SalesTechStar Interview with Rachel Obstler, Head of Product at Heap

A product led growth strategy requires companies to refocus efforts on how they build products and create roadmaps in tandem with customer needs, to ensure faster customer acquisition; Rachel Obstler, Head of Product at Heap chats about a few best practices that can help:


Hi Rachel! Tell us about your journey through the years, and about your role as Head of Product at Heap?

One thing I’ve learned in my 20+ years as a product leader is the importance of effective teamwork and handoffs. I’ve seen the entire software development process transform over the last 20 years by solving handoff problems (e.g. agile teams working closely together vs. product throwing requirements over the wall).

When it comes to teaming at work, data is the great equalizer: it aligns everyone around a shared goal and enables people to operate with facts vs. assumptions. At Heap, we’re building the next generation of digital analytics to enable teams to align around delivering better business results, faster, through deep and actionable understanding of the customer’s digital experience. This is what every product leader cares deeply about: investing in the right projects so they can make a measurable impact on the business and better serve their customers.

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What are some of the common challenges you see facing SaaS companies and especially the concerns for product teams?

Many companies are struggling with product-led growth (PLG). PLG is arguably a paradigm shift of the same magnitude as agile was to software development practices. In contrast to a sales-led motion, PLG shifts the focus to selling, marketing, and delivering value through the product. When the entire business gets behind a PLG strategy, everything changes, from your processes and practices, to your culture, skill sets, and how you measure success.

Ensuring that change happens across the entire organization is difficult. It requires teams working effectively together throughout the product experience. The way in which customers interact with your product should drive Sales leads. For example, Sales should prioritize customers whose product behavior indicates interest in more capabilities. Marketing should send more personalized offers based on user behavior. Users should have the opportunity to discover your product’s value on their own (i.e. self-serve onboarding). In order to make the investment needed to truly transform your product experience, your PLG strategy must influence every aspect of the business.

When an organization has been sales-driven for many years, it’s hard to change the way people operate. However, with more and more potential accounts looking to buy on their own, supporting a self-serve experience is no longer a nice-to-have but a must-have in B2B SaaS. Companies that take advantage of a PLG model are not only better positioned to reach a wider audience, but they’re also able to do so much more efficiently.

For Product teams: A common challenge for B2B product teams is that there is a lag between feature launch and adoption. Sometimes the goals that you are trying to achieve require significant changes in user behavior that won’t happen overnight. Sometimes the sheer number of experiments that you want to run means that you have to wait weeks instead of days in order to fully understand the results.

That’s the toughest part, for both product and engineering, because you want to put out something new and see immediate business impact! But it’s important when building relationships with customers to remember that you are playing the long game. Working to drive adoption and usage takes time, but serving your customers better will ultimately deliver the best results for the business.

That leads to a second challenge: it can be hard to tie features and adoption to business results in general. This is one of the biggest and most important efforts that product and analytics face in B2B SaaS. It’s easy in eCommerce — either customers buy or they don’t!  But when you launch a new feature — did it drive additional sales? Improve retention? It’s often harder to tell.

What do companies that want to be more product-led need to keep in mind in today’s marketplace?

Many companies that are looking to become more product-led struggle the most when deciding whether a motion should be sales-led or product-led. So stop trying to choose the right path, and instead let the prospect/customer pick their preferred experience! Put them in the driver’s seat. For those who don’t want to talk to sales, allow them to try and buy on their own. For those who do want to walk through the process with sales — great! When the customer decides, the path forward is clearer for everyone.

Sales-led and product-led motions are also often more complementary than you might think. When selling to a prospect at an enterprise company, the best reference comes from someone else at the company who is already using the product! At many of the companies where I’ve worked, our biggest customers started very small, with individuals or small teams purchasing.

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Why, in your view, is it now becoming more crucial for product teams and engineering departments to work more closely together to meet user needs effectively?

It’s not just crucial, it’s impossible to meet user needs effectively if product and engineering (and also design and in some cases data analytics or data science) teams can’t work closely together. Needs change quickly, and an iterative process is required. So having a cross-functional team that understands customer needs and can brainstorm solutions together is the only way to keep up with both customers and competitors.

Take us through a day at work leading your product team at Heap…

As the EVP of Product, I’m responsible for building the roadmap here at Heap. On a daily basis that could mean talking to customers, conducting market research, reviewing product plans, planning releases with marketing, analyzing product performance, and more!

My goal is to build a high-performing product team that communicates well and works effectively with the rest of the organization. Since our product (not the team but the product itself) is the predominant interface between our company and our customers, it is essential that we build an organization that cross-functionally works through and with the product.

How do you see the roles of product heads and product teams evolving in today’s environment, and what skills will future teams need to have?

As companies adopt PLG business models, data on how customers interact with the product itself is essential in driving roadmap decisions. So there’s a growing need for product teams to develop strong data analysis skills. In the past, especially when data wasn’t readily available, product teams leaned more heavily on anecdotal evidence and gut intuition. Now with readily available data on how users are interacting with the product, PMs will be expected to know how their products are performing, as well as drive roadmaps that deliver customer value and business results.

Product teams will also need to learn how to effectively run experiments. Having data on your customers’ product behavior is not enough. The product organization as a whole must adopt an iterative process of testing ideas and measuring the results of product changes.

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Heap’s mission is to power business decisions with truth. Heap empowers companies by helping them focus on what matters—discovering insights and taking action—not building pipelines or tagging. With Heap, organizations of all sizes can remove technical bottlenecks and gain a single comprehensive view of their customers.

Rachel is the EVP of Product at Heap. She has 20+ years of experience building product organizations at companies ranging in size from startups to global enterprises. Prior to Heap, she was the VP of Product at PagerDuty, and has run product organizations at Dynatrace, DeviceAnywhere, Telephia, and Lucent Technologies.

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