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Bring your digital product from validation to success with thoughtbot

Bring your digital product from validation to success with thoughtbot

Karen Wilson
thoughtbot serves the entire product development ecosystem with product consulting and web and mobile software design and development.

Please describe your personal journey with thoughtbot and what is the most impactful thing that you have done since joining?

I joined thoughtbot in August 2018 as Managing Director of the New York studio. I became CEO in September 2020

We went through a reorganization right after I became CEO. And I think that that is probably the most impactful thing because we evolved away from the local office structure in the US and the UK into a more global fully remote team.

What model does the company use, fully remote, on-sight, or a hybrid? How has this impacted the business?

We are fully remote.

Moving to fully remote did have an impact on the culture. For example, many people miss working from the office while others would not have it any other way. Some folks who really did not want to work remotely moved on.

We are going to bring the entire team together once a year. We have a trip to the UK planned for May. Everybody in the company that is able to travel to the UK will meet in person for workshops, cross-training, fun activities, and meals together. We’ll also add a few touristy activities. The trip will allow us to build that in-person bonds. We may also have had in-person breakout meetings with teams later this year.

Please explain the four elements of your delivery model. (Ignite, Lift Off, Boost, Mission Controlthoughtbot teams (005)

I mentioned that we did a reorganization. This reorganization happened in January 2021, and we wanted to have an organizing principle. So, we chose the rocket theme.

We have Launchpad one, which is the Americas (the totality of North and South America). Then we have Launchpad two which is Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, and then we have Mission Control, which is global.

Using the rocket theme, we thought it just makes it easy to understand our reorganization, around the product development lifecycle and the different teams. These business unit names are used internally. Although, we have shared them externally, as I am doing now.

As part of our reorganization, we expanded our offerings with new services including product management and DevOps expertise. Adding product management and DevOps to our existing design, mobile, and full-stack development skills allow us to differentiate ourselves with an end-to-end approach, helping ideate and validate (Ignite), build, launch and go-to-market (Lift Off), scale, and transform (Boost), and maintain and support (Mission Control) products at every stage of our client’s product journey

When a company signs up to work with you, will they engage with all four teams?

The client may engage with all four teams, but not necessarily. Let us say that a client starts with Ignite because they have an idea. Together, we validate the concept and then the client goes to get funding. When they come back, they may need Lift Off to build the MVP and go-to-market. Once the idea starts to grow; they might go to Boost to scale. So, there is an opportunity to be with us throughout every team all the way through to support and maintenance, which is done by our Mission Control team.

However, the majority of our clients only need one division (generally Lift-Off and/Boost) they do not need to go to each one.

Has this trend been impacted by COVID?

Yes, I think what has been interesting is that we didn’t have a Mission Control team before COVID. So, the support and maintenance team did not exist pre-COVID. That is brand new.

Another interesting learning is, within Lift Off, we realized the need to have product managers to manage the build and launch of a product.

Another interesting thing to me was how valuable Ignite is. Ignite is a small team that is very focused on the early stages. But it is so valuable because it helps clients mitigate risks. So, for example, if a client has a business idea that they want to run with it is safer to go through a period of ideation and validation before they start building, because they could save themselves a lot of money. The Ignite team helps clients identify the real user problem, hear from their users, their customers on how their product is really resonating, and helps build out prototypes. It is a great starting place for entrepreneurs. I think it has been very valuable for people now because needs are changing so fast, that being able to validate quickly is important.

What level of support can your customers expect when signing up to work with you?

The level of support our clients receive is high and bidirectional. Early in engagements, we share the team communications clients can expect from us, along with project stakeholder expectations guidelines that clients can provide on their end. We find that when we both live up to these expectations, our relationship really thrives.

Team Communication Expectations
  • Collaborative: We work collaboratively, openly, and closely with clients. Everyone on the team understands the problems that we are solving. No knowledge should be siloed.
  • Respectful and transparent: Everyone on the team speaks transparently to each other. Hiding concerns or anxiety only makes hard conversations harder. We encourage each other and clients to address issues, together, as they come up. Respect regular working hours.
  • Clear and direct: The clearer we communicate, the faster that we will be able to move. We believe in being direct in feedback and speaking through the lens of problems and your customers.
  • Friendly: We enjoy helping our clients solve problems for their customers. Our personality and energy show through in our communication.
Project Stakeholder Expectations
  • Be Committed: We are dedicated to the project, and we expect that clients share that focus. Be prepared to commit at least 8 hours and up to thirty per week working alongside our team. Be present in Slack/Basecamp and during Retrospectives.
  • Take Ownership of Feature Priority: We’ll work together to define and prioritize the work to be done. While we expect to have input, clients have ownership of and responsibility for what is being worked on.
  • Run Acceptance Regularly: We expect clients to run through acceptance on a regular cadence. This is the last chance to provide concrete feedback before the feature is deployed to users. Clearly communicate if something does not match expecations and move it back to Next Up. If the work matches the acceptance criteria, celebrate it!
  • Communicate Between Secondary Stakeholders: We define secondary stakeholders as those who are not part of the day-to-day. We encourage our primary contact to regularly communicate to secondary stakeholders what the product team is working on and why, and regularly communicate any feedback from the secondary stakeholders back to us.

What makes thoughtbot stand out from other similar companies?

There are several characteristics that make thoughtbot stand out from similar companies.
  • Our tenure and expertise. We have been building products and helping clients for 18 years and we have built over 1,000 products. We have helped clients through many types of situations and have expertise that clients can leverage.
  • Our cross-team ecosystem agile approach: Our designers, full-stack and mobile developers, and our project managers work in self-contained units for holistic build.
○ Our designers are unicorns, skilled in user research, UI/UX, prototyping, and frontend development.

○ Our development team is full-stack, with capabilities including Ruby/Rails, Python/Django, Elixir/Phoenix, iOS, Android, CSS, HTML, JavaScript, React, React Native, EmberJS, AngularJS, and SQL.

○ Our product managers guide the creation of the MVP roadmap and keep the team working toward desired outcomes.
  • Our thoughtfulness. True to our name, we inject thought leadership, we believe in sharing our knowledge. We offer:
○ Upcase, a free training platform to level-up design and development skills.

○ Our podcasts are super popular:

■ Giant Robots, podcast covering entrepreneurial success stories.

■ The Bike Shed, podcast where developers share their experiences and challenges. ○ “Bot thoughts” blog on a variety of topics, including:

■ building a product: from zero to MVP;

■ data engineering;

■ technical considerations to help scale products; and more.

○ Open-source libraries to empower others with the tools we use to work more efficiently and masterfully. Our open-source Sass toolset, Bourbon, has been downloaded more than fifteen million times in the last few months.
  • Competitors frequently admit that they have duplicated our best practices, that is published on our website in our Playbook

What is thoughtbot’s greatest achievement over the last two years?

  • Greatest accomplishments within team
○ We have several achievements both internally within our team and on the client end.

○ Within our team, I am extremely proud of how our team came together to attain our financial sustainability goals in 2021. We delivered extraordinary financial results, with strong profitability during a period of reorganization and despite going fully remote and overcoming the ongoing challenges of the COVID-19 variants.

○ As a fully remote organization, we no longer maintain physical offices. Since we are no longer restricted to hiring talent from the markets where offices are located, we are now able to hire the best talent across the United States. We also added talent in Brazil, Mexico, Ireland, Scotland, and Nigeria.

○ We are planning a trip to the UK in May where we will bring the entire company together.
  • On the client end:
○ In order to protect client confidentiality, we are not able to share some of the work we are most proud of because of NDAs.

■ I can share that we helped a client with a web/mobile app serving their blind customers.

■ And last year when the pandemic was raging, we helped a client help consumers with vaccine registration.

■ We have helped clients build mental health and other health applications that help their customers relieve pain and suffering.

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