Productboard draws a blueprint for product management

Hubert Palan, CEO of Productboard, wants his firm to be the template for managing products.


Think of the Silicon Valley TV series or any other attempt at entertainment that centres on the technology industry. What happens? A group in hoodies and trainers gather in a room and fill out Sharpie-inscribed Post-It Notes to form a wall-filling grid. This is what passes for tech product development: an analogue relic in the digital world. But the scary thing is that this is a fairly realistic depiction of what often happens.

In reality, of course, there's more to it than that and there are sizeable industries in aspects of how products are created. For the software program development side, insiders will know Jira, Basecamp and similar tools that stop projects spiralling out of control. But product development in the wider sense arguably still occupies a netherworld that sits uncomfortably between the Post-It dens and the unfathomable world of global teams cutting code.

Nature abhors a vacuum and so there is Productboard, a company dedicated to product development mostly (but not exclusively) for technology companies. Its cloud service covers whatever product managers need to understand: customer requirements, addressable pain points, task prioritisation and so on, helping to corral all vested parties so they can gather around a clear plan of action.

With offices in San Francisco and Prague in the Czech Republic, Productboard is the brainchild of Czech founders Daniel Hejl and CEO Hubert Palan, the latter of whom I caught up with by video recently.

"You have the CRM system as the centre of gravity that constellates all the information about customers, and customer success and is half the company's brain," he says. "On the other side you have Jira, Atlassian, GitHub, Figma and Adobe products that are used to build the products… that's the other half."

But for the specific discipline of product management, there didn't appear to be a killer app, he says, as he was learning the ropes after having arrived in the Valley.

"This was the realisation I had because I was the product manager doing that job," he says. "The job of product management has always been one where a product manager or brand manager would go and figure out what the market wants and then turn this market insight into an opportunity to build something new."

But, to paraphrase Apple, the app for that was missing.

"With a tool like Jira there's no sight of customers, it's all about what's going to be in what sprint you're doing; it's very delivery-focused and [the absence of a program aimed at managing products] is just insane. [You need to] make sure you understand the customer, their needs."

Today, Productboard counts about 3,800 companies as customers, from startups to the world's largest firms, including Microsoft, Zendesk and OutSystems. However, even at sizeable companies, Palan says that product management is still often done through PowerPoint decks or "hacked together" systems.

He jokes that he's wary of the principle that "if you're the only one, you're the only fool" but says there is certainly no dominant incumbent, nor even a rival with a visual communications platform or a system with a structured data system that helps to bring process rigor.

Effectively, what Productboard does is similar to what Salesforce did for CRM: create a set of workflows that encourage best practices: in this case forcing users to consider key questions such as the identity of the target customer, pain points, objectives, goals and milestones. Or, to use a comparison Palan prefers, it is doing for product management "what Atlassian has done for software development".

Palan says he developed the service after speaking to hundreds of companies, as well as executives from companies such as Google and Twitter.

He adds while some companies are maverick success stories and Productboard is "not going to replace serendipity", it will offer a framework that keeps companies on track.

"What's not being built is sometimes more important: the need to know why it's been deprioritised." Productboard can act as a rallying point for all staff, such as remote engineering people, to understand the company's plan and it is widely used across companies as an aide-mémoire to instil focus.

Palan has come a long way. He was born in a communism state in the late 1970s but dreamed of Silicon Valley and sees himself as aspiring to the American Dream. A self-confessed Apple "fanboy", he wants to build a sustainable company and mentions Zendesk as a company with a great brand built on great product management and strong execution.

 "Founder insights" and the notion of godlike figures acting out visions are overrated, he says, pointing to the fact that the original concepts often requite a rapid pivot. Listening to customers and ensuring that everyone who needs to know your plan are much more common characteristics of success.

"Most products suck because people don't have a real intimate understanding of what is it that people appreciate in designing a product. Without that excellence, there's no way you can build a 3-star Michelin experience," he argues.