Brayden Haws

October 11, 2022

Product Lessons from Kevin Weil

Kevin Weil is my newest product hero. He came from outside of product and technology. But hard work, focus, and determination led him to success. At a rapid pace he landed leadership roles at Twitter, Instagram, and now Planet. I had somehow missed his career and product leadership until recently. But once I heard him on 20VC, I had to learn more. I went through all the podcast appearances of his that I could find (links below). In each one I found different nuggets. It’s well worth spending the time listening to each of them, especially to learn more about Planet. But if you’re short on time, I distilled what I learned from each episode.

20 VC

Working in tech is a privilege and responsibility. 
Kevin started his career in academia, focused on working in theoretical physics. The best outcome there was he’d do something in 50 years or so, that would impact the field. He learned about tech from classmates and his wife. He realized that working in tech meant he didn’t have to wait his entire career to have an impact. He could have an impact now and every day. There are few jobs where you can ship things daily that impact peoples lives. It is important to stay grounded in how much a privilege and responsibility it is to work in tech.

Conviction in product. 
“Wouldn’t it be cool if…” is a terrible reason to build. Everything you build should be solving a problem for your customer. Have conviction in what you are building, and then orient your work around making that thing successful. Kevin learned this principle while at Instagram. They had started working on Stories when he joined the company. Many places would have treated Stories like an experiment, they'd bury it in the app. They would hope customers would stumble upon it and start using. Instead, Instagram leadership had conviction that Stories was solving a major problem. As such it needed to be the crux of the user experience. They shipped it and made it successful to the point that it now feels like it was always the core experience.

Big Technology Podcast

Understand your user’s hierarchy of needs.
What do your users do when they have a free minute? Where do they look first when they need information or help? Understanding this will shape how your product should work. For most consumers the hierarchy looks something like this:
  • Their self or family
  • Close friends or inner circle
  • Wider world
This hierarchy came into play at Twitter when they were creating the ranking algorithm. The algorithm focused on surfacing the most interesting content from across the world. But based off the hierarchy it weighted for content from those you care most about. So if a family member tweeted an hour ago that was the thing you’d see first when you checked your timeline

Be unsentimental where it matters. 
Don’t fall in love with something because you built it. Fall in love with it because it works for users. And if it no longer works, then rip it out, and build something new that works for customers.

Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders

3 important things.
Every team and company should have 3 (or less) top priorities. You should be able to walk down the hall (or hop in a Zoom) and ask anyone, “what are the 3 most important things we’re working on?”. Everyone should know these, and if they don’t you have work to do as a leader.

Just keep running. 
Kevin is one of those people who finds pleasure in running 100 mile races. This is where we differ — for the record I did run a half-marathon once — but then I never ran again.

But running does teach a valuable product lesson. There are no secrets to running long races, you start running and keep running. Every person, product, and company has ups and downs. You can’t avoid them, but you can choose to keep running.

Square One

There is no one way to do product.
There are tons of successful companies doing product in lots of different ways. Every company and person is doing some things right and some things wrong. This is why you should seek variety in your career, you will learn new approaches at each stop. Regardless of where you work or how you do product there are basic principles that always apply:
  • Understand the customer
  • Understand the problem
  • Work as a team to solve the problem

Product is magic.
Product, done well, feels like magic. Despite the outputs being magic, the inputs are simple. To make magical products, find a company with an impactful mission you believe in. From there it’s a simple formula: good work, done consistently, over time. This combination of mission and consistency is how you create magical products.


Follow your gut.
When you are deciding what to do with your career and life, your gut is a great guide. What do you wake up thinking about each day? Go find a way to do that in your career.

You don’t need to be an expert.
You don’t need to be a domain expert to succeed in product. If you’re doing it right you’ll become one along the way, but it shouldn’t be a barrier to getting started. If you believe in the mission and are extremely curious you can do almost anything. Kevin started his career working in the social, then went into crypto, and now works in the space industry. Going into any job with a growth mindset and a focus on customers will allow you to overcome any gaps in knowledge.

Okay, Computer

Make ethics a pillar of your product approach.
There are many places where product and ethics intersect. To name a few: what content is or is not appropriate, who should have access to data, what types of data should be shared? Many companies and products handle these types of issues on a one-off basis. This leads to a lack of consistency and to issues down the road. The better approach to ethical questions is to have a consistent framework. Again there is no one right way to do this, rather it matters that you have something in place. But some recommended principles are:
  • Anyone can stop the line (every employee’s voice matters and they can call out an issue that needs review)
  • Have a consistent process for how issues are reviewed
  • Make transparency the default (everyone should understand why a decision was made)

Turn peacetime into wartime.
Most companies dream of getting to a state where revenue flows in and there are no issues. But these peacetimes are what lead to the downfall of great products. Good leaders know how to turn peacetime into wartime. Despite all that is going right, find places where you are struggling. Force yourself to get focused and get better. Make sure the whole team feels the urgency and rallies to get better. Once you solve that problem, look for the next place where you can go into wartime mode.

It was a ton of fun going through all these episodes. I walked away with lots of things to put into practice, and hopefully you will too. Let me know what major lessons I missed, or other things you will be applying in your own work.

Make sure you take some time to explore the gallery on Planet's website. I loved this image from my home state.

About Brayden Haws

Healthcare guy turned tech wannabe. Doing product stuff at Grow. Building Utah Product Guild⚒️. Created the PM A.M. Newsletter. Curated the Patchwork PM Bible. Built SpeakEasy. Constantly tinkering on my 🛻. Occasionally writing poor takes on product strategy and technology.

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