How important is it to maintain a constant connection with your customers? Why does the rate of continuous iteration and execution ultimately matter most? And what can product pros learn from Babe Ruth?

We sat down with Rick Kelly, Chief Product Officer at Fuel Cycle, to find out the answers to the above and much more. Rick took us through his challenging and inspirational journey in product, and here we’ve got the highlights from the Q&A.

But if you want to listen to the whole thing, simply click below and enjoy all the insights. 👇

‎For the Love of Product 💙🎙: Keeping clarity through the chaos of life and product, with Rick Kelly on Apple Podcasts
‎Show For the Love of Product 💙🎙, Ep Keeping clarity through the chaos of life and product, with Rick Kelly - 11 Apr 2022

Q: How long have you been with Fuel Cycle and what was the road to getting started?

A: I've been at Fuel Cycle for about seven and a half years and that's been a very fun journey so far. When I joined it was a much smaller company and today, I like to think we're doing something that's pretty cool because it's growing.

It was really a series of disasters that led to me being at Fuel Cycle. I had been living in India for a few months working at a technology seed-funded startup based in San Francisco, and my wife, my infant son, and I moved to India to work for this company, which is awesome.

While there, my son was diagnosed with a very rare bleeding disorder and we had to come back to the US very quickly to get him treatment. I immediately picked up another job in the market research space, it essentially crashed and burned.

The first person I emailed even before I told my wife that I’d been let go was a colleague who was working at Fuel Cycle. I emailed him and said: “Hey, what are you up to” then he said, “Hey, you want to talk to the team here?” and that's how I joined Fuel Cycle in early 2014.

It was definitely a bouncy couple of years with a lot of painful lessons. There were definitely moments and feelings of desperation and real concern, but mostly I had to keep going and find something. I was willing to do just about anything to make sure that my family had the support they needed. Emotionally, it was hard but I had to keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep moving along, to help my family, but also to help an organization that was growing, and I got to do work that I thought was really cool. That was definitely motivating. It was a unique experience.

Q: Were you in product when you were working for that start-up? What was your journey up until this point?

A: The answer is not at all. Breaking into product was something I wanted to do for a long time, but I finished grad school right at the tail end of the financial crisis and despite having a strong academic record, it was almost impossible to get a job. I decided I was gonna take a break from academia before I went to pursue a PhD and go work for a couple of years to see what I can do.

I ended up getting a job about a week before graduation in market research at a data collection company which I was very fortunate to get. I have moved very quickly and worked in data collection on the market research side for a couple of years.

I never went back to get a PhD but I always wanted to teach, which I did for a year after I got an offer to teach political science at a university. It took me about three weeks of teaching to realize that it wasn’t for me. It was very challenging because I was really bored of doing the same routine day in and day out.

This was 2012 or so when it felt like Silicon Valley was leaving the rest of the world behind and you either haven't been there or you couldn't. I worked really hard to get noticed, and try to meet people, I published a couple of op-eds in TechCrunch, but still, nothing happened. Then finally, an old college roommate called me and told me they were starting a company and asked if I would be interested in moving to India and I said yes within about five minutes of getting that call.

To keep clarity through the chaos that can be life and product I formalize some of my thinking. I think a lot and I try to write down what my values are and revisit those on a semi-regular cadence. I have a set of notes where I outline goals about the type of life I want to live. It's a matter of knowing what you want, formalizing what you want, and then revisiting it on a regular cadence.

Q: Can you break down what we really mean by market research?

A: Every business lives in a sea of constant change. The rate and the acceleration of change and consumer empowerment, it's crazier today than it's ever been before, it’s pretty much the most dynamic business environment that's ever existed.

For companies to be successful, they have to stay tuned to what their customers need and want because it can change rapidly. There's new brands, new market entrants, more private equity, and venture money flowing than ever before, which means the companies that were founded 14 years ago are already at threat of disruption by another company.

Staying in touch with customers is the most important thing. Our platform helps businesses maintain a constant connection to their customers, prospects, and also their product users and make sure they can focus on innovation, marketing, messaging, usability, shopper insights, and path of purchase, and do that in a cohesive and easy to use platform.

We do a tonne of integrations with survey monkey, Qualtrics and other platforms like Medallia that help businesses orchestrate the market research process to collect both structured and unstructured data, build new solutions and create new marketing messages and things that resonate. It's very much an enterprise-oriented platform but there's a lot of real pressure to stay in touch with customer needs.

Q: Have there been points where you listened to customer needs and the solution delivered has been unsuccessful?

A: Always? Absolutely. I'm continuously learning that no matter what we build, the first iteration is gonna be wrong. The rate of iteration and the kind of rate of execution is ultimately what matters as long as you are tuned to customer needs and then able to listen to feedback.

Building feedback into your product, and making customers part of the co-creation journey, is vitally important to delivering what people need. If you're not embarrassed about something you've shipped too late, it's not because you want to ship a bad product but you have to learn and you can't learn from just prototypes, you have to deliver something and see how it's used and find the gaps once it gets to scale.

I love the lean product and engineering organizations, largely because they enforce prioritization. You have to figure out what the most important thing is. The KPIs and objectives you set for teams are also extremely important. For our first few years of running product, my responsibility was to increase our average contract value. There was a lofty target and it took three years to get it to where we wanted to be, but that was the objective. That meant we had to build more value into the broader product and we had to build more solutions in there. That kind of clear prioritization for me meant that I could turn around and make clear priorities.

Q: How do you set up the org to collaborate with the other functions within the business?

A: The product organization at Fuel Cycle has product management, also product marketing, and then a solutions team (solutions engineering for integrations, and last-mile automation efforts). The solutions team works very closely with customer success and sales for new opportunities and also existing customers and they have to collaborate. It's professional service, they're building things together, and co-creating.

Then, within the product marketing function that drives the go-to-market motion for our team so it means you have to collaborate with the product management team, with sales and with finance on the pricing. It’s about centralizing that whole process and maintaining a regular cadence of communication and collaboration.

The most important thing is providing a lot of transparency into the process especially when there's problems and building trust across the organization.

Q: What can you tell us about the ability to delegate and allow people to reach their potential?

A: I've had zero professional training or mentorship on product management. I didn't work for a product leader before I became responsible for product and that's important because one of the things a lot of people get concerned about is how to get into products. Product is a very exciting role and it's a function people want to get into. Podcasts like this helped me understand how to be a product leader.

The fundamental question for product is: how do you take customer needs and how do you translate that to software developers can build? Understanding customers, and what their needs are, and being able to articulate that in a way developers or designers can take and implement is essential. If you can stay really close to customers, users, or whomever your key audiences are, that'll help you be successful.

You don't have to have a tonne of formal training to be successful as a product manager using the get going and start trying. Knowing that sometimes you have to keep pitching, keep pushing and be willing to work on things that may not go anywhere, makes a difference. I've been willing to take early morning meetings or to design something or mock something up over a weekend, even when I wasn't in product, with the full knowledge that it probably wouldn't go anywhere just willing to take those risks.

If you follow or listen to baseball, it's like going for home runs. Look at Babe Ruth, it was a lot of strikeouts, and then some big swings and big home runs and the way to think about it is, there's a lot of things that aren't going to work but you have to do them anyways.

Q: Why did you make the choice of integrating multiple providers?

A: It's worked really well, and one of the purchase decision drivers for customers is the integration approach. We treat our product as a platform, which means we have a bunch of APIs exposed to developers who can integrate their solutions with Fuel Cycle and sync data across different solutions. Whether it's Fuel Cycle to Qualtrics, and vice versa, or a niche point research solution. As a result, what we're able to offer to our customers is a cohesive platform to do just about any type of market research or user research.

Now, it started off much smaller than that. For us, it was really inducing partners with promises of revenue and new customer opportunities, and building that network, which has turned out tremendously well. Today, it feels like 100% of our customers use two or more integrations. Over half last year, used for more, and then there's another 20% that tried out eight different integrations with Fuel Cycle helping them do a very wide range of research.

It started with 10 companies and we shipped it very quickly. Essentially, we had a conversation, and six weeks later we announced the partner program. There were three endpoints that allowed for a lightweight integration with our platform. We begged, borrowed and stole, whatever it took, to get 10 partners to launch with us and we launched with 10 integrations to start. Now, it's getting closer to 50 and it's a big important part of our platform.

Q: Was there ever a point where anybody doubted the strategy internally?

A: Everybody doubted it and thought it was crazy, but that's okay. There's lots of things that are crazy and lots of things that don't work, but this is stakeholder management and making strategic commitments and following through on them.

There's a lot of changes of heart. To be in products, you have to be willing to live in the future, by a few months or a few years, and you're building for the future. You have to understand not everybody is going to feel as excited about something as you are.

Everything starts small, one of the things I've underappreciated is how small products and services can start and how long it can take them to grow. I would love to have breakout solutions that were instant hits overnight but I have yet to see one of those happen in my career. Sometimes it takes two, or three years before something becomes central and a mature product or solution people love.

There’s also signals to look out for which tell you if it’s going to be successful. One of the things that I love now is just how much data and information we can get back into the product team. We obviously have product analytics, we use our own research tools to do research with our user base as well, but in addition, there's solutions like Gong, which are call recording, so we can hear what customers and prospects are saying about our product.

We set up keywords that feed into the Slack channel so I can run through and see every single comment about a new feature or a new solution and know what the sentiment is, what we're excited about, what people don't understand and where we need to reposition new capabilities as well.

Q: Does inclusive product or diversity play a role in delivering new solutions or bringing value to the market?

A: The team I worked with for a long time is a very naturally inclusive and diverse team. Within our leadership team, I'm the only white male, for instance. The team itself has been diverse for a long time, in order to build a great product, you have to care about users and your user base has to come from everywhere.

We have a broad set of people on our product team that are very passionate about diversity and inclusion and hearing from a broader set of people. What we want to do is make sure we're building a solution that everybody can use that allows for data to be captured and to be responsibly used wherever possible. That means we have to hear from a broad spectrum of people and incorporate that into our solutions.

When it comes to testing frameworks, release testing and making sure we build that diverse perspective, it's a challenge. It has to be formalized as you grow. A broader set of users requires a broader set of testing, and so utilizing solutions that allow you to do more user testing, be pre-release, with a broader set of broader audiences is paramount.

Q: Would you give any specific advice to someone who wants to become a chief product officer?

A: It’s really a matter of knowing what you value. A lot of people want to be leaders, but you have to put in an extraordinary amount of work to be successful. If you live your life in a way that's not consistent with your values, then you're going to be very frustrated and sad.

I don't mind working a lot, because it's consistent with my values and I understand that it's not the case for everyone. That's okay, you know what you want and if you want to be a chief product officer, you have to put in the effort and work like a chief product officer.

Learn to enjoy the grind. Everybody's got something going on in their life, there's some pain, some challenge for anyone you meet. Being kind, and also learning to embrace the fact that life is usually a grind, punctuated by extremely happy or very challenging moments. Enjoy the grind because it doesn't get easier. Whether you're an executive or whether you're an intern, there's always something painful, there's always something challenging and that's just life.