How Great Products are Like Great Stories with Acquia’s Matt Kaplan

Today on Build, host Maggie Crowley chats live in the Seeking Wisdom studio with Acquia’s SVP Products, Matt Kaplan. Matt was previously CPO and GM, Emerging Products at LogMeIn. Now at Acquia, he heads up product strategy, management and design across their digital experience platform. And, fun fact, he was on MIT’s gymnastic team back in the day.

Together Maggie and Matt chat through how great products are like great stories. Specifically, what makes a great story, untangling the relationship between stories and products and how to help your team get better at storytelling.

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In This Episode

00:07 – Introduction with guest Matt Kaplan, SVP Products, Acquia
00:34 – Great products are like great stories
01:13 – Hero (the target user)
01:29 – Tension (the problem to be solved)
01:49 – End state (happy end for the client)
02:02 – Core beliefs to be able to enjoy the story (why are your products different or special)
02:25 -The narrative (get the user/customer from the tension to the solution)
02:55 – Product management is about solving problems and telling stories
03:47 – How to get team members to improve problem solving and storytelling
06:28 – The only difference between an associate PM and CPO is the scope
09:19 – When entering a new organization, start articulating the story
10:51 – If you start hearing the story back and improved from other team members, you know it’s working
11:49 – How to get better at articulating stories
13:49 – How to develop empathy with the customer
14:26 – Advice for people getting into product performance:
14:44 – 1. Establish a point of view about resolving the problem
15:29 – 2. Socialize
16:30 – 3. Be a better story-teller
17:13 – Product leaders have to have confidence in the unknown
17:57 – What to look for in a new team or job
19:10 – What Matt’s reading: Eric Raymond’s Cathedral & the Bazaar

Full Transcript

Maggie: So we’re back. Super excited today on Build. We have a live studio audience of basically the whole Drift product team and also Matt Kaplan, the legendary SVP of products at Acquia who’s here to talk to us about how great products are like great stories. So Matt, you are currently at Acquia, you were previously the chief product officer at LogMeIn and you also were on the gymnastics team MIT.

Matt: Oh, geez.

Maggie: Which I discovered deep in the LinkedIn.

Matt: You had to bring that up, didn’t you?

Maggie: I did, yeah. So welcome.

Matt: Thank you. Nice to meet you.

Maggie: Great. I wanna dig into the story that I’ve heard from our VP of product, Craig, on how great products are like great stories. This is something that I know you have a talk that you give on. So first just what makes a great story and how did you make that connection?

Matt: Yeah, so it was probably about four or five years ago. I read a book, it was Creativity, Inc., by Ed Catmull, and he is the founder of Pixar. So it was just a book that I saw that was interesting to read and kind of I connected the dots between the way Pixar goes about making movies and the way products are created as well. And there’s a lot of similarities. When you start, you just kind of break it down, every story, every great story … And we learn to write stories when we’re really little. Every great story has a hero of their story. Like the protagonist. So that’s like our target user for our products. Every great story starts with a tension that exists in the world. You think about Pixar’s movies, Toy Story, for example, when Buzz Lightyear comes and throws Woody off, that’s the tension that exists in the story and product has the same thing, they have a tension or problem that we’re trying to solve.

There’s always an end state, a vision, the happy ending that occurs in Pixar films. And what we’re trying to do with product is solve that problem and bring the user to that end state, that end vision. So that’s similar. And then one of the things that Pixar does is they have these core beliefs that you have to kind of go along with to enjoy the movie. In Toy Story it was the core belief that all of the toys are telling the story from their point-of-view and that they’re kind of inanimate when humans are around and they come to life afterwards. And those are the core beliefs that, as product people, we need to have about why our product’s different and special. And then the last thing is sort of like the sequence of events that occurs, the chapters of the story. And that’s sort of what we as product people need to do to kind of get our user and our customers from that tension all the way to that vision.

So the five things that I think that are similar are the target user, the tension that exists, the end state vision, the core beliefs, and that narrative, that sequence of events.

Maggie: Why does this comparison matter specifically for products? How does this help us do our jobs more effectively?

Matt: Because when you think about it, my belief that products management is really about two things. It’s about solving problems and it’s about telling stories. And it’s about getting people, not only your users but your organization, to believe in where you wanna go as a company and what you’re gonna do to help them solve their problems. So whether it’s you’re telling stories to sales people on why … You’re trying to convince them you’re doing the right thing with the roadmap, or you’re telling stories to engineers in the beginning of a sprint about what we’re gonna build. Or you’re telling stories in an event or on stage to your customers. It’s all about story telling as a product person and some of the best product people that I can think of actually can do both really well. They can solve the problems and they can also tell these stories to all of these different types of people.

Maggie: How do you help your teams get better at that? Because I think it’s one thing to say, “Oh, we need to be good at story telling as well as implementing and doing all the things we do day-to-day,” but then how do you get them there?

Matt: Yeah, so first of all, one, it’s reinforcement of the practice. So practice makes perfect. What I do is, every time somebody either gives a presentation, or whether it’s in a small group or a big group, I reinforce these points. Who are you talking to? Who’s your audience for this? And are you adapting your story to the executives? Are you adapting it to the engineers? How are you adapting your story? And then I also reinforce what is the problem you’re solving? The key problem? And does it … So that’s one aspect. I think getting them to read the books and read the framework and kind of connect the dots between the two is another one. And then just some of the things, if you look at historically we think of … I’m a Steve Jobs fanboy, as most product people are. But you think about what Jobs, we think of Jobs as the key story teller, like this great story teller. But actually, his stories were told through his products. The thousand songs in your pocket. That was a story that he created and he told, but the product is actually delivering on that. So I tell people to watch those videos, as well, and to kind of learn how others have told stories about their products and brought products to market.

Maggie: And I’m assuming this isn’t just the act of telling your product team in-person, it’s also in writing and every interaction that PM’s are having?

Matt: Absolutely. It’s not just the narrative … It’s really about the narrative, I would say, rather than the actual telling of it. Now I don’t think I’m a great story teller. Hey, tell me a story about something that happened in your childhood, I don’t think I could do that. But it’s really about being able to articulate a narrative that gets people to want to believe and want to join you in your quest and rally the troops. And I think that’s the most fascinating part about this, where I think we learn, as product people, the basics and nuts and bolts of doing product design and development and scrum process and agile, but we don’t really learn about how do we convince people to follow us? The leadership that we need to do that. And I think story telling is the way to achieve that.

Maggie: I think that makes a ton of sense when I think about the work that we’re doing at the quarterly mission level, which I think is a little bit easier to tell. But when you’re, maybe you’re an associate PMer, you’re on a smaller team with a smaller scope. How do you help them do it on those micro products?

Matt: It’s funny you should say that because I said this the other day in our team. What a associate PM does and what a head of product, a chief product officer to are exactly the same thing except that the scope is completely different. So as an associate PM, you’re working cross-functionally, you’re telling stories about how you’re solving a certain problem, and you’re doing it on a very micro level. And really, your job is to get that little team to deliver on that vision. But as a chief product officer, you’re doing the same thing, but at a macro level. You’re doing it with board members, you’re doing the executive team. And the only difference, really, is the screw up, a chief product officer is much worse than as an associate PM. So that’s why I like to say what I do and what everyone does in the company should be the same thing. So I do, I help them with specifically about how to craft that story, that narrative, and how to unveil that through the work that they do on a day-to-day basis. And like we talk about, story writing, in the agile sense, that’s what they’re doing. They’re telling the story of how we’re gonna solve a user’s problem.

Maggie: Do you have an example of one of those smaller features that you’ve helped someone work on that you can share?

Matt: Let me think of a feature. Yeah. An example of this is, I was back at LogMeIn, is sort of the problem we were having, and this is another way of getting, you mentioned the idea of a mission of getting people, but the problem we were having was that we had a lot of failures in recording when we did a screen sharing session and audio session, the recording would fail. And so instead of thinking of it as what is the task we’re gonna give to the developers to solve this problem? We said well, what is the mission? The mission, really, that the team had was no defects. And so instead of giving the team a story and saying you’re gonna do this, this, then this and this, we said you’re job is to solve this tension, this problem of a recording failure. And we want you to do whatever you can to solve that problem.

So the team actually, why that was good is because the story that we gave them was an important one, but also allowed them to use their creativity to come up with a number of different ways to solve that problem. And they came back and said well, what if we have to re-write the software? And we said okay, then rewrite the software. Go ahead and do it. And sure enough, recording failures, they dipped, I would say they dropped over the course of the next three months, they dropped down to pretty much zero after that.

Maggie: So then as a team, when you’re trying to get better at this, I imagine you’ve come into places where this might not have been the case. I think we use story times, we use missions here, so we’re relatively familiar as a team. But when you’re going into a new company, how do you get people rallied around this idea?

Matt: Yeah. That’s a good question. I start by doing it. And so I’ve given, I’ve been at Acquia for about six months now, and every chance I get to stand in front of somebody, I articulate the story of where it is that we’re going and reinforce that every time. And sometimes, I would say, people think that if you tell the same story more than once it’s boring and you’re being unoriginal. And I think it’s the exact opposite, that you have to tell the same story over and over and over again until it sinks in. So I just started by, first of all, understanding the stories that already existed in the company and which ones we wanted to turn up the volume on, amplify. And started to amplify stories around personas, as one example. How are we solving the problem for developers and marketers and IT operators? What are we doing to solve their problem? So over time, the stories, they need to evolve, just like when you think about Star Wars. The story of Star Wars is the same story that’s been told for the last 20, 30 years? It’s good versus evil. The evil empire verus the Force. It’s the same story but they’ve added to it over and over and have different characters. So that’s the heart of the story.

And I look at what Drift is doing and you just wrote a book, right? You wrote a story on what conversational marketing is all about. And I think that’s cementing that core story and then you’ll add to that over time, I’m sure.

Maggie: How do you know that when you’re telling these stories that your team is picking up on them in the way that you want them to? Because again, I think a lot of the questions I get from listeners are about okay, I heard what you said but I’m trying to implement it and I’m running into all of these problems. So how do you know that it’s working?

Matt: Yeah, the time that I’ve seen this the most is when you start hearing back the story that you told. And so when you hear it from a sales person’s mouth or you hear it from a solution architect or somebody that actually is taking your story and making it better. I always say you wanna give the story to the team. And if the story comes back with something that you didn’t think of that was more interesting than what you gave them, then you know it’s working. If it comes back with like, that’s not the way I would’ve told the story, or it’s flat, or it just doesn’t have any depth to it, they didn’t add anything to the story, then I think the message isn’t sinking in.

Maggie: Got it. So then how do we get better at telling stories? What are the tools and the books, I know you mentioned Creativity, Inc., but what else can we as product people do to get better at this?

Matt: Well, I would definitely say practice. So the different media that you mentioned before, like are you writing, in written form? Presentation form? Some others do songs. We used to have a song for join me, it was the hold music was part of it. That was used as a … Yeah, that was Craig’s idea. But the story, that it’s being told in different forms and different ways.

So I’ll give you another example. I put posters up around the office recently that reinforced the personas that we’re targeting and the goals that we’re achieving, that we’re trying to achieve. And what we’re gonna launch in our Spring releases. And it’s all over the office. So every day as somebody comes in is we’re reinforcing that story. That’s another way to do it. I’m trying to think of other ways. But yeah, some books, definitely reading a lot on ways to do this, learning about story telling. There’s actually a funny thing that there’s a lot of science, neuroscience, research that’s been done about story telling. And, in fact, the listener actually, their brain pattern, their brain waves are actually the same as the story teller during that process. So they’re actually empathizing a lot with that and they almost feel like they were there during that time. So I just think that the art of telling the story is getting people to empathize with it and really to own it as well.

Maggie: And I think what’s interesting as a PM is thinking about, especially in an example of having maybe a future that’s not as huge or as massive or as impactful as you might think it is, just figuring out how to build that empathy in your team is something I know people are probably gonna ask about. Any advice on that one?

Matt: The empathy, I mean customer meetings. So I just set an objective of every product person on the team has to have 12 customer meetings a quarter. And they’ve gotta participate and they’ve gotta track it. So just forcing that discipline. It’s a muscle memory thing. You’ve gotta practice it. And it’s unnatural to some people. Others are really good at it and they want, they need that. They want that, they know that that’s gonna make them a better product leader, product person. But others, you kind of have to push them out the door and have those conversations.

Maggie: So on that topic, I wanna switch gears a little bit to just product in general and product performance. So I’m assuming you’ve worked with tons of product managers and product leaders in your career. So what are some pieces of advice that you have for people that are just getting into this role and then maybe who are hoping to make the jump into product leadership?

Matt: Yeah. The first thing is to establish a point-of-view. A product person needs to not only own the problem, own the problem, but also establish a point-of-view about how they want to solve that problem. And many times product leaders, they kind of defer that or product managers say, “Well, that’s not my responsibility.” And I say you gotta own it. So that’s the first thing, is like really not only falling in love with the problem but also then having a really strong point-of-view about how you will solve it. But it has to be weakly held, that’s the thing about a product person is we have to be humble and let go of an idea that you know just isn’t gonna work.

And then the second thing is something I’ve mentored a lot of people on is socialize a lot, early and often. Even if the idea is very early and haven’t worked it all out, you kind of have to sell somebody ahead of time, “Hey, this is just an idea, I haven’t worked it out yet, but what do you think about it?” Because what that does is, as you tell the story, they either tell you that’s great and they add to it and they help you develop it, or they actually say, they convince you it’s a terrible idea and you shouldn’t pursue it. So that’s the other thing, it’s really about socializing. Be careful, though, because sometimes, early in my career I got the … I was the guy that had all of these ideas and their people couldn’t follow me. So you really have to be clear about why you’re doing that up front and tell them.

Maggie: Yeah, something I’ve heard from DG in our marketing team about writing headlines first, or testing our headlines on Twitter or something and just getting that first, initial reaction as is this worth going down this path or not as a way to kind of test ideas.

Matt: Yeah, definitely. So those are two of the things, having a point-of-view, socializing, and then be a better story teller. A lot of people, they’re really comfortable inside of email or they’re comfortable in a PowerPoint setting. But I would say get outside your comfort zone. Get on stage. I think that’s one area that I think makes people really nervous. Being in front of a live audience. Being in front of an executive team, too. So I give people that opportunity to speak at a quarterly business review or a product review, or get in front of the executive team to pitch an idea or a concept. Just giving those opportunities to them really helps them develop, remove the fear and develop their skills.

Maggie: Have you seen anything in particular about people who make the jump from individual contributor, product manager, to product leader that is sort of like a consistent theme in people who are successful at that transition?

Matt: I think it’s confidence. I think it’s, as product leaders we have to be really confident in the unknown. And not many people are comfortable doing that. The more you grow into a position or a company, I think the less unknowns there are. Like how people say, well, they always believe the executives know everything and then they’re just not telling us. And that’s not always the case. The executives know actually less than what the people in the trenches know. So it’s really being comfortable in that and living in that unknown space. One area I think of growth for people.

Maggie: And I had one other question I wanted to ask you, which is, again I hear this all the time from people who are listening, which is they’re evaluating new companies, they’re looking for new product teams to join, and they wanna know how to evaluate those opportunities. So over the course of your career, how have you navigated that decision? At this point, like what do you look for in a new team?

Matt: First of all, the advice I always give to people is don’t go for the job that you want now. Don’t go for the job that you’re looking for today. Think about your ideal job. Think two jobs out and say how can this next job I’m going to, the next company, give me the skills that I’ll need to develop in order to get the next job. So unless you’re at the end of your career, then that doesn’t matter. But if you’re thinking about your career, just think two jobs out and then go for the job. And then look at that company as what am I gonna learn at that company? Am I gonna be able to exercise these skills? Is the product leadership there people that have been successful before and I can learn from that? One of the things about going to LogMeIn was the founder was a product person. That really helped me, helped me develop my skills, having a product founder. It’s the same thing here.

Maggie: Yeah, absolutely. Awesome. So I just have one last question, which is what are you reading right now? Any book recommendations for the team?

Matt: What am I reading … I’m actually reading, because I’m in an open-source company, I’m reading The Cathedral and the Bazaar, which is-

Maggie: Don’t know this one.

Matt: Yeah, it’s like the seminal book on open source. Since I’m new to open source, it was one of the books recommended. The last one was I think Playing to Win, I think that was one. I think actually I got recommended from Craig.

Maggie: Yeah, we read that one here, too. Awesome. Well thanks, Matt, I really appreciate you coming on the show. Everyone listening, we’re gonna need six stars for this episode. I usually ask for five, but I think Matt deserves six. Give him a shout out and let me know what you think.

Matt: Great.

Maggie: Thanks.

Matt: No problem.