The Role of the CEO
This article is from an interview I did recently with a long-time friend and serial entrepreneur Danny Shader. We were talking about what makes a great CEO of a product company, and I loved what he had to say.
I first worked with Danny at Netscape. After Netscape, he went on to co-found a startup that was acquired during The Bubble by Amazon.com. After Amazon, he took the CEO role at another startup—Good Technology—which provides a product that is truly loved by its users: Good Mobile Messaging, a wireless messaging and data access system for corporate users. In January 2007, Motorola acquired Good Technology.
Danny will tell you he’s not a product guy, but anyone who has worked with him knows that he lives and breathes his company’s products. I sat down with Danny to talk about the CEO’s role in creating organizations that build products customers love.
Marty: Why are you personally so passionate about product?
Danny: Well, first off, I love using great products myself – that’s why I wanted to work in Tech. But beyond that, people in an organization pay attention to what the CEO thinks is important. So if you want to deliver great products to your customers, the CEO has to care…a lot.
I once read an interview with Bob Lutz, GM’s head “car guy”, where he stated that the best way customers can tell how much you care about them is from the level of attention you pay to the quality of a product’s details. In GM’s case, Lutz was referring to things like the tightness of gaps between body panels or the consistency of pressure required to depress buttons on the dash. If those body gaps or the button feedback were uneven, Lutz argued, customers would conclude that you really don’t care much about them. I really resonated with that interview because it captured my belief that customers take product quality personally. Great product companies recognize this and make sweating the details a badge of honor.
Marty: Who was your model for a great product-oriented CEO?
Danny: I’ve learned from a lot from people. But two who made particularly strong impressions in terms of product are Bill Campbell and Jeff Bezos.
Bill is legendary in Silicon Valley. “The Coach”, as he is known, ran Claris, Apple’s software subsidiary, and then served as the CEO of Go Corporation, a pioneer in mobile computing. He then became the CEO of
Intuit. Today, Bill sits on the boards of Apple and Intuit, and is deeply involved in other great product companies including Google. While Bill would not refer to himself as a “product-guy,” he believes deeply in the
importance of product excellence. One of Bill’s most memorable statements is that “people forget that Marketing’s first name is ‘Product’.” He also observes that “sales people sell what sells”. In other words, Bill teaches that in tech companies a necessary condition for success is creating products that customers really want to use… and buy.
Another thing Bill teaches is that people want to work on things they believe in. One of a CEO’s key responsibilities is to help members of an organization appreciate that they are involved in something bigger than themselves. They need to feel that they are part of an organization they can be proud of…an organization whose products can change customers’ lives. When you build a team that feels that way, they’re unstoppable.
Jeff is the founder and CEO of Amazon.com. He is famously passionate about products and innovation. While I was there, I observed that he deliberately sought out and empowered folks who shared these passions; those folks became the real stars at Amazon.com.
Jeff would also make dramatic gestures to demonstrate how much he cared about the user experience… like climbing onto a “door-desk” on all fours (Amazon’s desks were all made out of doors) so he could get his nose right up in front of the screen… and make sure everyone could see he thought this interaction was the most important thing going on in the room. Also, when anyone did something that could harm the customer experience, Jeff would let out one of his trademark laughs and exclaim, “Why doesn’t someone just get me a gun so I can shoot myself now!” Needless to say, people got the message.
Marty: How do you instill this passion for product in your organizations?
Danny: For starters, make sure you hire people who truly care about customers. Listen for the number of times they speak affectionately about customers during interviews. Then walk the talk yourself.
At my first startup, we kept a sign on the wall in each conference room that asked, “What would the customer think?” If there were a debate over a choice that might adversely impact our customers, we’d point at that sign… and generally make the right call.
When we started Good Technology, we wrote down our core values. Among those, two of the most important were that we wanted to make customers for life, and we wanted to create products we could be proud of. At Good, everyone cared deeply about each component of the end-to-end experience we provided – software, billing, marketing, support, etc. We didn’t always get it right, but we were constantly improving, and everyone who remained with us was committed to offering the best possible experience. This common value was the glue that held us together, and our customers could feel it.