How to Build a Culture to Maximize Product Development Speed

Kristo Ovaska

In less than 3 years, we’ve grown to a globally recognized Facebook Marketing Partner, helping the largest online companies to acquire and retain customers online. We’re growing over 10% month-over-month extremely profitably, facilitating over 1B in annualized ad spend, and serving some of the largest online businesses globally, like eBay, Skyscanner and Lazada Group. One of the reasons why we’ve been able to grow this fast is the culture we’ve built to maximize product development speed.

I gave a keynote about this topic at Slush last December. 

We’re working in an ecosystem that develops extremely quickly: Facebook innovates fast, constantly coming up with new ad formats, targetings and ways of acquiring customers online. A rapidly evolving industry, combined with fast product development, has allowed a small company like ours to grow to challenge the biggest players in the market.  

It seems we’ve done something right: we’ve figured out how to solve the right problems for the right customers in a right way, very fast. Our future success depends on our ability to maintain and further improve our product development speed, and nurture the company culture that supports it.  

Three elements of our culture have made it possible to build a culture to maximize product development speed.

1. Maximize learning through self-organizing teams

The most important challenge regarding product development speed is how we can transfer the latest feedback and needs from our customers into features in our product as quickly as possible. Our whole company has been architectured around building a fast feedback loop between customers and product development—and a key building block in that architecture are self-organizing teams.

All teams at Smartly.io are self-organizing: they have full ownership of their work, and autonomy to choose their ways of working, as well as where to focus and when. In order to efficiently self-organize, teams require two things:

  1. strong vision, goals and culture that everyone aligns with, and

  2. full transparency about data and decision making throughout the company.

Teams at Smartly.io have the responsibility and all the data and context they need to make the right decisions, build the right features and to focus to the right challenges. In order to keep everyone updated and aligned with the big picture, we host regular Futur.io strategy days to collectively discuss and modify the product roadmap, our company-level Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), and define how to reach them.

We believe in the Agile Manifesto, and our company culture has a lot in common with those of Netflix and Valve.

2. Build a full stack team

Being full stack isn’t just about hiring engineers who sell, or salespeople who code. It’s actually all about building trust and understanding between the different players in the feedback loop. This allows us to build a culture where all Smartlies understand what kind of problems their teammates are trying to tackle, can communicate in the same language, and work efficiently towards the same goals.

We’ve taken multiple different approaches to creating forums for knowledge sharing and building a self-learning organization. On Monday mornings and Friday afternoons, we hold all-hands meetings where our customer teams share learnings from customers, and our developers demo new features and ask for feedback.

Account managers also host weekly Knowledge Shares for both other regional customers teams and developers, to share more detailed insight from their markets and verticals. Happy Hours are engineering equivalents for Knowledge Shares, where developers show what they’re working on, and gather ideas for new features.

Another thing that encourages full stack mindset within Smartly.io is that everyone does customer support regularly. And when I say everyone, I mean everyone. Including me, our lawyer and our recruiting team. Customer support duties are important for staying on track about how our tool is performing and what customers need from us.

3. Develop the product extremely closely with the most demanding customers

Every month, we invite one of our most advanced customers, like Lazada, Rocket Internet and Lost My Name to have a 2-day workshop with our engineers at our HQ in Helsinki. They work side-by-side with our engineers, demo how they use the product, and tell us what features would make their daily work easier. We discuss our product roadmap and find ways to align it with the customers’ business goals.

Our engineers also travel to meet our customers around the world. They’re involved in sales demos and meetings with the most tech-savvy online advertisers who they can learn the most from. This builds a culture and a process for how you can transfer the knowledge from the customers to the product, and maximize the product development speed.

...and all these three things start with hiring

I believe in hiring to elevate, not to delegate. I’ve noticed that when you hire people who are passionate about learning and challenging themselves, they solve almost all the problems on their own. All you have to do is to give them trust and all the data they need to make decisions, and make sure they are aligned with the company-wide vision.

Our biggest bottleneck has always been and will always be recruiting. If you’d like to join our team, please apply to our offices in New York, San Francisco, Helsinki, Berlin or Singapore at smartly.io/careers.

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