The nature of enterprise software has changed rapidly – significantly higher design/ usability expectations, cloud or hybrid cloud deployments, pay as you go pricing (sometimes usage based) and increased security & privacy concerns. As a result, one can argue that never before has product management been as critical for success in the world of enterprise software.

Krish Mantripragada is a seasoned enterprise product leader. He has played a key role in two IPOs – First Data (NYSE:FDC) and Medallia (NYSE:MDLA, ~USD 4B market cap) where he was most recently the Chief Product Officer. In his two-decade-long career, he has seen all aspects of managing enterprise products – be it creating new categories, building new product lines, scaling nascent businesses, and building large product teams from the ground up. 

We recently hosted Krish for a fireside chat, moderated by Alok from our team, which saw active participation from ~40 product leaders from start-ups. In a free-wheeling conversation, Krish covered the entire gamut of questions related to enterprise product management.

At what point should the founders think about hiring a “real” product person?

Krish: I believe that a product person is present from day one, and very often this role is played by the founder/CEO/CTO. The stage when the first version of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is out is when the founders should start thinking of onboarding a product person. By this time, the product should have some sort of roadmap and the focus for the founder(s) moves to building the other blocks required for creating a future ready organization.

At what point should one start considering onboarding a Chief Product Officer (CPO) or VP of Product? What would the typical career path of a Product person look like?

Krish: Many companies make the mistake of hiring a CPO too quickly. I think one should achieve a certain size before onboarding a CPO. If you look at a company’s progression, typically in the early stage one is a single product company. As the company evolves with multiple product offerings, you get the complexity of scaling while looking at a different pricing / GTM for different products – that is the right time to bring in a CPO. 

Similarly, if you look at the growth of the Product Manager, they move from working on individual features, to feature groups, to a complete product, and eventually a portfolio of products. During the early phase in the career of a product person, the problem definition and the overall solution and how to execute the solution are defined, and his/her job is to execute. As you progress, you gradually begin to own each element of this chain, starting with the execution details upwards. Ultimately, the zenith of this progression is the CPO role, where one needs to identify the most important problems for the business to focus on.

If you are hiring a Product Manager (PM) in your team, what are the skillsets that you would typically look for?

Krish: There are three factors that I would look at. First would be empathy, which essentially means whether the potential hire is able to put herself in the shoes of the users and genuinely care for them. Second, is to have the right technical and domain chops. Third, and the most important, is accountability. Good PMs take ownership and are accountable, as their decisions affect virtually every aspect of the business and therefore the lives of many people. 

In terms of backgrounds, who make the best enterprise PMs?

Krish: Good enterprise PMs can come from a variety of backgrounds. People from services and consulting make a good fit and transition well into this role. They already know how to work with customers. A big part of a PM role entails being customer facing. People from pre-sales too are a good fit. They are in the frontline and pitching to prospects, therefore, they not only understand the pulse of the customers but also the nuances of the product. Engineers also make good PMs as they are comfortable with the product along with the underlying technology. However, they need to leap into the customer experience aspect – if they can do that then it’s a winning combination.

While moving from targeting SMBs to large companies, what is the difference when building product companies?

Krish: The similarity here is that the product needs to have a great experience and effectively solve the customer’s problem. In case of SMBs, the product should be intuitive, high extent of self-serve, and its engagement metrics become super critical. In enterprise, your roadmap becomes critical. The enterprise is not investing in just today, but with a longer-term horizon in mind, and want to see longevity as well as where you are headed. To win enterprise customers, one must think roadmap. Since you can’t develop everything for everyone, the big players in enterprise are platform players who have multiple ecosystem partners that plug in and build specific products for specific use cases. For platforms, a definitive measure of success is the amount of money the associated ecosystem can make by deploying products on top of the platform. 

At what point should the enterprise consider adding the platform play to their offering?

Krish: Once one reaches a critical mass – that mass changes for everyone, but a good indicator is that one starts getting requests for functions that are valuable on a standalone basis, but don’t move the needle for you – that’s a good time to expose your platform play.

Most SaaS companies in India at some point of time begin to move upmarket. What are the changes that happens from midmarket to moving upmarket?

Krish: When you focus on midmarket, the product is everything and is supported by digital marketing and customer success. Once you hit enterprise level, product alone is not enough. Change management becomes a critical play along with creating an ecosystem. The product starts to look different and one needs to look at components that will lead to scaling the business. One moves from single product to multiple products and features to feature groups. Even for UX, the focus moves from a single user to being a function with a group of people using it. Product Marketing – including pricing, packaging, positioning – all become key aspects.

It gets further complex if one is looking at verticalization where one needs to look at industry solution management. 

Often as product managers who have just started out, saying NO becomes the biggest hurdle. What is your advice to handle the situation deftly?

Krish: Saying `No’ is an acquired skill that builds with credibility. In the early stages one may not have that luxury, or even the right approach to decline an opportunity or a request. With time and a few ‘wins’ under your belt, your ability to say no increases. However, just saying ‘No’ is not enough, as you still need to solve the problem. Therefore, suggesting an alternative would always be a better way to deal with such requests.

Having traversed the journey from a PM to CPO at Medallia, is there any advice that you wish someone had given you or that you would like to give to others?

Krish: Listen to the customer, but build for the market. The biggest mistake a PM can do – especially with their first customers – is focus on building everything that the customers ask for. Your job as a PM is to synthesize customer requirements to generate what is needed for the larger market, and not just for a small set of users. Good PMs hold their ground, are able to tease out market needs from customer requirements, and deliver on them while keeping customers happy enough.