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Product Innovation Leaders: Michael Affronti, VP of Product at Fuze

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Michael Affronti head shot

“Innovate or die.” It’s one of many famous quotes attributed to management guru Peter Drucker. 3M, Apple, and many others serve as examples of innovation rescuing companies from the brink of extinction. But innovation shouldn’t just be a lifeline to a failing venture. It should be part of a company’s DNA that inspires and nurtures a culture and environment for creating products, processes, and business models that deliver new value.

Unfortunately, innovation too often gets swallowed by ongoing efforts to maintain existing product value. How do product leaders protect innovation, and why is innovation something that needs protecting? Who is responsible for innovation – if everyone is, no one is. These are some of the challenges we probe in our discussions with innovation leaders.

This week we kick off a new series of discussions with product innovation leaders by sitting down with Michael Affronti, VP of Product at Fuze. We talked with Michael about dividing his time between making sure the product team is moving the ball forward on the short-term product changes and talking to customers about their needs all while continuing to innovate. Protecting innovation is one of the most difficult challenges for a company in the “hyper-growth” stage. Michael reveals how he challenges his team to think longer than three to six months out.

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Podcast Transcript

Richard: Just give us a little idea of what your day to day looks like. Explain your day to me.

Michael: Yeah. I’ve often been told that my calendar looks like a bad game of Tetris. My days are chaotic. I think they’re chaotic for a few reasons. They’re good reasons.

I run the product management team at Fuze. My job in the product management discipline is responsible for making sure we are moving the ball forward on the short-term product changes and evolution that we want to have happen, features, bugs, color changes, things that will satisfy what I call the next three months of demand from our customers.

I’ve got a large team. What I try to think about is … part of my day is making sure that I’m checking in on those various projects with my various teams to say is that thing moving forward, I know we have a deliverable next month, I’m talking to this customer, I want to give them an update on this project, this product, et cetera.

Then a portion of my time is spent talking to customers and talking and learning about what they need, right? If I synthesize it down. Right after we talk today, I’m gonna jump on with one of our customers in Europe who recently signed on, has been using the product for a little while, and their CIL wants to give me a download of what their experience has been and what changes he would like to see in the product over the next N months.

Then I think the third part of my day is working with some of my peers within Fuze. Folks like Drew and some of the other stakeholders to try to innovate, if I actually tie it back to that word. I think try is the thing that I feel like as a large technology company, because we’re by no means a startup anymore, I think it’s the thing as our product portfolio has grown, as our customer breadth has grown, as the market has converged and we are now competing with a number of different things, this tension that I intentionally try to create within the company and am trying to advance, is making sure we correctly challenge ourselves to think longer than three to six months in the way that we are planning, the way we are thinking about the business model, the way we’re thinking about sell strategy, product-market fit, what products do we need to build that we haven’t even thought of. I find that, that’s the third part of my day, it’s often the part that’s the most personally frustrating because when you’re at the stage of company that we are in this sort of hyper growth area, moving the ball forward is the most important thing. Hitting our KPIs and our revenue targets, that’s all our investors care about. They want to know that there’s some of us that think about long-term strategy.

That’s a bit about my day. I think it tends to have components of all three of those mixed in, depending on the time of the week and my focus. It can oscillate between them. That’s generally what happens.

Richard: Let’s say there’s a third, a third, a third … a third of your time is spent on innovation. How are you managing your team, so that they aren’t only dealing with the chaos of shipping stuff, and dealing with the day-to-day needs versus, like, what’s coming down the pipe?

Michael: Yeah, that’s a really good … this conversation is so timely, because yesterday, I don’t know if you can see behind my whiteboard … the thinking, I spent an hour with one of my directors. My organization, just for context, is myself, I have three directors of product that own large portions of the product portfolio. And then underneath them is one more level of individual contributor product managers.

And the model that I basically created is that the individual contributors are basically responsible for the next three to six months. What I’ve realized is that, I’m trying to implore upon a fairly junior product manager, that they need to be writing the specs and thinking about what the designers and the engineers, how to implement the next set of features in the backlog. And also giving them the stress of, think about where your product or area should look like in 12 months. I realized early on that that worked when I was running our startup and I was the only product manager because I had to do that. I realized that at the scale we need to think, and the amount of customers in the product portfolio, the point of building my organization this way was to create a layer of product managers who could work basically from a time perspective in that zero to six month window.

My directors are explicitly tracked and KPI’d on delivering strategic thinking, if you will. What I try to work with them on, and this is a constant evolution that we’re going through, is I don’t want my directors thinking about spec-level details, thinking about design-level issues … they should be signing off and providing input and expertise, but what I want them to be doing is thinking about that six to twelve months. Thinking about where should we be going? What are the changes we should make? Tell me about the unmet needs you’re soliciting from talking to the market, going to conferences, talking to customers, et cetera.

I think my role, personally, is to make sure that happens, but also to put my really forward-thinking hat on and challenge them to say, You’re not thinking far enough. Here’s my thoughts at 12+ months, working with my boss the chief product officer. So I’ve created this timeline across the organization because if not, what I’ve found earlier on is if I’ve tried to make it more soupy, where the individual contributors were doing … everyone was kinda helping with everything, and that obviously just doesn’t work. Too many people felt like they weren’t able to give enough, and then I had my individual contributors saying, I want to be more innovative but I just have to be sure we ship this thing. And I said, That’s actually what you should be doing. Let’s put this with some gradient and as you graduate the levels of our organization you take on more strategic responsibility.

Richard: That’s good. So what kind of tools or … yeah, let’s just call them tools. What tools are you using to manage that? Do you have some kind of roadmap? Apart from the whiteboard? Do you communicate this in a way that everybody can see who does what and when those things become due?

Michael: Yeah, I think that the tooling around roadmaps, and everything that surrounds the idea of planning product strategy, I think is personally still very immature and very nascent. There’s a number of tools out there. So we use Jira in our organization to do the engineering, backlog, bug-style tracking. Like many companies we had jury-rigged a setup with Jira with Epics to help us think about things above the bug and feature level, at a level that myself and my peers care about in the engineering organization. Then, what we’ve done is just used spreadsheets. Then we’ve created some basic roadmap templates that we use and we have … every quarter we have the directors on my team go through a process where they think about their areas and come up with, here’s a quarterly proposal for the next six to eight months around what we want to get done. Most of that lives in our roadmap documents, which are in Google sheets, and then we’ve just started exploring a third-party tool called, Roadmunk that is specifically for visualizing roadmaps and we’re experimenting with that.

I think there’s this basic problem of just having too many places to update things, so we are gonna constantly struggle to figure that out. We generally synthesize things down to what product management thinks in our roadmap and then expresses it in terms of decomposing it into Jira with features and stories.

Richard: How are you then communicating up? So, you mentioned investors, you’ve obviously got other members involved, senior fortune, organization executives, your customers as well. How are you communicating that roadmap and the innovation cycles through that … percolating it up, if you will.

Michael: In the past, it was a bit more organic. The hot button this year, this quarter, is product area X or customer complaint Y, so let’s build an update around that. And we still do that, but a few months ago what I did is I sat down with our senior leadership team, at our C-level Suite and I said, I’d like to propose that we think about product strategy in a framework. And I said, This framework, it maps to our business needs right now. We have a bucket of things that we consider important to retain our current customers, so retention. A bucket of things that will consider grow, how do we grow the business? And then, a bucket of things that we think about with competition.

Now, I’ve used those three pillars to explain both our investment strategy in the portfolio, like how much engineering are we pretty behind each of those buckets? And which, as you can imagine, are large, medium, and then small. And then, I’ve used that to cycle the updates with. So whenever we update to anyone in the senior level, I always use the same style deck and I try to make my team be very formulated around, I’m providing you an update on this thing, and this thing maps up to our compete bucket. Just so you have that context.

I’ve found that that’s very important because with our few acquisitions and some changes in the business, our portfolio grew, by my estimates, from probably let’s just call it 5x. Where a lot of our executives who are not, you know, in the weeds, and they don’t need to be, the nuance is important and this helps to reinforce, they’re talking about that thing, that I don’t really care about but it’s about competing and I’m in revenue, so I just care about grow … and that’s been helpful to help walk people through updates about the product portfolio.

Richard: Does it help you … I’ll frame it in two ways. Does it help you get alignment? And, what’s the deal with some of that political pressure where you get the executive drive-by where somebody says, Well we should be doing this. Or, This is something that our competitors are doing, we must be doing that. And putting pressure on you and your organization to make changes.

Michael: Yeah, it primarily helps with alignment because the thing that we have right now in our market, which is not unique, but it’s happening is this massive convergence in our market, where every one of the players, if you look at our grid of unified communications, there are several different ways to get into the middle. Some people come from like Slack with chat, some people come like Zoom with video, and everyone is adding each other’s functionality to get into the middle.

What that is creating is a situation where on any giving day, we may lose a deal to Zoom, not for the whole business, but because Zoom was in there and they have this one great feature, so we get a lot of the executive drive-by of, I just heard that Zoom is doing X, where is that in the roadmap? And we use that model to defend the fact that if we just over-index on being competitive, then our platform will fall apart because we are adding customers at a rate that our current infrastructure can’t support. So, let’s remind ourselves why we picked a 70/20/10 investment strategy and then you get folks that say, Okay, okay, I get it.

Another thing that’s come out of this that I think has been really interesting is, because our portfolio has gotten so broad, and our sales team is so globally dispersed, one of the fears that we’ve had to combat over the last six to 12 months, probably about the last year, is just, does my team, the product management team, know the individual things that are important from a competitive standpoint against our competitors, specifically? We call them the Knife-fight features. When the sell teams end a deal, and RingCentral or Cisco throws out that one feature that we don’t have, that they know we don’t have, and the concern has been, can you prove that we actually have that much, or are able to get that much knowledge?

We’ve employed a survey system that we do once a quarter where we literally send a survey via Google forms to the entire field sales organization and it’s very open-ended, and I basically ask them, From Michael, I just say, Hey, this quarter, if I gave you control of the product organization tell me the individual features, even if it’s like little bugs or buttons, that you need. And we get back hundreds of responses and then we organize them by competitor, by priority, and then we put a response, either it’s in the roadmap, we don’t think it’s important for this reason, or here’s an alternative that we’re thinking about.

So it’s funny because we don’t actually net out a lot of new things that we didn’t know already, because we’re pretty good about tracking our competitors and decomposing them, then we do competitive analyses but … what that has created is this incredible sense of trust within the organization that they should trust us that we’re not fixing everything, or building every competitive feature, and that’s okay. I know that we all empirically know that as technologists and as, even the sales people, but it’s so competitive right now in our market that that simple trick has helped us but also, I think, endeared a number of … built a bunch of trust rather, within our organization.

So that has helped with the roll-up but now I’m able to say, Here’s our framework. But then also, within the compete bucket, here’s the breakdown mathematically of the things that matter most and where they are in the roadmap.

Richard: So then, how do you break the tie when you’ve got enough evidence to say the client, or the customer base, wants that? That’s, your organization hasn’t really got the resources to deal with that right now. At what point do you make the call and say, Yeah, we’re gonna have to shift resources and do something different?

Michael: We try not to do that that often, because obviously the domino effect of doing that is that things we’ve previously said we’re going to do get delayed or cut. What we’ve tried to do is only have that happen once every half a year, if possible, where we shift resources in a way that’s going to impact other things in a demonstrable way.

What’s interesting is that our market has, this unification, has accelerated logarithmically, not literally, so what that has meant is previously, when I first got here to Fuze a couple of years ago, about once a year we did a kind of true-up on our roadmap. We were okay at the strategic planning level, the strategic investment level, and now we’ve got to do it once per quarter.

What we do is, once per quarter we sit down and say, Does the breadboard of things within these three buckets make sense? Okay there’s enough customers and clients complaining about … pick up a large random thing, like, our support for Latin America. We’ve been kicking it down the road, are we gonna do it? We think we should do it. Here’s the business case, and here’s where that funding is going to come from. We’re gonna take away from doing Asia PAC or we’re gonna take away from these three projects to move the resources. That conversation now we try to build into once a quarter at our checkpoints.

Richard: Okay. Thanks that makes a lot of sense. So, what I’m hearing is that your organization is actually a pretty mature product organization, in terms of how it’s dealing with these problems. As opposed to the knee-jerk situations I’ve heard on other calls where it’s like, oh shit! Executive drive-by, or poop and swoop, or whatever you want to call it, or clients’ prioritization. How did you get to that point? How do you get to the point where you stop being a knee-jerk reaction? Because I think it’s pretty easy to be there, the latter.

Michael: Well thank you for the complement first of all, sometimes we get lost in the entropy. I would say that we are … well I’ll tell you the same thing I tell candidates when I’m interviewing them, to join our team. We are still very much in the midst of a pivot through becoming … going from a hyper-growth startup, using sales to drive growth, which a good thing for us. If you’ve ever seen the book, Predictable Revenue and the predictable growth? We’ve skyrocketed up, then we hit that path of intense friction as we were trying to figure everything out, and now we’re starting to stabilize.

I’ll give you an example, when I joined the company through the acquisition of the startup that I was working on in New York, there was one product manager at Fuze, and I made number two. But there were 200 sales people.

Richard: Wow.

Michael: So you think about what do you think the roadmap would look like at that point? The roadmap was, we sold the deal, we had 80% of what they need, and the 20% we told them was in the roadmap. So the roadmap was in an Excel sheet that had a bunch of features and things in it, organized by customer, right? So I’ve seen that-

Richard: It’s not really a roadmap, it’s more like a feature list.

Michael: It’s a feature list. It’s a built-by-sales feature list, which is what happens when there is not a good interface between the customer sales and the engineering teams. You just get that. Then that’s how startups grow typically, right? Especially engineering-led ones. So, where we’ve …. the specific things that happened between then and now are, we’ve added, I have 20 …. 21 product managers now in the organization. It’s a very large, complicated portfolio, right? So we have built … we had no designers at the time, we had one contract designer when I joined, so now we have a director of design, who has six designers that work on his team, which is probably still not enough.

But, the progress to get to being somewhat mature, and still learning has been to say, product management, in particular, needs a seat at the table between sales, engineering, and our strategy. And, then ultimately, what we wanted to do was, we wanted to decouple it from engineering, cuz when I joined it was sort of inside the engineering teams. So, we created this model where I am now peers with the head of engineering, and we both report to our Chief Product Officer. And now, I think we have a much healthier balance, and then we created this organization that mapped our competencies to our market needs and, quite frankly, have enough bodies to make it, so that we can run this type of process. Again, it is … we are on the bleeding edge of being mature. We’ve just recently started adding these quarterly checkpoints and we’ve brought in some new executive leadership who has a much more rhythmic approach to strategy, which has been helpful.

Yeah, that’s been the progress. I think it’s recognizing that you need actual bodies to do this at the scale we’re doing it. You need the right kind of bodies, so I brought in a set of lieutenants that I’ve worked with before that have done this at-scale in larger companies, and who can bring rigor and process and just recognize that, look, I know you want to invent the wheel with how to do that thing, or that process, but instead, here’s a template. I took it from my last company. We’re gonna use that and we’ll fix it later. And that has helped to bootstrap things, you know?

Richard: So let’s stay on the topic of the team, and you mentioned how you do the interviews and what you are looking for in a candidate. Tell me what a healthy organization looks like for you, and what kind of characteristics in those individuals are you looking for?

Michael: Yeah, that’s a good question. Again, timely given that we’re doing people reviews over the next couple of weeks. I look for, I call them, the MacGyver if you’re familiar with the American TV … one of my favorite TV shows. I like the product manager who has experience in, personally, in big companies, that’s where I come from, but also startups, which is where I went to. Because I think that that balance creates the healthy tension of, I want to move fast, but I want to move fast responsibly, right?

But it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to have that experience, but what I look for, and what I interview for, and what I really poke for, is this ability to say, I’m biased towards action, I want to make thing happen, but I also respect the fact that if we move irresponsibly, we’re going to pay for our mistakes in a bad way. So my healthy organization is a set of people who all exhibit traits like that.

And then, from a technology perspective, I think what’s been interesting here at Fuze is unlike at our startup where I was looking for generalist PM’s, we’ve got a situation where because we are also a telecommunications company, and we have to interface with things like AT&T and Verizon and regulatory issues in various countries, my product organization I’ve actually involved to have very consumer-designed focused product managers who work on our acts and experiences. And then at the other end of the spectrum, I’ve got a set of product managers who think deeply about what it means to achieve legal, regulatory approval in France. Which has nothing to do with cool software and virality, it’s way more about reviewing contracts and talking to legal. So part of it has been around finding the product managers that are happy and excited about doing that portion of the work. Also, with the expectation that if they want to move around that’s possible, but probably not likely because the crossover skills are not necessarily that high.

Richard: And obviously you display those characteristics already because you come from a background where you have both the corporate and the startup environments. How do you then, balance your leadership style between helping people do their jobs and actually showing them how to do their jobs through example?

Michael: Yeah, I think that is probably my … being a very a Type A, very like, bias to action person, that is probably the hardest thing that I’ve had to evolve as a manager over the last 15-16 years. I try to embody that style of leadership, the servant-leadership methodology, where I try to make my directors as empowered as possible to make every decision they can. I try to get into this model where I have them as my bench, where I don’t have to be at a meeting, they can go to a meeting and I try to think about this philosophy where, are they completely enabled? Am I creating situations where they can go and stretch, and be as independent and autonomous as possible-

Richard: Let me stop you there. How do you do that? Like, what are you actually teaching them to be able to do that, because I’m assuming not everyone pitches up knowing, you know, being a great decision maker, or being able to take the things that you imagine they can and do them. How do you teach them to do those things?

Michael: Yeah, no that’s a great question. I try to follow this philosophy of, you get one chance for everything, and it’s not about screwing up it’s more about, I try to observe my teams very carefully, especially in interactions and in meetings and things where … anytime I can watch them work. Whether I’m reviewing a spec of my individual team et cetera.

Author Richard Banfield

As CEO, Richard leads Fresh Tilled Soil’s strategic vision. He’s a mentor at TechStars and BluePrintHealth, an advisor and lecturer at the Boston Startup School, and serves on the executive committees of TEDxBoston, the AdClub’s Edge Conference, and Boston Regional Entrepreneurship Week.

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