For the past two years I worked at Vine, first as Head of Product, then as General Manager, overseeing the ~50-person NY-based company within Twitter. During the course of my time there, I learned a lot. On the advice of my former colleague, Adam Feldman, I’ve written up some of the lessons I’ve learned to be true:
On leading a team
- Having and telling a compelling story is the most important thing you do as a leader. Be it sharing your vision, motivating a team, getting resources, whatever — this is everything. It’s not enough to share a list of good ideas. You need to make people understand and feel what you’re telling them.
- Repeating that story again and again is just about as important. If you’re not sick of hearing yourself repeat the story then you probably haven’t said it enough.
- Focus is tough. At Vine, two tricks I used to try to ensure focus were 1) writing our top three priorities on the walls and 2) asking every person on the team to write their three priorities each quarter, in < 140 chr, in a shared spreadsheet.
- A weekly team-wide meeting is a good way to make sure that your team is on the same page — but it’s critical to make sure it’s something people actually want to attend. At Vine, we watched Vines together, had snacks, etc.
- A weekly email to your team is another good practice. At Vine I’d share my top three weekly priorities with the team every Monday so that they knew what I was focused on.
- “Make sure you’re doing the maximally impactful thing at all times,” Dick Costolo told me early on. This seems obvious, but it’s very easy to get sucked into a vortex of other people’s requests or your past habits. Better to delegate tasks that you specifically do not have to do, or to just politely say no.
- Team culture is critically important in a world where engineers are in such short supply and high demand. I strived to make Vine feel more like a family than a company. We prioritized the obvious things (hire and retain the best people) but also did lots of smaller things that I think made a difference (e.g. plenty of swag + unforgettable off-sites).
On product development
- Stories > Priorities. It’s not enough to have a list of product priorities. How do they fit together? How does one build on the last? What’s your product’s story?
- People default to building things for themselves. This works out great when your users match the demographic of your employees. But when they’re very different, you need to put in effort to ensure that your employees understand your users’ needs. At Vine, we opened up user studies to the entire team, cycling in employees to shadow our user researcher.
- Embed experts on your team to stay close to their needs. At Vine, one group that was critically important to us was top Viners. So on the guidance of Karyn Spencer, we hired Vine star Chris Melberger. It was enormously helpful getting his frequent input — so much better than user studies. If I could go back, I would have done this earlier — and would have hired teenagers (as many Vine users are), as Facebook has done with the ever-inspiring Michael Sayman.
- Appoint a directly responsible individual for each product/feature to not only ensure that someone is driving it forward, but that there is someone proud of the outcome. Without this, you risk a series of compromises and no one proud of the end result.
- Don’t test on millions when you can test on thousands — or dozens. Try new features out with small groups of users. You can learn a surprising amount from super low-fidelity mocks.
- Have your engineers show off what they’re working on regularly. We did this with demos at our weekly all hands. It motivates them, excites the rest of the team, and ensures that everyone knows what’s happening.
- Appreciation is your best tool for getting people motivated and bringing the best version of themselves. At Vine, I’d try to send at least one note each week focused on expressing my appreciation. We also let anyone send anyone else on the team “shmoney” — aka props that the entire team would see, along with a $100 gift card.
- Your team is watching you more closely than you realize. So be aware of how you appear. If you’re stressed, your team will pick up on that. Someone once told me that being a strong leader requires good acting.
- Your reports think about you much more than you think about them.This one is from Matt Derella. The basic idea is that if you have 10 reports, it’s nearly impossible for you to spend as much time thinking about them as they spend on you. Be aware of this, and make sure you’re maximizing your limited time with them.
- Firing people is a necessary evil. It’s the worst thing you have to do as a manager. It’s painful. It has ripple effects on the team. But sometimes it’s necessary. And when it’s necessary, do it quickly! It’s in everybody’s best interest.
- Don’t bug your team at weird hours. It’s rude. Schedule messages with Boomerang or add items to a shared 1:1 doc instead.
- Top performers are most likely to think they’re at risk of being fired.This is strange but true. Make sure they know how much you value them!
- A personal touch can be hugely impactful. When you’re competing for engineers with offers from Google, Facebook, etc., hiring can be tough. But it’s so incredibly important to get right. One tactic we found to be quite successful was to provide a personal touch. We’d same-day deliver gifts for candidates we wanted to close and bombard them with congratulation emails from interviewers.
- Bring them back to close them. Once you decide you want someone, the best method I’ve found to closing them is bringing them back on-site to meet with people casually. The vibe is totally different. If they are still not interested after this, there may not be a good match.
- Speed is the name of the game. We’d strive to get offers out within a couple of days. As they say, time kills deals.
- Send short notes from the hiring manager to maximize response rates.We found (unsurprisingly) that really short emails from me had a much higher response rate than regular emails from our recruiter.
- Not all feedback is equal. Make sure you’re getting feedback from people whose opinions matter most. Sometimes the most vocal people are also the ones with the best feedback; sometimes they aren’t :).
- Good speeches require practice (for most of us, anyway). There’s nothing shameful about rehearsing!
- Give yourself space to be creative. Back-to-back meetings make this difficult. Thirty-minute breaks in between might be even worse. Control your calendar; don’t let it control you.
To be sure, I’m nowhere near an expert on these things. And while some may seem obvious, actually doing them is much easier said than done. But I’ve learned these lessons to be true, and I hope they’re useful to you!
Jason Toff is a Group Product Manager at Google, where he is working on an undisclosed virtual reality project. Prior to Google, Jason was a Director of Product Management at Twitter and General Manager of Vine. You can find him @jasontoff.