#19 - Ten lessons from YouTube and Twitch

Hi readers! Apologies for the delay. It’s been a few crazy weeks onboarding to Discord :) more on that another day. Meanwhile, trying something different this week.

Through years of PMing at Twitch and YouTube, I’ve internalized some tacit and explicit knowledge about building products and leading teams. Here are some guiding themes I found helpful in and beyond work.

⌛If you only have 1 minute, skip to the end.

Balance optimizing for efficiency and flexibility.

Management, goal setting, and incentive structures at big companies tend to be short term — e.g. Quarterly OKRs. The measure of success tends to be some % increase in a metric consistent with how the company evaluated success last year.

These are going to be driven by safe and iterative changes, which are mostly efficiency seeking. Great companies balance these incremental improvements with long term efforts that focus on flexibility and adaptability, which come in handy when the market suddenly shifts on you, as it will inevitably.

It is crucial that the part of the company focusing on long term flexibility is allotted room to explore, and not held to the same process and bar in efficiency and error as the part of the company focusing on incremental improvements.

Welcome feedback and seek dissent.

When you have a clear vision of what you want, you naturally don’t want to get derailed with unnecessary distractions and objections.

But great leaders know that getting objective feedback lets you strengthen your thinking. That’s why it’s so important to share with your biggest critics early; they are often your best allies when it comes to developing a stronger plan. Consequently, I’ve found that doing this early means fewer surprises down the road, and results in smoother alignment and trade-off conversations.

It’s difficult to practice this, despite how many people claim they do. This, like many other cultural norms, is easier to implement when leaders exemplify the behavior.

One instance I remember very clearly is my VP of product at YouTube publicly acknowledging and praising a critical-feedback email from a PM. In doing so, he showed that constructive criticism was okay — even celebrated — because org leaders like him want to improve and be more effective just like individual contributors.

Maintain a healthy reservoir of doubt.

The rapid rate of change in technology and consumer behavior guarantees that we can never fully predict most things. Experience may become obsolete over time and across domains. (This is also why you must continue building renewed intuition)

It’s important to note that this does not come at odds with a deep conviction of belief. You can and should have conviction once you’ve ascertained a set of predicating facts. But before that, what you have is a hypothesis that needs to be validated.

It is dangerous to declare absolute belief when you do not have predicating facts. You’ll find yourself anchored to it by ego, and look for evidence that confirms your belief, and reject anything contradictory. Bad PM 101.

A simple habit that won’t hurt at all is to add a degree of certainty in front of a statement that you don’t have total conviction on.

“I’m 80% certain that X will happen if we do Y, because Z.”

Any time someone says they have “total conviction”, it’s worth asking why they are absolutely certain. Getting into the habit of doing this forces teams to be more disciplined about assessing their understanding of the problem, and identifying the reason for their conviction behind a strategy.

Focus on a few key things. Say no to the rest.

Spread yourself too thin, and you deliver mediocre results across multiple areas compared to what you could on any given one. On the other hand, focusing on a few things by definition means you give up on most things. So what do you do?

Manage your career how you manage products. Forget the shiny things. Find the few things that drive results, and lean into them. Delivering incredible results across 2 meaningful projects beats delivering mediocre results across 4 projects.

When you have solid rationale that logically concludes a set of prioritizations, it acts as a guiding post for your to say no (or not yet) to most things. If you do not have a solid reason for wanting to prioritize a certain way, then it’s worth questioning your assumptions, and assessing how to verify your intuition.

Learning to say no can be scary, but it’s a powerful tool to focus for yourself and your team. It is far better to say no and disappoint a colleague momentarily than it is to drag days / weeks with soft commitments that then fall through.

Of course, you don’t always have the luxury of making this decision, but when you do, focus the majority of your efforts on a few key matters.

The customer is your #1 stakeholder.

Do not optimize for what you think your boss (or their boss) wants. That is the fastest way to lose touch with what really matters.

We get better at what we choose to work on. So choose to get better at solving customer problems, not guessing what your boss wants. If these things are aligned, awesome! But work on it because it matters to customers, not because it’s what your manager wants.

Culturally, most of us are taught at a young age to obey authority. As a result, we are accustomed to social hierarchies, and conformity and obedience become second nature. As such, it’s quite easy to settle into a mode of default compliance, which is terrifyingly illustrated through the Milgram experiment. Be aware of this, and rewire yourself toward curiosity and solution oriented thinking, rather than optimizing for least-controversial.

Tactical advice:

As a team leader, realize that any time an executive provides an opinion, it is not automatically a directive. Remove that unnecessary pressure, and you reduce a lot of the stress from yourself and your team.

As a org leader, you can make it easier for your team to focus on the customer by explicitly calling out that the team is the expert on the customer, and that your role is to provide guidance and support. It can also help to communicate clearly whether you’re stating a fact backed by data at scale, an anecdotal thought based on a few customer observations, or simply a personal hunch.

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Don’t pay attention to competitors, but pay attention to their customers.

Competitive moves are often distractions for product teams to over-index on. However, once in a while, competitors uncover latent demand in the marketplace in such a meaningful way that the ecosystem shifts in response.

When you drive a car, it’s dangerous to only pay attention to what’s in your lane. When you build a consumer business, the same applies.

This does not mean you copy what your competitors do. This merely means you observe and thoughtfully understand why certain competitive moves are successful. This is crucial for managing existential risks in a competitive landscape.

YouTube Shorts is an initiative born out of understanding, identifying, and executing against a change in consumer needs for video content. It’s also an initiative based on observation of Tik Tok’s success.

Without paying attention to Tik Tok’s customers, YouTube might have gone a few more years without shifting attention to short video creation and consumption. By then, it would have been too late.

Talk to customers about their problems, ignore (most of) their ideas for solutions.

This one is controversial but the truth is users/customers often don’t know what they want. Why? 

In the consumer product world, customers aren’t likely to spend as much time thinking about the product as builders do. The problems that get resolved over weeks of daily teamwork are merely passing thoughts in a 3 minute internal dialogue for most users. So it would be unwise to expect customers to have the same depth of thinking as product teams.

On the other hand, customers know their own needs better than anyone else. It’s from understanding these needs that product thinkers can arrive at “the next big thing”.

Gifting at Twitch turned out to be a massive win because the team working on Subscriptions talked with their customers consistently, and understood their needs better than anyone. They learned what motivates Subscription buyers, what they enjoyed, and what gaps there are in the existing product.

Through numerous conversations and research efforts, the team recognized the untapped potential of enabling high value customers to get more of what they want, while sharing value back to the rest of the community. This unlocked tremendous value for Twitch creators, users, and the platform.

Intuition / data / research is necessary but sometimes insufficient.

These are all tools within your tool belt, and your “best” tool depends on context

When intuition is not enough:

Intuition is the ability to know something without rigorous analysis. It lets us bridge the gap between the conscious and nonconscious mind, and implicitly connect instinct with reason. In product, it is often the way we set an initial direction for new initiatives.

There’s a certain magic to “just knowing”. But there are clear limitations to relying on intuition alone. In every — yes, every — situation, you have to look at data to assess whether intuition is guiding you in a good direction, and you must continue to do research to calibrate your instincts.

When data is not enough:

Data can give you the clearest indicator of success on most initiatives, but the more that you’re working in an emotional and gut feel element (“why” questions), the less useful (and less available) data is.

In these instances, you want to rely on judgment, which is built up over tens of thousands of small experiences and interactions over time. A different interpretation of data leads to variance in downstream decision making, which could work for you or against you. This is not a suggestion to ignore data, but to highlight that solely looking at data won’t give a complete picture.

This is doubly true for Products on the transformative edge of how people connect with one another, and how communities form and strengthen (e.g. creator economy). Human connection is deeply personal and intuitive. Quantitative data cannot explain the full spectrum of nuances in the human emotion algorithm.

When user research is not enough:

When it comes to revenue generated directly from users, no amount of research in a controlled, artificial environment will teach you about the human desirability to spend with your product.

In a made up, hypothetical scenario, it’s impossible to emulate the emotional pain of having to give away $10. Any research results indicating people’s willingness to spend must be heavily caveated.

In these types of cases, you must learn in real world scenarios, at scale, and in context.

Invest in yourself.

Take time to do the things that improve your wellbeing, balance, and perspective. By making yourself better as a person and leader, you are helping your team, your company, and your customers.

“I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one.” - Mahatma Gandhi

It’s okay (maybe inevitable) to be consumed by work occasionally. Sometimes, you’ll make breakthroughs and achieve a ton in short, intense sprints.

The problem is when this is the perpetual state of your life. When you’re intensely focused on work for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, your body physically breaks down, and you stop being creative and clear minded. This would be a complete disservice to the people who depend on your best work.

In creative work such as product, engineering, design, and marketing, singular focus on the tactical work may make you efficient, but it doesn’t make you effective. Taking yourself out of the weeds and letting your mind relax often helps to connect the dots between your work and other relevant observations.

Giving yourself the space to take time away from staring at the screen can produce outsized returns in a domain where creativity drives a high variance in results.

“While procrastination is a vice for productivity, I've learned--against my natural inclinations--that it's a virtue for creativity.” - Adam Grant

Play the long game.

This one is extremely applicable to life outside of work, so I’ll cover it more generally.

Signs you’re playing the short game:

  • Put off anything that seems hard or doesn’t have immediate payoff.

  • Put things in a zero-sum context when it’s really positive-sum.

  • Perceive decisions as transactional rather than relational.

  • Take more than you give. Spend more than you earn.

  • Consume far more than you create.

Why do people play the short game? The seduction of playing a short game is often visible / immediate results. The temptation can be really hard to overcome, because you will see most people around you playing the short game. More often than not, they aren’t bad people, they’re simply optimizing for the systems and incentive structures they can observe in a short time horizon. By being close to them, you’re more likely to do the same.

But you should not. The longer you play the short game, the more difficult things will get. The accumulation of good habits and bad habits have a compound interest effect, taking your life in opposite directions.

So what is the long game?

The long game is choosing to enjoy less today, so that you can have more favorable outcomes in a much longer time horizon. It’s the mundane, tedious, and exhausting work. It’s building trust, showing up, and subjecting yourself to adversity. It’s the willingness to suffer in the near term so that you will succeed in the future.

Humans are innately terrible at delaying gratification, and even when you see someone playing the long game, often it’s not obvious it’s beneficial in the moment. From the outside, the long game can look boring or even stupid:

  • Skip the all night rager to get some sleep (naysayer: “antisocial, boomer”)

  • Share insights / work early with people who might oppose it (naysayer: “doesn’t get it“)

  • Push for innovative and risky initiatives that are likely to fail, but if successful, will change everything (naysayer: “try-hard, should stick to their lane”)

  • Work on worthwhile things that have no immediate payout (naysayer: “slow to promotion, career stagnation“)

  • Eat healthy when everyone you’re with is eating junk (naysayer: “lame”)

  • Go for a workout instead of watching Netflix (naysayer: “out of the loop, boring“)

  • Create, even when you have no motivation to, and no audience cheering you on (naysayer: “self-important when no one cares, waste of time”)

Naysayers are a dime a dozen. It’s infinitely easier to criticize than to do something. Most people do the easy thing, and they reap adequate rewards.

Few people play the long game. In doing so, they choose the difficult path. On that path, they suffer ridicule, setbacks, and more frequent failures. But they build skills, confidence, and relationships that no shortcuts can offer. In the endgame, they grow more than others can fathom, and can do what 99.99% of others cannot.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

— Robert Frost

To sum it up

  1. Balance optimizing for efficiency and flexibility.

  2. Welcome feedback and seek dissent.

  3. Maintain a healthy reservoir of doubt.

  4. Focus on a few key things. Say no to the rest.

  5. The customer is your #1 stakeholder.

  6. Don’t pay attention to competitors. But do pay attention to their customers.

  7. Talk to customers about their problems, ignore (most of) their ideas for solutions.

  8. Intuition / data / research is necessary but sometimes insufficient.

  9. Invest in yourself.

  10. Play the long game.

Let me know what principles you’ve found important in your growth (including ones not mentioned here)!


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