at a higher order. And share that point of view, share that you have a hypothesis and you’ve got some data to back it up. Don’t wilt or be stuck in a place where it doesn’t seem like you’re contributing. Contribute your point of view and what backs it up, you know.
And the right culture’s customer data wins all ties. So if you’ve got some customer data to contribute that is a point of view that hasn’t been heard in the room, speak the heck up.
John Koetsier: Yup, yup. Excellent. It is not just your opinion anymore. It’s not just what you want anymore. It’s what the customer wants. Here’s one that is a challenging problem for almost all entrepreneurs. This one is from Hamant, he says, “What minimum features do you need during the MVP, the minimum viable product, and do you pivot when there’s similar features offered by competitors?”
Alex Hood: Well, the minimum required is to like actually deliver a benefit. And you do need to have something unique out there, you know, or you’re not going to get funding or you’ll end up as a “me too.” It’s probably not satisfying. So it might be the case that that ideal customer experience that you’ve envisioned is something that is unique, differentiated, and has a durable advantage.
And it might be then the first thing that you ship to get to a place where you could offer that big thing is roughly similar to what somebody else has got. Fine, just know that you’re not done. Get to a place as fast as possible where you can test out the hypothesis that this is a winning idea and work backwards from it.
John Koetsier: Makes sense. This question is from Harrod and is asking about that 60% tax on our time, the work to enable the work, and it says, “Asana can help as a product, but what elements of culture have you found crucial to reducing that 60% tax?”
Lloyed Lobo: I think really thinking hard about what can be done async versus sync, is one. I think another is having a culture where being concise and being pithy with your point of view makes a difference. Where like long paragraphs that are philosophical aren’t viewed as inspirational or influential.
You know, I mentioned we have No-Meeting Wednesdays. You know, you can institute something like that. You could have as part of your like regular operating rhythm, hey, every six weeks your team goes and looks and tries to reduce the meetings that might not be needed.
John Koetsier: Yup.
Alex Hood: Those are some examples.
John Koetsier: Here’s a question that in my experience, all entrepreneurs really struggle with, especially earlier stage, but for some personality types of founders, they struggle with it for years after and maybe never stop. And it’s looking around at other competitors. So Akshat says, “In your product process, how much emphasis do you pay on what your competitors are doing and where should one draw the line?”
Alex Hood: Well, I feel very inspired by competitors.
That might be the way to think about it. There are some competitors out there who are doing some really cool stuff in our space. And I just love to watch them because those are experiments where they’ve taken on the engineering burden to run a hypothesis or a test, and I didn’t have to do that ourselves. And we can see how it nets out for them. Like, oh, hey, they’re taking a different tack, let’s see what happens next time they publish their growth metrics, or let’s see if they get product market fit or traction or new funding. Or even sometimes they experiment with a new way to deliver the benefit in their UI and you’re like, oh man, the way that manifested was so cool, I never even thought about that way.
So, I mentioned the double diamond is kinda like go broad, go narrow. And I think while you go broad, yeah, you are inspired by those around you, either competitors or even folks in completely different spaces.
John Koetsier: Mm-hmm.
Alex Hood: You know, when I do a lot of hiring around like adoption or product folks who work in the first experience, and I always try to think about what are the industries where it’s very difficult to get somebody through a funnel. So I look at like travel sites and those who work in online banking, or even like signing up for insurance online, you just know that they’ve poured through how to get folks through a difficult, complex funnel to get to an end result. That’s not a competitor, but it’s something to be inspired by and to look for, see how others have done it broadly.
John Koetsier: Yeah. Here’s a couple of questions from two people that I’m going to put together and it’s about product managers. And the first question is from Marshall and he says, “What makes a legendary product manager?” The other one is from somebody anonymous, it says, “How do you screen for creativity in a product manager?” So maybe talk a little bit about hiring PM’s, what that looks like and what you’re looking for.
Alex Hood: Yeah. Well, I mean, I mentioned the competencies and I’ll just repeat them because I saw there was a comment out there where somebody was looking for them again.
Growth mindset. Strategic acumen. Get stuff done. Grow team Asana. Customer centric. And collaborative. That basically ends up being a rubric.
And we, when we take applications for product managers, we assign a homework assignment. And that homework assignment gives us a sense of how customer-focused or how creative somebody is.
John Koetsier: Mm-hmm.
Alex Hood: Then we bring somebody in and we have them jam with some designers, they hit the board on a problem. That’s what you, that’s the fun part of doing the job, and that’s where you want somebody to really shine. So, you know, we have a rubric of what’s great about that versus what’s not. And then we make sure that things like, you know, no ego, ability to change their mind, numerate, data-backed, all the other things that kind of fit into subcategories under the things that I’ve mentioned. We have ways to screen for that stuff as well during the interview process.
And the end result is that you end up with some folks who really want to do great things, are mission driven, are great at their craft, but without some of the negative trappings that you hear around product management, like somebody who’s just gunning to be the CEO someday and this product stuff is fun, but it’s just a stepping stone.
John Koetsier: Yes.
Alex Hood: That stuff is so easy to detect.
John Koetsier: Yup. Yup. Excellent. I’m going to get one more question from the audience here, and then we’ll hand it back over to Lloyed to take us to a close. This one is from Hui who says, “As a leader, how do you deal with all sorts of opinions? Everybody wants to share and contribute. This async may create another effect, too much communication.”
Alex Hood: True, then it’s, if you see too much communication as a leader, then you can have a heart to heart with your team around how they spend their time. Is this a decision that you need to weigh in on, like what we serve for breakfast at Asana, or would it be better if you focused on something like creating a great design system? You know, how people spend their time often ends up being something that comes up in one-to-ones, and it’s a great way to coach around that if you see a lot of async kind of going haywire. It’s your role as a leader to set expectations around what great looks like. So you’re not at the effect of that. You’re kind of in charge of it.
John Koetsier: I love the answer to that because the answer to a problem is not always a process or a rule to give to your team or to your company. Sometimes it’s just a little gentle coaching.
Alex Hood: Sure. I mean, again, product people tend to be fairly achievement oriented, particularly product managers, but all the functions, I’ve experienced it. So if folks know what great looks like, they’re going to want to either join up and try to amplify that great or reflect that great, or they might find that this isn’t the definition of great that they look up to and they should leave and go find another place.
John Koetsier: Yeah.
Alex Hood: Those outcomes are fine.
John Koetsier: Alex, I want to thank you for spending this time. It’s been extremely instructive. It’s been amazing. It’s been fun. It’s been insightful. And I really, really do appreciate your time.
Alex Hood: My pleasure. This is so much fun. Thanks, John.