I have never been a product founder. When I sold my previous company, Wikimart – known as the ‘eBay of Russia’ – we had 85 people in marketing and only 2 in the product team. It was evident that the company wasn’t product-driven. In the world of eCommerce, marketing and sales usually take precedence over product development. Just think about it the next time you can’t find a specific feature on Amazon.
My latest venture, Silverbird, operates in the digital banking sector, and it’s heavily focused on product development. Unlike other industries, banks have nothing more to offer than an app for managing money. So, I had to rethink my approach and form a new philosophy on how to build a product-led organisation.
During my two decades of building IT products, I quickly realised that being product-driven doesn’t necessarily equate to being customer-centric. Achieving true customer-centricity requires more than just hiring product-oriented individuals, it demands intentional decentralisation of decision-making; something that doesn’t always sit well with a founder’s ego. In many startups, particularly in Silicon Valley and beyond, the founder or founding team tends to make all the decisions, which hampers decentralised product development. Regardless of how much emphasis these startups place on being product-driven, they can never truly prioritise the customer if critical decisions always start and end with the founder. Consequently, their talented product managers are reduced to mere project managers, which is detrimental to many product-oriented organisations and, ultimately, it is the customer and the product that suffer the most.
To build a customer-centric organisation and create a great product, decentralising decision-making from the beginning is essential. Startups that empower their product managers to make key product decisions enjoy independent product departments that thrive, resulting in successful products. Steve Jobs may be a cliché example, but there is often truth behind clichés – despite being an extremely opinionated founder, he did not make every decision at Apple. Instead, Jobs assembled the best product design teams in the world and trusted them to determine what customers needed. He set high standards and scrutinised their decisions, but he did not make the decisions himself. This fundamental distinction separates a founder-centric company from a customer-centric one: in the latter, founders ask questions rather than provide answers.
Even before launching Silverbird in 2021, we invested significant resources—tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours—into interviewing customers. While customer interviews and ‘customer development’ are prevalent, few founders genuinely take the time and effort to learn from these interviews. At Silverbird, we conducted over 180 interviews with exporters across nine markets as part of our pre-launch product and customer discovery process. These interviews continue to inspire our product team and inform our decision-making.
In the end, the role of a founder is not to dictate, but to build, listen, learn and empower. The shift from a founder-centric model to a customer-centric one hinges on embracing the wisdom that our product teams and customers offer. My journey from Wikimart to Silverbird isn’t just a business transition, but a testament to the transformative power of decentralised decision-making and genuine customer engagement. Remember, in the world of product-led organisations, it’s not the founders who provide answers; rather, they ask the right questions, serving as catalysts for a dynamic, customer-oriented innovation process.