Bitscaling and the Product Org
I am sure most of you are aware of Reid Hoffman’s fantastic work in explaining the evolution of companies from “Family” up to “Nation” based on the number of people in the entire organisation. For anyone who has not come across this, I encourage you to watch the early podcasts from ‘Masters of scale’ which provide a fantastic view of what to expect from the book. If you are time-poor I would listen to this.
I thought I would overlay the stages Reid Hoffman focuses on
Family (1-9 people across the whole organisation)
Tribe (10-99 people across the org)
Village (100-999 across the org)
City (1,000,-9,999 across the org)
Nation (10,000+ across the org)
With some key callouts on what to look for at those stages (e.g. revenue) combined with where product plays a role. I have focussed on technology startups for the below.
For the purposes of this article, I am going to focus on the first 3 for reasons listed later on!
1. Family (1-9 people)
Typically bootstrap, pre-seed, seed and typically not revenue generating
Success feels like doing things that don’t scale
At this point it's all hands to the pump finding product market fit and early customers who will speak to you, pay and adopt your products, live with your mistakes and more. Everyone is geared around curiosity and survival in equal measures, job titles don’t even begin to define what's actually done on the ground- everyone just gets anything and everything done as they live and breathe the company 24x7. Customers learn to love you and your product and understand you are on a journey which they want to be part of. At this stage I would argue you probably don’t or shouldn’t see a classical “product” role, a co-founder will typically be that guiding light for the product built. Guiding light could also be seen as ‘vision’ but in reality, its being able to identify the insights from customer and market trends and making solid bets on how you can give customers a world-class solution which is a differentiator in the industry you operate in.
2. Tribe (10-99)
Could still be seed if its say up to 15-20 folks but usually series A. Success feels like having multiple customers egging you on to continue building your product, larger ARR commitments, some great sales, product and customer stories.
Depending on the type of product, your product team might have a different make up and size
For instance, Deep tech/healthcare e.g. quantum computing, autonomous driving, healthcare would be typically full of technical/industry experts who can further the company's key product promises. Product tends to be more on technical execution.
Industry focussed / regulatory e.g. fintechs, insurance tech -> industry experts and product teams focussed on delivering on the regulatory or industry need. Product vision is defined in part by the current industry need which was refined in the earlier stages of the company. At this stage in this industry, its typically about scaling the core use cases and exploring new ones to make the product more defensible.
E-commerce, delivery, supply chain, retail, marketplace, learning tech -> vision is clearly driving the product need rather than a regulatory or technical barrier to entry. Product is usually run by 1 of the co-founders who drives the vision for the rest of the product team to align and execute on.
Product also varies depending on the number of folks in the organisation as a whole
0-25 - product is largely co-founder/founder-led with a product designer or two and a product manager to help implement some of the founder's ideas. The product manager could be someone from the industry or someone fairly new to product management but typically it's someone who has curiosity and an ability to execute.
25-50 - you may have some more product managers, typically the product managers remain to be slightly early on in their career but incredibly curious and willing to learn about customer problems. At this stage a founder/co-founder may not have enough time or in-depth know-how on the product side and therefore will hire someone at a senior level in product to help execute at this stage and evolve to the next growth stage providing them with the budget to execute on the product/founder vision.
50-99 - typically more product managers led by a single product leader to scale and expand the product footprint.
3. Village (100-999)
Series B onwards. Success feels like knowing the leaders you have taken time to find and their teams can execute to get you to the goal ahead. ARR forecasts equate to a pretty sizeable and realistic market potential and defensibility in equal measures.
At this stage product varies depending on multiple factors but traditionally given the size of the TAM and the opportunity at hand you tend to have a full-blown product org. Typically folks from the tribe have moved on or scaled towards their new roles. Title wise you may find different titles doing different things. Vision, direction and people management are now key to drive the company and product org and all three areas are ultimately set by someone with a VP/CPO title, the best of these tend to be home grown or proven executors brought in from inside the industry. Visionary and people led by, tribes led by directors, squads led by product managers and chapters run by heads of products. Design, research, and engineering all fit into the joint end-to-end product delivery system. Product ops to ensure the teams are focussed on the right things, able to communicate the value add both internally and to customers combined with making sure they are no learning barriers to moving faster.
A agile product & engineering team doesn’t look to dis-similar to the spotify model outlined by atlassian
4. City (1,000,-9,999)
5. Nation (10,000+)
At the city and nation stage to my mind one can assume you would have a fully staffed team in product as you would in every other function to deal with the needs of the company and their customers. The layers and structure within the product team I would argue depends on multiple factors that are somewhat unique to each organisation. For example, how many acquisitions a company has may impact how the product teams are structured (siloed vs streamlined). The folks from your family, tribe and village may have moved on, including the founders in many cases. The team at this stage is focused on the next growth cycle of the company.
These are just some thoughts from a few conversations and a view. I would love to hear your thoughts on the above.