Paul Ghio is the former VP of Product at Shutterstock and cofounder of Supernative, an AI-powered audio and video translation platform that helps professional content creators reach global audiences.
Having previously worked at Yelp, HomeAdvisor, and, more recently, on developing AI tools that help creators connect with new audiences, Paul has a birds-eye view of how LLMs are poised to revolutionize — and he uses that word deliberately — the way businesses and consumers find each other.
In our chat, Paul reveals how he takes a brand new product org from playing kiddie soccer to executing on refined, pressure-tested problem statements. He also speaks to the importance of nailing down a singular persona when developing marketplace products and why product executives, regardless of their experience, don’t have all the answers.
I think it starts with trying to build trust. That should be a prerequisite for joining any company, especially an early-stage company where founders are very involved and have a lot of incentive to continue to be involved. It’s about building those personal relationships and understanding their perspective on the industry and the product and customers. Through that, you’ll understand the appetite and need for process.
Process, at the end of the day, is a tool. A lot of people take off the shelf what they’ve seen work in other environments. They’ll come into a new company, and they’ll be like, “This is what worked at my last company, so this is what we should do.” It’s always contextual, and it should never be off the shelf. I think every company has a unique culture and a unique product.
When I joined Yelp, I oversaw the services product. A second part of my remit was the end-to-end business owner experience. Anytime a business owner signed up, onboarded, interacted with reviews, interacted with some of the analytic offerings we provided, etc., that was under my team’s remit.
When I joined, the team was playing what’s called kiddie soccer: everybody was running toward the ball, and nobody understood what their lane or role was.
The problem actually started far upstream of process. I had to work with a team initially to help craft a mission, vision, and purpose, effectively trying to answer questions like, “What do we believe about the world? Why do we believe that? What is our unique offering, our unique position to compete and provide value to these business owners?”
The next step was to figure out, “OK, we have some hypotheses about where we want to go in the world and the value we provide. How do we get there?” That’s really where, from a more traditional standpoint, we inserted process.
We set up weekly reviews where we would review user problem statements. Anytime a product manager, or even a designer or an engineer, wanted to work on something, we first insisted that they understand and articulate and convince other stakeholders, myself included. We need conviction there was a real user problem.
An example of a really high-level problem statement was that business owners didn’t understand that Yelp could provide them with any value. They thought Yelp was just a place where they got reviews, they updated their business hours, but they didn’t really know the other ways that Yelp could benefit them.
Then there were what we’ll call substatements around particular offerings: Yelp can help business owners reach new audiences through advertising and several other paid products, as well as some free products that Yelp offers as well.
A high-level example of a problem statement is, “Business owners don’t understand the value we can provide.” We would then try to understand why that is the case. We found that they would often sign up for an account, but then they wouldn’t explore Yelp’s offering and, often, would never come back to interact with reviews.
We realized there was an educational component we needed to solve for. We built an onboarding flow that didn’t exist before, which helped business owners submit information that would help them find success on the platform and get new customers. It also helped to educate them on how to best interact with the platform.
Often, when business owners respond to a Yelp review, the reviewer will actually update the review and increase the rating, which obviously benefits the business. Responding gives them an opportunity to reconvert a customer who had a negative experience. It also shows a level of service to people viewing Yelp pages, where it looks like the business is engaged and provides a good service.
We tried to understand why people were not responding to reviews; sometimes it was notification issues. Additionally, the actual experience of responding to a review was very, very broken, so we redesigned that experience with the user at the heart of our decisions.
The most basic type of marketplace product is a lead gen marketplace, like Yelp, HomeAdvisor, etc. The value they provide is connecting buyers and sellers. They don’t own much of the experience after the initial connection and, importantly, they don’t own the transaction itself.
If you think about hiring someone to remodel a kitchen, finding the person is just one step. You have to then evaluate the service pro. The service pro has to evaluate the job. You have to see if there’s a mutual fit there. You have to talk about and negotiate pricing. You have to define a scope. You have to pay. Most of the work happens outside the marketplace.
Many service marketplaces are still lead gen marketplaces where the only value they’re providing is that initial connection. They’re starting to evolve to own more and more of that transaction or more and more of the workflow, for the entire project.
There are a few possible scenarios. One is that it reduces or even eliminates the need for suppliers. You can imagine this in the stock photo space where, all of a sudden, the supply — the people who are actually taking the photographs — aren’t needed because you can create an infinite number of images and, eventually, videos, and other types of media with AI.
I also think we’ll see marketplaces where the initial interaction is with an AI instead of a search bar. Meanwhile, the company, via the chatbot or other interaction method, is getting richer information from that user so they can more easily and proactively match them with a service provider who meets all their criteria.
There’s been a handful of technological revolutions over the course of the last 30 years, starting with the personal computer, the internet, mobile, etc. AI is the next one that will change how humans work, play, and connect and how we create and build products.
I know many people at some of these companies that are effectively vertical search engines — for example, Shutterstock where I worked, Expedia, and so on. Most of these companies I’m aware of, even if they haven’t publicly stated something, are actively thinking about this space and building for it.
Of course, no one knows exactly what the future looks like. With new technology, we have to feel our way through the process. My advice to any PM is to jump in the pool and start playing with some of this stuff and seeing what’s possible.
A common mistake within marketplaces is trying to be all things to all people.
I’ve made this mistake myself. At Creative Market, we wanted to try to be the Amazon of digital assets, and appeal to different types of users and use cases. As we got into it, we discovered that the people who create 3D models for animation, gaming, and visual effects used in movies and TV shows are very different from the graphic designers looking to buy illustrations.
My best advice is always to try to build for one person, at least in the beginning. Really have an articulated idea of who this person is, their goals, motivations, etc. Determine the big challenges they face and build for them. Then, when you’re thinking about expanding to different audiences, you have to be really thoughtful.
Here’s another one: across all industries and business model types, I think many product leaders get into this trap of believing they have all the answers. Of course, you need some level of ego in product. Still, when you’re building new stuff from the ground up as opposed to optimizing, there’s a lot of feeling your way throughout the process and trying to keep metabolism high, cycle times high, so you can just get more ideas into users’ hands and see what works.
You should try to approach problems from a beginner’s mindset, where you try to check your biases and look at a product completely objectively, as if you were a child.
It’s a really, really hard thing to do. Taking a beginner’s mindset is not a learned behavior. People often get wrapped up in their own narratives around what’s working and what’s not working with product. Some of those narratives might be true, but I think it’s helpful, anytime you’re building something, to be able to check all that stuff at the door.
Let’s say you’re a product person at your company. You might have a weekly design review meeting. Your past experience might be telling you that a particular thing will or won’t work, and you have an ego around it. I’ve seen people with really large egos within product make a lot of decisions that sound right, that are made with a tremendous amount of confidence, but they ultimately have a really low batting average because they’re not able to check their ego at the door and not see the problem and solution through the lens of the user. They invent a product for a business purpose.
When I say look at it through the eyes of a child, I mean look at it through the eyes of someone who has never seen this experience before, has no context about your product or company. Ask yourself, what would they feel in this situation? How would they behave? What would be the next step that they might take in a given situation? How might they get confused? Does this thing actually solve the problem that we’re trying to solve for them? Why might this fail?
Even the best of the best, people that have gone from zero to multibillion-dollar products, are wrong all the time. Even the Steve Jobses of the world launch junk products. That’s why I think you need to have a level of humility in product. The people who lack that humility tend not to have longevity within the industry.
There are core product principles that explain why products are successful. For example, there are things like core utility — does a solution actually solve a problem for a user? — and simplicity — is an experinece as easy and intuitive as it possibly can be?
Additionally, there’s storytelling. What story do you want the user to take away after using your product? Often, we think of storytelling as a marketing and a brand funtion, but storytelling is one thing that encompasses your product, your brand, your marketing, etc. What is the story that person is going to tell themselves or tell other people after using the product?
The ego is in knowing that some of these core principles — simplicity, storytelling, utility — need to exist within the product. If we believe something will work, be really deliberate that it’s just a hypothesis. Ultimately, the users are the best measure of success; users will tell you very quickly whether your solution works or doesn’t work.
That’s what product is at the end of the day. It’s about trying to keep so much information and so many different perspectives in your head and coming out the other side with something that works for users.
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