WeSpire Case Study: Product Responsibilities of the CEO

Ben Foster July 29 2021

The following is adapted from Build What Matters.

In 2012, WeSpire was in the midst of a successful pivot from a B2C model to an enterprise model, where their sustainability engagement software was bought by companies to use with their employees. The founder and CEO, Susan Hunt Stevens, shared with us her story about hiring a product leader too soon. In her own words:

We were a very small, but highly nimble team early on consisting, on the product side, of me, our CTO and our lead product designer backed by a great team of engineers. We joked that we made the perfect startup leadership team—an artist, a hustler and a hacker. We worked incredibly closely together, made decisions on the fly, and in general we were experiencing some incredible success.

However, as Founder and CEO, I was also chief sales officer, chief fundraiser, CFO, and wore numerous other hats. The more I got pulled away from the office onto the road for various reasons and the more customers we added, the more our CTO was feeling the pain of my absence. He felt we needed someone to be helping him on day-to-day decisions. What he described sounded to me like a product leader.

So I went and hired a great head of product and delegated all product responsibilities to her immediately. I thought this was what was needed to scale, but within a couple months, everyone was miserable and we ultimately had to part ways. In hindsight, it wasn’t her fault. It was just way too early for us to bring in a head of product.

Given I was the person out speaking to customers and prospects the most and I had the vision for what this business and product was going to be and do, the company needed me to continue to play the head of product role. What we had really needed at that stage was more of an individual contributor product manager who could execute.

It was a hard lesson to learn, but I’m glad we did. We’ve kept product and tech leadership together at this stage, without a separate head of product, and will likely do so until we double in size again.”

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Written by Ben Foster

Ben is a co-founder of Prodify and Principal Product Advisor / Coach. In his career, he has been the Chief Product Officer at WHOOP and GoCanvas, the VP of Product & Design at Opower (which went public in 2014) and previously worked for Marty Cagan at eBay.

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