In this series of interviews we look to uncover real life product strategy examples and stories from experienced leaders in product. Today we’re starting with Hustle Badger Founder Ed Biden.
Ed Biden is the founder of Hustle Badger, and a fractional CPO and advisor. Previously he has held leadership roles at Jobandtalent, FutureLearn and Depop, where he led the product team from Series B until near exit (for $1.6bn to Etsy in 2021).
This article lays out the contents of a recent conversation with Ed on all things product, but particularly on product strategy, digging into real world product strategy examples. It covers the last time he had to put together a product strategy, what steps he took when, and how he organised for success. In addition we covered some general team and life advice for his younger self and PMs on the rise to CPO.
What does strategy mean to you?
Strategy for me is a way of deciding what you’re going to do. What a good strategy does is it answers a challenge or an opportunity. You are set a problem and your strategy is your response.
It does a couple of things. It focuses your effort in particular places so what you do is tied together and is complementary. Instead of just picking from a universe of options, you’re focusing on particular areas and you’re saying, hey, we’re going to focus on these things for these reasons, and that’s going to deliver outsized results against this problem that we’re facing.
I think this point around picking from a universe of options is really an interesting one because it can sometimes feel like technology is like a world of opportunity.
For me, a strategy tells you what to work on and what not to work on. It’s what you’re going to work on and why. It’s you saying, hey, if we’ve got to face this problem, this is how we’re going to go about it.
That usually combines two things. It goes from this whole big universe of things and says we’re only going to focus on these small subset of things that we believe have a higher impact than the general universe of options.
But it also tends to select a series of options that are mutually reinforcing. So you’re not just stack ranking every possible thing you could do and picking the top however many things. You’re actually saying we’re going to go and approach this from this angle, from this perspective. And by choosing lots of options that reinforce this way of doing things, we’re going to get compounding benefits. And that’s going to be better. It’s going to be more than the sum of its parts.
Last time Ed developed one: digging into a real product strategy example
What was the last time you developed a strategy and how did you make those types of choices?
The last time I developed a strategy was at YunoJuno, where I’ve been working for the last nine months or so as a fractional CPO. YunoJuno is a marketplace for freelancers and a workforce management tool that particularly helps people in the advertising industry find designers and other creatives. I was working with them on their product strategy, but particularly focused on the marketplace side of the business.
Meeting senior management
I originally got in touch with YunoJuno because the COO found me and as a marketplace, they were looking for a product leader with marketplace experience to come and help them out. And he found me on LinkedIn. So it was just cold outreach on his part.
Then very quickly, I ended up in contact with the CEO and the CTO and started chatting to all three of them about what they were looking for in terms of support and what their problem was. The problem essentially was that they had a marketplace and they were looking at how they could unlock more growth. How do they make it work even better?
So that led to a series of conversations even before I formally started working with them. And I got a lot of information about the business and about what they thought the approaches might be. Some of the diagnosis just came from those conversations.
So I’d met all of those key stakeholders before I even started. I spoke to the guy running sales and the lady who was running the community team, people working in CRM and across the rest of the business just to get as many different perspectives about what was going on as possible.
Then I’d understood from them what they saw the problem was, and some of the things that they tried in the past and what their ideas were about how we might go forward. So it wasn’t like I was starting from a completely blank slate. I had that context about how the company was already thinking about it.
One of the first things I did when I actually started working formally for them was go and speak to the other members of the leadership team as well. So people in the sales team, and the talent team running the community, and just got as much information as possible from them about how they understood both the business and the customers and what we were trying to achieve.
I always find speaking to those senior people is a real accelerator in getting up to speed because they’re working across so many aspects of the business day to day that they’ve got a huge amount of knowledge that they can hand over to you.
I was very keen to get a customer journey map in place because it’s one of my favourite tools for just understanding what the customer experience is, where are the pain points and where are the opportunities. I think it’s particularly valuable to do it as someone joining a new company or joining a new team because you probably don’t have a perfect understanding of how the product works, or you might be missing some key aspects.
And so running a workshop where you figure out the customer journey and you map that out with other stakeholders, other people from different parts of the business, again, just really gets you up to speed very, very quickly and helps you empathise with the problems that the customers are seeing.
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Desk research and analysis
From that point, I had a look at the product myself. I’d look at some of the competitors. I did a bit of desk research, just to get a feel for it myself and see where I thought there were obvious gaps or obvious opportunities. And I started doing some quantitative analysis as well, digging into the numbers myself and really understanding ‘How are customers going through the funnel?’ and ‘How are they behaving throughout the funnel?’ ‘How much are they engaging?’.
This was all fairly basic analysis, because I was running a lot of my own SQL queries. I didn’t have a data analyst or anything like that to back me up. But in combination then, the internal stakeholder conversations, the qualitative understanding of the user journey, commercial analysis, the quantitative insights, this all started to come together and give me an understanding of what was going on.
You may notice that I hadn’t spoken to any customers at this point. I’ll come back to that because that was something that I struggled a little bit with for the first couple of months, if I’m honest. Working out the logistics and the mechanics for actually speaking to a number of their customers at scale was tough, because their customers are businesses who are hiring freelancers.
So the result of that exercise was that very quickly I felt I had a pretty good idea about what was causing them problems or what were the major opportunities to grow faster. I was very keen to get a sort of straw man strategy out as soon as possible.
So that rolled together into a deck, four or five slides up front stating Hey, these are the problems. This is how you can see it. Then I had three or four areas of focus. I did a mini vision for each of those areas, mainly by screenshotting competitors or reference companies, just calling bits out, ‘If we built this thing out, it would look a bit like this.’
And then again, each of those areas. I supported with three or four bits of analysis. That could be a chart I’d drawn, or some customer quotes that I’d come across or whatever it was.
I made sure then that the rest of the leadership team bought into that analysis and that focus before then setting out the roadmap or the work that we should do that flowed from that strategy.
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Customer feedback and analysis
One of the things that I hadn’t managed to do in that initial phase was actually speak to many customers.
That was because they had some very big enterprise customers who for various reasons I was not super focused on.
Then they had a lot of SME like smaller companies, that we did want to focus on. Just getting and speaking to some of those smaller customers was tricky because we didn’t really have the scale that we could use the typical B2C tactics to speak to customers. They didn’t have account managers where you could just go and ask the account manager to set you up with a call. So that took a few weeks of sort of back and forth of, how are we going to do this? Who are we going to approach? How are we going to do it?
When you say that the customers weren’t easy to reach because they didn’t have account managers, to clarify, we’re talking about self-serve B2B customers here, so people who land on the website and go on a digital journey but are purely doing it for a B2B reason. So they feel like B2C customers, but they have all B2B characteristics and are actually businesses. Is that right?
Exactly. So if you’re working on a pure B2C product, then you usually have tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of customers, and you can put a pop-up up or a push notification or an email, even to a small percentage of your users, and use that to source people to speak to for user research.
When you’re doing that on a B2B basis your overall client pool is so much smaller that a little bit of nervousness creeps in.
If you fire off an email to 50% of the user base, which you might need to get the numbers you want to speak to, and you’ve got it wrong, not offered the right incentive, you haven’t got the wording quite right, then you’ve effectively burned those customers and you’re going to find it difficult to go back to them and offer them something different.
So that’s why I say it’s like we’re in that tricky position where we had neither the one-to-one contact that you get when you do have dedicated account managers nor the huge numbers that you get with a B2C product.
I’d say the ownership of that process as well wasn’t super clear and took a little bit longer than I would have hoped in retrospect to get sorted. But ultimately what we did was fire off a bunch of emails to customers that met the right criteria, offer them an Amazon voucher to speak to us, and send them to a Google form where we could ask them a few screening questions and some questions about the user experience.
We just asked them to rate different parts of the user experience. So that immediately started giving us some feedback. Even that screening form started to change some of the assumptions we’d had about where we should focus. It was powerful from the responses we got to the survey, but it also gave us a pool of people to speak to.
From that point, I set up a Calendly account and I was just emailing people in batches. Every month or so I’d send a dozen people an email saying, Hey, do you want to chat? We’ll give you an Amazon voucher. Here’s my Calendly. That was a low effort way on my part to end up speaking to three or four customers every week.
Iterating the strategy
You mentioned that even the initial screening call and the first few conversations started to change the direction of the strategy that you’d outlined. In retrospect, would you have spoken to customers earlier? Do you feel like you actually wound up in a better place because you were iterating off something that was already there?
With all these things, you always look back and see where you could have gone faster or see things that feel obvious now, but weren’t obvious at the time. Going into the same kind of situation now, I probably would have been a bit more aggressive and driven to try and speak to those customers.
But a lot of the time these things aren’t just about, what do you need to do? It’s who do you need to speak to and what are the relationships involved. If you’re coming into a new business, you want to make sure that you maintain the relationships with the people around you so that you can continue to get things done because you need that buy-in from people to make things work.
Coming into the start of this year, a few things were coming together. The original strategy I’d put together had been there for a couple of months and was not horrible, I should say. But at the same time, we were continuing to gather insights.
We’d had a couple of enterprise deals on a slightly different service model that was showing really great results. The customer interviews were starting to come through and in those customer interviews, we had a couple of people give us deep dive showcases of what our competitors were doing. We were also seeing the results of the stuff that we were shipping ourselves. As a result of all those things, we started to have some new hypotheses that we thought would be really high impact.
Experimenting and trying new ways of working
That led us to do some quite dramatic experiments on a cross-functional basis about how we were serving customers. That was really interesting because what we were able to do is change some of the fundamental metrics in the funnel, not by a few percentage points here or there, but by like 2-3x. We were doubling or tripling some of our key conversion metrics. So, okay, this is absolutely definitely having an impact.
This is not just product work, by the way, this was a real cross-functional initiative that product was supporting. But one of our big insights was we realised that this was not going to be a purely product effort. This was going to require a holistic, cross-functional approach to attack some of the key points in the customer journey.
So that then started providing very strong feedback and validation for where were the points in the journey that really mattered to customers and ways that we could approach them to get results that we wanted.
Being able to move a core metric higher up the funnel by 2 to 3x is really significant. How did you have sufficient insight from the customers that it might be that big of an impact?
We were making fairly dramatic changes to the service model, as I say. This is effectively moving away from a 100% self-service model to something that was a bit more mixed, a bit more high touch. There are obviously some trade-offs you make there in terms of how scalable that is, and what is actually the service that you’re providing, but we felt that was the right direction to go in.
I can remember before we launched some of these experiments, we didn’t really know how impactful they would be, or whether they would be net positive or net negative, but we knew that something was definitely going to happen and we were going to learn from it.
We were really saying, hey, this is a successful business, but it’s still very small compared to what the potential of it could be because we believe that it could be a truly enormous market leader. We should really be maximising for or optimising for how we learn the most as quickly as possible.
We want to take the most dramatic action that we can that is reasonable because that will teach us the most about what is going on here and what customers like. We’re not building for the next year. We’re seeing what are the kind of fundamental building blocks we need to get in place that will build the foundations for this to be a business that could be like 10x, 100x, a 1000x what it is right now.
So then if you were to self-evaluate, what do you think worked really well about the way you went around things and the process? And where on the flip side do you feel like there could have been improvements?
I think getting the initial strategy in place actually worked quite well. Although it changed relatively quickly, even within a couple of months of it being there, I think it laid the groundwork understanding of what the business was trying to achieve that was much clearer than what was there beforehand.
I think there is value to doing those exercises, like somewhat quick and dirty, just be like, hey, when there’s nothing there, just get something, get a straw man in place, because you will iterate, you will continue learning. These strategies are never done. Having something that you can talk to other people about, that you can appraise, that you can use to drive your hypotheses is really, really valuable.
Then although it took us a little long to get it running once it was up and running, this continuous discovery habit of always having clients, always having freelancers that we could speak to was really effective as well. That led to a steady feed of insights. And that meant when we had new concepts we were trying out or new features we were working on, we always had people that we could show them to and we could get their feedback. It wasn’t always that we were asking the big open questions about their motivations and their pain points.
If I was going to pick one more thing, it would be the cross-functional approach. This was something that worked well, but also if I did it again, it would be one of the areas I would try and make work even better. We were working very tightly with some of the internal recruiters that the company had which seemed to work really well. But actually getting the product team and that talent team to work even closer together would be where I’d work in future.
How far to plan in advance
How far do you plan your strategies in advance? Where do you leave space? For known unknowns, like a bunch of user feedback that you weren’t expecting, for example.
I’ve found that most of my experience is working in scaling businesses, so it’s in that series B, series C stage. At that stage, I’ve found that quarterly OKRs works pretty well when it’s done well.
I like to have, if possible, a company vision that spans out two or three years and says, hey, this is the kind of the general direction that we’re going in.
Then I like teams to have their own visions as well, which might span six months or a year. But typically what you’re seeing and what works is that they’ve really got an idea of what they’re doing this quarter and what they’re going to do next quarter.
Maybe they’ve got some vague ideas beyond that, but they can be pretty sketchy. Within the quarter, they really have a very clear idea of what they’re doing this quarter. and they almost know feature by feature what they’re doing, they’re maybe still working out some of the details of those.
The following quarter, they kind of know the big theme, and maybe they’ve got one or two ideas that they know are going to fall into that. But there’s still a lot of the details that are waiting to be figured out. So that’s how I think about it. And you know, if you’re running continuous discovery, then the idea is, by the time you get to the next quarter, actually you’ve done enough research and you’ve learned enough from the stuff that you’ve shipped this quarter that next quarter’s backlog, next quarter’s roadmap is fleshed out.
You’re almost describing a process where initially you’ve got a blurry picture, but you’ve got the camera pointed in the right direction, and then you slowly bring it into focus over the runway into the actual quarter. Is that like a fair way to characterise it?
Yeah, exactly. Sometimes we use the analogy of, you’ve got ice, you’ve got water, you’ve got steam. So your next quarter, this is almost like ice where everything’s pretty much fixed. You know you’re doing a fixed sequence of things. You know what those things are. And the sequence is fixed because actually you’ve already done a lot of research and a lot of analysis about what those are. Then the next quarter or the next period, whatever it is, that’s water.
You’ve got some idea what’s going on, things are a little bit fluid, you might be moving things backwards and forwards, some things might drop out or get introduced because you’re still understanding the opportunity is behind each of those ideas. Then beyond that, you’ve got steam where there are ideas for sure, but these are really very high level, very sketchy, whole themes might come and go in that period because you’re still learning.
How to structure and organise your team to deliver
Final question on this topic: How do you structure your organisation to deliver your strategy? What kind of KPIs do you like to set around strategic objectives? So what’s your process there? What do you think are important principles?
For me the most important principle that I’ve come back to is that, you can only have one goal for a team for a quarter. Let’s assume you’re planning on a quarterly basis. As soon as you give a team two, three, four objectives, then you just make so little progress on any of those things, you may as well not have a strategy.
The strategy for me is basically saying, hey, we’re going all in on this theme of work for this quarter, that’s the one that we want to make real progress against and everything else, we’re going to say no to, we’re going to defer till later.
Then once you’ve got that objective, you need to have some measure of whether that’s been successful and what is the outcome you want from doing that work. You then say to the teams, hey, this is your mission. You’ve got this one objective. You’ve got your one metric. What have you got to tackle that objective?
Then if you’ve got multiple teams, they can each have their own objectives, their own metrics. If you’ve got an organisation which has tribes, usually you try and group together those teams in a sensible way so that the tribe also has a holistic mission and ideally a single metric which everything else ladders up to. In reality, it’s not always that neat and tidy, and that’s fine actually. But the more that you can keep real focus, just have like one team, one objective, that makes a big difference.
What are the most useful techniques you’ve found apart from say, having a written product strategy where everyone understands, to keep people focused? Because obviously people can get busy, a founder can come and ask for something, a competitor can launch something that nobody ever thought of before, and everyone can swing their attention right when they should be going left. How do you manage those moments?
The most effective single thing that I’ve seen is knowing who your key stakeholders are. Most product teams probably only have one or two really important senior stakeholders, because they’re either aligned broadly with marketing or they’re aligned broadly with operations or whoever it is.
They’ve got one counterpart generally, and if you have a conversation with that person, let’s say four weeks before the quarter starts, and really understand how they’re thinking about the coming quarter, what their strategy is for their own teams and how you can support them, then either you’re aligned or you realise there’s a big mess and you need to have a bigger conversation about going this direction or that direction.
You’ve flagged that four weeks before you agreed what you’re doing. More likely you can say, oh yeah, that makes sense. We’ll also head in that direction. And you can then make sure that your work compliments each other. I think getting out of your silo, like going and speaking to the nearest adjacent functions and making sure that you are working in a complimentary fashion to them is the biggest thing that you need to do.
Which tools do you use so everyone knows what’s going on?
Very often it’s just Google slides. It’s Google slides for a strategy presentation or potentially it’s Notion for written documents. I think that just depends on company culture.
There are a lot of fancy tools for product discovery and this and that out there. And honestly, the major problem they have is they just don’t have wide enough adoption across the company. I think if you’re a product manager and you’re communicating stuff, which is one of your primary functions, you’ve got to pick a tool which has really wide adoption internally.
Otherwise, the number of people that you’re going to reach is automatically going to be limited. For me, as a product manager, you’ve got to be adapting your style, your communication tools to what the audience is already using, not thinking about what is the best thing for you as a person writing the strategy or documenting things.
Career moments and advice
Pivotal moment in Ed’s career that changed his path
Tell us about a pivotal moment in your career which really changed your trajectory
Yeah, so for me, I think my role at Depop was really transformational. I joined Depop in 2018. It was just after their series B and the company was about a hundred people at that time. I inherited a team of four product managers and quite quickly realised that I’d never really had that kind of management role before. I had direct reports, I’d been a player coach, but I’d never been in a role where I was a pure manager. And so, I had to admit to myself within a couple of months that was really a bit of a step up.
That immediately started teaching me just a lot about leadership in general, about product management, about marketplaces.
But I was then there for 2 and a half years. And throughout that time, most of it, I sat on the leadership team at the company and defined the product strategy for the company. And that time period took us through our series C, $50 million, investment with General Atlantic.
I left about 9 or 10 months before they got acquired by Etsy for $1.6 billion. So the amount of growth and the amount that the company changed and matured over that time period was phenomenal for me to see, but also it taught me a huge amount. And going into my next role at FutureLearn, I was very clearly on a CPO track and I was actually promoted to CPO within six months.
Advice for his younger self
This thing about management is really interesting. What’s a piece of advice you would give yourself about management if you were going back in time to 2018? What was your biggest learning?
That’s a really good question because I think one of the things that I struggled with going into Depop was that I suddenly realised that I couldn’t do everything myself. I was so used to just getting stuck in and if there were problems with engineering or design, I could always go and have a chat with them one-on-one and figure it out or do things myself.
And suddenly I was working indirectly through the product managers and I had to coach them or encourage them to do the things that I felt needed to be done. I was often doing that with just the information they told me, which often wasn’t a complete picture.
But what I realised over time was that setting really clear expectations about what I wanted helped. So if we talked about creating a customer journey map, then having an example of what good looked like was incredibly powerful.
And being able to say, hey, I think we should be doing this, and then giving someone an example, this is the way it should look like and talking through how to get it there. That was how we started to really change things. You could see it in the PMs as well. I transformed as well over the time period that I was there and got so much better as PM.
If you could give yourself one piece of advice back when you were young, what would it be?
I got into product quite early in a way, but I think it really took me a surprising amount of time to get into the tech industry itself, because I didn’t think I was technical and I didn’t know how to code. Actually, I should have just done it a lot earlier.
Then similarly, when I’d been a product manager for 4 or 5 years , I had some ideas of things I wanted to build and was trying to convince some engineers to code them for me. And one of the engineers just turned to me and said, why don’t you just build this yourself?
As a result, I went and taught myself to code and it actually wasn’t that difficult. And I was just like, oh, I’ve put this off like five or six years. Why did I do that? I should have just done this a lot earlier. So I think going and just getting involved, jumping head first in is definitely something to do.
The other thing I’d say is be intentional about building a career, go work for the best companies. It’s important that you have a reason for at particular places, as much as possible. If the job market’s tight, you might not have all the choices you want, but do what you can to take the best possible jobs and work with the best people because that will pay dividends long-term.
On learning how to code
This point you’re making about not being afraid to learn how to code is really interesting. I know that lots of people in product management are quite nervous about this topic. Do you have anything to say on it or any words of encouragement for anyone who’s been sitting on the fence like you for a while and is wondering if they should go off and do a quick course?
There’s a lot of great tools, free tools, free programs out there you can do at the moment. When I started learning to code, again, it was an engineer who gave me a real insight into how to succeed. He said to me, you need to find your Pong project. I was like, what are you talking about?
He was French, so I didn’t know if it was a language thing. But he explained, no, no, you know, the game Pong, you know, the table tennis site game where you have your paddle and you just bounce a ball back and forward on the screen. It was one of the earliest games ever created because it’s simple. But if you can learn to code that, then actually you’ve broken through this wall of mystique and you’re like, oh, I can code, I can make things.
I think that’s true for everyone. You just pick something really, really simple and maybe something that you can code in a weekend or a week. But go and build it because once you’ve actually seen that you can do that, then you’ll be awoken to the possibilities and feel that you’re empowered to go and learn more.
Top piece of management advice
Final question: What mantra do you wind up repeating to your teams?
One of my favourites is “process as an accelerator”.
Often as a product leader, you’re asking your teams to do a check-in slightly differently or fill in a spreadsheet or whatever, and almost always you get some pushback, partly because people don’t like change and partly because they see admin as overhead.
My response is always something on the lines of “process as an accelerator”. We put process in place not to get in people’s way, but actually to accelerate them. Generally what you’re doing is you’re saying, Hey, you need to take a little bit of upfront investment, and what we’re going to do is we’re going to prevent you from making really costly mistakes further down the line.
When you write a PRD, that can seem like a lot of work, but it’s a lot less work than building a feature that doesn’t work or it doesn’t have buy-in from across the organisation. When I’m building processes, I always have that in mind. I’m building something that needs to accelerate the teams as much as possible. And so I design the processes to do that. I don’t design a process to work for its own purpose.
Hustle Badger Resources
What is Ed Biden’s definition of product strategy?
A product strategy is a response to a challenge or problem. It outlines what you will work on and why, and is a particularly effective action plan because the work selected is both high impact and mutually reinforcing.