Scaling Product Management in a Single Product Company

Arto Tolonen

Product Manager & Team Lead at Smartly.io

Engineering

When I joined Smartly.io 3.5 years ago as the first product manager, the company’s total headcount was 20. Today, we’re 200 people across the globe, and we’re managing $1B in annual advertising spend for our customers.

The Product team has grown, too. I’m currently leading a team of six product managers and two designers. One thing hasn’t changed—we’re still working on one product. We believe these three things are mission critical in scaling product management with multiple development teams working on a single product with a global customer base: 

  1. On the high level, everyone is aligned with the vision and strategy.
  2. Teams are independent but have clear objectives that are inspired by the vision.
  3. We keep everyone posted about what’s happening in our product development.


How We Steer Our Product

We’ve split our 70-person engineering team into independent, self-organizing teams that own a certain product area from start to finish. The teams are built full stack; they have all the skills needed to figure out what features to build next, as well as building and shipping them. Development teams work iteratively and ship in increments: we deploy continuously, pushing code to production 10 to 20 times a day.

Self-organization could easily lead to chaos. Team objectives, inspired by our five-year product vision, are our way of aligning everyone to work towards the same goal. Our strategy guides how we prioritize setting up new teams and which missions we equip them with. Then, the team sets measurable goals they believe will help them accomplish their mission.

We’re big fans of Marty Cagan’s conceptual model of dual-track product development where product development progresses on two parallel tracks:  The Discovery track and The Delivery track. The former generates validated product backlog items and the latter focuses on producing releasable software.

The dual-track model promotes cross-functional teams with strong objectives and measurable goals. It’s the teams’ responsibility to determine which features and functionalities deliver on the overarching product vision and then work systematically to reach it.

For example, one of our most recently established development teams was given the objective to scale the production of engaging ad creatives. They cooperated with their product manager and product designers to come up with an idea for the recently launched Video Templates solution to automate video creatives at scale. Read more about the process below.



Product Highlight: How We Built Video Templates

Video is performing great on online channels, but producing them is difficult. It can take months to convert your idea into a beautiful video. Video Templates allow advertisers to build good-looking videos quickly from existing elements. You can pull image or video assets from any product feed, combine them with other still or video assets, as well as modify and customize templates with an in-tool video editor. All content updates automatically to reflect changes in the product feed or the template design.

Imagine an e-commerce company has a million products and five images per product. Creating videos manually for all those products with all the images wouldn’t be feasible. The video template feature takes in all that input and automatically creates a video for each product with the product images transitioning in and out, accompanied by dynamic elements like name and price.

The two most important risks we wanted to validate were whether customers found the feature valuable and if it was technically feasible. Validating perceived value for customers includes a wide range of details: we had to know if they wanted to run these types of video ads, if they will be able to produce videos on their own, what creative standards might limit the visuals, their organizational bottlenecks, and so on. We often make design prototypes to validate usability and value for customers. This time, we chose another approach to find out if our customers were into using this type of videos in their ads.

First, we pitched the solution to a few customers to see if it sparked interest. Then, using the Wizard of Oz user validation technique, we tested the feature by taking the input (photos, product information, prices, and discounts) from a dozen of their products and manually create the kind of videos we’d expect our solution to provide. Finally, our customers tested the videos in their advertising campaigns. They got good results and wanted to create more similar videos, which convinced us that the feature will be valuable to customers.

On the technical side, we needed to validate if we can programmatically create these types of videos with enough efficiency and at scale. We reviewed three to four technologies and selected the best one to build the first hard-coded template and tested it at scale. After building the first version of the product, a feature gate system allowed us to test and validate early versions of the feature with a limited number of customers, and continue developing them based on feedback. We shipped the feature with ready-made templates and now we’re extending to a more advanced video editor.


How Our Product Teams Know What to Build Next

B2B companies usually struggle to understand what their customers need because they aren’t a representative user of the product they’re building. We are using our tool in our own online marketing, but the size of our budgets and the complexity of our activities are quite far from the likes of eBay and Uber. That’s why we must cooperate closely with our customers to understand what advanced advertisers need from a world-class automation and optimization platform.

Fast prototyping plays an integral role in bringing customers and engineers on the same page. In the early days of Smartly.io, our Chief Technical Officer and Co-Founder Tuomo built prototypes during customer meetings to validate the solution before the meeting was over. Back then, the team spent every other week building the product at the customer’s office.

Today, we invite some of our most advanced customers to workshop with us in Helsinki each month. We look to understand their online marketing goals and figure out how we could help. Customers sit down with our development teams to show how they use the platform. These workshops equip us with actionable feedback we can leverage in product development.

We also began offering managed service to some of our biggest customers to get an even closer view of what is happening on the market. Taking responsibility for their budgets and managing their ads as white glove service wasn’t part of our original company vision, but we believe eating our own dog food (or drinking our own champagne, if you like) helps us understand our customers’ pain points and respond to them faster. Part of the managed service team sits close to our engineers at the Helsinki office which helps maintain a quick feedback loop.


Keeping everyone in the loop

As our company grows and becomes even more decentralized, keeping all engineers, customer-facing teams and everyone who does customer support (which is all Smartlies!) informed about what’s happening in the product gets increasingly challenging. We have to pay even more attention on communicating also internally about what’s going on in product development, and make sure feedback flows smoothly from team to team.

The vision, strategy and team objectives are open for all Smartlies, and we get to discuss our vision and strategy at the biannual company-wide offsites. The most important communications media on the product development pipeline, however, are our all-hands Friday Demos, where the Engineering and Product teams tell what they’re working on, give updates on new features, and share early design prototypes with the entire Smartly.io team.

Sharing prototypes to the whole organization is a key ingredient in keeping all Smartlies informed, as well as giving everyone an opportunity to give feedback early on in the development process.


We’re constantly launching new development teams to work on new product areas. We’re looking for two Product Managers and two Product Designers to help the new teams validate, prototype and ship new features. 

Learn more and apply!

Arto Tolonen Arto Tolonen

Product Manager & Team Lead at Smartly.io