Jiaona Zhang (or JZ), Webflow VP of Product, trusts her teammates. She knows how to delegate tasks to them that are outside the scope of her work, allows them to take the lead in the hiring process, and leverages their skillsets and interests to better focus her energies. This podcast episode covers her philosophy regarding product teams, as well as how she sees the future of the no-code movement.
I’m so happy to have you on the show again. The first time you participated at Product School you were working at Airbnb and I’m so happy to see how much you’ve grown and now you are a super VP of one of the fastest growing companies.
I remember my time with you. It’s really being in the auditorium. We’re in a very different world now with the pandemic. So now here we are remote and potentially via podcast, but yeah, it was really fun.
I’m excited to talk about all things Future of Product, but before that, the audience is always very interesting in learning… How did you get that first PM job?
That’s a great question. What’s interesting is when I was studying in undergrad, I had no idea what Product Management actually was. I didn’t know it was a role that existed. So I was an econ major. I graduated, I worked in consulting because that’s what econ majors do.
And after doing that for a little bit, I realized that I didn’t want to be on the side of the table that was always advising and recommending. I actually wanted to be on the other side where you were making decisions and you were operating. And so I actually joined as a mobile Product Manager, so a Product Manager at a mobile gaming company called Pocket Gems. And that was my first role as a PM.
And now many years forward, you are a VP of Product. What does a VP of Product’s day to day look like?
There are some things that I would consider as constants, things I think about on a pretty basis. But a lot of your job does really differ based on the time of year, what you’re dealing with, what your company’s going through. So maybe I can first describe some of the constants and then we can talk a little bit about some of the things that kind of can change on a quarterly basis.
Some of the constants: when you’re leading any team, you have to be making make time for that team. I actually lead product and I lead design. And so spending time with both of those functions, really digging deep into, what is our strategy? What are our customers needing, and how do we build and really execute quickly towards building those things so that we can ship delightful experiences to our users. So that’s, in a nutshell, the constant of the day to day.
And then more on a quarterly basis, there are things that change. So for example, one quarter ago we we’re really sprinting towards our big conference, our no code conference. And so a lot of that looks like working with the teams on the launches, working on the keynote, working on the messaging of that conference. Now as we’re going into the new year, we’re really thinking about team development. That would look like really thinking through calibrations, working with the team on what expectations really look like. Those are the things that depend a little bit more based on the time of year and what the company needs.
The skills that help you get to individual contributor (IC) PM roles are very different than the skills that will help you become a VP of Product. How did you acquire those skills to also grow as a leader?
I think that there’s a big mindset shift actually, the first time you go from being an IC to a manager. And I think that that big mindset shift is what I would describe as: instead of trying to do everything yourself, how do you leverage a team in order to accomplish what the company needs? That’s the first mindset to that shift.
And then there’s another mindset shift. That’s a little bit later where it’s less about just your frontline team, but really thinking about across the company, what are all the things that we could be doing? How do we enable and empower every single function, not just your direct team to come together and accomplish what you need accomplish?
There are just of different mindset shifts, but at the end of the day, I think being a Product Manager really does prepare you for leadership because even if you’re a new grad PM, it’s critical to your role that you can influence without authority. So even if you have no reports, even if it’s your first year of being a Product Manager, you still have to practice that skill of influencing without authority. And so, you know, really through that, that thing that you will hone every single day as a PM. that is what I think prepares you the most
Love that. Because it’s true. PMs lead without authority at first and in a way that prepares you to lead with authority.
Yes. That’s still a mantra that I think a lot about. Which is, if I am making decisions or if people are following my lead because of my authority only, that’s a really bad spot to be. Instead, if people are following you because your ideas have the most resonance and they are most based on what your users are needing and what your business is needing in that world, that’s where you can actually lead with that influence instead of just your authority and that’s where you can make the best decisions.
Is there anything that still so core to your values that you do that doesn’t scale? I know it’s all about empowering teams and make their own decisions, but at the same time, is there anything in particular that you still do that you think it’s really important?
That’s an interesting question. I think a lot of times is when people ask that, you get the typical answer of, “Oh, you know, I go in and I really sit on the sales calls or sit in the customer support calls.”
And those are things I do do, and I care about, but at the end of the day, my philosophy here is the following, which is: you should be able to go into the details and roll up your sleeves in whatever it is as a leader, but you should have created the systems so that you do not need to do that.
If you need to, because something is broken somewhere, then you can so that’s the part that quote unquote doesn’t scale. So you roll up you up your sleeves, you get into the PRD or the spec, whatever you call your, your product requirements document, right?
You’re able to really understand: technically, is this feasible? Partnering with an engineer. Is this the right user experience? You can roll up your sleeves and do all of those things whenever you need to, but you’ve hired a team. We created the systems and the processes so that you do not have to be doing that. And that is a sign of you actually scaling.
I’m giving you a slightly different answer to your question, which is, “What are the things that I do that do not scale?” If I need to, it’s any of the following things. Because you have to troubleshoot all of those things in order to move your organization forward, but should I be doing anything? No, because then I’ve not properly scaled myself. Like, should I be doing any specific things?
It’s a good sign to not have to do a scalable thing again. But another thing that I’ve seen a lot of Product Leaders do is to focus on recruiting. What is the size of your company by the way?
We are a little over 300 people. We are hiring and growing. So again, get in touch with me if it’s something you’re interested in. But yeah, so when it comes to recruiting, a hundred percent is something I still spend a lot of my time doing. One of the things I actually do do it’s very important to me is I do a lot of cell calls with both folks who are joining either product or design, but also across the company.
And this is a thing again, there are some Product Leaders out there who are like, I interview every single PM. I interview every single, whatever X role it is for their team. My philosophy here is I am not the veto. I would like to empower my team to be making great hiring decisions. I’ve hired great people so that they can make those great hiring decisions, but I am always available to help talk to that candidate, answer any questions for that candidate. And that is something that, again, is not super scalable because whenever a hiring manager wants to leverage JZ, they just need to ping me, but it is something that is very important.
And the reason I do it is because, well, first of all, when you have a 30 minute conversation with a candidate, just hearing their questions tells you a lot about what motivates them, tells you a lot about how they think and how they problem solve.
But also I do think one of the most important things you can do as a leader is to hire the right people. And so making sure that I’m available for my team in order to essentially bring in the best people, that’s something that that’s very important to me.
One trend we’ve noticed over the years is that there’s a lot of diversity in Product, much more than before. Back in the day, there were a lot of software engineers and MBAs in most product roles. Now we see designers, analysts, people from ops marketing. Now that you are in a position to give that opportunity to others, what are some of the characteristics that you focus on when interviewing product candidates?
I have transitioned I think probably a person of every function to the product role. So when you mentioned designer, engineer, analyst, ops, support, all of those people I have definitely worked with. At the end of the day, I look for two things. The first one is, can you approach problems from a first principled way? Can you break down a problem space and really be able to understand what your users need? And also, is there an opportunity here for the business?
I really look for that structured thinking. The second one’s harder just to suss out an interview, but you do really dig into people’s experiences to get a sense of accountability. As a PM, regardless of lack of authority, you still are accountable for the outcome. So making sure that whoever is interviewing for that product role, whoever’s transitioning to that product role, they feel that deep sense of accountability to our users, to the business and to their teams to deliver the best product possible. That’s huge.
PMs are always curious. That’s another thing I’ve noticed regardless of the title, years of experience. What are you curious about learning these days and how do you make time for it?
Yeah, that’s a great question. I am always curious. I angel invest, as a way to first and foremost to give back partnering with founders. But also very selfishly, it’s a great way for me to learn, while being helpful, how do I really learn about new trends or things happening in the industry or what people are finding opportunities in.
I don’t have a specific industry that I’m most curious about. I think that’s maybe a sign of a generalist and also true for many PMs. There are many, many things that I am curious about. And so that is definitely one way that I’m able to keep learning.
Having skin in the game is super powerful. And investing in companies, I’ve seen people doing training, doing coaching, but as long as they block time on their calendar to prioritize learning, I think that is that’s the most important thing.
The other thing I am learning, for full transparency, is I am a new mom. So I have an 18 month old. And just learning in terms of how to become a new parent, what that looks like. I have so much respect for all the parents out there. I know Carlos, you have two. And so that is definitely something I’m also just spending a lot of cycles learning. And I do think it is actually a luxury, this concept of like other time that you can do outside of your job, outside of being a parent and just learning for learning’s sake. It is hard. So I just want to acknowledge that for all the parents out there.
Well, thank you. Your company Webflow is really powerful, especially during these times because you’re empowering people to create without code. So let’s talk about a little more about that. Like what does your company do and what is this no code movement all about?
Yes, of course. Webflow, our mission is to empower everyone to create for the web. And like you said, it is really, really powerful right now in the pandemic, but also just for the future. And I’ll talk specifically first about the pandemic.
We actually have lots of users who, previously were a Lyft driver, an Uber driver, and during the pandemic, especially during the first many months of it, they weren’t able to do that anymore. They weren’t able to make what they were before. And then as they thought, what can I do? What can I do in order to essentially make that income? Learning Webflow and becoming essentially a service provider, like a creator.
They’ve been able to make more in one month building with Webflow for clients than they could have made before in four months driving with Lyft. And that’s something that we heard a lot of from some of our users at the beginning of the pandemic.
But more than that, just think about the future. The future is more and more online. It’s more digital, and regardless of the pandemic, I think the reality is that everyone’s going to have an online presence, any company, any individual and organization. So what Webflow is here to do is to basically provide the world’s most powerful visual development platform so that you can use our platform, essentially create anything that you need and want.
And that’s just so dear to my heart being someone who was not a computer science major in undergrad who did feel like it was a huge barrier to being able to create for the web. This product is for all the people out there who are trying to learn about, what does it mean to build for the internet? Who is trying to do it and actually create.So that’s why I’m so excited about Webflow, and that’s our mission and vision for the world.
I’m a user. In true product fashion, I can totally see different personas. You mentioned on someone who’s using that for a living. Let’s talk about the Product Managers. Do you see Product Managers using your product? And if so, what are some of those use cases?
Yeah. There are so many use cases for Webflow, but maybe I’ll talk about a couple that are specific to Product Management. If you’re a brand new PM, if you are not technical, but you are really craving to learn more, like, “How does the internet work? Like how does CSS work and HTML work?” You can actually Webflow university and learn about computer science with Webflow, which I think is pretty astounding and pretty amazing. So that’s one use case just as a learning tool.
Another use case is for when you need to get something out there, you are launching something and you want a landing page for your new feature or your new product line. You can build that very, very easily with Webflow. Marketing teams are some of our biggest users, because what they want is that beautiful, customized design, but they don’t have all the engineering resources in order to do that.
And so with Webflow, you can circumvent all of that and, and essentially do it yourself with just design skills and learning Webflow. So that’s one another use case. And the final use case is more in the prototyping space where you’re like, “I’m not really sure. I have a startup idea, or even I’m working at a company in PM. I’m really trying to iterate on what the landing page looks like, or the just the website, or even like a feature for my product.” You can use Webflow to actually prototype.
I think of no code as a visual layer on top of a lot of technology that allows pretty much anyone to build without really needing to know all the specifics. There are a lot of products out there that are pretty technical. And I don’t want people to think that engineers are going to disappear and everything’s about no code. So how do you see those two worlds working together?
Yes, we believe very much in partnering with engineers. And a lot of developers are the biggest champions because what they realize is they’re like, “Wow, you know, I could be asked to pencil push and I could be asked to do this landing page, but instead, myself and a designer, or even just a designer over time, they can do that work that I would be spending months on. They can do it very quickly and they can be empowered to do so.”
So I don’t see a world where we’re replacing the developer. I see a world where we’re complimenting the developer and bring up the developer to do the things that they actually want to spend their time doing. As a developer or an engineer, you want to be solving hard technical problems. You don’t want to be working on the marketing website. You want to be working on some of the backend stuff, some the ML stuff, like that’s what we want to free you up to do. And so our product in my mind is actually is very complimentary to the developer persona. And in fact, the developer persona is one of the biggest champions for bringing Webflow into an organization.
That’s a great perspective. I’ve been thinking about the Product Led Growth mindset that became more mainstream in recent years, and it’s not about replacing sales people. In a way, sales people are also huge champions because they want to focus on big custom deals, and the self-serve product can take care of more of the low hanging fruit.
Yes, a hundred percent. The best businesses out there have this amazing self-serve motion. The core product is such great product-market fit, that the self-serve motion is really strong. On top of that, you layer in that sales assist motion, where it’s very clear that, “Hey, these are the types of deals that need this type of SLA, this type of dedicated support.” And by the way, the size of the deal, the actual, you know, ACV of that deal, it supports having sales people, who are obviously more expensive.
So having both of those, that really strong self-serve, bottoms up motion, and that self-assist layered on top of it, that’s really what Webflow has. And that’s the model of the best product-led companies that are also operating in that enterprise space.
Let’s talk about that, because I remember when Webflow started, it was mostly a B2C product, for the end consumer. And now it’s evolved and it has both the B2C component and the enterprise component that you just mentioned. So for a VP of Product, how do you go about making sure that you have the right roadmap and that both business units are thriving?
Yes. The first concept I share is this idea of, you really want to be building in that Venn diagram. So the intersection of those two circles, where it is what the larger enterprises need, but also what smaller businesses / freelancers need. You want to be building that Venn diagram because you don’t want to be forsaking the smaller businesses for the sake of enterprises.
We believe very, very strongly in having a vibrant, robust community that serves. And our mission is to serve everyone. That is the first principle we think a lot about. What does that Venn diagram look like? Then I think we need to be really clear on what is our portfolio approach to investment? How do we build the most features to enable these larger companies, and then what are the other things that some of our other segments might need? So that is the next exercise that we do.
And I think in general, one of the beauties of Webflow is that typically what amount empowers one segment also empowers the other. And the reason for that is because a lot of times, people who do use Webflow today, who usually go through our self-serve motion, they actually want to serve enterprises as their end businesses. When we look at that Venn diagram, they’re actually quite similar as opposed to different, which is true for some other companies. Because at the end of the day what our service providers want is very similar to our end users and vice versa.
I’m thinking about your own product org chart. Do you have like different PMs leading those initiatives?
Yes. I’m a strong believer in that your org needs to reflect your strategy. And one of the best ways to build empowered teams is to be clear on your strategy to an org that reflects it and to make decisions on investment that really reflect all of the above.
And so I’ve actually structured our EPD team to really reflect the fact that we do believe in different investment areas like investing in enterprise, but also investing in our core capabilities for everyone, as well as even enabling a thriving ecosystem. So our org structure, we have essentially five pillars, and the five pillars reflect what we believe is important to invest in as a company.
As you think about the future of no code movement what are some of the trends that you can identify?
Yeah. I mean, no code in many ways has permeated a lot of industries. It no longer is just a small movement that we were leading. It is something that a lot of industries are realizing, “Hey, this is the best way to empower our users provide something that people need.”
And so in general, I believe that no code is actually going to continue to grow. It is just the way people should be building, instead of spending all of your energy doing something over and over again, why don’t you build a no code solution, empower everyone to be able to do that and have access.
But I do think that there is going to be a little bit of a, “Okay, well, what do you use each tool for?” And then how do we start to think about the connection of these new no code tools in order to achieve what we need achieve? And so that’s a lot of what we are thinking about it as a company, which is how do we make it a seamless user experience for you?
Like, if you need a beautiful design, but you also have a lot of data and you need a great CMS. And you need some e-commerce functionality. How do we give you all the building blocks you need? So you don’t feel like you have to clobber together solutions. And then in certain places, where does it make sense to really have these no code solutions be coupled together? How do we create elegant ways for you to seamlessly integrate and use those other solutions?
Those are some of the trends that I’m seeing, which is like, it is growing. It’s a growing trend. Being the platform of choice where you don’t have to have a janky, glued together solution is going to be increasingly important. But then also being thoughtful on where do you actually want to have that partnership with another no code solution, so that the user can achieve what they want to do seamlessly.
And I heard you talk about community before, and I know that the Webflow community is big. They share the creations. How do you think of community? How do you leverage them to influence your own roadmap?
Yeah. Community is incredibly important to Webflow. We would not be where we are without our community. In many ways, we like to think of ourselves a community-first company that happens have a series of products that community really loves. As opposed to, “Hey, we’re just a product and there’s a community around it.”
So what we do with our community, we really are committed to engaging with them, investing more in that touchpoint, really being able to hear what our community wants and needs. Being able to respond to that. Our community, especially our freelancers or our professional creators, they’re the best users in terms of giving us feedback. That they can say, “Hey, I need this in order to essentially serve some of these enterprises over here,” or “This is really important for me to be able to create websites at scale.” Our community is incredibly important, both from a giving a us feedback perspective, but also for us to really know what’s next.
JZ, as we come to the end of this interview, I always like to wrap up by asking: if you were to give advice to your younger self, what would you have done differently in order to get to where you are a little bit faster?
That’s an interesting question. This concept of getting to where you want to go faster, I want to turn that on its head a little bit. Because the advice that I actually would give is to lean into what you’re passionate about and just be more attuned to what doesn’t give you energy. And that doesn’t actually get anyone to a specific destination faster. It just makes it just ensures that where you want to be going is actually what you enjoy, and that the ride and that the journey itself is something that you are growing from, and that you’re actually learning a lot from, and you’re just happy with.
I don’t know if I would give myself necessarily any specific piece of advice to get from point A to point B faster, but I actually almost say there isn’t really a clear point B everyone’s point B or C or D could look very different. But instead, if you really focus on what gives you energy, what makes you feel like you’re in a state of expansion and like that you can take on the world, lean into that, and then be really aware of the things that don’t give you that energy.
And either make a call like, this is therefore what I’m not going to do, and that’s how I’m going to show up or figure out how to create leverage. So if you don’t want to do that particular thing, what is it that you’re going to do with your team or with the complements to your role to ensure that work still gets done, even if it’s something that doesn’t give you energy.