Vidya Dinamani is GroupSolver®,’s newest Board member and, as Rasto Ivanic would say, “a ruthless advocate for customer-led design”. With a wealth of product leadership experience at companies such as Intuit, Vidya and her business partner launched their own company: Product Rebels. It was during one of the Product Rebels early workshops where she and Rasto met and formed a productive relationship that lasts until today. Today, we are sharing with you an insightful conversation between the two thought leaders. Make sure to read until the end to find out how you can join the rebellion and give your customers the voice in product development that they deserve.
Rasto Ivanic: Let’s start with where we met at one of the workshops you put together. It was one of the first workshops I had done since starting GroupSolver®,. I remember you just being very passionate about product development… but many people in the audience were still very hesitant, not buying in. But I remember thinking: “you know what, I am going to give it a shot! She looks like she knows what she’s talking about.” That workshop really stuck with me from the beginning. You were very clear about the importance of customer-led product development and that mantra really worked well for us at GroupSolver®,. I would like to give that same benefit to the readers of this interview. Can you start by sharing with us the tenants of your product development philosophy?
Vidya Dinamani: Absolutely! There’s three pieces that really form what we talk about in regards to customer-driven management. The first is: can you define the customer problem? That sounds really simple, but most people find it difficult to describe the customer problem without mentioning their product. So, it’s kind of backwards. What happens is that they have the solution, and then they back into what the problem should be. We start with insisting that the problem has to already exist even if your product doesn’t! And it should be a big enough problem that people are willing to pay for it in order to ensure product-market fit. What we ask product managers and founders to first do is articulate that customer problem through using our simple template. That’s the first step, but it’s a big missing gap for not only start-ups, but a significant number of product teams from leading companies.
Number two is: understand your customer. This is one where as a start-up, it’s really easy to want to solve for lots of people because you want to show that you’re addressing a large market. But that is one of the worst things you can do. If you can’t solve for one person really well, then you’re probably not solving for anyone. Most of us as customers are looking for reasons why not to buy. It’s easy for us to go “oh, that’s not quite for me”. We want you to have a deep understanding of the right target customer – the who is going to be jumping up and down and can’t wait for your product. That’s how you’re going to get traction.
The last piece is: are you talking to your customer regularly? Do you have regular times you connect with your customers and prospects, and are you translating what they are saying into what they need? Often, we find that teams think they know their customer through one interaction…or worse, they believe they know the customer because they want to use their own products. We want to see teams making product decisions based on direct and ongoing customer feedback.
To summarize, if you understand the problem, you know your customer, and you’re translating directly from the customer into needs, you’re building customer-led products. These three steps together form what we have termed “groundwork”. You are creating the right conditions for a successful product.
RI: I remember that phase in our [GroupSolver®,’s] life very well, where we were pitching to all kinds of investors, advisors and lawyers. These people mean well, they want to help, but helping a start-up is more of a hobby for them, whereas for you it’s your future! It’s really serious. This prioritization and sifting through advice we got and deciding what are “nice to haves” versus what is important information is what a new CEO has to learn really quickly.
VD: That’s exactly right. I have so much empathy for you as a leader, and for everyone who is a CEO. When you’re struggling with all of this input and your company depends on you making the right decision, that’s a burden! I like to say: take that burden and share it with your customer. If you’re customer-driven, it’s not about “I make the right decision”, but instead about “I am following the lead of the customer who is willing to pay for my product”. It takes away from some of that tension and allows you to have a clear means to prioritize your work.
RI: How true! One of the things we learned quickly was to lean on the customer and not to invest too much time on engineering the ‘perfect’ product for the market. We learned to be embarrassed by what we produced. But you give it to the customer anyway, and you have to listen so well to what they tell you back. At some point you learn to play this ping pong with them. You can stay in your start-up silo and play ping pong against the wall, but the results are predictable. That was one of the lessons that I learned from you early on as a mentor: play ping pong with a customer!
I want to come back to idea of prioritization being a critical skill. As CEOs, we need to take short-cuts unfortunately… there are just not enough hours in the day. If you had to tell a time-strapped CEO the three things they absolutely must do early in the process of building their product, what would you tell them?
VD: Let’s assume that they already know the problem, they already know the customer, and they have done the groundwork. What I would say is the three things every CEO should do are: create hypothesis, test in the fastest scrappiest way possible, and translate the results. I think it is so easy to convince yourself that you’re moving in the right direction and hear what you want to hear. Even if you are talking to customers, you need to be coming at it with clear expectations. Thinking back to the ping pong analogy, you can tell yourself: “This is the perfect ball. This is the perfect serve”. But you need someone to receive the ball and reaction. You need to say: “If I serve the ball with this topspin into the top right corner, then I expect them to miss”. Ok, maybe not the best example, but you can see that you’re naming what you’re doing, and what you expect the reaction to be. Then you actually test your hypothesis, then you examine the results. We want teams to not just continually build and launch features, but have a hypothesis and testing it quickly with customers before you build.
RI: And be brutally honest about what you get back!
VD: Exactly! Brutally honest. And it’s not hard – even if it’s an hour once every two weeks to talk to a customer. Just force yourself into that discipline. Give yourself a small group of customers or proxies to talk to. Get out of your own head and your teams’ head, and just make sure that you’re testing ideas and build in that constant feedback loop. The last thing I’d say is to be really clear about making a decision. Be clear on the outcomes that you want. It’s usually not just one thing, but be clear on what success looks like. Use your advisors and your team to make those decisions. Then when you are faced with choices, you can go back against the framework that you had before you received the feedback.
RI: If I could summarize what you are describing, a lot of it is building that internal discipline and process that helps you navigate the crazy start-up period. I think a lot of founders want to start their company because they do not want to be part of the corporate process. The process is almost like a ‘dirty word’, but it has a really good place in organizing your thinking. You need to find that balance between using the opportunity as a founder to explore and challenge, but giving yourself a helping hand with those guidelines you come up with.
Another thing you said that really resonates with me is finding some customers to latch on to and get into their heads. Early on, we had very few customers. But I was so greedy—whenever I found someone willing to talk to us, no matter how big or small they were, those customers really drove what GroupSolver®, has now become. I tried my best to take what was in their heads and channel it into the rest of the company.
VD: I love that you latched on to anyone who’d talk to you. Many times, it’s hard to find prospects as a startup, especially in the B2B world. For these folks I want to say that you probably even know someone in a parallel role or have a friend who has some knowledge of the area, that can be good enough. It doesn’t have to be a customer if you don’t have one yet. As long as it’s not just you!
RI: You must have talked to a lot of engineers who have very systematic and rigorous ways of thinking. With a founder who is very passionate about technology, what are the ‘tricks’ they can use to guide themselves to a more customer-driven approach?
VD: I think it’s hard for them because they know how to build software and they have come up with a great idea. They know how to make their product happen. Technical founders very quickly surround themselves with at least one business founder. I wish they would watch customers themselves more, and not delegate that to someone else. It’s funny because even in really big companies that I’ve worked with, the culture changes when the leader in the organization is watching customers. I know you, Rasto, do that. I never want you to let go of that.
RI: Spot on, Vidya! Now, I wonder if I can play a trick on you. I want to talk about your early days with Product Rebels. As a start-up, what have you learned in your journey and how is your business different now than how it was when we first met?
VD: You were one of our earlier customers! We tested a lot of our materials at those workshops. In the beginning, we were kind of like evangelists. I think we were a bit zealous. As we’ve evolved, we broke things down into smaller steps and not being so ‘in-your-face’. I think we are a lot gentler and kinder! It makes sense as a training company to guide people in the way that they need. We’ve listened to our customers and made our training more easily digestible!
RI: But you are still rebels! And that leads to my last questions: Who is a product rebel? How do you become one?
VD: The only thing you need to become a product rebel is to stand up for your customer. You are the voice of the customer at the table. Anyone can be a rebel who feels strongly that the customer should be sitting with them.
We have an online community on Facebook, and we have a LinkedIn community and of course we have all our product, design thinking and strategy workshops & blended learning, all of which has transitioned to be online. We also offer a a quick introductory training, that’s an easy three-hour course about the three steps we talked about right in the beginning – useful for anyone in the company to understand customer-driven practices, not just product leaders or CEOs.
Want to immerse yourself in a Product Rebels groundwork program? Email us at email@example.com for a special “friend of the rebels” promo code! Additionally, check out their LinkedIn and Facebook community groups.
Vidya has been a product executive for over 20 years. She spent 10 years at Intuit where she did everything from Strategy to Operations to leading Customer Experience Development for the TurboTax product line. She went on to have executive roles leading Product, Marketing and Innovation specializing in new product development and management. 5 years ago, she founded Product Rebels with her business partner. Product Rebels is a training and coaching company that teaches teams hands-on ways to become more effective through being customer-focused. Product Rebels has coached over 200 companies from startups to Fortune50 companies, and they love seeing teams transform when they understand exactly how to build products that customers love.
Do you have a customer insight question you would like solved? #FridayInSight has your answer! We’ll design a study, collect data on the GroupSolver® platform, and share with you a free report with our findings. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.