The Secret Formula for Product Success

A big benefit of working at a leading digital product agency is you get the opportunity to meet some fascinating people. We work with both smart product folks at companies of all sizes and serial entrepreneurs driven to bring their vision to life.

One such entrepreneur we’re working with - we’ll call him “Ken” - has an amazing track record of building multi-million dollar companies. He’s on his third startup and we were lucky enough to be chosen as his development partner. Ken is a mature entrepreneur who has an uncanny ability to boil complex problems down to a simple decision matrix.

In a recent meeting, Ken made a fascinating observation that really stuck with us. He was referring to his last company, which was in the commercial construction industry, and he described the difference between his top performing project teams, and the teams that never shipped on time or consistently ran into issues. With the benefit of reflection and hindsight, he boiled the issue down to this:

“There are only three types of effective personalities to have on any project team -- people that can make it up, people that can make it real, and people that can make it reoccur. If you don’t have all three roles, then your team is not going to succeed.”

Wow. I don’t know if Ken made that up, or if he read it somewhere, but that was the first time we had heard that simple analysis and it really resonated with the Rocket team. It felt like Ken summarized the secret formula for product success.

As we think about the product teams we’ve worked on, or interacted with, those are the three critical personality traits you need to be successful. It doesn’t matter if the person “making it up” is your lead engineer, or your UX designer is the one that can make it reoccur. The personality can be independent of role, but you do need all three personalities on your team in order to succeed.

As we mentally applied his classification to products we worked on - both success and failures - the math holds up.  

Try it yourself.

Take a moment, think about the team you’re working on.

Who is the one that makes it up? Who makes it real? Who can make it reoccur?

Do you have all three?

It’s a powerfully simple exercise to do a gut check on your probable success.

Here are a couple of (sanitized) examples we ran on previous projects that might help inspire your own personal analysis.

The Ambitious New Software Platform

  • What: charismatic founder + $50M in funding + ambitious vision
  • Scorecard: all could make it up, few could make it real, none could make it reoccur
  • Result: failed project

Early in our careers, before Rocket Insights, we had the opportunity to work on building an entirely new technology platform from scratch. It was a bold vision - ahead of the market - with an incredibly smart founding team of very talented individuals. In addition, the organization had an impressive pool of talent, from design to marketing and sales, an incredible vision and deep pockets.

Yet, it failed. Miserably.

Let’s apply Ken’s simple formula and sprinkle in some hindsight.

Did we have people that could make it up?
Absolutely. The company was rich in this ability. That was part of the problem. If you looked across the executive team, all were people that loved the bold idea. They all loved making it up. The entire c-suite was skating to where the puck was going to be. No one on that team was an expert at making it real, and no one had experience making it reoccur.

Did we have people that could make it real?
Despite having a large number of people that worked at the company, few were actual makers, and at least 30% were middle management “facilitator” types. We had an unfortunately high number of well intentioned individuals, broadly focused on communication and collaboration, who unintentionally became a drag on the few makers we had that could actually make it real. This was equally true for sales as well as engineering.

Did we have people that could make it reoccur?
This is really where we fell down. Not only were we missing folks that had experience scaling an organization in the executive suite, the next few layers down never got an opportunity to make anything reoccur as the dream was only partially made real.

Lesson learned on that one. You need these three personality types at every level of your organization.

The Timely New Software Product

  • What: successful company launching a new product
  • Scorecard: leaders that could make it up, mixed ability to make it real and reoccur
  • Result: failed project

Prior to Rocket Insights, we had the experience of building a new product for a successful company. The company was doing well, the new product made perfect sense and the team was amazing.  

Yet it also failed.


Let’s apply Ken’s personality types and review.

Did we have people that could make it up?
No question about it. Not only did we have a strong company leader with a consistent track record of success, we had strong leads on the product team that also had matching skills to dream big and think creatively. We were all good on this front.

Did we have people that could make it real?
Sort of. On one hand, we had a badass team of senior designers and engineers that had proven themselves on other products. The high degree of maker talent was consistent across the entire team. But, the product management and marketing talent were a different story. The buyer personas were aspirational and flawed. The go-to-market plan was done by individuals that were good at making stuff up, yet not good at making stuff real. The sales plan was clumsy and ineffective. In this case, we had the talent to both build something real, and dream up a strategy, but we did not have the skills to make the go-to-market strategy real.

Did we have people that could make it reoccur?
We never even got to this point. The go-to-market plan was so flawed, the project and product collapsed before we even had a chance to consider scaling it up.

Another good lesson on this one. We had great vision and engineering talent. From a technology perspective, the product could be made real. The problem was that our strategy leads were also “make it up” people. None of them had the ability to “make it real” nor the interest. Ultimately we ended up with a plan that was flawed, the strategy leads could not recognize it, and the whole thing fell apart.

Ken’s secret formula has held up so far. You need all three personalities: make it up, make it real and make it reoccur. You need them at every level of the organization, and you need them in every department at your company.

Now, let’s end on a high note with a positive example.

We started at the company level, stepped down to the product team level, now let’s look at a positive example within the most common scenario that we’ve all experienced, a small 3-5 person team.  

The Website Refresh

  • What: successful relaunch of an existing website
  • Scorecard: small team that had the right mix of make it up, make it real and reoccur
  • Result: successful project

In this instance, we had a small team responsible for the refresh of an existing website. We had a core team of four -- one marketing lead, one part-time project manager, one design lead and one development lead. In addition, we had another 3-5 stakeholders that had edit or approval rights on bringing this new website live.

You probably think you know where this is going. You’ll naturally think that the marketing person was good at making it up, designer and engineer made it real and the PM made it reoccur. While that’s true, that wasn’t the full story.

In this scenario, we had a blended mix of abilities. The marketing and design leads had strong chops at making stuff up, but they had other skills as well. The marketer was really good at thinking through what would be needed down the line, and the designer knew where all the assets lived and how to design something that would work internally. Both could make it up and make it real.

The PM worked on hundreds of projects - so she knew how to make successful launches recur - but the engineer also knew what libraries to reuse, and how to build something that fit within the company’s existing stack. Both were adept at making it reoccur.

Lastly, a fair number of the innovative new ideas came from the engineer, not the marketer. Just because this person was a quiet engineer that was good at making things real and reoccur, she also had some pretty damn clever ideas as well.

The key lesson we learned here is, if you’re really lucky, you’ll have colleagues with abilities across all three personality types. It’s less important that you can define who has what percentage of each skill, it’s just critical that you have all three represented.

In closing, when you’re looking to pull together your product team, or pick an agency to work with, discussions often start with timing, price and availability. You’d also likely look at past projects worked on or make a casting selection based on personal relationships or a “good feeling”.

We would argue that it’s equally important to think about these three personality types. Does your team cover all three? Do you have folks that can make it up, make it real and make it reoccur?

If you have all three traits covered, then you have a very high probability for success. If you don’t, then maybe it’s time to think about recasting your team.