Jessica Srinivas Content marketing manager @ LogRocket

Leader Spotlight: Promoting a culture of innovation with Ryan Johnson

7 min read 2020 108

Leader Spotlight: Promoting A Culture Of Innovation With Ryan Johnson

Ryan Johnson is the Chief Product Officer at CallRail, where he focuses on developing best-in-class technology solutions to solve real-world problems.

Ryan previously held leadership positions at Banjo (now MiiM), a movement intelligence company, and Vitrue, a social marketing and engagement platform that was acquired by Oracle during his tenure. He has experience in a variety of sectors, including online marketing, education, legal, financial services, and retail.

We recently sat down with Ryan to learn more about CallRail’s initiatives and his role within the company. Ryan talked about how to maintain a good customer experience while growing a fast-scaling product, how he fosters an innovation culture on his team, and how to put your best foot forward when going through an acquisition.

Our conversation has been edited lightly for brevity.

Could you give an overview of CallRail and how your role supports the initiatives of the company?

CallRail is about 10 years old and was originally aimed at SMBs and the agencies that support them that rely on a phone call. At the time, everything online could be tracked, but as soon as someone picked up the phone, they didn’t know how to attribute the lead source or track its quality.

CallRail was designed to replace the call tracking that existed in the market and was easy to use, kind of self-service, and cost-efficient. Over time, we’ve grown into a platform to support other channels, like SMS and chat. We track the whole digital journey of someone who may have interacted with you through those touchpoints.

With regard to AI, we’ve had a product called Conversation Intelligence in the market since 2016. We’ve evolved to become a platform to track these other channels and evolve the product, especially within the realm of conversation intelligence.

Today, we use AI to analyze what’s being said on the phone call to help improve things, whether it’s ROI or marketing spend. We can use that data either with individual phone calls, like to improve outcomes with an agent, or thousands of phone calls and get that voice intelligence out of the actual conversation.

I’ve been at CallRail for six years. I joined as the VP of product. It was a traditional growth story of a tech company — a homegrown product team and really great people. I was brought in to scale the company and spent a few years overseeing product and engineering. Now, as chief product officer, I focus on the strategy of the product. I’m always asking what’s happening in the market that could be applicable to the product and what’s happening in MarTech. I think about the new challenges that agencies or businesses have and how we can unlock them.

You’ve been an integral part of several teams that have scaled a product quickly. In those scenarios, how do you ensure that you’re maintaining a great customer experience?

It’s so tough. It’s the push/pull of listening to your customers and their needs, innovating on new products, and, as you’re doing both of those things, making sure you have systems in place to support the volume. We have almost 200,000 small and medium business users on our platform across around 30,000 base companies or agencies — and that dramatically increases over time. To do what you did years ago while accommodating new factors and new technology is challenging, and I don’t think that’s unique to CallRail.

A good example is onboarding as a product grows. That was the secret sauce of CallRail in the early days; it was very easy to onboard. Now you can set up forms and have chats and add Conversational Intelligence, so it’s really hard to keep that seamless self-service experience as things expand. You have to analyze data and patterns of how things progress over time.

What about your team? As you scale, do you find that you’re looking for a different profile when you’re hiring?

I’ve had this philosophy for many years now. There wasn’t really a college degree in product management until recently. I started in finance and accounting, but people are coming from sales, support, marketing, etc. The diverse views and skill sets that people have make it really fun to build teams.

I think over time, to accommodate that skill and growth, I want to continue to keep that diversity going. I apply the playbook of diverse experiences and backgrounds, and I think that evolves to create the strongest team.

How have you seen the product manager role evolve?

Not only do you have a variety of backgrounds now, but you have different flavors of what a product manager is based on the organization. Some product managers are more attuned to project managers. Some have a very small, limited scope.

The thing I’m seeing now is that product managers have all these good ideas, but a lot of times we have dependencies on other groups.

With all the work that needs to be done, it’s kind of hard to be curious. Now, AI will make it easy to rapidly prototype and test ideas, because we won’t necessarily have that dependency.

There’s a new skill set for using the new technology that exists out there. I think that’s where the PM will evolve over time. We will have new tools to accelerate our thought processes and creativity without having to slow down other functions.

Are there any other ways that you see the PM’s role changing, in terms of other automation or analytics?

I think automation will help with the administrative burden that PMs have, like something as simple as competitor research. Now, you can aggregate that. You can ask these systems, “Tell me what’s good and bad about this,” without having to spend all that time in the manual aspect of searching yourself.

Reporting and data will hopefully become much easier in the same way. There’s almost the same dependency I mentioned earlier when you need to ask a data analyst because you don’t know how to write a query or do a certain VLOOKUP. Using natural language and saying what you’re trying to figure out in a big data set will be much more efficient.

I’m sure there’ll be things from product roadmapping and maybe even decision-making that help, but ultimately I think automation will unlock more time for what product managers enjoy the most — talking to customers and solving their problems — and a lot more of the creativity and innovation within product.

You stressed the importance of keeping your current customers happy as new product features are added. What’s your process for staying close to the customer and getting feedback?

The challenge as you grow is making sure you’re sharing. There are lots of different conversations happening outside of product management, but we want to share all of the data like we did when we were a smaller company.

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So, we’ve created a formalized, rigid process to make sure we’re sharing. We have a voice-of-the-customer listening session where all the functional groups come in and discuss their talk with the customer, the context around it, and what they learned.

Going back to your product team, how do you foster a culture of innovation?

My team is so close to the customer that we really have to shoot for bottom-up innovation, which can be difficult, especially with new PMs. One way is by instilling confidence: I remind them that they’re the ones having customer conversations. Sure, we have strategies, but they’re seeing how our customers are using the product every day.

I also make sure to give the team time. There is the push and pull of delivering software in the near term and being able to strategize the long-term. We organize around that to give that breathing room for that thought process.

On Friday afternoons, unless it’s a crazy emergency, there are no meetings scheduled. We intentionally set aside this time each week to provide that deep thinking time.

Can you give an example of an idea that bubbled up from someone on your team?

The team runs our conversation intelligence product, which is focused on what happens during each phone call, and suggested that we find a way to rapidly deploy and test some of the new, exciting things that customers are asking for.

As a result of this suggestion, we created CallRail Labs, where customers can offer product feature suggestions and feedback. We release, very iteratively, a new feature every two to three weeks, and customers can get early access and let us know if they find it valuable. The whole concept of CallRail Labs really came from the bottom up.

Given your background, do you have any advice on how PMs can position themselves for success in advance of a potential acquisition?

I think one is to be open-minded and curious. I was at a company that was less than 200 people when we got acquired by Oracle. There are really fun, new challenges if you’re open to it, but the hardest thing is to be positive.

The best advice I got was, “If you can do this with 20 or 30 people, the next time around it’s going to be 100 people, and the next time around it’s going to be 10,000 people. Because acquisitions happen all the time.” It was really about forming a partnership and relationship with their leadership and saying, “We don’t really have a choice. We have to do this, so let’s make the best of it.”

You’re going to learn a lot of new stuff, and I can tell you it’s going to pay off down the road, whether you stay at that company for many years or whether you move on shortly thereafter. It’s an experience you’re not going to get if you leave as soon as something like an acquisition happens.

CallRail has partnered with AssemblyAI and uses some of their models to build new features. What factors do you consider when deciding whether to build vs. buy?

In general, I look at it as any other type of analysis that you do for products out there. It could even be an M&A. What is the marketplace? Is it a new type of product out there without much product market fit yet? If yes, we need to do some MVPs and get things to market to test it out. Are there market leaders already that may be complementary? Maybe it makes sense to combine forces there.

More generically, it’s an analysis of what you’re trying to accomplish for your customers, how to provide that value, and the path to get there. What is the risk? What is the investment? As product managers, we just want to build everything, but I think it’s important to take a step back and look at all options.

We’ve been partnering with Assembly for three years — well before everything we’ve seen with AI. My previous company was heavy with AI. We raised $100 million, but I saw the cost it took going against the Googles and the Amazons. Even though we had $100 million, it was nothing compared to what those companies can do.

I walked away from that thinking, “If we’re going to utilize any of this technology, our secret sauce is bringing value to the customer.” We decided to partner with leaders in the space who understand our business, and then we can focus on the secret sauce.

You mentioned you’re an avid auto enthusiast. Do you think that has any impact on your product work?

I think it does. I like to take my car out on the racetrack by myself, and I think through things. I think of those processes and how I can give feedback.

On the track, you have to be 100 percent focused. I think that’s a very exciting thing. At any company, you have blinders on and you get into rhythms. On the racetrack I can break out of my comfort zone and consider things in different ways. I think, “Don’t be afraid of things that I don’t know. Don’t be afraid of all this AI stuff happening. Just work at it.”

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Jessica Srinivas Content marketing manager @ LogRocket

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