How To Lead Your Product to Success


Last week I gave a talk at TopConf Tallinn 2016 about the leadership indicators for successful products. But what makes a product successful?

And what is success?!

Over the past 4 years since starting with Testlio at a hackathon, we’ve grown to more than 50 people, have raised almost $8M in funding, are working with the most awesome customers, and have a great community of passionate testers. There are so many things that we’ve achieved over the past years and I couldn’t be happier.

But are we successful?

Well, that depends on how you think about success. For me, success is a moving target. When I first started, success was winning Angelhack. But then when we won Angelhack.

Next, I wanted to get into an accelerator in the US. When we got to Techstars, I wanted to help more customers. And when we got more customers, I wanted to grow my team.

With a much larger team now, we’ve achieved everything else we’ve wanted, but I still think we have a long way to go. Success, at its core is subjective. Once we are in it—breathing and living past ideas of success—we always reach for the next goals. True success always seems far away.

But that’s just human nature. We survive by constantly exceeding our own expectations.

Now, when I think back to building Testlio, and every success along the way, I can see the things that brought us here, to our current place of having achieved so much but loving that there’s more to do.


1. Solve a Real Problem

I can’t emphasize it enough. Solving a real problem is a very important thing.

Solve something that helps companies and people who have a true need. The idea of Testlio was born out of my personal frustration with crowdsourced testing and the fact that I didn’t see any alternatives on the market for my needs. I was and still am committed to solving this problem not just for myself, but others as well.

2. Determine if the time is right

This is one of the most subjective aspects of success. IdeaLab founder Bill Gross discovered that timing is the largest determining factor for whether your company is going to succeed or not. He ran an analysis of over 200 companies and it turned out that timing accounted for 42% of what led to success or failure.

When we launched there were multiple players on the market and we saw that the challenges in mobile were more significant than on web. So we shifted our focus towards mobile, and it’s paid off.

Before Airbnb, people didn’t like the idea of renting out their bedrooms, but during the peak of the recession in 2008 people needed side money and cheap hotel alternatives, so Airbnb was there to help both sides out. The timing helped normalize the entire business model.

In the moment though, it’s always hard to know if the timing is right.


3. Build a high performing team

You need extremely passionate people that are driven by the vision of the company and your strategy. You need people who will find solutions instead of problems. You need people who are ready to focus, set goals, and communicate. You need people who will not give up on challenges. And you need people who are ready to learn from those who are smarter than them.

Building successful product teams that are driven by creating a positive impact is extremely important and extremely hard. Considering myself and my husband and co-founder Marko Kruustuk, we are constantly out there to learn from people that are smarter than we are. Someone very successful just recently told me how building a company is like climbing to Mount Everest — you couldn’t do it on your own, you need sherpas who take you from the basecamp to the top.

4. Have a business model

To survive as a company you need money and you need people. We’ve had revenue with Testlio from the second month we started, but for a very long time we had no subscription business and no predictability in our revenue.

A year and a half after starting the company we pushed ourselves to the corner to figure it out. It was Sten Tamkivi who told us exactly what to do and inspired us to take the next step. So, a couple of months later we hired Michelle Surya to lead our sales efforts. A couple of months after that, we were profitable and had raised our seed round to grow even faster. For us as a B2B company, revenue is the most important thing—it shows you that you are on the right track.

5. Measure, but also trust your gut

It was Steve Jobs who once said that customers usually don’t know what they want. We listen to our customers, find the commonalities between the needs, and serve them. This is all done manually, by sight and by ear.

For us, it’s easy enough this way. We don’t have thousands of customers. Once we get there we might have to start measuring our customers’ actions to find patterns through analytics. We do have the experience of measuring the activity of testers on our platform, all in the hopes of making their lives more efficient.

At the end of the day you can listen and track as much as you want, but you should never leave your feelings on the side. With customers and with testers, we remember this.

6. Work hard, but more importantly work smart

There is no overnight success. Building companies is a marathon, not a sprint. Trust me.

In a startup a lot of people invest more than 8 hours of time per day for their own projects, but for me as a CEO it’s extremely important to make sure that everyone has everything they need for successful execution.

During my time at Testlio I’ve seen one person end up in a hospital due to burn out. The problem with working really hard is you can’t sustain it. You need to understand your limits and focus on the right things. Don’t try to work on 10 things at the same time. Make sure you constantly check that you bring value to the business. I’ve learned that it’s important to give your team the guidance and help them succeed with what they have, and to push them to take time off for themselves as well.

No one is asking you to work 14 hour days. No one. Have an impact on the business and make sure everything you do gets you closer to the vision — one small step at a time!


7. Never Give Up

You will get punched in the face every day, but as long as you make more people happy and don’t run out of money it’s worth pursuing what you started. Because everything you started happened for an awesome reason. Don’t let anything stop you.

Even though sometimes it may seem that everything is so hard and you can’t see a way out, remember there is always a way out. And always remember — if it would be easy everyone would be doing it. As a CEO I constantly make mistakes that I’m unhappy about, but I can’t let these mistakes pull me down.

I’ve accepted the fact that I will fail and I fail often, but I will not give up.

It took some time for me to get there and think that way. The hunger to learn something every day is one of the most important assets anyone can have.

8. Don’t choose a cutting edge technology, just for the sake of challenge

Work on something that has already proven to be working. Otherwise, results will be slow and frustrating at best.

We made a very risky decision to go with React.js and Redux framework a year and a half ago. At that point in time nobody knew if it was going to be a successful choice (one with a healthy developer community behind it), so it really could have gone either way.

Fortunately for us this risk has been decreasing and today it seems the industry is behind this movement. On one side this was a big risk in terms of this choice backfiring in a year or two. We would have had to start from scratch with a new platform! On the other side we still had a huge learning curve so it slowed down our development speed. Don’t let anything slow down your development speed.

Truly, there are so many aspects that can define the success of your company. But one thing I can say — if you are ready to learn and keep going you’ll be successful. Just be patient and stay committed.