Karthik Suresh is the Co-Founder of Ignition, a collaborative hub for Marketing & Product teams. Karthik is a product and a technology leader with experience as a founder, an early startup hire, and a key player in defining product strategy, and finding a market fit.
In this episode of the Product Science Podcast, we cover Karthik’s lessons learned in being an entrepreneur trying to find product market fit. We also cover what it’s like to be a product manager at an organization like Facebook building features that affect users at large scale. And we answer how to build a go to market strategy for businesses of varying stages of development.
Questions We Explore in This Episode
What was Karthik’s journey into product? How did Karthik get involved in startups? What was Karthik trying to change in the world of money lending with his first startup? How does understanding your target market differ from a founder to an investor? What lessons did Karthik learn during his first startup? How does a startup survive initially starting its sales cycle? How does sales cycle and relate to target market size? What do you need to look for in a cofounder? Why is it difficult to find the right cofounder? What qualities are needed in finding a cofounder? What is the emotional journey of running a startup from beginning to sunset? What personal hurdles do startups need to overcome to reach product market fit?
How did Karthik’s second startup reach product market fit? Why did Karthik need to move to the Bay area for his startup? How do you pivot your target market? What concerns should you have when partnering with a material supplier? What is the market of material suppliers like? What is an ESG score, (Environment, Society, & Governance)? How can you tell if a company is ecologically sustainable? How do you decide when you need to cater to a market or change your target market? How well defined are your responsibilities in a startup? Why are startups more exciting? How does growing in your career in product become more about managing people? How long can it take to reach product market fit? How is product a practice in navigating uncertainty? Why are customer reviews unreliable for measuring success of a product? What passions are needed when creating a startup?
What was it like for Karthik to be a product manager at Facebook? How much of product management is about stakeholder management? How hard is it to align multiple teams on a product road map? How long can take for an idea to receive buy in before it can start to get executed? How much does the scale of a company affect the speed of execution? How does it feel when your help execute features that affect people at a large scale?
Why did Karthik return to startups after Facebook? What attracted Karthik about building startups? How important is a go to market strategy? Why is product design not enough to build a go to market strategy? What do tech founders tend to miss about go to market strategies? How did Karthik and his cofounder Derek found Ignition? How does Ignition help users manage go to market plans? What are the stages of creating a go to market strategy? How is a go to market strategy always unique to the needs of a business? What work needs to happen after a launch? How do you do market research on product managers? How can user research help you uncover a customer’s real pain points? How do you validate user feedback? How in-depth can your customer profile be? At what stage in the development of a startup should you start testing your theories? Why is early startup experimentation more about validation and less about discovery? What advice does Karthik have for a product manager who wants to start their own company? How does being a product manager prepare you for running a business, and what can it not prepare you for? How important is it for product managers to speak directly to users?
Quotes from this episode“I always felt like people over-invest in product management and product development and underinvest in the distribution and go-to-market.” Click To Tweet “A lot of the times it feels like the people in interviews over-exaggerate their pain points, so it's very hard to differentiate what's a pain point people are going to pay for versus it's just nice to have.” Click To Tweet “The skills you need to have to actually build a company are very different from the work of trying to align stakeholders at a large company. You need to really be able to work with very limited resources and to dirty your hands.” Click To Tweet
Holly: This week on the Product Science Podcast, I’m excited to share a conversation with Karthik Suresh. Karthik Is the co-founder of Ignition, a collaborative hub for marketing and product teams. He is a product and technology leader with experience as a founder, an early startup hire, and a key player in defining product strategy and finding a market fit. Welcome.
Karthik Suresh: Thanks a lot for having me on the show.
Holly: I’m excited to have you. So I always begin with a bit of a background on people. So tell us a little bit about your journey to product.
Karthik Suresh: Yeah. So I have a tech background, originally born and brought up in India and I moved to the U.S. for my master’s degree, and then after my master’s I started my career in Morgan Stanley. That was my first job in Wall Street and financial services and after Morgan Stanley, spent six to seven years in high-frequency and algo trading space. While I was at financial services, it was definitely a fun time there, it was a lot of adrenaline-driven projects and lot of war stories during that time. But I always felt like I didn’t really have the impact on user lives. Basically you’re taking money to make more money, and the only thing which mattered to you was your P&L statement, which felt very shallow to me at that point. So I basically wanted to make the move. I went to business school after my career at Wall Street. I went to business school, and while at business school I mainly focused on entrepreneurship, and that’s how I got into startup world and also specifically into product as well. And my first startup was at what it’s called Altruist. It was an alternative lending platform and I started it during business school. I worked on it for about a year, close to a year. By then that things didn’t really work out there and I had a lot of learning still.
Holly: So I’m actually going to pause you there. We’ll go into after that after, but I want to hear more about that. Were you a co-founder, did you found it all by yourself? What did that journey look like?
Karthik Suresh: Yeah, so I was a co-founder and along with another person, so it’s two of us, another one; my co-founder was a really good undergrad friend of mine. We basically started this company called Altruist, and the whole idea behind it was to create an aggregator of loans which you could invest into. So think of it like Kayak but for loans. So peer-to-peer lending was a huge trend at that time, the lending clubs of the world and prospects were taking off during those times. And so we wanted to create a platform where we could aggregate all those loans and then get the investors to invest in these loans for a much higher yield than they were getting elsewhere, so that was the idea. We got backed by Seedcamp, which is one of the top accelerators in Europe; it’s similar to the YC based in London. During those times, I think one of the things we underestimated the most I would say, was the size of the target market. It’s one of the things where you always think about, as an investor, you always think about, “Okay, what’s the target market size?” As a founder, I didn’t really get that. So I think one of the main reasons I say that startup didn’t really do well was because it was a very niche market, there was only a limited set of people who were into investing into loans for higher yield. Given our business model and margins were so low, it was hard to see why this would become a big business. So that was one of the main learnings; make sure you choose a product which has a much larger market size there.
Holly: So I’m curious there, I’m not super knowledgeable about crowd lending. How did what you were doing differ from the lending club?
Karthik Suresh: Yeah. So lending club was basically matching people. You could apply for a loan on lending club, and I think there are the people who could invest in those loans. But what we are trying to build was aggregate all those mini loans into a much larger contract and get institutional investors to invest in those loans. So it’s almost like create like a packaged security out of all those multiple peer-to-peer loans and then get institutional investors like mutual funds, pension funds, hedge funds, everyone to actually get to invest in these loans.
Holly: Okay. So is the challenge that you found with finding enough market, was that related to adoption by institutional investors?
Karthik Suresh: Yeah. So to go deeper into the whole story, whole journey. One, obviously this was my first startup, so literally so many learnings, as you can imagine. You’re always very starry-eyed, you think you’re going to change the world. [inaudible 00:04:33] you obviously change journey, but then you come across some really hard realities;the way the market is, or the customers are. So one, it takes forever; the sales cycle is so long with all these institutional clients and just all the regulations and everything you need to do to even get them to onboard takes now almost six months to a year, which almost like a death sentence for an early state startup. You need to have really deep pockets in order to survive the first couple of years, if you want to play that game. So this all depends on who you’re going after. So we went after institutional clients and we realized first off it’s a really long sales cycle, and two, the number of clients are very limited. So the number of the total market size, when talking about the total number of clients who are interested in investing in such products, were also pretty limited compared to another B2B SaaS app or any other apps, which we could have built. Even a competitor to a lending club, but focused on Euro probably would’ve done better. So going after this more niche market was another mistake, and then finally, there’s also differences of opinion with my co-founder later on as to what’s the future direction we should take this company to. Given this hard realities, which we come across, that’s another learning. I realized the single biggest reason startups fail is not because they lose money or not because it’s a bad idea, but because the co-founders fall apart. People say it’s almost like dating and marriage-it’s true. You really need to find people who you really can believe in and trust. This person was a really good undergrad friend of mine, So obviously even given that still we had differences in opinion of still how to take this company forward. So that’s probably one of the biggest learnings as well. So just to summarize; one, the sales cycle of the target audience we went after was too long, two, the market size of the space we were targeting was too niche, three, there were several differences of opinion with my co-founder. Once we knew that there were all these hurdles in the way. So that’s kind of what happened in with Altruist.
Holly: Yeah, and how long did you end up being in business before Altruist sunset?
Karthik Suresh: Yeah, I actually exited Altruist after a year, but my co-founder continued working on it on his own. It’s still the functioning, but more niche business rather than a venture-backed business at scale. So it almost goes to a year. I think all startups go through this cycle where first there’s this whole cycle of euphoria where you are really high and there are people interested in investing, and earlier opters are really excited about your product and it’s all high. Then the reality sets and it just sinks to a completely new low. A lot of startups die at that stage, but the startups who then can figure out the product-market fit can figure out how to make it to that stage and get back up, actually are the ones which end up enduring over years and succeeding. This is the experience I’ve been taking with me when I joined my second startup and now I’m building my own startup.
Holly: Yeah. So tell me more about what came next. So you joined a second startup. What was that about?
Karthik Suresh: Yes. So after this I joined Craft.co.co as the second employee. I was managing business operations for them. The company was all about company data and company intelligence. More recently, they have pivoted into supplier intelligence. So think of it as, the simplest way to explain, as maybe similar to Crunchbase or CB Insights, but way more in depth data on companies. So you wouldn’t just have the funding data, the people data; we’d also have the ESG data, we’d also have the website traffic, also have the locations data. It’s more of a company intelligence platform. So started out as a second employee there, and it was a very small team in London. Then we got funding in the Bay Area and those are the days when you are asked to move to the Bay Area because you wanted to be close with the investors. It sounds so foreign right now, given everyone’s remote. Now, nobody would ask you to do that; I’m just talking about literally five years ago where the entire company moved from London to San Francisco because our investors asked us to. Here again, it was a fun journey and there’s a lot of learnings, since it was a company intelligence platform, we started targeting people like hedge funds, for example. Hedge funds could use those company data to help them make some good trades in the market. For example, they could analyze the jobs in a company, so they can see the trend of jobs on your website year over year, or a month over month or quarter over quarter and get a sense of how your company’s growing. So this is public data, but hard to access data. That was the first market we targeted.
Holly: So I’m curious there; understanding how many jobs are on our website I can grasp, but you had also mentioned things like website traffic. What were the sources? How did you get the data that you used for this company analytics platform?
Karthik Suresh: We partnered with so many other different data providers. So for example, the website traffic was provided by Similarweb. I think the ESG data was provided by another partner. There’s so many who are niche aggregators of data, but I think we also worked with the data who was doing satellite mapping of company locations, so you could literally see if the factory’s real or not. You could literally see whether a location is fake location or actually, there’s people, there’s foot traffic in that location. That’s very, very important for due diligence and that’s one of the important use cases for supplier due diligence, because imagine you are a very large contractor like Airbus or somebody, and then you want to make sure all your suppliers, when you give them the contact, they actually have operating factories and things like that, which we could get the data for. It was basically an aggregator. So we partnered with so many different data suppliers and we aggregated all of them to one nice package of data on companies.
Holly: Got it. So how long were you there?
Karthik Suresh: Yeah, so I was there for four years, almost close to four years to CDC. So it went from PC to C to CDC, multiple rounds of funding, some pivots as well. I think I mentioned hedge funds, but then we realized hedge funds again, as a target market, was very flaky and they demand a lot. They expected way more high maintenance than some other industries, so the good thing was the life cycle of the market, the sales cycle, was very short. So you could literally sell to them in a matter of weeks. If they like it they’ll immediately pay you, unlike some of these larger corporates, but the problem was they would turn a lot more, and also they would have way more demands. The maintenance was off the roof. So we didn’t realize this is a really bad market to target, and then we tried to target like sales intelligence, basically helping sales people figure out who your leads are, then supplier intelligence, which then became the thing for Craft. The supplier intelligence, as I talked about like the Airbus example, is basically when you’re hiring suppliers to manufacture parts, then you want to do due diligence on them to make sure they have actual factories, you want to make sure they have a really good ESG score, all of the different things, basically.
Holly: What does ESG stand for?
Karthik Suresh: Yeah, so basically it’s the Environment Society and Governance; the concept that how you are contributing to the environment, what’s your green score. There’s different terms for that. All of this dives into the corporate sustainability practices. We want to make sure, for example, if your corporate sustainability goal is to reach a certain threshold or a level, you want to hire suppliers who are also brought into that goal; only then you can actually hit that goal yourself. So that’s the concept of ESG there, but then there’s so many other data points, which they needed to do due diligence on suppliers. That became our thing because then we could get companies with literally multimillion dollar contacts, multi-year contracts, and then they’re very stable, they don’t turn a lot, they don’t have a ton of demands. That’s how we found our product-market fit. So moving from hedge funds to sales people, to suppliers, and this is our product-market fit. Then we raised the seed in a Series A to then grow off of this; to grow the product in this market. So I was there pretty much through the entire phase.
Holly: And what did your role look like throughout those stages?
Karthik Suresh: Yeah, in a startup you wear so many different hats. Your role are not very well defined to begin with. You’re literally doing whatever requires-My main role to begin with was business operations, and then I transitioned into product. When I exited Craft, I was the head of product and helped them build a product and operations and engineering teams. In reality, I would do whatever is required, including marketing, including running ads, including optimizing the pages for SEO. On the other hand, working with data engineers to figure out how do I scrape data off this website to help people get this data? So it was really wide ranging, and I think that’s one of the big differences as well when you’re working for a startup versus a large company, where your role is so well defined in a large company, but in a startup you literally have to wear so many different hats, and you need to be good at it.
Holly: Yes. I am familiar with the many hats of the startup life. When you were almost done and you were acting as the head of product, how big was the company then?
Karthik Suresh: Yeah, I think it was close to 60 or 70 people if I remember right. Now I think there are almost 120 or 130 people; kind of lost track, they’re growing a lot. So basically going from second employee where we are only three people when I joined the company, and when I exited we are getting close to 60, 70 people on Series A stage. So that was a journey there at Craft.
Holly: Yeah. That sounds like a fun journey. How did you like being the head of product versus being that early stage employee?
Karthik Suresh: Yeah, to be honest, I like the early stage employee way more than bearing any kind of head role, because I think what happens as you grow in a startup is you need to deal with more people management than actually product management. At that time, you’re not doing a ton of product management and you’re trying to understand the various aspects of the human intricacies and of working relationships and collaboration; trying to understand the engineer’s needs versus a marketer’s needs versus a salesperson’s needs. Because as a PM, you are kind of in the center, you are working with designers, engineers, marketing people, sales people, and obviously you’re also messaging to your CEO and execs. You’re taking the same product and messaging at different levels to different teams. Stakeholder management, communication, relationship management, people management; all of that becomes more of a focus as the company grows, whereas at the early stages of the company, all you’re trying to do is like get to product-market fit. It’s very limited resources you’re doing, we are hustling and trying to do whatever you can to understand the customer needs and rapidly trade the product to get to product-market fit, which I think is much more fun and exciting than at a later stage of the company.
Holly: Yeah, and how long was the period before you hit product-market fit?
Karthik Suresh: I would say it almost took us one and a half to two years to actually hit product-market fit.
Holly: Yeah, because it can be something that people don’t realize I think if they haven’t been in such an early stage startup. A lot of times we think, “Oh, well, there was just a steady path, and then one day you had product-market fit and then you kept growing.” But actually it’s sort of a plodding along for a while until you hit it, right?
Karthik Suresh: I think there’s a saying that you only fail if you give up. Eventually you’re going to hit product-market fit. It’s a question of when you’re going to give up, because the first idea is never the idea where you hit product-market fit. It requires a lot of iterations and sometimes pivots to actually get to the final product which takes off. So it’s definitely a long journey that people realize, “Hey, I have an idea, raise funding and boom, you’re the next Mo Zuckerberg.” It never happens that way. It’s a long and sometimes very stressful journey because you’re constantly questioning, okay, “is this the right thing I’m building? Is it even the right thing I’m doing for my own life? Should I be doing something different?” Humans are really bad. I think people are really bad at dealing with uncertainty in general, which is why even when you see the markets go crazy, the moment you have any uncertainty, you see the human psychology reflected in the public markets. Startups is like 10 X that level of uncertainty, and every month after month, you get some good sign that, you have this one random customer who’s like, “Oh my God, I’m so excited with your product,” and then the next day the same customer turns and never responds to your email. So you just go through this roller coaster of emotions day after day, month after month. Then when finally one day you hit product-market fit and then you just take off and then it’s such a sweet journey from there.
Holly: Yeah. That’s awesome that you got to experience that version of it. I have also seen the versions where you don’t ever hit it.
Karthik Suresh: Yeah, unfortunately. That’s why I think almost eight out of 10 startups, they never hit product-market fit and unfortunately they have to die and it kind of happened with my first startup as well. So yeah, that’s the hard reality is sometimes you spend one or two years and work as if it’s your baby and then you know that it’s not going anywhere and then you need to move on. It’s pretty stressful for founders to go through this journey. So if you’re not really in it, which is why making money… That’s a really wrong motivation for you to build a startup because you should be really in there because you are really either passionate about that idea you’re working on, or this is what drives you. This is what motivates you. This is what gives you fulfillment in life. This is what determines your purpose of life. Those are the reasons why anyone should actually work on their own company otherwise, and I would think working for something like Facebook or Google, where you’re just getting paid and have a good life is probably better for you, and in fact it was very painful for me again when I got into Facebook and I got to enjoy all the perks, and then now get back into startup again to go through this journey, one more time.
Holly: Yeah. So tell me more about Facebook. So is that where you went right after Craft?
Karthik Suresh: That’s right. I was at startups for a while, so I wanted to see what it is like to build products at scale, and I wanted to see what it’s like to deploy a feature, which is going to be used by millions of users the very next day, for example, which is why I went to Facebook. I joined as a PM initially on the Facebook search team, and I was responsible for the hashtags and various campaigns, like the New York campaign, and Father’s Day, Mother’s Day celebrations on Facebook, where we would encourage users on Facebook to post with “Happy Father’s Day, happy Mother’s Day.” How do you get more people to engage and on these moments, the cultural moments. That was my first gig at Facebook, and then later I transitioned as one of the early growth PMs and Facebook reality labs working on portal in Oculus growth. Obviously this has all become a big deal after the Facebook name changed to Meta and the whole strategy changed to the Meta words, but then it was still relatively early. I think one of the main learnings from the Facebook days was all about stakeholder management; it was very less about product management because you had a whole army of resources at your disposal, UX researchers, designers, data scientists, engineers, so the resources were never an issue, unlike a startup. It’s more about stakeholder management, trying to align different teams on your goals. For example, one of the examples is when I was at Facebook Reality Labs, I was trying to work with the Facebook app org; trying to get them to integrate Oculus and Portal into Facebook. Even though it’s the same company, it was a huge challenge because their priorities were different. So a lot of the work which I did was trying to get those teams to buy in on my team’s product roadmap, so then they would give me enough resources to help me and my team to execute. The interviews in Facebook and Google are like, “Oh, hey, design this data center in March” would be a question, but you never get to do that. What you’re actually doing is, 80% of your time, you just talk in meetings; 9:00 to 5:00 and trying to get people to align, getting approvals from different stakeholders. That was a fun learning, but the good part is of course the scale, the moment the feature drops, you have millions of people using and that’s a very different feeling.
Holly: Tell me more about how you actually do the stakeholder management. So for you, what went on in those meetings where you were trying to align people?
Karthik Suresh: Yeah. So one specific example is as you said, we’re trying to get to integrate one of the devices into the Facebook app. So the devices belongs to the Facebook Reality Lab is a whole different arc, and then the Facebook app is a very different arc. It starts all the way from the top where you first pitch your roadmap, get the buy-in from the VP director, and then once they approve they basically include the PM of the actual team, and then you get on another call with that person where you do the same pitch again and then try to get their buy-in, and then once you get that PM’s buy-in, then you introduce engineers support teams to start working on it, and then you get another call to get the buy-in from the engineers to make sure that they get the vision and the roadmap and why we are doing this, why it matters or Facebook’s mission; how it actually kind of relates the strategy. And then you start executing. So just to get to the idea phase to starting execution, I think sometimes took me two to three months. If you’re working across orgs, if you’re working the same org is pretty fast. I think Facebook is really known for the hack culture, the hustle culture. I think there are times that Facebook, when we moved even faster than at my previous startup and that was fascinating and mind blowing for me, but that happened only if there’s no other blockers or dependencies on other teams; the moment you use dependencies on other teams, then you know, it took months. After all of this, before you go live, you need to get the legal approval, the privacy approval, the policy approval. And that’s a whole circus in its own because they don’t understand the technical requirements and they are trying to watch out for their own goals. So that will take you another two to three months. I mean, it took me almost like anywhere between three to six months to actually launch a feature. All of it was just purely communications, stakeholder management, emails after emails, presentations after presentation, PowerPoints. That was my job as a PM. Unlike what people think is “Oh, you’re brainstorming these fancy new ideas and then implementing.” That happened, but that was 20% of my time. 80% of my time was getting buy-in.
Holly: And what were some of the features that you launched?
Karthik Suresh: Yeah, so on Facebook Reality Labs, for example, one of the main things we wanted to do is get more distribution and more eyeballs for our own Facebook devices. So that’s why we integrated, for example, there’s a separate tab on the Facebook app, just for Portals and Oculus, where you can actually click on it, know more about all the devices and features available. Then we started integrating the photos, for example, where all the photos you take to Portals can now be available on your Facebook feed and vice versa. All the photos you post on Facebook feed are now available, so on Portal where you can use it as a slideshow. Portal is more like a tablet, it’s a competitor for Alexa and Google Home devices. So I think getting all of those integrations is what made the devices powerful. Those are some of the examples of the features I launched on the Facebook app side, when as a PM, as I mentioned the Thanksgiving campaign, Mother’s Day campaign, Father’s Day campaign; getting users to post, for example, a picture of them with their mothers or fathers along with some memories and then posting with a hashtag “Happy Father’s Day” and getting other people to like it and post it. That was my main goal. So those are some of the things I worked on while I was at Facebook.
Holly: Yeah, very cool. It must have been fun to be able to reach so many users.
Karthik Suresh: That’s the exciting part. That’s why I would say irrespective of everything which goes on, I really loved my job at Facebook because of the impact I was able to have. Obviously there are other sides of Facebook, which I wouldn’t go into in this call. There’s obviously a lot of privacy concerns, there’s a lot of politics unfortunately Facebook is involved in, but the good part of Facebook is being able to impact millions and millions of users in different geographies and countries and across cultures and being able to see that. I could literally see those statistics on my analytics dashboard as to how many people created those hashtags and how many people liked those hashtags, shared their memory of with their mother and then mothers reacting to that story, and those were really gratifying, I would say.
Holly: That’s great. So what did you do after that?
Karthik Suresh: So yeah, while at Facebook, one of the things again, I was always itching to go back to the startup world because I always felt like that’s where I belong. That’s where I got my fulfillment, and also I got the highs, I would say. Generally, I would like to think myself as a risk-taker where I kind of thought that Facebook was a pretty stable job for my own liking, and I wanted to get into more of an adventure. One of the things which kept nagging me or bothering me, whether at Craft or at Facebook was there were so many tools for engineers and product managers, but there was no tools for product marketers and go-to-market in general. I always felt like people over invest in product management and product development and under invest in the distribution and go-to-market. So there’s this saying that you build an amazing product and users will automatically come, but users don’t come. If you go to Product Hunt, Product Hunt is a perfect example where I see amazing products, but they’re all in search of users, and most of the products just die unfortunately, even though they’re amazing. I think one of the reasons I hypothesize is a lot of these people who start companies are ex-engineers or ex-PMS, or people with tech background and they don’t understand or realize the value of investing in distribution and go-to-market; and they over emphasize and over invest in making sure in scalability and robustness and all of those things from a technical side of things, but under invest in the distribution. I met Derek, who’s my co-founder; he was an early employee at Rippling and he led product marketing for them, and he was at PlayStation and other companies before. We had this idea that we really need to build this tool to help people create go-to-market plans and manage all their go-to-market processes in one place. So we started building Ignition; the website is haveignition.com and Ignition basically a source of truth, or one platform where you can build your go-to-market plan and manage all your go-to-market processes in one place.
Holly: Yeah. What I’m curious about is actually what elements of a go-to-market plan are you making easier with your software?
Karthik Suresh: Yeah. So if you look at a traditional go-to-market plan, even at Facebook, I was involved in launching one of the devices. It was a huge spreadsheet with some 30 sheets, and that was basically their go-to-market plan. There was one tab or one sheet just to keep track of all the meetings happening.
Karthik Suresh: So if you look at traditional go-to-market plan, first you need to have very clear objectives and KPIs for the launch, then you need to think about who the target audience is. Then once you figure out who your target audience is, your ICP is, then how do you position the product to them? How do you position the product to them with respect to their competitors? Then you think about messaging. What’s your value prop, what’s your elevator pitch? Then you think about pricing; how do I buy this product? After that, you think about what channels can I use to get to this target audience? And here, a lot of people do it wrong because if you’re creating a new category, you shouldn’t invest in SEO because SEO is for people who are already searching for an existing category. So you need to make sure what’s your marketing objective? If you’re a new category, you need to invest in content generation, versus if you’re an existing category and if you’re a crowded market, what you need to do is target the customers of your competitors and maybe undercut them with some discount codes. So the channels you’re going to use in your go of market, it’s going to be very different based on what your marketing strategy is and marketing objective is. And once you figure out which channels you’re going to use, you need to work with a copywriter to generate copy designers, to generate assets, and then get approvals from various stakeholders from the legal team, from your boss, from the executives to make sure they’re all in line with the brand. And then on the day of the launch, you need to make sure that the engineers have shipped the product before you’re in a whole-A live check in process to make sure marketing approves, legal approves, sales approves, engineering approves, and then you go live. Here’s another mistake: when you do a launch and you go party because every launch is a success. Because there’s literally no accountability or attribution, so there’s not a ton of measurements which happens. Post-launch, you really need to invest in understanding what is the attribution to all of these dollars invested in all of these marketing campaigns? How many leads did you generate? What is the Delta? This is another big issue as well. So right from the time you are planning to launch during the launch, and post-launch, there’s a whole set of quarter market planning process; all of that is done in spreadsheets and Google docs and Notion, sometimes the tasks are done in Asana, but there’s no one place where you can do this entire planning, and that’s what ignition is for.
Holly: So tell me about your user research and experimentation at Ignition. What does that look like?
Karthik Suresh: Yeah, so user research; specifically for Ignition, when we started the company, the first step was to interview about 50 product marketing managers or PMMS. They are typically responsible for the go-to-market and launch plans in companies. We also see that’s one of the fastest growing job functions in Silicon valley. So I’ve interviewed about 50 of them trying to understand their pain points, not pitch our solutions, just purely understand their pain points, trying to understand if there are pain killers or vitamins, and also among all the pain points they listed, which ones were the most painful. A lot of it came down to like stakeholder management, again as well, because as a PMM you are dealing with messaging the product feature to your customers, your marketing people, you’re enabling the sales, you’re creating a sales enablement for your sales people, you’re training your customer success. So a lot of the pain points were around stakeholder management, but just going through these interviews and then also making sure we can get the right signals. A lot of the times it almost feels like the people over exaggerate their pain points, so it’s very hard to differentiate what’s a pain point people are going to pay for, versus it’s just nice to have. So you need to get a “Hell yeah,” versus just a “Oh yeah, I would use it,” versus a “Hell yeah, I absolutely need it,” versus just a yes versus a no, because I guess people lie or people just want to make you feel nice and they just say, “Oh yeah, oh my God, you built this. I’m absolutely going to use it,” and they never respond to you again. This is like a common learning from my first couple of startups, so we’re trying to avoid that. It’s so hard to be honest, even after doing three startups at Ignition, we still met so many users who said “I love this, I would absolutely kill to get access to this,” and then they don’t respond. That whole process of getting through this noise, then trying to figure out, okay, what you really needed is maybe competitive intel to track your competitors or market research to actually use our product, and that’s journey on its own.
Holly: Yes, I totally understand. It can be really hard to identify the difference between someone who’s just saying I’ll use it and the people that actually will.
Karthik Suresh: Yeah, and also the size of the company. Initially you’re like, “Okay we are startups, we are going to go target other startup users,” and then we figured out that maybe they’re not the right target market for us. The larger companies are the right target market for us because they see the pain point much more because there’s a lot more collaboration, stakeholder management, and this wrangling of things you need to do before you need to actually launch the product. An early stage startup where you probably have a very simple launch template, so you may not need a fully developed platform for yours. So then we realize, okay, maybe we need to do a separate product for founders and versus larger companies. It’s not just about users, it’s also about figuring out where do these users live? What kind of companies do they work for? What’s the size of those companies? Do they already have an established go-to-market process, or do they have nothing and they’re looking to establish this process in the first place? Trying to figure out all of these characteristics of your persona, which then you define as your ICP, our ideal customer profile. It’s a journey, I think it took probably around six months for us. It took a couple of years at Craft to get there. I think at Ignition we probably took about six months to get there.
Holly: What about experimentation? Is that a piece of how you develop products there?
Karthik Suresh: Yeah, so I think the experimentation comes in when you have some kind of a scale. What I’ve seen is in my earlier startups, when you start experimenting too early, it almost feels like not an A/B test, but the A/A test; it’s not statistically significant, and more often it ends up being noise than anything else. I would say when you’re actually starting off building a product, a lot of it is hypothesis driven, intuition driven, and also your own founder’s experience in this domain. Because for example, both me and Derek have almost 15 plus years of experience in launching products. So we know the pain points ourselves. The experimentation is more on implementing a feature rapidly, getting to an MPP version and then getting that in front of the users to see if the users like it, versus A/B testing a feature with 10 users, which doesn’t work. So more of the experimentation, the earlier stage, it has been about validating our hypothesis, validating to make sure this is the hypothesis we have, this is what we think is the biggest pain point, let us build a MPP a solution for this to address this pain point, put it in front of this 10 users and see they actually use it, like it, and solves it. That’s more of what our experimentation has been. It’s more of an iteration on the existing feature rather than like running some kind of an AB test.
Holly: Yeah, absolutely. Experimentation can be A/B testing, but it can also be other things as well. So testing your hypotheses is great. What would be your advice to a product manager who’s thinking of founding their own company?
Karthik Suresh: Yeah, that’s a great question. That’s actually, I feel, a loaded question. Let me answer it in two different ways. One, just for anybody looking to start a company, as I said, don’t do it because you want to make more money or you want to become famous or any of those calls; it almost never works, make sure you’re really, really passionate about a certain idea or a domain, and three, understand all the compromises you need to have in your lifestyle and having the mental stamina to deal with the roller coaster of the ride, especially in the first two years of finding product-market fit before you actually want to jump in. Specifically for a product manager, I would say just because you have been a PM at Google or Facebook for 10 years, doesn’t automatically make you an amazing founder. The skills you need to have to actually build a company are very, very different from trying to align stakeholders at a large company like Facebook. You need to really be able to work with very limited resources and be able to dirty your hands, and whether you’re writing copy for a website, whether you’re trying to write SQL queries to pull the data, you need to be able to do all of that in order to be successful at starting companies and then make sure that is for you. Finally, I would say listen to the users, separate signal from noise. It’s also funny how many product managers I have spoken to or interviewed that have never spoken to users because they have researchers for speaking, and they just read that. Don’t do that, please speak to the users first.
Karthik Suresh: Be able to differentiate signal from noise because users will always be like, “Hell yeah, I love what you’re doing. Go for it. I will use it. I will tell all my friends to use it.” No, in reality it’s very rare that it actually happens in the very first six months. It takes time, so be sure you’re ready for it.
Holly: Yeah. That’s great advice. Where can people find you if they want to learn more?
Karthik Suresh: Yeah, please feel free to follow me on Twitter. It’s literally twitter.com/ my first name, last name: Karthik Suresh. Or LinkedIn, I think my handle is Karthik Suresh LBS, so you can feel free to connect with me or follow me on Twitter. Our website is haveignition.com. It’s H A V E I G N I T I O N dot com. Feel free to sign up for a free trial, give it a spin and let me know any feedback because I think this is a really important process; the whole distribution go to-market-process, which I think the industry has start up. And I truly believe this will increase the productivity and the success rate of startups and large companies.
Holly: Awesome. Well, thank you so much Karthik, it was very nice to talk to you.
Karthik Suresh: Yeah, thank you so much for having me on the show. Enjoyed the conversation.