CPTO interview with Lai-Ping Lai
We spoke with Lai-Ping Lai, the former CPTO of tails.com to get her perspective on leading product and technology teams for internet companies;
How did you get into product management?
I joined a start-up in my early career where I did a little bit of everything. I was initially working with a Marketing Director and my role was about bridging the gap with the technology side of the business as I understood software engineering.
I enjoyed the dynamics of the role, and that’s what led me into product management as a career path.
You’ve been in product management roles for more than 15 years – how has the function changed over those years?
I’d say that one of the biggest changes that I’ve seen is that products have become more responsive to feedback from customers. Now it is a norm that products keep changing according to customer feedback in a very short period of time.
When I first started the function, product management was more about being intentional and detailed about what and why you want to achieve through products. Product managers started to realize the fact that they might not know what customers want even if they do thorough customer research beforehand.
Another important change I’ve seen is that product management is not just about fancy materials such as roadmaps – product management is about business and strategy. Product management is essentially a means to achieve business goals.
You’ve worked for a variety of businesses with different monetization models – e-commerce, advertising, marketplaces, subscription etc. How much does that affect the nature of product management roles?
I’m not sure it has that much influence. Product management is about customers. Product management is there to give great experience to the customers and fulfil their needs. That doesn’t change depending on the product’s business model. Whatever the product proposition is, you should ask yourself “what is the end goal?” and work towards that.
There is a difference in the sense that you can get very close to the actual human if you sell B2C products compared to B2B, but fundamentally I don’t see much difference in the principles of product management although the emphasis may be different across different business models.
How important is it for product managers to have strong analytical skills?
I think it is super important. Sadly, I think it is too common among product people to undersell their analytical skills and leave that to someone else such as commercial and finance people. I’m not asking product managers to master difficult maths or create detailed models – but they must be able to understand the logic behind them. You don’t necessarily have to understand P/L in detail, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it. It is important to have a broader perspective and know how the business is run. I think there is a certain level of analytical skills product managers need to have.
You were most recently at tails.com, a disruptive pet food startup based in London – can you tell us about the business and your role there?
Tails.com is a direct-to-consumer subscription pet care company, providing personalised dog food to customers. It was founded 10 years ago, and I joined the company in 2018. Every dog is different in age, activity level, and food preference so tails.com created a new category in pet care industry, which is providing tailored nutrition. It’s a subscription business and it offers personalisation to the needs of each pet.
I joined the company when it was transforming from a start-up to a scale-up. Like many companies at a similar phase of development, we had to work on the professionalization of each function – finding what is the best in class approach and building a more mature organization. That was what I was hired to do. The company was ultimately fully acquired by Purina, which is part of Nestle. In terms of the growth of the business, there were just over 100 employees in the company when I joined, and it grew to 350 employees by the time I left in August this year.
You became Chief Product and Technology Officer of the business – how easy it was to manage the engineering team given your background in product management? How did you make it work?
Personally, I was very fortunate that I could partner with the Technology Director who is a co-founder of the business and led the technology team. There are pros and cons of having single CPTO who leads both product and engineering. I believe a successful CPTO needs to be genuinely interested in leading both teams and humble enough to know that they are not going to excel in all the functions that they lead. Let’s be honest – it is impossible for you to be an expert in both functions. Instead, you should be able to ask the right questions and use them to add value.
It is also important to think about the nature of the product. At tails.com, I was able to combine the two teams as CPTO, but you might need separate CTO and CPO if you are AI-based software company as it needs up-to-date technical exploration on a daily basis.
If there is both a CPO and CTO in an organization, they need to work very closely and collaboratively. I enjoyed the role of CPTO as a generalist, but in the end, it’s horses for courses.
In an agile environment where teams work collaboratively and cross-functionally, how important do you think it is for product people to understand engineering and vice versa?
It is important, but equally it’s important to understand a range of functions across a business. If you collaborate with colleagues in other functions, you should appreciate and understand what they do.
Empathy and having productive conversations are key. You should also be mindful that different functions prioritize different things.
In order to combine different functions, you need focus on the vision and the purpose of the company. There are customers at the end of any kinds of products, so you should focus on them ultimately.
You’ve worked for several founder-led companies. Product Management is often very close to the heart of founders. How do you approach working with founders as a product leader?
I think it comes back to respect and understanding where the founder came from. The founders I’ve worked with are entrepreneurs at heart. They are always excited to think about “what if?” “how might we?” or “can we?” questions. They have an energetic attitude towards business, and it worked really well for me.
They already have a vision, and the responsibility of people like me is to think about how to achieve that vision. It is very important to bring them along on during the product journey. It’s important you collaborate closely – founders get frustrated if they feel their vision isn’t being followed.
Like any other professional relationship, knowing what drives them and motivates them and sharing your passion and what you want to achieve is helpful when looking to build good relationships
What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a product manager?
I think one aspect of what makes good product leaders is curiosity and humility. People who want to solve problems and can use their creativity and data to iterate products effectively.
I want to add that product management is not only just about solving problems – it is also about creating opportunities and creating joy. You should celebrate what is working well and do even more of that.