In this series we look to uncover real life product strategy examples and stories from experienced leaders in product.
Today’s interview comes from a conversation with Joe Tinston, the CPO of Bloom & Wild.
It’s a masterclass in executing, communicating and delivering business strategy via product; full of gems around how to think about delivering business outcomes via product levers, how to think commercially and how to deliver results in a hands-on, and thoughtful way.
Joe has a depth of experience in strategy, consumer and customer focused roles, having worked at OneFineStay, eBay, Tesco and OC&C Strategy Consultants prior to joining Bloom & Wild.
Introduction to Joe
Joe – can we ask you to introduce yourself?
Yeah, sure. I am currently Chief Product Officer at Bloom & Wild. I’ve been with Bloom & Wild now for the last six years.
Bloom & Wild is a certified B-corp and the UK’s most loved online florist, caring wildly about making sending and receiving gifts a joy.
Pivotal moments in Joe’s career
Could you tell us about a pivotal moment in your career, which really changed your trajectory?
Am I allowed to choose three? I’ve got three key moments or work experiences for me that shaped my career, how I think about problems and where I’ve ended up.
First pivotal moment
The first one is the first job I chose to do, which was in strategy consulting, largely because I knew I wanted to move into more commercial roles, but didn’t really know what I wanted to do.
Strategy consulting was an opportunity to see a lot of different businesses and a lot of different business models. It was pivotal because it’s like a bootcamp of core business skills. That ranges from how to understand financial statements, P&Ls, and metric tree driving skills, but also how to communicate ideas, how to structure logical discussions, how to do data analysis, how to do PowerPoint.
I’ve found that has been a skillset that’s left me in good stead; having this foundation of being able to do analytics effectively, being able to communicate and message effectively. It set me up very effectively early in my career. It also probably allowed me to jump a few levels when I made my first move after consulting.
Second pivotal moment
My second pivotal moment was moving into startups.
After consulting, I worked for Tesco and then eBay, which are quite big companies. You spend a lot of time influencing rather than doing. A lot of time doing strategy, writing presentations, influencing people, particularly in the roles I had, which were strategic in nature. After eBay, I decided I wanted to move into the startup / scale-up scene.
So I joined OneFineStay. I was really pleased that I did because it gave me levers, it gave me things I could do that would have an impact on business outcomes.
My first role was looking after CRM [customer relationship management; in this case meaning retention marketing].
I could just dive into the Mailchimp account and start setting up triggered campaigns. In my first week, I set up a few different ones and was like, this is great! This would have taken ages for me to influence other people to do. I enjoyed getting my hands dirty and being able to learn that skill.
Third pivotal moment
My third pivotal moment was becoming a product leader at Bloom & Wild. I originally joined Bloom & Wild to look after customer retention, so retention marketing, but also how we improve the physical product and digital product with the end goal of increasing the lifetime value of customers.
Then I moved into looking after product five years ago at Bloom & Wild, taking the product team from being a founder-led delivery function to being more of a modern product organisation.
After about nine months, our founder asked me if I’d take on responsibility for the product team. I’d started working with the product team and found that moving into product and developing my craft was like finding my home. It was where my skill sets all came together with a proper job description.
So my first role in product was as VP of Product at Bloom & Wild.
It enabled me to really think about what is my craft and how do I hone that craft? Who else do I speak to? Who has this craft that I can learn from as well?
That’s been my personal route into becoming a CPO. My first time in a product role was with Bloom and Wild.
What do you think Aron (founder of Bloom & Wild) spotted in you that he asked you to make that move from retention to product?
Aron worked really closely with the product managers in the organisation, in quite a classic set up for a founder led organisation. It was a big step for him to bring in product leadership and take a step away from the day to day.
One of the critical things was our ability to build trust and communicate and solve problems together. Aron fundamentally had to have somebody he could trust so that he could let go of the product process and product leadership.
I think it’s the fact that we have similar overlapping skill sets and a different mindset of how we approach problems that allows us to solve problems effectively together.
Before we get into your overall philosophy of what strategy is in product, how did you find that that interactive relationship [with Aron, the founder] influenced how you approached things?
For a long period of my ownership of the product team, we did not have a product strategy at all. We intentionally did not have a product strategy because we didn’t want to create an additional layer between our business strategy and what we were executing in product.
Our product organisation was structured and set up in a way that it was easy to align to the business strategy and operate accordingly. Having clarity about what our business strategy was and how we aligned resources against that enabled us not to have a product strategy.
We now have a product strategy because we’ve changed our business strategy and the way we structure our business strategy doesn’t easily translate into the product implications. So we now need to build the interface between our business strategy and accordingly the product implications of that business strategy.
Interesting point about the interface. We’ve all seen businesses where there can be a fundamental misalignment between business strategy and product strategy because they’re not working together or somebody hasn’t thought about the correct phasing of when you introduce those two things.
Pragmatically the thing is that you don’t always need a product strategy. It’s an interesting piece particularly in a proudly product enabled business like ours. Our core product is the gifts that senders send to people they care about which enable them to show their care.
A lot of our role on the digital product is helping bring that to life for our customers. Because it’s not product led and doesn’t follow that mindset, we don’t necessarily need all of the facets of a product led strategy. We need to make sure we’re enabling our business outcomes and we’re creating the right customer experience in the product.
Philosophy on strategy
So if you’re thinking about strategy, what does it mean to you? What’s your philosophy?
As an ex strategy consultant, I should probably have a good answer to this. A strategy is fundamentally about choices of what to focus on and why, and critically what you choose to do and what you choose not to do to enable you to focus on that.
Within the product, that means what problems and opportunities do we want to focus on? For us in a product enabled business, which are the problems that enable us to drive business results so that we can maximise the success of our product by meeting needs of customers, differentiating versus competitors?
This is the type of thing that we think about when we’re building our product strategy overall.
How do you identify those business problems? What’s the process that goes into the business strategy that then drives the product strategy?
The business strategy looks at a few different aspects. Where you are today is always important within a business strategy. So where are we positioned as a business? In which markets? How are we performing? What do our customers expect? What do our customers value from us? What do they value in the market? And how do we compete versus our competitors?
That understanding of your market, understanding of your competitors, understanding of what’s important to your customers, how different competitors map up to that, and where you differentiate is the core starting point of a strategy.
For us as a business, we were at a point where we have really strong traction in the UK. Bloom & Wild is now a well-known brand and we’ve had a strong growth trajectory.
Therefore a lot of our strategy is, how do we grow beyond that? What’s our future growth coming from? What are the other opportunities that we want to pursue to enable us to achieve business outcomes?
A lot of what we want to do now is to become a gifting destination for our customers. We are concentrating on fulfilling a broader range of gifting missions when flowers might not be the right gift for that person or that occasion.
We’re doing a broad bit of product expansion, but also we’re executing on geographical expansion. Geographical expansion is always one that is fairly easy to formulate from a strategy point of view. You want to go for the large markets where there’s a big opportunity where you have the capabilities to win versus the existing competitors. We spend time identifying what our strategy is to win in those markets versus existing competitors and how we differentiate from them.
In the end all of our strategy anchors around analysis of markets, competitors and customers, and understanding the nuances of those by market. And once we do that, and have some goals, figuring out how we invest as an organisation to achieve those goals.
Most recent strategy
Can you walk us through a strategy you’ve developed that you’re most proud of?
I’ll go back to the most recent one, which is our latest incarnation of our product strategy that we presented to our board back in June.
This was actually the first time we formalised a product strategy that was different to the business strategy.
One of the reasons was that when we looked at the key pillars of the business strategy, there were product levers we could focus on that would map to multiple pillars. This meant we could provide a clearer strategic direction to our teams by pulling these themes out to build a coherent vision that worked across multiple strategic pillars – and accordingly build more coherent and impactful products.
Historically product initiatives had been aligned to business strategic pillars, but this time we would drive more outcomes by working across pillars, rather than aligned to individual strategic pillars.
A number of these are related to range expansion, be it international range expansion or range expansion in the UK.
We spent a lot of time thinking about the implications of that from a product perspective so we could play back to the rest of the business how we would support the business strategy via this new approach. That was so they would understand most effectively what we’re doing and why we’re doing it rather than saying, well, this work stream of the business strategy wants this and this work stream wants this.
The process we went through was to start with the company strategy. We had a session with the whole of our product team where I shared the new business strategy with them. I gave them a preview before the rest of the organisation, partly because our planning cycles are a bit longer. We wanted to have visibility so that we didn’t send off our discovery efforts in the wrong direction for the next quarter.
We had a preview of that where I ran people through the strategy and it was a good test bed to wordsmith, clarify what the strategy actually meant and be able to hone the business strategy. All of that was nice, but one valuable exercise we ran was the so what.
So what does this mean for us? And why does it mean that? What are the implications of this? So what are the things we know or don’t know about the implications of this that we’ll either need to build some alignment on and discover as a business?
Having the whole team in the first phase of that strategy creation allowed us to hear everybody’s views around what would be useful for them.
Fundamentally our product strategy is around aligning a product and tech organisation around what we want to be delivered. So it’s really important that people feel a sense that they understand what you want to be delivered and what you don’t want to be delivered.
Start, stop, continue
We then went through various points of the business strategy and thought them through. What does this mean: does it mean we need to do more of what we’re already doing? What does this mean: does it mean we’ll need to start doing this thing that we don’t currently do? What do we need to stop doing to enable us to achieve these things? We used start, stop, continue as a framework to start structuring the implications.
I then took that away from my product leadership team and started to shape it into a coherent structure that we could work through and think about how we align the to-dos to our existing squad model. We also started thinking through how we could potentially tweak the squad model to support this overall strategy.
Then we started to think about the key discrete pillars that we were able to align work against. What are the metrics we will use to measure success against each of those pillars? Then, How do we start to build and communicate progress?
So we came up with our first version of it. We then played it back to the team and said, OK, we did this session. You told us this. We’ve pulled it together into this, keen to get your feedback.
I think that iterative process is really important because it is about giving the team a clear direction. Fundamentally, that’s why you set a strategy. It is to give a team clear direction. If they don’t understand it, there’s no point going off into a darkened room and saying, here you go, do this.
Bringing people on the journey of strategy creation was really effective for people to take ownership by seeing what they questioned within it, being able to think through it overall and then take it on as their own to deliver and execute that strategy.
If you’re starting from the first principle of a business strategy, typically they are linked to financial outcomes: there’s a future plan which says we want to achieve X, Y, and Z in terms of actual revenue and EBITDA. Did you do impact sizing and were you tying that strategy back to financial metrics or was it more: we know this is our best bet to get there?
Actually the sizing was already there as part of the business strategy. What we needed to achieve was already there and in terms of the choices we needed to make, there was a degree of constraint already put in place by the business strategy around where we wanted to go.
When we started to look at the strategic pillars they ended up being flexible enough that we didn’t need to size and compare those versus the areas of the business that we were focusing on investing more into and less into. What that enabled us to do was to have the core metrics against those pillars.
However on the next level down when we start to think about the sub opportunities and initiatives, we played a financial impact assessment back in to inform prioritisation. We went back to thinking about the opportunity sizing and saying, what do we need to do now? What do we need to learn now? What’s going to have the biggest impact in driving our overall short term business and strategy execution objectives?
The value of product leaders inputting into broader business strategies
How much do you as a CPO input into that business strategy?
We have an executive team which I’m a member of. Setting the company strategy is a responsibility of that exec overall, so I was fairly actively involved.
As with any kind of process, you start thinking that it’s simple, you go through a whole heap of complexity and you come out with some things that everyone wonders: how did it take you three months in a room to come up with that?
That usually means you’re doing it right because you’ve gone through the complexity. If you come out with something too complicated and they don’t think that, you probably haven’t articulated the strategy clearly enough.
I think that’s what enabled me to feel confident it’s the right strategy. Within the business strategy, we were also consulted with broader leaders across the organisation to get feedback as we went through the process.
I think thinking strategically is a real capability that product leaders can bring to executive teams. We often have to manage lots of different time frames together like the short term, what are we doing tomorrow, the next quarter, the next year, the next three years.
Product leaders are quite good at zooming in or out of their strategic horizon and articulating questions like what do those time frames or sequencing mean in terms of the problem we’re solving and the outcome we’re trying to achieve. That product mindset is quite helpful within executive teams in helping devise and structure strategies.
Discussions of what and how you do it within your organisation, understanding the trade-offs become important because fundamentally understanding the outcomes you want to achieve and how you balance investment in longer-term strategy versus the core business becomes really interesting.
“The three horizons framework offers a way to concurrently manage both current and future opportunities for growth.” – Enduring Ideas: The three horizons of growth, McKinsey Quarterly
This can create pressure within businesses to find new growth opportunities – but how do you structure and prioritise?
One of the things we have within our strategy was the Horizons model. It’s a McKinsey model of Horizon 1 activities, Horizon 2 and Horizon 3.
Horizon 1 is our core business activities that generate a lot of our revenue and profitability at the moment. Horizon 2 is your midterm strategic bet that you’re going to start leaning into to develop as your future engines of growth for your business. Horizon 3 is the longer term ideas that you will invest less into now, maybe a few learning experiments overall.
Using a model like this can help make visible where people should play and the amount of effort to allocate – “Enduring Ideas: The three horizons of growth” – McKinsey Quarterly
Understanding what you’re putting into those different horizons becomes a really powerful lever and can flex and change during your strategic execution plan.
When you’re executing a strategy, you still need to keep the core working and still need to invest into that. It’s really easy to go all in on the new things and neglect it. Having guardrails and a common understanding around what you’re investing in those different horizons becomes a useful lever to make sure we’re driving the right balance of future and present investment.
Customer experience and product strategy
Drilling into the customer experience angle: how does that play into how you approach your product strategy?
Because we always, from a product strategy perspective, start with our company strategy, what we start to do is think about questions like: what are the customer implications of that business strategy? What are the needs of the customers that arise as we start to do new things?
So for example, as we offer a wider range of products across our portfolio:
- How do we raise awareness of that for our customers? How would they know that that’s something we offer to them?
- What are the different buying missions of customers when they buy something like chocolates compared to flowers?
- How do we support that within our product?
- How do we enable the delivery of different selections of products?
We start to think about what are the core problems that we need to solve, how do we work around those, and how do we understand the customer needs for those, after we set a broad direction with a business strategy.
That business strategy says we’d like to go and win across these areas and therefore our product strategy is all about how do we achieve that? What does it actually take within our digital product to win for those customers in this space?
Theory to execution in the real world
How do you need to think about strategy in the context where a physical product and a digital product need to work hand in hand?
As we think about the physical product and digital product, fundamentally we always keep in mind that the product we’re selling to customers is the experience of sending a gift to someone that shows their care. That’s the heart of what we want to deliver across our whole customer experience.
We need to make sure that the customer experience is joined up from when customers arrive at our digital experience, choose their product and get it shipped.
Considering it all as one customer journey and thinking end to end is really important. Equally important is making sure that we’re understanding our role is to champion that physical product experience that we’re creating for our customers.
That means we need to be super aligned at lots of different touch points. Our digital experience is the storefront for our customers when they come to visit us as a brand.
That means very close collaboration with our brand and creative teams. So for example, when we went through a rebrand process, we worked together to update our brand identity and our colour palette. Our product design team was involved in stress testing how that would work across our website and app so we could start to see what would work.
We co-created the new brand together in order to have a brand that would work across our digital assets, our physical assets, our above the line media, and so on.
We also then also need to think about the touch points that we have with our operations. We need to make promises upfront about what we’ll deliver for our customers that we’re able to fulfil, and have the technology to enable our operations teams to fulfil those promises.
What is the actual structural format that these interactions take? What’s the cadence and tooling that you have to ensure that product isn’t siloed?
I’ll start with our product principles. We have principles in place that reflect how we want to work as a product team. Having principles within the team that they sign up to is a key part.
Having those principles day to day enables us to have a culture that is working towards those outcomes and challenging each other to maintain them.
Trusted partner principle
One of the critical principles we have is that we want to be trusted partners to our key partners in different areas of the business.
Many of our squads are aligned to core business areas: to provide them with tight collaboration loops with certain sets of stakeholders. These also map to the domains that those squads own.
What that means is that we want them to be both the people that those stakeholders talk to about their objectives and ideally also in the room for discussions where those objectives are shaped.
For example, my head of product for our OpsTech area works within our operations leadership team. They’re able to support that team effectively, but provide a view on how product and technology can help with the problems that they’re facing.
Outcome focused principle
One of the other principles we have is around being outcome focused. Our product outcomes support the business outcomes we’re trying to achieve. Sometimes they have a direct representation.
For example, in our operations area, and within our logistics squad that supports it, we’ll have a shared metric around delivery success rates and refund rates.
Both teams will monitor that and understand that that’s the one of the metrics we’re moving that improves our gross profitability, which impacts our overall profitability of the business.
Championing the user
Both teams will also have NPS metrics that they care about, because we also have a balancing principle of championing the user. We use ‘user’ rather than ‘customer’ because while we have customers, we also have internal users within the product as well.
So we’re balancing financial impact with overall user satisfaction. There’s a real alignment of metrics between the two business functions.
Importance of rituals
The next critical bit is identifying who the stakeholders are by squad and working super closely with them.
We have a lot of rituals where we allow our stakeholders to influence our roadmap and allow us to share what we’re doing with our stakeholders.
We have a quarterly planning process where each quarter we can structurally bring in whatever new asks might appear.
You have to start doing your quarterly planning process and understand that as a kind of intake process of what might be going on in the minds of the teams we support. They are also following a quarterly planning cadence as they set OKRs. We use that as our planning cycle to identify new stakeholder requests, and align metrics and focus.
Obviously things come in mid-quarter as well, as the business doesn’t just work on a quarterly rhythm. We keep a fortnightly update: PMs will meet their core stakeholders to share what’s happening within the squad, but also understand any of the problems that those areas of the business are facing.
One of the reasons why I describe Bloom & Wild as a proudly product enabled business, where we’re enabling business outcomes rather than being product led, is because it is a team game. We’re co-creating the product with the rest of the business to solve the business problems we’re all focused on.
That’s essential because like in some areas it’s impossible to change stuff without working with our stakeholders. In our warehouse technology we can’t just make changes without aligning on the training plan, when it happens in the warehouses, what the staffing is in the warehouse when it happens and so on.
We have a bit more autonomy for making changes in some other places. For example on our homepage where we can A-B test things. But at the same time we want to make sure we’re connecting up the context that comes from the brand or acquisition teams about future plans where that page might be important.
Hiring and maintaining focus within your teams
You’ve described a very commercially minded product organisation. How do you hire for that? How do you train for that? And how do you maintain that focus?
One of the things I recently did back in September was run a team offsite. The team identified some of the Learning and Development priorities they have. They were understanding more about our commercial drivers as a business and how to build business cases.
We had our VP of Finance come in and do a real deep dive on understanding how our P&L worked and what the key drivers of the P&L were, including how funding technology investments played into our overall profitability. We created a safe space for people to really understand some of the trade-offs.
You build a commercial mindset by giving people the commercial context that enables them to make the right decisions. And I think giving them that understanding around the business drivers and connecting to that is really important.
The second thing we did was a workshop on building business cases where I gave a bit of theory on, here’s how you build a business case and here’s why you build it.
Fundamentally, we think of business cases as a discovery tool. A discovery tool in the sense that you’re using it to go back to product risk by validating the business viability risk. Is the investment we’re making sufficient, at the right level, to justify the commercial upside we have related to this investment in this product? It’s never going to be right. The business case will not deliver an exact result, but it does help you understand the key levers driving the outcomes.
So we went through this learning experience about building business cases and then spent an afternoon building them as a team, then going around and having leaders coach to help build the team’s confidence.
Overall I think you embed commerciality through learning and development and giving people the context and skills to be able to do it overall within the team.
Hiring for commerciality
The classic way I would hire is asking people about their experiences and previous stuff they’ve worked on.
For me, it’s often telling how people structure their answers and what mattered to them.
I look for two things. One, when people are sharing an example of something they’ve worked on previously, how do they communicate it? How do they think about the outcomes? How do they think about measuring them, learning from them, driving them, iterating them?
The second thing is: what motivates them? I’m keen to understand people’s motivation. Are they interested and motivated by those commercial outcomes? Are they the type of people who care about that or do they care more about working with the shiny tech? And actually, there’s no right answer. There’s just the right people to work in our organisation.
There’ll be some people who are less inclined on that commercial side, who are great product managers, but will probably be more successful elsewhere. The interview process is always finding the right balance of who’s the right fit for the organisation we work in and the type of product we do.
A big part is also being honest about the product organisation you are and what your expectations are of product managers. It’s easy to look at product manager roles and say a product manager does this. There’s the Venn diagram of the business, the UX and the technology. There’s lots of books. It can sound like there’s only one way of doing product management.
But there’s a lot of different ways depending on the product, depending on the organisation.
So we try to make sure people are motivated by the commercial problems, understand it, and can articulate what that looks like.
Keeping commercial outcomes top of mind
How do you ensure your team keep focusing on commercial outcomes?
Sometimes I do have to remind the team, and sometimes I need to remind them it’s worth not doing a business case! If you’ve got enough evidence and got enough confidence: what’s the point in doing a business case, when it’s going to be cheap to get learnings in production. You’re not going to learn a whole lot by doing a business case. You’re going to learn by doing.
It’s important to understand that business cases are tools. They’re not a stage gate an initiative needs to go through, because otherwise you create this whole industry of pulling business cases together.
They’re sometimes useful. They’re never right. But they hopefully allow you to compare things and contrast things to make better decisions or identify what your big unknowns and assumptions are that can then drive your discovery. I.e. actually, this anchors on this one metric that could be 10% or could be 30% so go away and find out where it is in that range.
That helps bring business cases into being a product discovery tool too, which is it helps make some assumptions really explicit and helps you identify your confidence in those assumptions. You can work through it.
We use them a lot. When we have misalignment, most of the time it’s when there’s a wide range in the business case of what an initiative could deliver or when the investment is really high.
Okay, so what mantra do you wind up repeating to your teams all the time?
I asked my team because that’s the way to understand what they actually hear from me most often.
Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good
The first was ‘Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good’. I say it so much in fact that they’ve made a laptop sticker for our team.
Being perfect is the enemy of good. A key skill as a leader for me is being pragmatic in driving commercial outcomes and knowing when good enough is good enough.
The second one is the regularity with which I drop provocations on them. Quite often I play devil’s advocate in their thinking and try to get them to see problems from different perspectives.
One of the real advantages of leaders is that we’re not close to the details of solving the problem. We can be more impartial and take a step back and say, well, have you thought about this, or state as a provocation, if you did it this way, what it would look like. That distance allows you to get the team to explore new directions. Often I don’t need them to, I just want to know that they’ve thought about the details.
Joe is Hiring!
Enjoyed this interview and like the sound of Joe and his team? There’s an open opportunity to join Bloom & Wild as a product manager. Apply here.
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Who is Joe Tinston?
Joe Tinston is currently the CPO of Bloom & Wild, an online flower and gift company. Prior to becoming CPO, he held the position of VP of Product, Retention and Data, having been promoted from Customer Retention Director. Prior to Bloom & Wild, Joe worked at OneFineStay, eBay, Tesco and OC&C Strategy Consultants.
What is Bloom & Wild?
Bloom & Wild is a certified B-corp and the UK’s most loved online florist. A core value they hold is to care wildly about making sending and receiving gifts a joy.