We dive in and answer some of digital entrepreneurs' most typical doubts and challenges.
Héctor Giner co-founded Z1 in 2015, after years of working for several software companies, and realized that user needs were often neglected when creating digital solutions. Since then, Z1's team of digital experts has helped 140+ startup founders and experienced companies from around the globe build products that boost their businesses.
In this interview, Héctor talks with the experienced and highly valued Michelle Reid, who is VP of Partnerships and Growth at Z1. Together, they share some of the most important lessons they’ve learned in helping early-stage founders and entrepreneurs. They discuss what a digital product actually is, how to focus on simplicity without sacrificing beauty, why an honest partnership is so important, and how to break out of echo chambers to build award-winning businesses that investors love.
What really is a digital product?
Michelle: I don't come from a product background, but I've been learning around all the experts on our team for years. I think the critical defining element of a product is something where users are interacting, they're inputting and the product is returning real value with some sort of input.
What I like that our team does, is focusing on only a couple of critical jobs for the product to do, simplifying, almost saving, our clients and our partners from their selves, getting them out of their own echo chamber to just focus on a couple of critical jobs for this product to do. So that way we can test, we can take it to market and test that the product is delivering real value and that the users are interpreting that value correctly.
Héctor: Well, I think that's pretty accurate. Also, I would like to focus on the service overall. We help people build services. We like using the term digital product because it's a little bit more abstract. We usually start thinking about ideas, thinking about business goals, about market opportunities, and we are not super focused on the final context or final deliverables. We are focused on building a product, and then we can focus on building a mobile app or building a web platform, or wherever it makes sense for the business itself.
It’s not just an interface, it’s a business
H: Thinking about products and not specific deliverables is great for the team, and for us overall, to focus on the user needs and the business needs, and help funders succeed in the best way.
M: And not just crafting the interface, but we're sort of helping these early founders think about their business, how to grow a business around this product, and not just what it needs to do now, but what it can do down the road.
H: Our compound learning through the years helping a lot of people and a lot of companies have helped us to understand different ways to build a platform or product and to find a market fit with a minimum viable product with the right jobs to be done, with the key elements, and then add users to find that product to be useful or to be solving their problem, and not just building for the sake of it.
We usually say that what we deliver is more than code or pixels, it's about how we're shaping up the products we build collaboratively with our clients and partners in order to find the right thing to do and do it right. And those are the main things that we had been always focused on.
Focus on a simple product, but don't sacrifice beauty
M: You mentioned a key term that we hear a lot and we coach on it sometimes: this idea of a minimal viable product. I think we're starting to coach people to think a little bit broader even though we focus on a simple product without sacrificing beauty.
I think that the user expectations just generally in almost any category now exceed what is minimally viable. So we coach people I'm thinking about the minimum perfect experience. So do a couple of key things well, but beautifully. Expand a little bit more on that how we think about that idea of a minimum perfect experience.
H: An MVP is a term that has been widely used last years in order to help founders get rid of the typical feeling of trying to be a lot, or trying to provide a lot of things to the user. And that's not right, or is not always right. It’s better to focus on the right thing that you're trying to solve and solve it right.
The thing is that in the past, probably, you could focus on just building some things, trying to test them with users, and solving certain problems in whatever way that you can. Now the market is more competitive every day, and also users have a lesser span of time to focus on every solution, so the design part of each product can be the difference between a success story or not.
One thing that we’ve achieved at Z1 is to create that design culture between the product designers and product managers, and also engineers, where we find that it's not overkilled to create a beautiful interface degraded, an engaging product from day one, even you know, not needing to build too much for it.
Deliver products that fit the market
M: And you touched on very lightly a little bit about how we layer skill sets inside of each of our product squads that are working together all the time to develop expertise and certain types of experiences. One thing I really like is that our product managers are not just thinking about taking orders or just acting on the ideas of the partners that we're working with.
We're often working with first or second-time founders, really early-stage teams, who have hypotheses to be tested. But what we want to do is ensure that we're not just delivering a product for our clients’ wishes but thinking broader about how we're going to deliver a product that fits the market for the right users.
H: Exactly. And that's part of any winning strategy: every company must define what they want to solve in the market. And that was our goal as well. So we know that there are agencies with blue sky thinking for branding, positioning, all that type of work. But also there are dev shops with higher hands that you can outsource for scaling up your internal team. And those are great value propositions. But we didn't want to be there, we wanted to be in the early stage, supporting partners to think about the whole thing, and trying to think about the market fit, but also the right team, the right timing, and the right scope.
We think that's critical to find the best way to be a successful company, especially in the digital environment, because nowadays everyone has access to a lot of tools, a myriad of resources, and different technologies or ways to build platforms. So this experience trying to understand what's the right thing to do at every single moment, and how to craft a plan about the scope, the technology, and how to create something that scales up in the future. That's the thing that sometimes is the right difference between succeeding or not, and that's our main value proposition. And how we do it is through this type of blend of skills that we have in the team between product strategy, product design, and product engineering.
Why honesty, trust, and humbleness are so important
M: You're touching on one of the expressions of how we do things; I think you're touching on one of our key values as a team and as a culture, which is honesty. There are different forms of how our values in honesty are expressed in each of our partnerships. But this is one of the ways, this is about being honest about what each of the people in our team has learned. Each of them is bringing experience in different products, different industries to the table, but also being honest about the hypotheses that individuals could have. How else do you think that honesty is expressed in the relationships that we keep?
H: I think that honestly is clear. I mean, it’s super important for any service or business out there, for anyone hiring someone to help with something. I mean, you need to trust the person, right? And for us, that's critical because we are taking a lot of leadership and taking a lot of proactivity on what we're going to be building and the decisions that we're going to be making through the process. And also living with a lot of uncertainty through the process as well.
Finding the market fit or finding a process to scale up a product is not usually straightforward. So we need to build trust and we want it to be humble as well. We need to help our partners and clients to understand that this is like an empiric process that we are going to be learning in each step how to do it better. So to build trust is clearly very important, to be honest, to be collaborative, and to be pragmatic. Rarely does a person come to us to buy a process, concepts or theories. They really want us to help them build a business. So those are the main pillars that we have in the studio.
Building meaningful partnerships is a priority
M: And I think perhaps the more traditional client-agency relationship, or what maybe is even perceived, is something where there's always a thin veil. You know, there's like us and them, there's our team and client team. I think that's what's typical. But for us, what I've seen in the projects that we're working on with our team, is really trying to mimic the experience of working amongst colleagues, I think that carries the elements of trust, real collaboration, and honesty, where we're not putting one over the other, but each side of the teams care about the outcome for the business.
I think what we want to do is mimic this idea of if you can go to market and quickly hire, skip the whole candidate searching process and onboarding, and just reach in and find a well-crafted team of individuals who are experts in each of their things for you to work with for a short period of time. I think that's what we're trying to mimic and these relationships.
H: Yeah, hiring is super important for a company, when they're either pre-market fit or post-market fit, building a team is super difficult. But also having the experience to know what to do. We're solving that with our team and how we're collaborating with them. But also, something we communicate from day one: we are not trying to be just working on what they're asking us to do, or they are not just specifying requirements and we're executing.
It's more about asking together to define the collaboration terms to work as a team, and to have super transparency through all the processing, how we're going to be doing everything, where we find workers, where we have doubts, where we are super clear in the path. So we really think that's the way, and the good thing also is that through all these years, we have validated that that's the way, at least for all the companies that are around us that have been succeeding all these years with our help initially and then scaling up their teams on their products from the good foundations that we set up together.
Invest in salaries, or in your next product milestone?
M: How lucky are we that we've been investing in our team and our talent for the last few years in this way! Because I think you and I are both hearing from different corners of the market how hard it is to find people at the right price with the right value match and the right motivation. And here we are working on cultivating a culture and practices in product craftsmanship.
So we're hearing new founders who are evaluating whether to invest in salaries for their whole team, or whether to invest in meeting their next product milestone with us. And that's a common comparison we hear with early-stage founders: do I want to trust an outside team with my baby, with my vision? But also, should I evaluate hiring a team for a short period of time, or should I think about hiring my own internal team for the long term?
You'll have to tell me how you think about it, but for me, I don't think it has to be one or the other. I think that one of the advantages that a team like ours brings to the table is helping you meet those short-term goals while you evaluate the market and what your needs are to scale your team.
H: Exactly, in the early stages you're usually running out of resources, maybe you raise some money but you have to attack the market from several fronts and probably you don't have the time or experience to hire. So we're helping with that as well because we have a super strong HR team with a lot of processes and a lot of experience in finding the right top team, so we can help with that from day one. But also in later stages, we are very helpful as well where you have a superb internal team, that team is focused on your main activities or the main priorities at that time. Also, while you're building and growing a company a lot of initiatives looks like a good opportunity to do, and sometimes you don’t want to commit your resources or your internal team, so it's very helpful to have this type of external teams.
We know how to build products from scratch, we know how to be proactive in finding a goal and defining a process to build it, so it's a very good strategy to also take with Z1 this type of initiative and delegate it on a very experienced team to build it and convey the vision, convey the goals and the strategy around that initiative and leave this team to proactively work on the project while maintaining the offering that you have for your users and clients without compromising your own team; and that's as well like a very good opportunity.
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