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6. 6. 2022

Daniel Hejl: For Productboard, people are the key

It is rare indeed to have the opportunity to ask a founder of today's most valuable Czech startup about anything you might be interested in. This makes the following DOCK interview, for which Daniel Hejl made time, all the more exceptional. Hejl is the Chief Technology Officer of Productboard, a global technology project helping companies develop products that make sense.

Tell me, where did you meet Hubert Palán (co-founder and CEO) and how did it all begin? What led to you to developing Productboard?

Before Productboard, I enjoyed going to hackathons. These are developer events where, as a member of a team, you have to find a solution to a certain problem over the weekend. And at one of these events, one juror was Hubert, who had flown in from America at the time. We got to know each other and kept in touch. A few years after the event, Hubert wrote on Facebook that he was looking for a co-founder, a CTO, on behalf of a friend, and I contacted him. It turned out that that it was actually not a friend, but Hubert himself, still working at GoodData, who was seeking a co-founder for his idea – Productboard. For Hubert, the idea for Productboard was the result of his own frustration, when as Vice President of Product, he had often worked on digital products that took ages to invent, then encode, but then never met with customer acceptance and remained shelved. I had experienced the same frustration as a developer. Hubert's vision at that time enthralled me.

What was your goal when you founded Productboard in 2014? And what memories do you have of that? Hubert Palán mentioned in one interview that he moved you into their apartment in San Francisco and moved his wife out to make room.

It may sound like a cliché, but when you decide to start your own business, and even in a field yet to exist in the world, you have to be convinced of global success right from the beginning. As most startups experience, the early days were challenging. Hubert and I conducted around a thousand interviews with product managers in San Francisco. We analyzed what their needs were and what our software should look like to really help them. We lived in Hubert's apartment in San Francisco, ate noodles and just worked. We developed thirteen versions of Productboard, and only the fourteenth was good enough to show to the world. And Hubert's wife moved out for a while, that's true.

How to invent a product that will achieve global success? Did you aim for that specifically right from the beginning?

Digital products are being created all over the world. Today, almost all the world's big companies have a digital layer. That's why we conceived Productboard as global software from the very start. The truth is that we got our first clients in California, where we had the most contacts, and they gave us feedback on our idea in that initial phase.

At the moment, as a company, you’ve been labeled a unicorn startup, and you probably hear it from all sides. Thanks to the latest investment at the beginning of 2022, the value of your company has reached $1.75 billion, making you the most valuable Czech startup. In your opinion, is this just the beginning, how far do you want to go?

Gaining unicorn startup status was undoubtedly a key milestone for us. However, we still see plenty of opportunities to develop in recruitment and in attracting the attention of other stellar funds. Taking an investor on board is always a huge commitment, but it is true that our composition of the capitalization table (a table of company owners and their shares - editor's note) opens several doors for us. At the same time, we have always believed that the more people – employees, mentors, advisors – we involve in Productboard, the better. Because the more people's experiences you connect and the more you foster an environment of participation and responsibility, the greater the chances of success.

It is said that Productboard is a "technological gem" – how much have events since 2020 helped you grow, a time when the world and indeed everything underwent rapid digitization, almost day by day?

Although the pandemic helped digitalization as a net result, it initially paralyzed us – like everyone – in a profound way. We were lucky to have had enough money to be able to, like other young tech companies, reach into the team. Covid has boosted digitization, but even before Covid, the world and companies saw the vital need to build digital products. Measuring the impact of the pandemic is hard. It was a global tragedy. We believe that Productboard would have succeeded anyway. Nowadays, everyone is dealing with digitization, even traditional companies, to many of which the term Internet was a dirty word not so long ago.

VYour product is based on feedback – is it important to you in life? Can you accept criticism and extract the good out of it?

I believe so. We build our company on transparency, which is why we regularly do a performance review with people twice a year, and feedback is crucial to us. Moreover, it resonates tremendously with our values in society, where we all try to constantly improve things and help each other progress. That can’t be done without feedback. At the same time, however, it is always important to empathize with the other person and ensure that we are providing constructive criticism.

What was the hardest decision you ever had to make? And what helped you in your decision-making? Do you analyze things, or do you make impulsive decisions? Is it possible in business at all? And if you've ever decided under the pressure of emotions, was it the right one?

I don't take it that way at all, I don't measure the complexity of the decision in any way. I just analyze things properly. As for a decision under the pressure of emotions, I would probably say that's what I would call starting a business. There was some uncertainty and mixed feelings. But even then, I mapped out all the possibilities of how it could turn out and found that I could even accept failure.

I am very interested in the development of the company. From just two people, there are now over 400 of you, with offices in five cities around the world. A year ago, you had about half that number of employees – it simply must be a completely different company. How do you approach this?

In the last three months, we managed to hire yet another 100 people, and today there are just over 500 of us. It is true that Productboard is a different company every year, but paradoxically, I enjoy it. In such a fast-growing environment, it is vital to maintain the corporate culture, to execute proper onboarding, and all materials must be elaborated flawlessly. It's a challenge, but our numbers indicate that we are succeeding. Our Employer Net Promoter Score, i.e. the internal satisfaction score, reaches a respectable score of 93, and I am elated over this. To put it into perspective, a score of around 30 is considered decent, and above 50 is considered excellent. In my opinion, such a great result comes down to the fact that people are and always will be absolutely key for us.

Also because you are in different places and continents, is it not difficult to manage it all? What's your preferred communication means with people in the company? In person, by e-mail, over the phone or via some online platform?

No, it's not hard to manage. We have always been a distributed company operating on a digital communication basis while emphasizing face-to-face meetings. The key communication platform for us is Slack, the choice of nearly all progressive companies. But we also focus on face-to-face meetings, which is why our people often travel between branches so that individual teams know each other more deeply than just from computer screens.

Productboard also has a branch in Prague, in DOCK – Silicon Valley it isn't, but the offices are in a beautiful environment of water and greenery. Was the location of your offices important to you? How do you like it here?

Having the right environment was extremely important to us, and we are really very satisfied at DOCK. We are in a modern building with super transport accessibility, and they take perfect care of us. We were looking for such a modern environment where all our employees would feel good, comfortable, and at the same time, a place that would be easily accessible. What I appreciate is that the surroundings of DOCK are also suitable for relaxation, and its location by the Vltava marina makes for a unique place to work and live. We already notice that as the weather gets warmer, some of our employees are holding their meetings while strolling around the premises. Who could wish for more?

When did you start thinking about developing the corporate culture?

Right from the onset. Sound corporate culture is an integral part of any successful company. If there is no culture, there is no growth, no success, and you will not attract the best people in the market. However, we don't just take our culture and values as words to be parroted aimlessly from above. It's something that we all really live and breathe and have worked on collectively.

What advice would you give yourself in retrospect when you were really just starting out?

Find quality mentoring and sources of advice from more experienced people as soon as possible.

How much are you willing to sacrifice for work?

It’s not a matter of sacrifices, really. My take is that as people, we have a number of life goals in different areas – family, friends, health, fun, self-fulfillment... The lifelong task is then to optimize everything around us in order to satisfy these areas. Ideally, no area should come at the expense of work, but should rather be fostered.

In the company you have something like a "book club" where you meet and discuss various articles and topics. If you had to recommend one book for me to read, what would it be?

Definitely the book Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well.

Thanks for the interview.