The Dan Melinger Hypothesis: Product-Led Growth Leaders Align Companies and Teams on the Fundamentals

Dan Melinger has led the development of disruptive products in broadcast and social media, gaming, education, and commerce. His consultancy, Realtime Lab, works with companies and projects of all stages. Previously, Dan served as VP Product at FanDuel, where he developed the company’s newest games. He’s also started product companies Socialight and Edco. In this episode of the Product Science Podcast, we talk about how he’s navigated the transition between the early-growth stage to building teams out to have what it takes to succeed in the long run.

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Resources

Questions We Explore in This Episode

The Dan Melinger Hypothesis: Product-Led Growth Leaders Align Companies and Teams on the FundamentalsHow did Dan get his start coming from a nontechnical background, and why did the company he worked for only hire liberal arts people to do technology work? How did he end up in the NYU ITP program, and what did he get from it? What’s the story behind Red Burns founding that program in 1979? What was it like being in that program after the 2001 tech bubble burst? How did Dan get into location-based services before they became popular, and why didn’t his product take off? How did they pivot?

How do you know when it’s time to pivot? What kind of tells were there to know how to make the right decision? How do you build towards your goals rather than your client’s? What disagreements did Dan have with his team along the way?

How did Dan transition into a product management role? What was it like transitioning directly into a product leader role? How do you maximize business value in a product role? What was it like facing state regulations at FanDuel? What happened when individual states started to regulate the daily fantasy sports industry, and what was Dan’s nightmare scenario? How did they customize their product for each state’s individual regulations? How did those regulations create a moat around FanDuel and DraftKings?

How did Dan’s team collaborate with product based in New York and engineering in Scotland? How did they use OKRs to help with that? How do you know if this kind of objective setting from business leadership will be effective? Why is product in a unique position to judge organizational alignment?

What are Dan’s experiences working in organizations that are growing quickly? What are the problems that come with rapid growth? How do you avoid becoming bureaucratic as you grow? How did Dan realize he wanted to focus on early-stage growth? What does he teach about going to MVP in the space of a few weeks?

Quotes From This Episode

FanDuel was a really interesting learning experience in terms of being an outsider and not being in the customer set for the product that I was creating, which is both good and bad I think. - Dan Melinger Click To Tweet FanDuel did a great job parameterizing all these variables, understanding what states might pass, and putting that into code to launch a new state when regulation passed without having to create a new product. - Dan Melinger Click To Tweet You need to understand how you measure success. That's the key results, the KPIs, or metrics, that are ideally numbers, and you define what looks like success, you can point to that and say, is this working or is this not? - Dan Melinger Click To Tweet If you're having trouble working with a stakeholder, it feels like you're speaking about two different things, the best tactic I've come up with is, go back to the fundamentals of what are we trying to achieve here? - Dan Melinger Click To Tweet As a product leader, my main responsibility during the growth stage would be to grow the team. - Dan Melinger Click To Tweet

Transcription

Holly Hester-Reilly: Hi and welcome to the Product Science Podcast where we’re helping startup founders and product leaders build high growth products, teams and companies through real conversations with people who have tried it and aren’t afraid to share lessons learned from their failures along the way. I’m your host, Holly Hester-Reilly, founder and CEO of H2R Product Science.
Holly Hester-Reilly: This week on the Product Science Podcast, I’m super excited to introduce Dan Melinger. Dan and I are going to dive into his path into product and some startup experiences and what he’s doing these days. And Dan, why don’t you actually kick us off with a little bit of the 10,000 foot view of your background.
Dan Melinger: Sure. Hey Holly, it’s great to be here. Really excited to be on your podcast. So I started out my career way back in 1999 as a technology strategy consultant, and I came out of an undergrad program that was liberal arts, I wasn’t technical but got into this technical field. Really interesting thing about the company that hired me was that they only hired liberal arts people to do technology work, which from the get go it was like, “Okay that’s interesting.” But now thinking about it in retrospect makes so much sense because what they were trying to hire wasn’t deep technology work, it was good communicators and good analysts.
Dan Melinger: So started out working for financial services companies, large banks primarily. And that company was acquired by a mobile startup back in 2000, so this was the first bubble era, kind of the heart of it, crazy money just flying around and they raised more money than they knew what they could do with. And their investors said, “We want to see….” This is the acquiring company. “We want to see some revenue.” So what do you do? You buy a consulting company because they just have revenue because they’re professional services. But that got me into mobile really early. So I’ve been doing mobile stuff since way before they were even calling them apps, back in 2000, doing a lot of Blackberry stuff in finance back then.
Dan Melinger: And that’s where I started, I guess building my own products, is we actually did have some products that we were building for customers at that time, but when the bubble burst, I went back to school. I almost went to get an MBA, I had taken all the tests I needed to take, but decided kind of last minute to apply to a program at NYU called ITP, Interactive Telecommunications Program, one of the best decisions I ever made. Two year masters program that brings artists and engineers together with the idea of creating social change. I felt a little bit like an outsider in that group, because I neither identified as an artist nor an engineer. I thought of myself as kind of businessy and analytical, but that was great because I was exposed to all these people now, it was a lot of group project work. So got to get my feet wet in working in design and in embedded technologies and things like that.
Holly Hester-Reilly: That’s really cool. Before you go on, I just wanted to ask, so I’m aware of ITP, listeners will know that I’m from the New York ecosystem and I got started in the startup scene in the, I guess mid to late 2000, and I remember that learning about it through the startup scene here because people all loved to go to the show.
Dan Melinger: The show, that’s how I learned about it too.
Holly Hester-Reilly: So I’m super sort of interested to hear a little more about that. How old was the program at the time that you joined? And what was sort of the zeitgeists like?
Dan Melinger: Well people who don’t know a lot about the program are surprised to hear it was founded in 1979 by a woman named Red Burns, who was a pioneer in the New York tech community going way back that far. And the founding story is wonderful. She saw the Sony Handycam and she said for the first time now the tools of creation are in the hands of everybody, everyone can now create an additional consuming media, how is this going to change the world? And so in 1979, I think LaserDiscs were new in the ’80s and then into the 90s it was CD-ROMs. But it was really theory based as well as application, so it was always like a good mix and as the technologies evolved that folks were using, they kind of had that theoretical backing to it.
Dan Melinger: And I had been going to these shows because I had a friend at work who told me about them. And luckily I worked on Broadway, so it was just a few Broadway in the village, it was just a few blocks over from NYU. So these shows, and if you are in the New York area or can make it, I highly suggest going if this is your thing because they’re just like fun houses of interesting applications of technology to all sorts of things. I mean, you can’t put it all in a bucket, but it’s everything from embedded systems and clothing, through to data analysis of internet users globally, all sorts of stuff. And so it was like a playground for me those two years.
Dan Melinger: This was really interesting because when I started ITP it was 2004, I started 2002. So this was right after the kind of tech bubble burst in 2001 is when people were applying. So it was all of these expats from the West Coast, primarily if you were in tech world who were coming to this and saying, “Screw the profit motive. I want to be an artist and I want to use technology for the greater good.” And so there was so much passion and energy behind… This is when the halcyon days of social media, as we can call it, back in 2007 or so much later, where just opportunities were endless. And so it was a super time to be there. And I founded my first company out of a project that I was doing at ITP called Socialite, which was a location-based social networking app or social network. And it’s so difficult to talk about right now because this was… Facebook was not even big at that time, it was still in schools when we started this company, trying to resolve the big thing. And the iPhone was not going to come out for another three years. So we were doing location-based stuff. Some might argue way too early, but kind of at the bleeding edge there, which was just a fun place to be. And it’s wonderful, wonderful program.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Are you comfortable telling us more about that? I know it can be hard with… I’ve got some of my own, that kind of story, something we were doing and later something like that becomes a thing. But how did you end up deciding on location-based as being one of the central pieces and what did that journey look like?
Dan Melinger: No, I’m totally comfortable talking about it and I love… It can get awkward, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately and you think about it, the impetus for this project and it was actually… We started it out for a class that was… The mandate in the class was what will technology look like, what will sharing personal media look like 10 years out. So I should’ve gotten a clue from that, and that we actually I think follow through on 10 years out, but then founded the company one year out. Maybe it was too early, but that’s all in hindsight. But what was happening at the time where iPods were the thing, and Apple had just started selling those white buds in your ears. They still had wires back then. And so walking around the streets of New York city, we saw people with these white buds in their ears and we’re like, “All right, this is cool, people love listening to music.” But they’ve created effectively these bubbles that are surrounding people as they navigate their worlds.
Dan Melinger: So on the one hand you have these bubbles, people are kind of in their own worlds while they’re in this very public space of the New York city street. While on the other hand we have these great new technologies that we’re starting to see on friends during Facebook, of social networking that are connecting people anywhere regardless of whether you both live across the street from each other or someone’s in China. What we thought was maybe we can leverage social networks with these new technology to actually pierce the urban bubble and get people connecting with each other in new ways in the urban landscape and around location. So location was really key to it. And the premise was, we’re going to let you share stories connected to place. Story could be text, pictures, audio, whatever. You place it in a spot, we call them virtual sticky notes. And then someone coming by might find it and if it’s a friend, it’ll actually get pushed to you on your phone. You’re going to buzz, “Hey Holly left a note for you here, she says try the falafel or what have you.” Or I might leave a poem in a spot under a tree because I think that it’s a beautiful place to read this poem or tell you a story about where I had my first kiss.
Dan Melinger: So that’s how we started it. It was just this really open platform, and over time I guess we built a nice fledgling community. Tens of thousands of users picking it up from around the world. We got noticed in the press and we were kind of seen as trailblazers and it was difficult to be blunt because this is pre iPhone, you needed a phone with a GPS chip in it. At the time that was only Nextel and Boost mobile phones, certain types of phones, and you had to sideload it. There was no app store, it was super difficult to adopt. So people were using on the web and then it was amazing that some people were using it on mobile with how hard it was to do. And there’s a lot of lessons that we learned because we built probably the biggest one was around focus. We built it as a very generalized platform. And what we’ve seen in the days since then is location-based content, that’s huge in so many ways. But each application probably has its own idiosyncrasies and its own needs and its own value that it can create.
Dan Melinger: And so see apps like Yelp, which it’s just the restaurant reviews. Whereas, that was a component of our stuff. So what we learned was focus. What we also learned was, distribution is key. Your customers have to be able to use your service that you offer. And we made a smart decision in 2008 to pivot, just post iPhone. We started getting a lot of demand from existing groups, communities, companies that had location-based content and wanted a way to distribute it and get it out to their customers or to their audience. So we pivoted and actually became a B2B2C platform for creating apps around location-based content. And that proved to be successful, as a freemium app, as a free way to use it. And then you could also launch your own iPhone app, you had to pay for that. And so we were powering with that model, companies like Travel Channel, they’re location-based city guides called Travel Channel GO. So you could see a video of Anthony Bourdain when you were in Chicago and looking for pizza for example.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I’m going to ask you some questions there. So a couple of things that I was thinking about as you’re doing that. One of them is, did you raise funding or did you go for all that time through bootstrapping or something?
Dan Melinger: It was a combination. We bootstrapped and raised some angel funding. We started out totally bootstrap. We actually were spending half of our time building software games that actually were around location-based real city play. And we use the income from that to basically put it into development and hiring and building of the company. We raised a total of about half a million dollars throughout our time, which lasted between 2005 to 2011, so pretty decent amount of time but kind of basically we’re at a point when we pivoted where we had a decision to make it, we either needed to raise a serious round or we needed to kind of find a way to make revenue. And at the time it was somewhat of a personal decision as well as kind of a business decision. We’ve been at it for a bunch of years, saw the opportunity but then saw kind of what it would take to build to where we would need to be if we raised a few million dollars and made the choice to be a kind of normal, I guess, mom-and-pop business, not a big internet story kind of thing.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah for sure. I think the whole story is amazing. So the other piece of that, that I wanted to hear more about is the experience and the decision making meeting up to that pivot. Because I think a lot of people we talk to, whether they’re leading a product or leading a company, get faced with those decisions. And when we hear the stories about them, sometimes they sound like it all makes so much sense, but I know it might not have as you were going through that. Can you paint that story for us a little bit more?
Dan Melinger: Yeah. I mean, it was a tough choice because it felt like pivoting was in a way giving up on the dream and it was a choice that, the kind of leadership and running the company made that was not easy, and it probably in hindsight would’ve been ideally made a little bit earlier. Yeah, go ahead.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Sorry. How many people were working at the company at the time?
Dan Melinger: I think about a dozen or so.
Holly Hester-Reilly: And how did you even sort of… Did you do discovery work or did you intentionally say we want to go figure out what our opportunities are? Were these things kind of just in your face? How did you even know?
Dan Melinger: When we were in our face, luckily. We had a lot of incoming, a lot of incoming demand and we had done some work for customers previous, so we saw what it could look like as we were bootstrapping. Bootstrapping can be a great way to build a business but also a really difficult thing because… especially if you’re trying to build something that’s a platform and where you know that it will take some investment to get to a really large size, you have to make the decision when faced with, say an agency. We did a campaign for Ford Motor company and that was our first big paying thing and we had to make a decision as I think anyone trying to do something similar does, of do you take the cash or not, and you should only take the cash if it brings you closer to your goals.
Dan Melinger: And it’s always going to… I think like when someone’s paying the bills, they’re going to have some [inaudible] and so they’re going to be able to steer you a little bit, but you have to feel comfortable that you have your goal straight ahead. They may steer you two or three degrees to the left and you’ll have to do some extra stuff that’s not going to move you towards your goal. But if it’s two or three degrees, that’s okay. But maybe if it’s seven or eight or nine or 10 degrees, you’re going to have to get back there. And so how do you build and how do you also build out your statements of work with your customers so that you own what you do and that you own what you need from what you do, like the platform itself in this case. And so that you’re building towards your goals and your objectives rather than building solely towards someone else’s. It’s a hairy and fuzzy problem.
Holly Hester-Reilly: And I think you just described that really well and in my experiences what you’re just describing there is not only true for a small or a smallish startup that is doing something B2B or has been doing client work and trying to build something facing customers, but is also very much the case in all B2B platform companies of any size. I think it’s just the scale of those conversations and the negotiations and the work to make the decisions becomes different because instead of it being a small team of people making the decision, it’s like the whole department of sales versus the department of product and engineering and tech. But I think that core challenge of, do you have a picture for how the work that you’re going to do to close this sale and this amount of money, not only gets you the money, but also gets you further towards the vision you have for that platform. Is one of those pieces that I see so many people struggle with. And so I’m curious to hear within your time there, was that something that you felt pretty naturally? Like I’m going to fight for this and it’s pretty clear. Or did you end up having any large, let’s call them debates, where you had to make some tough calls?
Dan Melinger: So hard to remember these days to an extent. I’m not going to completely believe my hindsight, but I feel like I had a basic understanding of that conceptually that we’re going to have that. That if we’re taking money in, we’re going to build something that’s configurable, for example, so that it’s a configuration file on a per client basis versus a complete fork of the code for example. And I think we understood that, and maybe in part because we started out totally bootstrapping, working on something completely different that was not bringing us at all towards our goals. So I think maybe that learning was built in from that. But that does not mean we didn’t have big arguments and big debates because even once you understand that conceptually it’s really hard to predict what is going to be useful in the future. And if you don’t have a clear picture in your mind of what the future looks like, there’s a lot of unknowns. And so we generally agreed on our vision but we weren’t always in agreement on exactly how we should get there or how the market is going to play out. So there’s risks involved and you have to sometimes just jump in and try things out. But the best you can do is jumping in with open eyes.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, totally. All right. So tell me more how you got from there to here.
Dan Melinger: Yes, sure. So in 2011, Socialite was acquired by a company called Group Commerce. We realized again, kind of this platform model, we could blow it out, probably raise funding to do that. At that point I was CEO, my co founder had left, gone to Facebook and I was sitting there kind of like I’ve spent seven years of my life on this, I love it but I’m ready to try something else. And so after Group Commerce, I was asked to work there, I had to work there for a couple of years. And when that happened, they said you’re going to be director of product, director of product management, and I didn’t know what product management was. This was 2011. That was not a known term to me. I could guess but… I did some research and realized, “Oh, okay, this is the kind of function I’ve been playing, or one of my hats when I was CEO at Socialite.” We never hired someone with the title product. And so it felt relatively natural, the work of product manager, a product owner.
Dan Melinger: That said, I was already going into a position as a product leader, as a director, so that was a new function for me. It’s kind of meta but how do you build great product people? And so that’s how I got into product, and certainly made some mistakes along the way but had a lot of fun doing it. And then from there Group Commerce… I was there for a couple of years, that eventually got sold and around that time went on to start something else, which was an education fundraising. I still have that entrepreneurial bug and I love creation and the early stages of things, which is kind of brings me back to where I’m going now, which hopefully we’ll get to in a moment. But yeah, I kind of from there on embarked on a bit of a journey of product leadership and how do you maximize… At the end of the day, I think product people are trying to maximize business value just like most people in a company, and you have a particular way to do it as the product person. And how do you do that by cultivating a great product culture and great product leaders and great product managers and owners?
Dan Melinger: And then after EDCO, which was the education fundraising startup, I was at FanDuel for three years, if anyone knows the history of FanDuel between 2015 and 2017, it was a wild, wild ride. FanDuel’s a daily fantasy sports provider. And few months after I joined, started going through a state regulation. So learned firsthand about what it’s like for your product to get regulated.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Hold on here. I know nothing of regulated fantasy sports. I mean, I’ve worked with people in regulated industries but what happened with regulation at FanDuel?
Dan Melinger: So essentially I joined in January, 2015, I started as a consultant and through my time as a consultant, it was just a three month project, I basically recommended, let’s build something new and actually I was given the resources and the team to build it. And then in the fall of 2015, the bottom dropped out of the industry and this happened. Basically the industry is treated through a loophole I would say, and most would say in federal legislation, that basically allows fantasy sports and playing fantasy sports games for money. The idea behind fantasy sports really, really quickly is, the fantasy is that you’re a manager of a sports team and you choose your athletes, and then you derive benefit when your athletes that you drafted do well in the actual real world games. So NFL players draft a team of players and then your team, which can come from multiple teams, play against other people’s teams. So fantasy sports for money was legal, whereas sports gambling is not legal or was not at the time, federally, and now fantasy sports-
Holly Hester-Reilly: I still need a bit of clarification because I just don’t happen. I’ve only ever played a fantasy sport like one time and it was definitely for free. So when people played fantasy sports for money, where is the money coming from? Who’s bringing the money in?
Dan Melinger: It’s a good segue I think because… So when this law was enacted, and the law is called [inaudible 00:25:53], it was created basically to make online poker illegal a bunch of years back, and at the time fantasy sports was mostly fantasy football and you just played for a part at the end of the season. So your team would be in essentially like competition with all your friends teams over the course of a season, at the end they pay out some money. What daily fantasy took from that was, it basically took this season long game and compressed it into a single day, or in the case of NFL a single week, and the money came from other people you’re playing against, just the same as Season-Long. You might put in $100 for this season in the Season-Long, but you might put in $100 for a night in NBA and lose that money or win more money quickly.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Now I see how much that sounds like sports betting.
Dan Melinger: Betting just makes move a lot more quickly, it’s more liquid and there was a lot more money on a per player basis. They are worth more. The business models are completely different, if you play… Most people know Season-Long Fantasy, if they play it. And the business model there for companies like ESPN or Yahoo that are the big players, it’s advertising. But for Daily fantasy it was actually transactions. They take a piece of each transaction. And so the more people play, if they’re playing daily, you’re taking a piece over and over.
Holly Hester-Reilly: And what kind of… I don’t know if order value is the right thing here, but what would someone pay for a day of managing a team?
Dan Melinger: It was really up to you in a really, really wide, [inaudible] of that. It could be a dollar or it could be $30,000. We had players that would wager large amounts of money and they were kind of famous on our system. And then you’d also have players who were much more casual and just playing to have some skin in the game because it made watching sports more exciting.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Thank you for the background lessons since I didn’t know that industry at all. So you were working for FanDuel when this regulation came in and so then what happened? And what was that like?
Dan Melinger: And by the way, Holly, I worked for FanDuel not having ever played fantasy sports before myself nor being a big sports fan. So it was also really interesting, learning experience in terms of being an outsider and not being in the customer set for the product that I was creating, which is both good and bad I think. But what happened in the fall of 2015, is we were essentially… There were two major companies in daily fantasy, FanDuel where I worked and DraftKings. Together we controlled about 98% of the daily fantasy market. There were some upstarts, but since they were marketplaces, the more users you had, the more useful the platform is to the players. And we were essentially accused of insider trading, where there was some privileged information in terms of how many players drafted this sports player, player’s a really confusing term when you’re talking about fantasy because we have our own players, but they’re also sports players. Very meta.
Dan Melinger: But there was an accusation of insider trading. I believe it didn’t happen, where an employee of the other company may have gotten some information from our company about who the players were choosing. And you could basically wager on that information because if the crowd’s going that way, then you follow the crowd, you might not make as much money, and so you can make choices based on that. I don’t think that insider trading… What we were accused of actually happened, but it didn’t really matter because at that point it was clear that there were some… It holds in kind of the information and without regulation and without some standards around who can share what with whom, it’s not a level playing field for our players and they’re going to lose trust in the platform. And that’s what happened.
Dan Melinger: So they lost trust and governments lost trust, we were shut down by the New York State Attorney General. So even our officers in New York, and you couldn’t play in New York for a long period of time, but little by little, and actually more quickly than most people thought, because there were a lot of players who love these games, states enacted regulation that would protect players essentially. And the nightmare that I had as a product manager is I thought what was going to happen was, we were going from a one size fits all one product for the US and Canada, which is where you were able to play, to potentially 50 plus different products because each state had its own set of regulations.
Holly Hester-Reilly: That’s a nightmare.
Dan Melinger: Super, super scary. And I’m not going to take credit for building out our regulatory compliance because I was working on some different games at the time, but FanDuel did a great job of… We’re talking about for parameterizing all of these variables, understanding what the States might pass, and putting that into code to launch a new state or to update a state when regulation passed was not creating a new product but was actually just saying, “Okay, Delaware says if you’re over 20,000, then you need a little icon that says you’re an experienced player.” Things like that. And we got through it really, really well actually. The industry was never the same. It never kind of had the frothiness, we were unicorn for just a few months. We were valued at over a billion bucks, but that didn’t kill us. And I think it actually in the end created a moat around us and our competitor, because it became expensive to enter that market. And if you look at healthcare and other well-regulated industries, these modes can be really, really deep.
Dan Melinger: And what would we mean here is essentially, I’ve got to get over that moat of building in processes and flows that take into account all the regulation before I can even legally operate. And that can be really killer for a small company. We had the money to invest into it, the time to invest, so we made out okay.
Holly Hester-Reilly: There’s a lot of things in that, that I think are great to hear. I certainly know there are product managers in all of these regulated enterprise industries, but a lot of times they have trouble figuring out how they get to apply the best practices that we talk about and things like that because of their challenges. So I actually really love the engineering side of that story, the parameterizing, the conditions and just being able to come in and say, “Oh, okay, well they set this law in this state, so we’re going to put this value in here.” That’s really awesome.
Dan Melinger: And I think part of why we were so successful was cultural. It was a very product led company. I’ve been at companies that are more marketing or sales led, but we were thinking about these issues and we were very conscious of them from the get go, and our engineers were very product minded engineers who were thinking about the use cases as they were building things out. So that engineer might not have had a specific requirement that said parameterizing this, it’s a hard word to say, but kind of was able to guess, “Hey yeah, this is something we likely might want to have as a variable later, so let’s just make it a variable for now even if there’s only one use case right now.”
Holly Hester-Reilly: To get a little bit tactical on the day to day of a product manager for a minute, how did that culture manifest? What were the ways that conversations would typically go? Were there any sort of rituals that the teams followed that created that sense of shared ownership and collaboration?
Dan Melinger: So even though we had a strong product culture, that’s not to say everything was hunky-dory and perfect. And one of the biggest challenges we had at the time of FanDuel was that product was located in New York while engineering was located in Edinburgh, Scotland and later also Glasgow, Scotland. And so there was a lot we had to build into, our processes and our ceremonies to take that into account, because we were very much like a team that worked together and we’d see each other from time to time, get together either in New York or in Scotland, but had to build things into our processes that account for the fact that we’re not co-located and we only have a few hours of overlap every day. And that’s I think you have to admit from the get go, that a situation like that is not the most efficient. Synchronize work hours would be awesome and would be ideal, all sitting next to each other would be ideal, but hey, that’s not life, and let’s build for the situation that we’re in.
Dan Melinger: And so we did that and a large part of it, I will credit kind of a shared understanding of business goals and what success looks like, as being probably the most important kind of underlying need in order to overcome this. And we actually did that through OKRs, we introduced OKRs while I was there. And the Chief Product Officer, Tom Griffiths, actually kind of spearheaded that. And I worked for Tom and I wanted to get really involved in that and I helped with the organization rolling them out and OKRs are objectives and key results, and they trickle down from the top of the organization when fully implemented. So you’ve got your organizational objectives, then your team objectives and then maybe within your department objectives, within your team objectives. And then once you’re fully executed all the way down to individual executives. And those fall from each other.
Dan Melinger: And when you can have very clearly a stated objective for your team that everyone understands, and part of that is understanding how you measure success. That’s the key results, the KPIs or metrics, that are ideally numbers, and you define what looks like success, you can point to that and say, is this working or is this not? And you all generally come up with the same answer or can at least get to the same answer. And that was a great tool for aligning us and also for ensuring that people understood at any given moment, whatever they’re doing, am I helping us work towards the achievement of these objectives? And that really helped us as an organization. And since then I’ve helped other organizations kind of implement OKRs, and I found it to be… It can be tricky, especially if the organization already has that philosophically like, “Oh yes, we understand we’re objective focused,” many don’t, and that can be tricky because it’s a cultural shift. But I think it’s incredibly powerful cultural shift and often one that it’s worth investing some time and even some pain in making.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, I agree. And I think in many ways some of what… I love where you ended there because the beginning of that story almost made it sound too easy. Well, we all agreed on what outcomes you’re trying to drive, and so it works but it’s not always that easy and it depends a lot on the culture and the mindset of everybody there. And I’m curious if you have any experiences or examples that would help somebody who isn’t so sure. Maybe someone who has not lived through an OKR rollout that clearly drove value in their organization. How would you know? What are the things you look for, or what are the things you saw at FanDuel or your client’s today that help you say, “Oh yeah, they’ve got the right mindset, they are talking about objectives, they are focusing on driving towards the same goal.”
Dan Melinger: Well, I think we are talking a bunch about how OKRs can help a product development team. But that way of thinking is also incredibly helpful for the product manager themselves when they’re working with other stakeholders throughout the organization. And as you’re doing your job as a product manager, and as you’re talking to stakeholders about what their goals are, and how they envision achievement, the product manager is really well suited, and maybe I would argue and I’m curious what others think, maybe even best suited to understand whether or not the organization is aligned in terms of its objectives. Because as a product manager you’re always trying to distill those and you’re listening to others and if you hear all wildly different things from your own personal manager versus the marketing team versus finance, then there’s probably some misalignment there and therefore there might be some underlying cultural problems that you might be able to help try to solve, but you’re probably not going to be able to solve on your own. It’s a shared thing.
Dan Melinger: But what you can do is call attention to those and you can also do your part in your own work to align. Because if you’re having trouble working with the stakeholder, maybe you’re just hitting a wall, it feels like you’re speaking about two different things and you’re knocking heads. The best tactic I’ve come up with is, go back to fundamentals and what are we trying to achieve here? I think about what is our goal here. And if you can agree on that, then you should be able to build a logical argument that say, “Okay, well, then this is how we should build toward achieving that goal.” If you can’t agree on that, then you’ve got to figure out how to get there. And then that’s a deeper problem. But usually even somewhat healthy organization, you can get to some agreement on core goals. They are the stakeholders, usually it’s coming from them anyway. And so the problem would be if you’re having two different ones or multiple.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I think that makes sense. And I mean obviously I’m probably biased too because I work with product people all the time and I love products. But I mean I would agree that we’re certainly in a great place to see if there is [inaudible] or not, because we get such a wide view of every organization. And I think that’s part of why if you’re in a true product management role at an organization that really practices all the facets of it, it’s just such good training for all sorts of directions you could go because you get to see all the things.
Dan Melinger: Yes, yes, yes. Totally.
Holly Hester-Reilly: So you sort of touched on your work with some companies and that sort of thing now, but tell me a little bit more. So after FanDuel, you’re now doing consulting?
Dan Melinger: Yeah. So I didn’t get there immediately, I realized basically after FanDuel that I had been through growth stages of companies twice, and once where it was… And by growth stage, I mean this is startup, you’ve had one or two rounds of institutional funding, venture capital infusions into the company, you found your product market fit, you’ve got revenue and the revenue models is basically figure it out. Now let’s throw some capital in to really grow the thing out and multiply it. I’ve been through that stage twice at Group Commerce, the company that acquired Socialite, and then at FanDuel. I saw the problems that can happen when you grow and I saw how it can work best. FanDuel did a great job going from, I think under 100 people, around 75, 80 people when I joined, to over 500 people in a space of nine months. It was crazy. You’d come into the office and there’d be tons of new faces and you had no idea if they worked for FanDuel or not.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Oh, that is super fast too.
Dan Melinger: And Group Commerce similar, not as fast, but I think we went from about 60 to over 300 in about a year. And so I saw what worked and what didn’t. And Group Commerce in general, it felt bureaucratic really quickly. There were fiefdoms that kind of generated and cropped up. FanDuel, we kept the culture and it was amazing to see how you could multiply the size that much and still feel like the same company. And so I thought I’d take those learnings and take them to other companies going through that same stage. So I spent about a year doing that and I realized that as a product leader, my main responsibility during the growth stage would be to grow the team. And I enjoy that. But it also took me away from the early stage work that I really love of ideation and invention and creation from zero, it’s an awesome opportunity to be able to do that. And I figured if I can do more of that more times, like a higher frequency, that would be good.
Dan Melinger: And so a few months ago I entered a new experiment for myself, which is, “Hey can I do this as a consultant?” So I started up a company called Realtime Lab. For now it’s just me, and I have a few clients that I’m helping in a few ways, but the main model is learn by doing. So one of my offerings is called rapid MVP. So it’s go from zero to MVP in the space of a few weeks, ideally with the team that you have so that we can all learn together and bring it along for the ride. And then I’m also helping some companies with… Just really focused on team building as well as kind of process audit, looking at processes and helping companies to be more effective. A lot of the things that we’ve been talking about over the course of this time.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, that’s awesome. I think your clients will really benefit from all the different experiences you’ve had and the things that you’ve seen and the perspectives, because there are far more people who are eager to learn how to do these things and there are those who’ve lived through it. We’re in the world’s day so more coaches the better.
Dan Melinger: And I work with companies all over, but I think in New York in particular, feels like we’re a bit late to the game in terms of understanding how product can get built most effectively versus maybe the Bay Area. And I see a ton of opportunity here to help companies kind of get up to speed there.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. Awesome. Well, I think this is probably a good place for us to wrap up. Do you have any… Well, you mentioned your company, where can people go to find you?
Dan Melinger: Yeah, Realtime Lab. I’m at rtlab.co. Just look us up there and get in touch. I love having conversations with entrepreneurs and with product people. So feel free to reach out to me and discuss your need or just discuss things in general. And it’s been a real pleasure chatting with you, Holly.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Awesome. Thank you Dan. I’m so glad that we got to talk. Well, thank you so much.
Dan Melinger: Thank you.
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