5 Habits of Successful Product Teams

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Why some products click and others don’t is an eternal question

While a lot of factors go into determining a product’s success, team building ranks right at the top. 

Coming up with an idea is one thing, building it into a full-fledged product with great customer adoption is an entirely different ball game. And a strong product team is at the core of making it happen. Such a team is built on the foundation of shared habits and a deep-rooted culture. Successful product teams are creatures of habit. 

We, at Accel, have tried to decode these habits with Sudheendra Chilappagari, who held product and marketing leadership roles at Segment and was also the co-founder and head of product at Belong.

What follows is his guide to the 5 habits he thinks successful product teams need to have, adapted from a session he took for us at Accel.

Over to him:

1. Seek clarity from ambiguity

It is important for product teams to drill down to the basics of their product. While it may seem basic, a lot of teams build products on a lot of assumptions. Some key questions to be asked are:

  • Why are we building this product
  • Who is the customer
  • What is their problem
  • How does the potential solution look like
  • When can we ship the MVP

These aren’t philosophical questions. One has to answer these in the most practical terms possible.

  • Why are we building this product - goal, eg- new ARR/ retention
  • Who is the customer - company, role, size, market, industry
  • What is their problem - have you spoken to customers who have actually told you that they have the problem that your hypothesis focuses on
  • How does the potential solution look like - Plan to reach the goal- V1,V2, V3
  • When can we ship the MVP - nuts and bolts of the execution plan- timelines, DRIs

To put it in Sudheendra’s words, “Being a PM is (like)..if your engineers want to drive a Ferrari, how do you make sure there are no speed bumps. It is by creating super clarity.”

This ‘clarity’ helps every team--sales, marketing, product--to be on the same page. Each of these insights helps different teams understand what they should each do to get to the common goal. 

2. Set OKRs to drive alignment and performance

OKR setting is of utmost importance to product teams.

People are often confused between objectives and key results. Let us take the example of an American football team. The objective of the GM is to make money for the owners and the key results are to win the super bowl. The objective of the head coach is to win the super bowl while the objective of the public relations head is to hire interesting players and highlight key players, so on and so forth. 

The point being, the OKR setting starts right from the top. Clearly defining OKRs aligns everyone. Every person contributes to the larger goal and gets the much needed visibility to see how they are contributing to the company’s goals. 

The beauty of OKR is once everyone is aligned, you can incentivize and hold each other accountable.

According to Sudheendra, one of the most important outcomes of the OKR setting exercise is that it helps you say no to other things.

3. Create a short, medium and long term product roadmap

The roadmap helps lay down the vision and direction for the product. While it might be enticing to talk about the grand vision, it is very important to break it down to achievable targets that will, over a period of time, take you to the grand vision.

Intercom, a leading SaaS company that builds ‘Engagement OS’, breaks down its product roadmap into six weeks, six months and six years plans. Doing this helps them in various ways:

  • Six weeks - Stay focused on execution. Who is shipping what, who is the DRI, what is x,y,z person working on? How to unblock everyone, etc. Every two weeks, you should have a plan for the next six weeks. 
  • Six months - Pick top two or three priorities, say, top of the funnel for the first two months and decide what the impact should be. The next two months you can focus on customer retention and so on. This will help you get your six weeks plan in line too.  
  • Six years - This is where the big picture comes in. This is the place for your inspirational vision statement. This will be the goal that everyone aspires to attain, week after week, month after month, year after year. This vision is what you tell your hires, your investors, your competition et al. 

The whole exercise helps individuals and teams prioritise better. Ruthless prioritisation is about great ideas over good, as Sudheendra says. 

4. Consistently ship value and not just code

One of the mistakes product teams do is think of deliverables as lines of code. While that is true, the code one writes should add value to the customer and solve a pain point. Product teams should attune themselves to think in these terms.

Teams must also rethink big bang product launches. It might seem like a thing to do, but is it really? You must think of progress in terms of metrics, customer values, communication between teams etc. Iterative launch helps product teams get to their vision better. 

Sudheendra shared an example from his Belong days to drive home the point. He spoke about how they iteratively shipped a search algorithm they had built and how that resulted in the movement of metrics.  

“Why don’t we ship this search algorithm just for PM, then for backend engineers and then frontend engineers. Then the metrics moved. We did not compromise on speed or quality. Everytime you approve a pull request, think if your team is just shipping code or adding value,” he says.

5. Great teams stay close to the customer

In today’s remote world era, there is no reason for you to not talk to customers. Everyone is a Zoom or Gmeet call away. 

One of Sudheendra’s key suggestions is that everyone on the team must do support. It is important for team members to talk to customers and understand their perspectives and pain points. 

With the availability of a variety of session recording tools, one can dive in-depth into conversations to uncover gems that could help with product roadmap, adoption etc. Also, team members can listen in on sales calls to get an idea of what sort of messaging works better, features that customers expect, how creatively (or not) they are using the product, etc. 

All of these insights are invaluable and will help product teams see the impact of their work.

And finally, two tips from Sudheendra that add to the above 5:

Do things that don’t scale

Sudheendra recounts a campaign from his Belong days. 

“We came up with a lot of product ideas, but they would take a longer time horizon to execute. So, we thought what are some of the hacks we could do to increase adoption. During that time we were having the IPL and people used to wake up and look at the IPL leaderboard. So, we thought why not have something like that inside our product and let customers compete with each other,” said Sudheendra. 

“We were building a recruiting focused product and metrics are standardised across orgs. Why don’t we see who is doing well on PM hiring and so on. We launched the outbound hiring league. It became very popular and increased adoption.”

This might seem like a one-time effort which cannot be scaled. But one must instead measure the impact of the idea.

Practice Radical Candor

Culture is everything. 

The ideal culture is one where each team member cares about the other but is also open to debating and challenging ideas. Product teams must internalise this and have open chats without personally attacking anyone. 

The other thing that works is to have cross-functional two-way feedback calls. It can be expanded to a team-level too. Product teams must always think about practices that should be stopped, started and continued. 

This way the team is always learning, iterating and getting better.

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