Gibson: My name's Gib Biddle, and the last three years of my life I focus on teaching, coaching, and mentoring product leaders.
Suzanne: You've done this a little bit, this product management thing.
Gibson: I've done it probably getting suspiciously close to three decades.
Suzanne: That's it, huh, just three casual decades of product management. All right, so hopefully we're going to learn something. What was your first product management role? Do you remember?
Gibson: I do. I had joined Electronic Arts in marketing and then I was enamored of building stuff and I saw all these producers building stuff. So I said, "Hey, can I switch over to there?" At the time I was the director of marketing at Electronic Arts, and they said, "Okay." There was a debate on whether I would be an assistant producer or an associate producer, and they went with associate, which is a little higher up the food chain, but it was a great environment, it was very structured. Half of our development was internal, half was external, and because of that they taught us step-by-step how to build stuff, how to handle legal contracts, all sorts wild stuff. It was a great opportunity to learn.
Suzanne: I'm surprised they let you cross over so willingly, especially if you were in a direct position. There wasn't any resistance, like, "Please, no, who's going to help sell our products?"
Gibson: You know at the time, Electronic Arts was a product oriented company so I think they valued building stuff a little bit more than the marketing of stuff, and most of the producers were coming up through really customer support, they were answering the calls of bang, bang shoot 'em up folks, who were calling in because something was broken and they couldn't get to the next level. I think they were mainly curious.
I had a very different background. At the time I had an MBA, I demonstrated that I was highly creative, and frankly for them it was just an experiment, and it worked.
Suzanne: Right. Is it essential, you talk a lot about what does a product manager need to have as a skill or quality versus what are the nice to haves. The how technical does a product manager need to be debate. And I've heard this before, customer success is a great pivot into product because you're already oriented toward hearing for customers, but what about the marketing skill set, I mean how important is that for a product manager in today's landscape?
Gibson: Yeah, so certainly, I sort of look for seven technical skills of a product leader, and one of them is marketing. The idea there, and the advantage I had was I could package and position ideas in ways that resonated with customers. For instance, my first hit product was called, "Sesame Street Elmo's Preschool." It was for three and four year old kids. The packaging and positioning was a full preschool curriculum for your child and that didn't really exist at the time. And then of course the brand of Elmo, and the good luck of Tickle Me Elmo being thrown onto the stage by Oprah Winfrey that Christmas, making it one of those hard to get toys.
Suzanne: I remember that season.
Gibson: Yeah. How old were you Suzanne?
Suzanne: Oh God, don't make me do this on the air, please. You've been in product management three decades, you started in Electronic Arts, I won't make you date yourself to when that was, but when was your first leadership role? How long were you in the trenches as a PM, or associate PM before you got a director title?
Gibson: Yeah, there's two questions there, when did I get a director title, and when did I think of myself as a leader?
Gibson: So I've always thought of myself as a leader. So my first job out of college was in the mail room at McCann Erickson. And that was an ad agency in San Francisco, it was highly creative. I did it, because I wanted to engage and eventually be a creative or account executive. I think that's what they called them. In the mail room I started the McCann Scan, which was an internal newsletter, or McCann Erickson, so I was always demonstrating my leadership skill throughout all of my career. The first time director, gosh, I think I was hired into Electronic Arts as a director of marketing, and then I got pushed down a couple of rungs when I made my transition over into product. But the same thing, I spend nine months trying to sign a long term exclusive with Sesame Street the brand and working with Children's Television Workshop. It didn't matter that I was an Associate Product Manager. I was just focused on what I thought needed to be done to help build successful software.
Suzanne: What changes, in product specifically, what changes when you go from product manager to director of product or VP of product in terms of what you're managing, what you're concerned about?
Gibson: I have sort of a career ladder in my head. If you love to build stuff, and I love to build stuff, at the beginning the question is can you build something? The first something I ever built was called Sesame Street Counting Café on a Sega Genesis, it sold 300 units, but I demonstrated I could build something and I worked with engineers and designers to do that, some music folks as well. And then the next step, can you build something successful and that was almost preschool. The next step is can you build an organization. Can you hire folks, I started spending a day and a half per week just hiring and recruiting and developing teams, and the next step is can you build a company so I've helped build a lot of companies at this point. Creative Wonders was that startup, Learning Company, Mattel, Netflix, Chegg, and then the last step on that ladder is can you build an industry, which sounds absurd. I was always like, what's bigger. I used to call it building a city, that sounded cool. The industry happened in Netflix where we invented this idea of internet TV.
So each of those rungs of the ladder, they're very logical, you can pursue them, and frankly not everybody likes going up the ladder, and not everybody has the skills. But along the way, the leadership skills that we're developing, I was developing, certainly by about stage three when you're leading an organization you learn about the importance of leadership, but of helping to provide through a shared mission or vision or product vision or strategy, getting everybody pointed in the same direction, you learn the power of being clear in your communication of repeating constantly. I call it lather, rinse repeat, because that's what it takes to get everybody thinking about issues the same way in the building.
I learned a lot about strategy. That is what helps people understand what to build and what not to build. And then I learned the importance of culture. Culture is awesome because with culture nobody really needs to talk to anybody. If the culture of a company is understood, people make great decisions without talking to folks, and the process is sort of evil for creative institutions, so you're trying to minimize it. So culture is one of those ways that you can help people make great decisions without process. Those are all things I learned in that organizational juncture.
Suzanne: You alluded earlier to marketing as being one of those skills that you look for when you're assessing a product leader. You've written a lot about getting to product leadership, you've spoken about getting to product leadership, for our listeners if I'm somebody who's wanting to make that move, I think I'm ready. You're my director, or you're my decision maker and I'm coming in. Take us through how you're auditing me to assess whether I'm capable.
Gibson: Sure, well, you've got listeners out there right now, I'm going to pretend to interview them. So I'm going to scratch on a whiteboard seven different ideas. And the first one is technical, and those are technical skills. Management, and I'll define that as light process to deliver results, largely early in career it's strong communication. Your creative skills. Are you creative? Do you think and care about business? Marketing, we've talked about, how do you package and position ideas? And then design. Could you work well with designers? Do you understand how important it is to have simple design on an iPhone for instance? And then the last, I call it consumer science, but that's the ability to sift through data. It’s ability later in your career to A/B test and help design, execute, and analyze A/B test results.
I'll have those seven words on the whiteboard, this is really before I describe to somebody what the job is. I'll just ask them to force rank them. And there's no one answer or right answer to what your skills as a product manager are. I'll give you me. I'm super light technically. I was the English major. I happened to take a couple of programming courses. I'm super strong on the marketing because that's where I came from. I'm super strong on the business, and I'm quite strong on the consumer science. So that's me. If you were looking for somebody, if a company wanted me to be a product leader in AR and virtual reality, I'd probably be a stinky candidate because I don't have the technical chops. I describe those as the technical skills of a product leader.
And the main thing is to reflect on where you're strong and where you're weak. And then on that interview, if they said they were wicked strong on creative skills, I'd just say tell me about something you build. If they told me that weekend they had done a dinner party for 12 where they had built a treehouse, or they created an arts and craft project with their six year old kid, that was showing the structure of the universe. These are all examples of the kind of work that creative people do.
Suzanne: What do you give up when you move into product leadership and away from the more tactical day to day of managing product?
Gibson: I'd love to say nothing.
Suzanne: You'd be the first to say that.
Gibson: Yeah. What you give up is you don't feel as close to the details, you don't feel the one on one sort of close to the work pride in doing the work, but what replaces it is helping to build wonderfully successful product leaders in organizations, and take the joy and pride in that. And for me, I'm clearly a people oriented person. I care a lot about management. I care a lot about helping people to advance in their careers, so that joy of helping other product leaders to become great leaders, makes up for the lack of the hands on stuff. And there's a lot of transitions in your career as you give up those details if you will, and then just learning to let go of your high need for control and order, and realize that your job is to help set the course, to set strategy or product vision or any of those component things that lets the whole organization understand what's important and what's not.
Suzanne: In your long list of impressive places that you've been and made an impact, you sort of jammed Netflix in there, but I want to talk about that, because of course we're not in Los Angeles right now, we're in Australia, but we're both living and working out of California, a lot of our listeners are out of California and Netflix is one of those great west coast brands that is giving people juice, especially in the L.A. market. When were you there? What did Netflix look like when you started? What was it when you left? Tell us a little bit about that slice of time.
Gibson: Sure. I want to back up. I want to nicely point out that I had lots of failures in my career.
Gibson: It's about 50/50, right? This is a creative industry, it's hard to be creative, it's hard to be right all the time, so yes, the things that you find in my LinkedIn profile, are the things I want to be remembered.
Suzanne: This is very helpful. A whole collective sigh of relief listening in.
Gibson: I want that to be felt. I talked about the first thing I ever built, selling 300 units when it cost $300,000 to build, that’s not a success. I did a startup called FamilyWonder.com, it was a place to go if you're looking for something fun to do with your kids or to buy. We actually had a positive outcome, but the company is very dead today. I actually tried to do a project for folks with dyslexia, it was a neuro science oriented thing, and discovered six months in that was not possible. The trick is forgetting all these failures.
All right, so Netflix. I joined in 2005 as VP of Product. There were a trail of dead bodies before I showed up. The average tenure in that role is about six months. I spent a lot of time understanding why. There was something north of a million subscribers. It was a DVD by mail service. In January of 2007 we launched streaming with 300 stinky titles that no one’s ever heard of.
Suzanne: They're still in the Canadian Netflix library.
Gibson: Yeah, probably. And then when I left, around 2010 it was approaching 20 million members. So rapid period of growth, streaming was well substantiated, and then the company was beginning to go international. And that gives you some insight into what I'm good at. I look for startups with a proof of concept that are ready to scale and then I help them to grow. And then at some point, I'm not the right person, I certainly would not have been the right person to take Netflix from 20 million members to 130 million, which is they are today. I have the good luck to have taken statistics in business school, but today I'm sure the product leaders in the building have got masters in statistics.
So my next startup was called Chegg, it's a textbook rental company. Same thing, it was startup with a proof of concept that was ready to scale and I scaled it and helped to take it public in 2013 and then stop working for direct deposit in 2015.
Suzanne: I want to go back, because you're probably well outside of NDA now so you can freely share why there were so many dead bodies piling up at Netflix when you joined all those moons ago.
Gibson: Oh you want to know-
Suzanne: Yeah, I mean I want to know because you talk about culture, right?
Gibson: Yeah, yeah, I was a little concerned about why no one had been successful as a VP of Product at Netflix. The answer was the startup team was very much a startup team, and what he was trying to build, Reed Hastings the CEO, was this environment of consumer science. So it was super important to him to build the A/B test infrastructure to help everybody understand how to design and execute A/B test and he wanted it to be a cultured environment of consumer science. The startup team wasn't that into that. And they saw all the work of having to create multiple versions of a site, including the previous leaders. When I understood that the key thing was to build that environment of consumer science and create an environment where it can quickly test and learn, that was the key delta.
To your broader question around Netflix, Netflix the culture deck is widely read and it really is true. But the casual observer was scared off by a number of things in the old days it used to say something like good performance gets a generous severance. It's no longer that crazy. But the fundamental idea was that we were working on hard problems with bright people and that was going to be really motivating for folks, and all of that turned out to be true.
If you look at the people who worked for Reed over 20 years at Netflix, it almost looks like three or four different teams. It was a startup team, it was a scaling team, there was an international team, and then today it's an original content team. It really just points to the idea that as companies grow, they have different needs. Just like as humans grow they have different needs. And that was very healthy.
The other thing at Netflix was the model was professional sports team, so there's no idea on a professional sports team that the quarterback's going to exist for 30 years. Five or 10 years tops.
Suzanne: So someone takes them out on the field.
Gibson: Yeah, see there were injuries at Netflix occasionally.
Suzanne: You give a great talk all about customer obsession at Netflix and some of our listeners may not have encountered that talk before, can you share with us some of the key points from that?
Gibson: Sure. Customer obsession means putting customers at the center of everything you do, and the idea is to delight customers in these hard to copy margin enhancing ways where you're inventing a future for them, but the cool thing is if you invent a hard to copy future you'll find yourself without competitors. Earlier in my career I was all about customer focus and that's meant staying focused on the competition. I would literally have a picture of my competitor on my desk at Electronic Arts. It meant satisfying your customers, it meant creating margin. Build a business. And then customer obsession is all about just taking it one step further, but not worrying so much about the composition and worrying much more about the invention of these hard to copy things that will delight people.
So that talk, I'll just do some surprises for you. I largely talk about the growth of personalization at Netflix. I just nicely point out how hard it is to be right about any number of questions and issues, and that's why A/B testing is so helpful. I really challenge people's intuition. Are you a Netflix member?
Suzanne: I am.
Gibson: Yeah. So the idea was to connect you with movies that you love. From time to time do you find movies that you love?
Suzanne: Less and less. We're just talking about jobs to be done previously, and we're at that strange point where it's like someone's got to come along and solve the problem for the fact that most of my night is spent doing ... Netflix disrupted the Blockbuster experience. Imagine, people don't want to spend their Friday night wandering around the halls of Blockbuster. Bring the entertainment to them. Now it's like, "Can I flick the control for a little bit and see if there's a show I want to watch?" And then two hours goes by and it's-
Gibson: Well, okay so let's just get into the metrics of that. 10 years ago customers would look at about 200 pieces of box art before they decided what they want. Today it's about 40. So you'll look at about 40 pieces of box art before you click on something. The dream state is 10 years from now there will be something automatically playing and that's the thing that you love. That's the logical extension of creating these wonderfully personalized experiences.
Learning what works and what doesn't with consumers is really hard. I'll just give you a couple of quickies. Do you think it helps Netflix to know your age and gender? Do you think that's helpful data or not?
Suzanne: My mind goes to two places.
Gibson: Yes and no.
Suzanne: The traditional mind goes to yes, but I think no, why should that matter?
Gibson: That's the right instinct. And I'm guessing that most of the folks that are listening right now are saying, "Of course it's helpful to know a person's age and gender." It doesn't help, which is astounding. Movie tastes are so wonderfully unique. I'll give you another question, when Netflix launched into France, is it helpful to know that you live in France and that you are French in trying to guess what movies that you'll love when you watch it on the service?
Suzanne: My mind goes to yes.
Gibson: It goes to yes. Yeah, and the answer is no, it's not helpful. Again, these movie tastes are just wonderfully unique. And so these are just some of the things that you trip over, and the only way to learn this is through testing and looking at the data. I'll give you another one, it's super important-
Suzanne: I'm starting to get nervous by the way, but go on.
Gibson: No, no, the experience I have with the audience is they start not trusting their instincts. Like I think the answer is yes, but I'll say no.
Suzanne: You set our entire audience back five years. They listen to this show because it gives them confidence and now I'm going to get a bunch of emails saying, "I don't think you should invite Gib back."
Gibson: That's fun, no, that's not fun, that would be very sad. What I want folks to say is, "Gosh, this idea of consumer science, or better living through math, or getting insights through A/B testing is way cool." And that's the takeaway. My next question, a design principle, it's really important to keep things simple for customers. Netflix doesn't want to get in the way of your entertainment experience. It's also important that that experience is consistent. You don't want to be moving the design features all over the place. That would stink, but here's the head scratcher. Netflix can create a wonderfully personalized design experience, so think about the rows that pop up. You likely have a row, first row is probably continue watching, the next one will be top 10 movies for Suzanne, and then the third one might be movies from your watch list. That's a good experience, but the real question is, should it actually be a personalized design experience, so it's different every time you come back, it's different on your iPhone versus different on your Blu-ray player. It's different if you have different members in the household. And this was the test. Should Netflix have a very consistent experience? The rows are always the same? Or should it have a wildly different one based on their best guess about what are the right rows to present at what time of day for each individual on each platform? Do you go with the let's keep it simple and consistent, or let's create a wildly personalized experience? Which one would you favor?
Suzanne: Speaking from my personal experience, I want the consistency.
Gibson: Yes, and so the question is what encourages Netflix members to watch more? And the answer is the highly personalized experience, the wildly inconsistent one, helped inspire more watching, and that was really the metric. Again, big surprise. And this is just in the area of personalization, we can do surprises in other areas, and Netflix is the product, but the key thing is this notion of customer obsession that the job is to obsess over your customers, at the end of the day they are unhappy about something, and your job is to figure out what are those new things that might delight them in these hard to copy margin-enhancing ways.
So in the case of personalization it's making it much easier for folks to find stuff that they want. The hard to copy thing, Netflix knows the member taste of 130 million members worldwide, 300 million people. That's an incredible technology and data that's super hard to copy, and then the margin-enhancing today, they've learned how to be smart about what they invest in, or not. In large part, it's based on the personalization data. So Netflix knows that 100 million people will watch Stranger Things. Have you watched Stranger Things?
Gibson: And then it knows-
Suzanne: Reluctantly, but I was pretty delighted in the end. I just don't really like sci-fi, but go on.
Gibson: Because there's 100 million people they can afford to spend something like 500 million on that series. And then it knows that two million people will enjoy BoJack Horseman. Have you watched BoJack Horseman?
Gibson: You haven't.
Suzanne: But I got friends who love it.
Gibson: Yeah, yeah, yeah, and I love it too. In that case, they can afford to spend 10 million. So they're right sizing the level investment and original content, which is the way that you get the margin right, build a business. So I just think it's real cool. But that's just a case of how personalization has worked into customers in these hard to copy margin hits and noise.
Suzanne: Well, the interesting concept that it brings up, and I think that this is at the root of your talking about customer obsession and culture. Most people have read The Lean Startup, people are becoming more indoctrinated, or believers of validated learning, but I think it's still being framed a lot as a mechanism by which startups can figure out the thing to do. When you get that product market fit, when you do that thing that works and then you get that growth, sometimes what can happen, is the company stops being experimental because the dollars are rolling in, especially if it's a recurring revenue model. It's like, it's working everyone. We all have jobs, we don't need to go out and get more funding. Advocate for continuing to stay curious in this experimental way when you've already got whatever you said it was a million subscribers and then up to 20 million.
Gibson: Yeah, the idea is just keep getting better. Just keep getting better on every dimension of what you do.
If Netflix had failed to keep getting better, it would be a stinky DVD by mail service, right? Of if it had failed to keep getting better when it did the international expansion, it wouldn't be offering all this original content.
The basic concept is certainly in consumer tech and enterprise technology. If you fail to keep innovating and inventing on your customer's behalf very bad things will happen. I'll give you a failure case. The first startup I did was called Creative Wonders a kid's software company. Sold it to The Learning Company, that's Kevin O'Leary, Mr. Wonderful from Shark Tank, and then in turn we helped The Learning Company grow up and we sold it to Mattel for three and a half billion dollars, and then two years later, they spun that company back out of Mattel, The Learning Company, it was only worth 350 million. A huge negative value.
And the way I look back on it, is I had failed to create hard to copy advantage, and that's what happens when you don't do that. That's what happens when you stop innovating. Now, in that case Kevin had left, I had left, but bad things happen when you fail to just keep getting better.
Suzanne: Who has to set that intention? We talked a little bit about leadership, you're saying that the desire has to be one of pursuit, I think we see use cases all the time in people's personal lives as well as professional that they're just not that motivated to be better. So who has to do that, or bring that?
Gibson: For sure. Product leaders do. I would say everyone in the company, but let's do it. How could Netflix be better for you? Go for it.
Suzanne: No, I want to go for it.
Gibson: I want everyone who's listening to be thinking, answering that same question.
Suzanne: How can Netflix be better for me? Definitely don't start playing the trailer.
Gibson: You hate that.
Suzanne: Oh God, yeah despise-
Gibson: You hate auto-playing the trailer, what else?
Suzanne: Had a lot of contempt for Max when he was around, I don't know if he's still around. Is that one of your babies?
Gibson: Oh my God, you know Max.
Suzanne: I know Max.
Gibson: Oh we'll come back to Max. Okay, keep going.
Suzanne: Have Designing Women in the library.
Gibson: Okay, so there's a bunch of content that you want that's not available on Netflix.
Gibson: And then you also want some new original content that's for you. And you also want it to be fundamentally easier for you to find stuff that you love. To go from-
Suzanne: You're making me sound so demanding, thank you.
Gibson: No, no, no, that's it-
Suzanne: I am.
Gibson: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And this is just one conversation. As a product leader, you're having 10s and hundreds of those conversations. Really trying to get some clues or some theories or hypothesis about how you can make the service fundamentally better. So I'll go back to damn Max. There's lots of theories in the life of Netflix about how it could delight customers in hard to copy margin-enhancing ways. We've talked about personalization.
There's another theory, which is there was a real fear on the team that Netflix was going to become this automated vending machine, it would be the vanilla service, undifferentiated, nothing different about it. So the theory that was born was a more entertaining experience would help improve retention, and retention was our key metric.
So Max was born out of an experiment. The idea was that Max would be this wildly funny guy, he was based on some writing from Jellyvision, a company that had done You Don't Know Jack ages ago for anyone that might remember that. Max was wildly funny and entertaining and his job was to be your movie genie, help you to find stuff you love and it went out in test, and retention went south. Retention got worse. There you have a failed theory, a failed hypothesis, that a more entertaining experience didn't help with retention. It annoyed you. It got in your way. And really, if you look at the high level theories, hypotheses, personalization, entertainment, streaming, exclusives, half of them failed. A failed one would be 2005 you had to have a social strategy. You had to let your friends help you find movies that you love. This was when Facebook was going crazy, so we tried that.
And that failed too. Why did it fail? Because your friends have really sucky movie taste, and then the other thing is you don't really want them to know everything you're watching. You don't want them to know you're watching Paul Blart: Mall Cop, or worse, Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2.
Gibson: Or Adam Sandler's, yeah Sharknado, or Adam Sandler's The Ridiculous 6. I've never watched any of these of course.
Suzanne: I don't know why it keeps showing up in recently watched.
Gibson: My point was Max was an experiment, we were trying to create a better service for you and it failed. Friends in Social was a worthy experiment, it failed. Personalization worked. We actually tested exclusives in 2007 it failed. Original content worked great. By the time House of Cards came along in 2013 and that was because at that point Netflix had a huge economy scale, so they could afford to invest 100 million in House of Cards, which they couldn't do in 2007. This is just what I'm giving credit to is the experimental process and how much testing and learning, and frankly how much patience is required to build a great company. My joke with Netflix or frankly any other company, it only takes 20 years. So that should give people hope too by the way.
So half the work that you do will fail, and it only takes 20 years to be successful. It takes a lot of patience and a long time.
Suzanne: You so humbly called out your failures early on, and I appreciate that. What's one thing in your career you're most proud of?
Gibson: It's always the, you never forget your first love. Coming off of my bad experience with Sesame Street Counting Café on the Sega Genesis, I was very proud of having my first hit with Sesame Street Elmo's Preschool. That was super important and helpful to me. Definitely proud of the launch of streaming on Netflix. People forget, it was really hard to do that at the time, we had 300 stinky titles, the bandwidth still wasn't there, but we learned fast and just managed every quarter just keep making the service better, so I felt good about that.
Actually, Chegg, Chegg is my last startup. Students have now saved around 600 million a year. Now 600 million dollars renting textbooks instead of buying them, and that's creating a lot of value for students. It's making their educational experience a lot easier, and the other cool thing is there's a monthly subscription service at Chegg, it's a homework help service. Those things are fundamentally helping students to learn, to learn faster and to do it without spending as much money. So that's good dent the universe stuff. My wife gives me grief, like "Okay, nice job on the whole binge watching thing."
Suzanne: You went and ruined a whole society, but I hope you're proud of yourself.
Gibson: Exactly. Yeah, and she would also give me grief on the bang, bang, shoot 'em up games at Electronic Arts, but she gives me credit at Chegg, she gave me credit for Creative Wonders and The Learning Company, so it's all good.
Suzanne: You've been unhitched from any one organization for the past couple of years. This is a two part question to build on the last, what are you doing these days, and what's the thing that you haven't yet done that you want to do?
Gibson: Yeah, so it's been three years that I haven't done direct deposit, that means unhitched as you say. Today, my life is largely about creative pursuit. So the thing that I spent the most time is doing talks, being a speaker, and I say yes to invitations all over the world. I've got 10 different talks. And then I learned that I had enough content that I could create a workshop, so I do half, whole, two day workshops. I used to teach in the classroom, but I found doing the workshops much more fun, I can iterate much more quickly. So a two day workshop is half of a semester, and instead of waiting a year before the next iteration, I wait two weeks, and then do it again. I write. That's the third thing on my priority list. That's good fodder to how do people learn, and then the fourth thing, I do my own podcast too, but you can't do four things. My most frequent, and yes I'm advisor to different startups. I'm on a board, and the most frequent advice you give is to focus. I'm trying to focus too.
So, force rank:talks, workshops, writing and podcasts, and knowing that I really don't have much time for podcasts. In all of that, my purpose is teaching, coaching, mentoring. That's really the way I look at my life. I do have a rich athletic life. I try to ski my age in days, and I'm not secret about it, last year I skied 57 days, so I'm very proud of that.
Gibson: It's all good.
Suzanne: Is there a thing just out of reach or on the Gib Biddle roadmap that's like, "No, it would be cool if I checked this box."
Gibson: Yeah, you know it used to be five years ago I imagined I would be the CEO of my own company, and then one of my mentors said, "Gib, why would you want to do that?" He also said, it was funny, his name was Irv Grousbeck, he's a business school professor at Stanford. He invented the cable television industry. Anyways, he said, "Hey Gib, can I tell you something that you may not like?" "Okay, what?" "You're too nice to be a startup CEO." It was funny, it resonated with me, and he sort of gave me permission not to take the next step on the career ladder. I've been so much happier for it.
What else is out of reach? I don't know, I just feel like I'm fighting time. I've got the athletic pursuits before my knees give out. I really do wish I could write faster so I could get more stuff out there. If I could do all of this more quickly, then maybe I could do a podcast a week. So I sort of feel like I'm fighting time right now.
Suzanne: You love coaching, you love mentoring as you said, we do a segment on this show called Get the Job, Learn the Job, Love the Job. Since you speak a lot about hacking the product leader career, what advice would you give to someone who wants to make the next step?
Gibson: Sure, well my career hacking, the way I think about it is we are products. So it's really important to me that people develop theories and hypotheses about what they want to do next. If we look at my last three years, I had a theory and hypothesis that I might be a VC, I might be board member, I might be a teacher, I might be a consultant, these were all things that I actively explored and experimented with. And I came to the conclusion of those four creative outlets that I've described already.
I would just say, be thoughtful about what are the things that you think you'd like to do and what you'd like to explore. One thing that I find helpful, I call it the two in the morning test, which is what is the thing that if you're awake at two in the morning you're thinking about or doing? And it can't be watching TV. For me, I was in my second year of business school, and I was prototyping kid's software games using HyperCard, which nobody knows what HyperCard is today. But it was a clear sign that I was passionate about building kids software. Today, at two in the morning when I'm awake, and I often am, because I'm in different time zones as I travel the world, I'm building a new talk. And these are the clues about what you might like to pursue.
So ask yourself what are you passionate about, create these theories and hypothesis about what you'd like to do next, and then find ways to experiment, it could be as simple as going to dinner, and asking people about the job that you're curious about. It could be side projects on the weekend, or it could be a part-time job. Any of those things are worthy ways to experiment with different ideas.
Suzanne: I don't typically ask this, but I will. What can our listeners do for you to help you in these pursuits when you're up at two in the morning trying to come up with the next thought?
Gibson: You know it's really actually quite simple. I'm a product person, people are only slowly getting used to at the end of a talk, I pull up a QR code that links them to my net promoter score survey for that talk. If you read in my writing, you'll notice that at the end of everything I write there's a survey link. When you get to the end of the essay, click on that link. And it's simple, it will ask you from scale of zero to 10 where zero sucks and 10 is awesome, how was this essay for you, and then it will ask for what was good about it, and what could be better. I've gotten an amazing amount of insight from what I read. Some of my favorite talks came out of an idea in what could be better. One of the talks that everybody likes to hear is called Netflix Wicked Hard Decisions. I grew up in Dorchester, Mass., so anytime I can say wicked, I'm stoked.
That talk, the idea came out of a guy named Siqi Chen said, "Hey Gib, we just want to know how you made the wicked hard decisions." That was one piece of qualitative feedback in a survey. Just incredibly helpful. When you see that damn link that nobody ever clicks on, click on it. That's how you can be helpful to me.
Suzanne: All right, and that's GibsonBiddle.com.
Gibson: That's true, www.GibsonBiddle.com.
Suzanne: Cool, what about learn the job? One of those things, you've talked about your failures, talk about what you've seen in the product managers that you've led where they struggle because it is a challenging job.
Gibson: Yeah, I've seen them. I've seen a lot of struggling, I've seen a lot of success. The first thing that came into my mind is just this notion of intellectual curiosity. Being conscious about what you like to learn, and then finding all the ways that you can possibly learn it. Some of that hacking comes into play there.
But what drives learning for most folks is intellectual curiosity, and what drives intellectual curiosity is passion, and that's why I give you the two a.m. test. I really think it pays to take a moment and say, "These are the kinds of things that I really love, and this is how I might be able to do those things in my job." And then begin to experiment ways that you can learn more about it and see if it's the right path for you. The stuff that I do, it's all result of experiments. I had no clue three years ago that these might be things that I would enjoy. And through that process of learning and late nights and weekend hacking it feels pretty good.
Suzanne: What about your love the job? If you had to sell product management as a career path alongside all the infinite career paths, how would you position it?
Gibson: Product leaders, you're builders. That career path builds something, builds something great. Build an organization, build a company, build an industry, that is amazingly impactful. It's sort of thought as trite that the idea that startups their job is to dent the universe, but you really get to do that. It doesn't matter if you're running product at a company, big company or small. If you're in your first six month job, and you actually get something that goes to the website, and suddenly 10s of thousands are using it, that feels really good. That's why I've been doing it for so long. It feels really good if I write an essay and people read it. It feels really good if people show up at a workshop. This is the joy of building stuff, that there's all sorts of wonderful ways to affect people's lives. Hopefully for the good.
Suzanne: Yeah, yeah. Any recommended resources? You said the podcast, what's the name of your podcast?
Gibson: It's called Product Decoded, and I do it with Ha Nguyen and Dan Olsen. I'd say we did it for a season and ... the thing that drives me a bit crazy about podcasts is there's no feedback system. I don't know if I did a good or bad job, and I can't ask. Anyways, Product Decoded.
Resources, if you go to my website, there's a bunch of links to different essays that I've written, but also others. At the moment I am totally into a book by a guy named Helmer Hellman, and it's called the Seven Forces and it's this articulation of what are the seven things that make products hard to copy. He argues there's seven, I argue there are eight. And we're engaged in that debate now, which is quite fun. I read it. It's one of those books that I read it the first time, and I came around the second time and I'm rereading it now. One pro tip, he is an economics professor. You don't have to read all the italicized econ stuff. That saves about a quarter of your reading time.
Suzanne: Last question for you, is there a side of the mug quote that you use to kind of guide you personally or professionally that you want to leave our listeners with some sort of inspiration?
Gibson: It's not good for a side of the mug, but the mantra that I have found really helpful for product leaders as they think about product strategy, and I think product strategy is wicked important, is delight customers in hard to copy margin-enhancing ways, and that model has helped me for 20 different years. It's really cool. As a bonus, I'll throw in a second model, it's called Glee. Glee stands for what is it you're going to get big on, what are you going to lead the next chapter of your life, and after that, what are you going to expand into.
Netflix, the idea is we were going to get big on DVD, and then the next chapter of our life we would lead streaming. Although it was called downloading then, because the word streaming did not exist. And then the next chapter of our life was to expand internationally, and then the fourth chapter is now obvious, which is focus on original content. And that's fascinating, because I already told you in 2007 that was a failed experiment, but today it's working like gangbusters.
Chegg, Chegg is what came first the chicken or the egg? But the clean model applied there is we got big on textbooks by mail, sounds familiar. And then we led this monthly homework help service. And then the next chapter was essentially to expand the, I call it the student graph, but there's a lot of other services once you understand every student in the country, and their courses and their topics and their Q&A, you can help them to find jobs, you can help them to get summer internships. Just any number of services that they can expand to. That Glee model is a good way to think about or articulate a product vision, that way it will carry you out over five, 10, 15, 20 years. And that's cool when you can make it workout.
Suzanne: Priceless advice from Gibson Biddle. Gib, thank you so much for being part of our show.
Gibson: Thanks a ton Suzanne.