Why I traded Private Equity for Product

This post was originally published on Mind the Product on August 15, 2018. Cover Photo by Paul Biondi on Unsplash.

Kate Moss wearing a brown Jaeger jacket
Kate Moss wearing a Jaeger jacket (Source: The Guardian, Photograph: David Bailey)

Last year I marked my fifth year of working with private equity firm Better Capital and its portfolio companies. Today, however, I’m the Chief Product Officer of a small digital advertising startup, making difficult product decisions and helping the company to grow.

This is the story of why I traded private equity for product.

I spent my days at Better Capital working with private equity veteran Jon Moulton, and helping to acquire, turn around, and then sell companies. The companies in the Better Capital portfolio came from different industries, including metal parts manufacturers, software companies, and fashion retailers; in general they were all well established, often with a successful past, but had hit trouble usually because of a failure to adapt. Most of the companies were large, overly complex, and in need of modernising.

This was the situation at 130-year-old fashion house Jaeger, which I joined to help set and deliver its strategy for the next few years. Significant online growth and international expansion was part of the plan but first we needed some large technology projects to be completed.

The in-house IT team at Jaeger was not used to agile working practices or newer technologies.

They were still running on-premise hardware and had spent many years in maintenance mode. We partnered with more agile third-party technology companies, many of which were startups, and delivered projects including an omni-channel order management system and a cloud-based data-management and reporting system. In mid-2017 Jaeger’s brand was purchased by Edinburgh Woollen Mill, and having worked with the business for two years it felt like the right time to move on.

So I thought about what got me out of bed in the morning. I’d enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of my work; specifically, using data to understand a problem in detail and then come up with creative solutions. It was really exciting to see technology taking a bigger and more interesting role in those solutions – the things you could do! I also liked working in fast-paced environments with lots of change, variety, and ambiguity.

For my next role, I decided I wanted to work with technology to solve big strategic problems in a young company that moved at pace. Product was the discipline that could give me that.

Becoming Chief Product Officer

Through an old boss I was introduced to Cleoo, a digital advertising startup with ambitions to disrupt the traditional agency model with automation and artificial intelligence and I joined them as CPO in January this year. Cleoo’s core product is a digital advertising service using software built in-house that creates and manages ads across Google, Bing, Facebook and Instagram on behalf of clients. The automation enables many different versions of ads to be created and published with a few clicks. Algorithms work to shuffle budgets and adjust bids to promote the best performing ads on a daily basis, which would otherwise require a team of digital marketers. The business’s USP is that it offers affordable cross-channel advertising to small and medium-sized businesses.

The CEO had been the owner of the product and though it had served the business well to date, it was likely to struggle to scale much further.

I was brought in to take the reins on the product strategy and roadmap in order to deliver Cleoo’s growth ambitions, build up the product team and work with the CEO and CFO on Series A funding.

I started by asking simple questions to test the clarity, alignment and focus of the leadership team. We were preparing to speak to potential investors, so razor sharp answers were crucial. Questions included:

  • Who are our customers?
  • What is our product?
  • Why would customers pay for our product over someone else’s?
  • Is the current business model viable?

Though the concept of a digital product was new to me, I could use my data-analysis, strategy, and problem-solving skills to assess the business model and plan. This, coupled with an understanding of what technical capabilities and choices we had, helped us to refine the product strategy so that we could focus on a narrower and more profitable customer base, satisfy these customers better, and grow.

Alongside the long-term view, I also dug into the biggest current pain points. Here, I looked to gain direct insights from the wider team and understand:

  • What are customers asking for?
  • Why are customers leaving?
  • Where are the biggest bottlenecks and/or inefficiencies in the current product or associated processes?
I had to be selective in what we worked on since the team was very small and we didn’t want to waste time working on things that would have little impact.

First six months

Unsurprisingly, the first six months have been busy, challenging and not without bruises. One of my biggest learnings has been to move from always being in “action-mode” to sometimes taking a step back and letting ideas simmer. Though still early days, we’ve managed to deliver some pretty simple but effective product and process changes that have worked well.

For example, the sales process has been tweaked using forms, Google sheets and automated emails. We can now provide customised proposals leading to more sales, get more immediate customer feedback resulting in better ad campaigns and front-load the campaign production process relieving internal bottlenecks in operations. Next steps will include embedding this fully into our systems. Some projects or features such as a much-needed rebrand have been consciously put on hold to maintain focus.

We’ve just had our best quarter ever, with roughly a 40% increase in sales compared to the same quarter last year. Product performance is improving. We have ambitious growth plans and a clearer view of how to get there.

Five questions to ask yourself if you want to shift to Product

My transition to product has been fun (so far!) and I’m excited about how the discipline will challenge me.

Moving from one traditionally male environment into another (I’m the only female on the leadership team) I am also more convinced than ever that more needs to be done to encourage diversity, especially in senior leadership positions.

With diversity, you get a much richer collective pool of knowledge and ideas. You’re also more likely to be understanding and empathising with your customers’ needs accurately.

Finally, to anyone considering a shift to product, I would encourage asking yourself these five questions, they have helped me on my journey:

  1. Do you like solving problems?
  2. Are you comfortable with ambiguity?
  3. Are you a good communicator?
  4. Can you put yourself in other people’s shoes?
  5. Can your other domain skills give you an edge in a product role?

If you can answer these questions positively and have the fire in your belly to pursue this change, then I say you should go for it, it’s definitely worth it.

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