Chapter 4. The Product-Led Organization

Product-led companies understand that the success of their products is the primary driver of growth and value for their company. They prioritize, organize, and strategize around product success. This is what gets them out of the build trap.

But, if you’re not product-led, what are you? Many companies are, instead, led by sales, visionaries, or technology. All of these ways of organizing can land you in the build trap.


Sales-led companies let their contracts define their product strategy. Remember my example of the data platform that had 30 features that no one used? That was a sales-led company. The product roadmap and direction were driven by what was promised to customers, without aligning back to the overall strategy.

Many small companies start off as sales-led, and that can be okay. As a startup, it’s necessary to close that first big client and get the revenue needed to continue operating. So they’ll go above and beyond for that client, working closely with them to define the product roadmap, taking all of their requests, and sometimes customizing things especially for them. But this way of working does not scale for long. When you have 50 to 100 customers or more, you cannot build everything uniquely to match the needs of each one, unless you want to be a bespoke agency. If that is not in the cards for you, you need to change your strategy to building features that apply to everyone, without customization.

Yet many companies that do not want to go the bespoke route operate as sales-led for far longer than they should. Their sales process gets ahead of their product strategy, and they continually need to play catch-up to make their commitments. This leaves no room for product teams to strategize or explore what could push the company further.


The easiest way to think of a visionary-led company is to consider Apple. Steve Jobs propelled that company forward, creating the product strategy, and got it over the hurdles of failed products to the success it is today. He pushed the boundaries of what was known, and the rest of the company followed.

Visionary-led companies can be very powerful—when you have the right visionary. But, there aren’t too many Steve Jobses floating around. Also, when that visionary leaves, what happens to the product direction? It usually crumbles. This has been something Apple has had to contend with since CEO Tim Cook took over. The world is wondering what is next for Apple, after it has built up its existing products.

Operating as a visionary-led company is not sustainable. Innovation needs to be baked in to the system so that one person is not the weakest link. When you have 5,000 brains working on a problem (as opposed to one), you can harness that power better to succeed.


Another common way of operating is the technology-led company. These companies are driven by the latest and coolest technology. The problem is that they often suffer from a lack of a market-facing, value-led strategy.

Technology is critical to a software company’s success, but it cannot drive the product strategy. The product strategy must lead. Companies that let their technology lead the way often find themselves spinning their wheels, producing lots of very cool things, with no buyers.

Product strategy connects the business, market, and technology together so that they are all working in harmony. You need to be able to lead with a value proposition for your users, or you will not be able to make money.


This brings us back to being a product-led company. Product-led companies optimize for their business outcomes, align their product strategy to these goals, and then prioritize the most effective projects that will help develop those products into sustainable drivers of growth. To become product-led, you need to take a look at the roles, the strategy, the process, and the organization itself. This book helps you to do just that.

The good thing is that it’s not technically difficult to make this change. You don’t need to hire an entire new team. You don’t need to scrap all your products and start over. What is needed, though, can sometimes be even more challenging to implement—and that’s the mindset shift.

By implementing the tools in this book and practicing them consistently, you will begin to operate in a way that will shift your mentality there. But, ultimately, you need to stick with it. This will be challenging because it’s a new way of thinking, for both individuals and companies. You need to begin focusing on outcomes and to adopt an experimental mindset to eliminate the uncertainty that what you are building will reach your goals.

Get Escaping the Build Trap now with the O’Reilly learning platform.

O’Reilly members experience books, live events, courses curated by job role, and more from O’Reilly and nearly 200 top publishers.