I’ve always been the CTO in my startups. Even when I was the sole founder and no actual title made sense, I still acted like I only had the CTO role.
I’ve never been a “real” CEO and done “CEO things”. I’m not good at selling and I’ve always been a better operator than a strategic thinker. Give me any operational challenge and I’ll outwork you any day, which has always worked out really well for me.
However, now my situation is changing. 2.5 Years ago my co-founder and I started Likvido. Over the last 2.5 years, we’ve gone from founding a ‘digital debt collection company’ to pivoting into being an essential software for thousands of companies. Today we’re a tool that automates everything around the ‘order-to-cash’ process, and the product we’re building over the next 1-2 years just makes me so crazy excited. Having this product if you’re a company selling on credit is like having superpowers.
Today we’re around 30 employees in Likvido, we’re growing fast, we have a high NPS and things are looking really bright. Of course, some things are not doing well, and yes, I have days where I just want to scream at everybody but instead behave and drink a coke zero – but generally, we’re doing really well and things are moving in the right direction.
In this post, I’ll talk about my journey from being a co-founder CTO and my move to being responsible for the product as a de-facto ‘head of product’ / CPO.
When things go well, you also have to scale if you’re running a venture-backed business. At the end of 2019 we started to face some serious challenges at Likvido:
- We kept shipping features without must user engagement or satisfaction. The features were good but lacked essential details
- Our application was pretty buggy and didn’t perform so well
- We had absolutely no strategy or plan for what should happen to the product in the mid-term. We had a really strong vision for the company and enough to really get lots of interests from investors and multiple term-sheets, but not much certainty about how to implement the vision
It was extremely frustrating. Half a year before this I was sitting in the support “department” answering tickets and calls while building many parts of the product myself. Suddenly, I didn’t understand users and lost control of many things. I was too busy to micro-manage the details around features, and too many bad things got live.
In the due diligence process of our latest funding round, we had a tech review by a guy called Ole Dallerup from Dreamdata.io. He kept saying two things:
We need a VP of engineering and we need someone senior to work with product management. We still passed the due diligence, but he strongly recommended some changes after the investment.
After personally denying Ole’s ridiculous idea for two weeks, I realized it was so damn correct and it was essential:
– We now had a growing development team of 6 people and a lot of freelancers.
– We had a very stressful process where I was the bottleneck around releasing new code, architecture & testing everything
And even worse: we had no people really working with the product! We had a really great german guy on the team who was a UX’er/designer/product manager-mix, but he had an absolutely impossible role while also being remote. He did his best, but objectively I feel we failed.
I decided to go ahead with the plan: find a VP of engineering, and focus on the product myself. And that was when I got lucky: I asked Ole for some recommendations for a VP of engineering role.
I got 2 recommendations. I wrote one of them. His current employer had just gone bankrupt. We hired Søren right away. IT recruiting is super easy, barely an inconvenience, apparently.
Enter a new role
Søren started, and suddenly I went from having 7 1:1’s to 2. Of course, onboarding any VP is not easy. The first 1-2 months I was heavily involved in everything still, but week after week, Søren changed small things.
Suddenly Søren started uninviting me from weekly meetings. Suddenly bugs just started solving themselves. Suddenly we got a new issue tracker system. Suddenly developers were responsible for their own quality and no one was a gatekeeper of new features. Suddenly everything just started working much better. And the wildest thing is that these improvements has just continued and still do.
I have to admit, I was a bit frustrated the first 1-2 months. Søren didn’t code much! Come on, a VP of engineering should code 90% of the time, right? I slowly came to realize I was an idiot. I didn’t hire Søren to code. I didn’t hire Søren to move the current features ahead. I hired Søren to fix a pretty broken process and to make the right technical decisions looking ahead. The moment I started accepting that, things just going really, really smooth. Hiring Søren is easily one of the best decisions I’ve made in Likvido.
And Søren? I mean… I couldn’t spend a full workweek managing him. So, that meant I suddenly had to do something else. While I strongly considered going full-time watching Netflix, I decided to jump into the ‘head of product’ role while still having my CTO title.
I wanted to attack this new role from every possible angle. That’s why I:
- Bought all the top-rated books around product management (shout out to Marty Cagan!)
- Bought the top 2 video courses in Udemy
- Asked Ole Dallerup to be my mentor to help with the transformation
And then followed by digging into our customers. Coming from the technical background I knew I had a bias towards just trusting data and spending days in analytics tools, so I made myself a promise that had to wait. Instead, I made it my #1 task to talk to customers.
That means I took every opportunity. I asked our support team to give me any ticket that was complicated, our sales team for any lost deal and I just grabbed any chance. I talked to at least 2-3 customers per day and tried to have general conversations.
My #1 biggest surprise, was how happy the majority of our customers were. Sitting as the CTO you get all the shit-support-tickets. You get all the situations where the product fucked up and did something crazy. You get all the times where support gives up. When that’s the only thing you hear? Then you really bad vibes. I honestly had some kind of impression a large portion of our customers hated us.
Instead? People were generally really happy. I kept hearing the stories of how much time we saved & improved cash flow. Even when we fucked up, most just said: “You guys are amazing. Keep up the good job!”.
That was when I learned: the product team is also responsible for being a product evangelist inside a startup… At least until you get a product marketing role.
4 Things I’ve learned the last 4-5 months
Now, I’ve been on the journey for the last 4-5 months. Here are some fun take-aways:
Strategic vs operational
When you run a startup, you have to always consider the 3 levels:
Personally, I’ve always been much stronger on the operations side than the strategic side. Being a CTO at a startup that just launched is 100% an operational job. You need to get some code out, and it better be fast. As you grow, it becomes more tactical as you have to think about the right architecture. But there is a long time before the CTO role really becomes strategic in a startup.
Working with product on the other hand? That’s much more strategic from day 1. Of course, you have to deliver great specifications that have conceptually been verified by customers (operational), and you have to make the features in the right order (tactics) – but are you building the right product? That question comes up very fast.
When a customer tells you: “Hey, we have this pain” – you’re forced to think about where the product is headed. And that’s when you suddenly have to be strategic: what product are we really building?
Making a product strategy is hard work. I’ve spent tons of hours talking to customers, potential partners, competitors. I’ve spent tons of hours reading market analysis reports and trying to understand the landscape of competitors we’re actually in from a high-level perspective. We’re now finishing our first version of the product strategy, and then my job will be to continuously improve and change it as we learn more.
The more books I read, the more I realized that another huge mistake we made was just making a feature without understanding the underlying pain. I heard about the pain from sales or support, and then I would sit down and make a long document describing what we wanted to build.
Instead, what I learned to do were simple things like:
- Talk to the customer and keep asking “why?”. I really wanted to understand the pain
- Make mockups and show them to employees or customers and get feedback
- Have open interviews about our product to understand what the customer liked and didn’t
For anyone with product management experience, this, of course, seems like “doh, of course!” – but coming from the CTO world this really opened up my eyes.
We need a team
Very quickly, I realized how much there is to do in my new product role. Everything from:
- Making sure we always build the right things, in the right order and in the right quality
- Build proper data around every metric we need to follow
- Talk to customers and perform interviews
- Be the product evangelist inside the company
- Test new features
- Make small prototypes to test different solutions before we start implementing
- … oh, and this list, could be brutally long
That’s when I also realized I need more people. That’s why we’re now hiring an ‘Associate product manager’ and a ‘Web designer’ to join the product team. These roles will be essential in order to do proper product management and strategy.
Having a product specialist is unrealistic
Likvido is still a quite new company and especially our internal admin tooling is pretty immature. That means we focus a lot on building the customer experience and options, but very little on internal tooling. That means support often have to give up on tickets and has to deliver that to someone.
In most companies, you will have some kind of “product specialist” who is a magician that can take all the tickets where support gives up. That’s the person that is the bridge between support and product.
However, in a startup like ours: such a person doesn’t exist. Even worse, even if I wanted to hire this person: it would be impossible! Today that person would need to be a great developer mixed with a great supporter, as the internal tooling is non-existing and nearly everything is pretty undocumented.
That also means that all of these ‘failed support answers’ end up in the product team (= me). That has been a pretty harsh reality, as I really wanted to get out of the day-to-day grind to have time for all the other tasks I had to do. However, I soon learned that this was a completely wrong way to look at it. All failed support tickets is either:
- Support was not trained properly (= lacking documentation or training)
- Bad product (=bugs / bad UX)
- A feature we didn’t have (=customer call!)
This is why I’m really happy with this role now and really want to keep it for a long time.
Looking ahead: what’s next!
If I made a job-ad searching for a ‘senior product manager’, I would look for at least 3-5 years of experience in a role. Looking at myself, I soon have 4-5 months of experience. I would not hire myself. If I was lucky I could get an associate product manager role.
But I have the role. And I’m not only the “senior product manager” – I’m defacto the CPO and the VP of Product, while still being the CTO. Luckily all those titles mean very little to nothing in startup land with 30 employees, but it does imply I have to grow – fast.
This doesn’t scare me, however. What makes being a co-founder special, is you have to grow constantly – and fast. If I don’t manage to grow and succeed in this role, I don’t have a job. That’s also why I take it extremely serious to learn this craft very fast.
To continue this journey, my plan is to:
- I’m participating in the ReForge Product Strategy course in the fall, which apparently is the best course you can buy for the money in product management/strategy
- Change my default podcast shows and find the best product podcasts instead of what I listen to today
- Find strategic product person as my mentor
- Keep reading books about product management & watch online courses
- Grow Likvido towards a series A, and start hiring senior product managers I can learn from
- Hire people around me to help with operations, so I can focus more on product management
All while living the job. Being a co-founder means you have cheat-codes as well. Being a co-founder also means you understand the company vision very well, plus I have so many small details that take years to learn for newcomers.
That being said, I really, really enjoy this change. Being responsible for the direction all the way to actually making sure we build a feature the right way, is absolutely amazing.
Even more amazing is it to hear the user stories of how much we both increased companies’ cash flow and saved time.
Wish me luck 🙂