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10 Questions with a Master Product Manager: Mik Lernout [Hootsuite]

10 Questions with a Master Product Manager: Mik Lernout [Hootsuite]

It became pretty clear in our conversation with Belgian born, Mik Lernout how he has become such a successful product manager. It’s all about the customer, and he believes it to his core. Mik Lernout is the VP of Product at Hootsuite, a social media management platform. Although, that’s not how Mik would describe his product…

P2M: How do you describe your product?

Mik: “We believe that social is the most relevant and personal channel that exists. The way that people market and sell is radically changing. Social changes radically as well. Hootsuite is a “trusted advisor” to all things social media.”

P2M: How and why did you become a product manager?

Mik: “I’m originally from Belgium and moved to Vancouver 13 years ago to join a startup called Munic technologies as an engineer and very quickly took over the R&D team or ‘product management team’. At that time product management was so new and the title of ‘Product Manager’ didn’t really exist. It really was just a bunch of engineers coming up with stuff.  
 During that time I had a bit of an existential crisis and realized that just building things is not good enough. You need to analyze and build things that make sense for your customers and for the business that you’re in.
I then found a mentor who was an experienced product manager and then I hired product managers and created my own startup which was then acquired in 2016. Even though I’ve started a few companies and have had various jobs at Hootsuite, I’ve always used the principles of product management as my guiding methodology as I approach problem solving and execution in anything I do.

P2M: OK, we’re curious, what is the product management mindset in your opinion?

Mik: “I actually find it surprising how many product organizations or companies don’t really talk about customers that much. They think about building, shipping, marketing and selling the product but there is no large internal advocate for the customer. I think product management has only become customer focussed in the last 5 years. Previously, PMs were stakeholder managers and made sure that all of the departments internally are satisfied. I don’t subscribe to that PM style. I’m really interested in the other side which is as being a complete advocate for the customer inside of the company because that’s really what the job is and that mindset is really clarifying in any conversation. Customer’s expectations have increased over the years. It’s not good enough to just put out a product that does something. It needs to be great, valuable, delightful. Companies have to meet if not exceed customer expectations now. At Hootsuite, we are fortunate because we have a lot of people who think about the customer all the time. We are pretty passionate about the “Jobs-to-be-done” theory by Clayton Christiansen, which is the understanding that when people buy something they are not just buying a product they are really buying a job to be done. They are spending their money on a resolution for their problem, need, or desire that they have. We take that to heart and build deep empathy to understand our customer’s job that needs to be done so we can build products to fulfill that job. That is really the product management mindset and something that deeply interests me.”

P2M: What part of being a product manager do you like the least/most?

Mik:I’m a huge fan of customer visits. You meet with a lot of customers and get all this information. Then from that information you come up with a plan to develop something, you work with designers and developers to build it, then you ship, then you work with customers to get feedback and improve. You get your payoff when you finally get to talk to customers and hear their excitement of the value that you’ve built. That’s why you do it in the first place, to create that delight and value for the customer and when it rolls out how you imagine it will, and it doesn’t always, it feels incredibly good. The downside is this whole process is quite difficult. The work of a PM is often invisible within the org unlike other job functions. It’s also a misnomer that we have authority. A PM is usually an independent contributor. You need to know a lot of information about development, the customer, and the market so you gain the privilege to have influence and make decisions. That in itself is really rewarding but also very challenging. I guess in all, the downsides are needed to make the upsides that much sweeter.”

P2M: What is the worst and best product feedback you’ve received?

Mik: “As a PM you get a lot of negative feedback. Perhaps I’ve just built a thick skin but the majority of the feedback you get is negative but it’s not really negative because they want your product to be better and so do I. Sometimes you get novel information but often when you push something out you always know that it could be better. So when I get that feedback I almost always agree. It’s the job really, to always strive to make things better. One of the best moments happened recently when we launched Inbox a couple months ago which is a way for companies to manage the private messaging on social channels. We’ve seen this tremendous change in social media that customers are connecting with businesses around them via direct or private message. When we shipped it, a couple days later a couple dozen agents were changing the way that they looked at social and how they were managing and connecting with their customers. We introduced them to connect with their customers through direct messaging and gave them an easier way to manage this new channel all at once. That was really exciting to see that we were able to influence these companies to change the way they were managing their business and connecting with their customers.

P2M: Ok, rapid fire time!

Describe your product with 1 adjective.
  • “Helpful.”
What are the top 3 skills needed to be an effective product manager?
  • “Build empathy with your users and customers. Lead through influence. Have strong opinions.”
If you could have one piece of data or insight into your users, what would it be?
  • “What does winning look like for them?”
What advice would you give to a young PM?
  • “Spend less time worrying about what is happening inside your company, and way more talking to and thinking about your customers.”
Tell me about another product that you love or product leader that you admire?
  • “Instagram is such an impressive example of product restraint and innovation. To be performing at that level of scale and still retain that focus is mind blowing.”