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What it Takes to Build the Right Product Team, with Marty Cagan

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What does it take to build a great product team? How do you build a team driven by product culture? What makes a successful product manager?

When you’re starting out, you may be overwhelmed by the “requirements” of building a great product company: Geography, maturity of the market, product expertise, and more. But according to Marty Cagan, product leader and founder of Silicon Valley Product Group, those other requirements don’t matter. He looks for a handful of critical things that are his telltale signs of a successful team.

Marty has spent over 35 years working with successful product companies. He has held executive product positions at Hewlett-Packard, Netscape Communications, and eBay. In his experience, there are a few consistent things he has recognized in the strongest teams: They have a qualified founder, they have product culture within their organization, and they have product managers that understand their responsibilities.

But what does it take to be a qualified founder, or a real product manager, or practice product culture? Marty Cagan answers these questions and more in his interview on the Better Product Podcast, and gives context to what it takes to build the right product team.

What is a qualified founder?

It is no secret that starting a company is risky: Nine out of ten startups fail. But when you’re in the business of picking out the one in ten, you start noticing some winning patterns, and Marty Cagan has recognized what it means to be a qualified founder. As Marty explains, “One of the things we say is, good product people know what they can't know and admit what they don't know.”

“Good product people know what they can't know and admit what they don't know.”

Qualified founders don’t come from one background or one specific field. Often times, they are learning along the way, like everyone else. They know what problem they want to solve, but have to learn how to create it, market it, and sell it.

Qualified founders recognize their strengths and surround themselves with people who fill the right gaps. A founder of a product company doesn’t need a technical product background if they have the right ingredients, like finding a cofounder who contributes the technical knowledge, or finding the right outside partners.

According to Marty, "One of the characteristics of really good leaders is that they always are trying to learn from the best in their field, whatever field that is." The most qualified founders admit what they don’t know, and are always seeking to learn from those who have done well before them, and feel a constant curiosity to improve. They don't just want to hear success stories like those of Netflix and Amazon, they want to learn from them.

What is product culture?

There are plenty of buzz words used to describe product teams, but there is one thing that Marty always looks for in startups: product culture that permeates throughout the entire team, from executives to engineers and designers. According to Marty, “It's one of those things actually takes a long time to explain but is easily recognized inside of ten minutes.” While product culture doesn’t have a clear cut definition, it is so important because it represents a fundamentally different perspective of the responsibilities of the product team.

When teams practice product culture, their purpose is to focus on serving customers in a way that works for the business. In the “old world,” the purpose was to serve the business interests first, above all else. Decisions were made, features were prioritized, and customers were served according to business impact, rather than value added. Product cultures creates a new customer-focused perspective that establishes a fundamentally different culture. As Marty explains, “It creates teams of missionaries, not teams of mercenaries.”

When teams practice product culture, their purpose is to focus on serving customers in a way that works for the business.

What are the responsibilities of a product manager?

Marty Cagan is constantly looking for organizations that follow product culture practices, and one way that he recognizes this is through what he refers to as “real product managers,” rather than just “product owners." As he explains, product management is a really challenging role, because “even people who are capable of doing it often don't want to do it because it's so much work, so much effort.”

There is a small number of “real” product managers and a huge number who don’t even know what a good product manager looks like, because product management isn't something taught in a classroom; it is learned on the job. But without a real product manager to pass on the skills, it is the blind leading the blind.

“Real” product managers have four main responsibilities that impact the entire organization. Those four responsibilities are:

  • The deepest understanding of the customer, their pains, their goals, and the way they make decisions.
  • Deep knowledge of the data, such as how are customers using the product, along with web analytics, sales analytics, and more.
  • Deep knowledge of industry, such as the market landscape, trends, and competitors.
  • Deep knowledge of your own business, down to how product is financed, how it makes money, how it is marketed, how it is sold, and more.

The rest of the product team is relying on product managers to bring this knowledge to the table, because product managers are responsible for ensuring that the product serves both the customer and the business. Without a “real” product manager these gaps remain empty, and the team responsible for bringing the product to life is lacking crucial knowledge and context necessary to make the right decisions.


Building a startup comes with a laundry list of challenges, but without the right foundation for your product team how can any company expect to succeed? A strong foundation comes from a qualified founder, a well-engrained product culture that puts customers first, and strong product management that ensures you’re making the right decisions for the customer and for the business. With the right foundation, you can build a product team that will support change and deliver solutions that both deliver value to customers and work for your business.

To hear more from Marty Cagan, tune in to his full interview on the Better Product Podcast.

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