You’ve just shipped your latest release. Once you finish celebrating, how do you decide what to build next? Paul taps Rich, in his role as Aboard CEO, to set a course on a hypothetical product roadmap: Does he prioritize an enterprise-specific feature, another that might bump up broader user engagement, or the thing the boss tossed out because he had a vague hunch? Plus: Why is some industry-specific software beautiful, while other industries are left with clunky, uninspired “bureaucracy in software”?  

Listen Now

See all episodes


Deciding What to Build Next

Paul: Ford: Hello, I’m Paul Ford, co-founder of Aboard.

Rich Ziade: And I’m Rich Ziade, the other co-founder of Aboard. Hello, everyone.

Paul: Hello. Rich, let me tell people what Aboard is. Aboard is an increasingly valuable, increasingly useful data-management tool for all your data—all the things that you do with weird little spreadsheets over on the side in order to run your company, you can do them in Aboard, and it’s pretty. You can invite people to them. You can turn them into, you can turn those spreadsheets into really useful software that people can use. And you can also save data and do all the things you would otherwise do, like save links and so on. So it’s a great tool, and you should check it out at, and it’s free to use, so I think you should do that right now.

Rich: Well done. Well done, Paul.

Paul: Thank you.

Rich: You’re good at marketing.

Paul: I’m just, I’m getting very gentle in the tone. [laughter] So this is the Aboard Podcast. Let’s do it.

[intro music]

Paul: All right, Rich.

Rich: Yes?

Paul: I’m the president of Aboard. When you have a startup, you have to kind of, like, you sort of have to do titles. It’s important. You, my friend, are the chief executive officer of Aboard.

Rich: Mmm hmm. Which means I work less than you.

Paul: I know it’s pretty, pretty unfair. The last enterprise we had, I was the CEO. I didn’t love that job, frankly. [laughing] It was a very hard job. So I was glad when you took this.

Rich: [laughing] Fair.

Paul: So I’m going to give you a big challenge as a CEO, because I feel that this is a real thing that we face all the time, and we don’t really have, like, a principle that we steadily espouse. We don’t have a rule. And I want you to come up with a rule in the course of, like, the next 15 minutes for how we run our company.

Rich: Oh, boy. Okay.

Paul: Here’s the challenge. How do we decide what to build next?

Rich: Oof… Oof, oof, oof. This is, I mean, an eternal question, right?

Paul: Yep. But you have 15 minutes.

Rich: Ideas are delicious. They’re high in sugar, and they’re cheap. When you decide to build something, and this is why it’s such a hard question, it usually, it’s usually very expensive and usually requires a lot of people, and so you have to be careful. And it’s a very scary thing. I gotta tell you, I’ve launched a lot of products, like full products, that the world was kind of waiting for. The day after the euphoric day of launching and things went okay? It’s kind of quiet. Why? Because people are living their lives and your product’s not that important. It is a very depressing day. It’s actually really hard. You can’t believe there isn’t a ticker-tape parade down the street after you launch. And the world doesn’t work that way. And it feels very deflating.

Paul: This is real. I’ve often advised people on sort of post-launch depression. It’s very…

Rich: [laughing] It’s a real thing.

Paul: Like, they don’t believe it. They’re like, “Oh, no, no.” And then it’s. And you know what happens with a lot of products? Traffic goes down. You know, Google hasn’t SEO indexed the whole new thing.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul:You’re not really in the world, and you have to actually kind of—you’ve started over. You thought that you were done, but instead you’ve started over.

Rich: It’s the beginning. It’s actually the beginning. Right.

Paul: It’s more like a, like you’re coming out of a divorce.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: [laughing] You’re like, okay, I gotta get out there!

Rich: I better do sit ups and then date again! [laughing]

Paul: That is what launching a product is actually like. God, I hate that that analogy is kind of true.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Because it’s supposed to be a party and a celebration, and then everybody goes. And the other thing is that when you add a new feature, especially a big one, it really changes the whole organization. We’re putting stuff into Aboard, like, around how we organize the data, and we’re going to make some changes to the design. Stuff people might expect, but it will be a radically different product on the other side, even if it can do all the old stuff. Then we have to figure out how to tell all the stories at once, et cetera, et cetera. So all right. I mean, why don’t I—

Rich: Hold on. I feel like I copped out. I mean, I’m the CEO.

Paul: Well, let me pitch a couple ideas to you—

Rich: Oh, okay!

Paul: —and then you can do your process, right? So I’ll pitch a bad one, which is, the color blue is really what everybody prefers. Everybody likes blue. And we should redesign the entire app to be blue. So explain, what I, okay, that just came out in a meeting. For whatever reason, you can’t just fire me. I’m president of the company. You have to take that seriously.

Rich: [laughing] Okay.

Paul: Deal with that idea.

Rich: Well, I mean, look, what you’re highlighting, and this is a running joke amongst product managers and designers, too, which is the boss with the idea. Right?

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: And the boss with the idea is a dangerous thing, frankly, anyone—

Paul: The boss with the 15-year-old daughter with an iPhone is the ultimate dangerous thing.

Rich: [laughing] You know what my daughter said this morning at breakfast?

Paul: I showed it to her. Now, I don’t—you know, what they do is then they go like, “Now, look, this isn’t real feedback. I get it. I know. I’m the boss who showed it to the daughter. However…”

Rich: Yeah, yeah.

Paul: [deep voice] However. Okay.

Rich: But it’s not just bosses. Ideas that you think will be cool are incredibly dangerous for a product. Like, you are a sample size of one. Your bias is through the roof. You’ve been living in the house with the thing forever. And you think you have a cool idea. Very dangerous. Look, the last time a product landed and a lot of humanity got very excited and just took their credit cards out was OpenAI, like, ChatGPT, and before that, it was probably 20 years. Like, it’s very rare. It’s very rare you’re gonna push a feature out into the world, or a capability out into the world, and everyone, everyone—that, that, that example, an actual ticker-tape parade kind of came together here. It was one of those rare moments where it just made sense to almost everybody. They’re very rare.

Paul: No, in terms of credit card out, not—you know what I would actually say would probably be the one that came before. Because not social media. Social media is advertising funded. Netflix.

Rich: Netflix, the iPhone. These are things that just caught like brush fires. Right? And they’re very rare. It’s worth saying they’re very rare. And the thing about product roadmaps is that you go out, you expect the world to fall in love, they don’t, because they never do, and then what you end up doing, you have one of two options. One of two options is go talk to the world. Or the other option, the more dangerous one, is like, well, okay, hang tight, I’ll try something else. And then you build more features.

Paul: This is all very nice, but my daughter really likes blue.

Rich: I get it. I get it. And we should find out if blue is going to actually improve engagement and improve success for the product overall.

Paul: Okay, here’s a critical thing, and this is actually related to an internal conversation we’re having. Right now, we’re growing. We’re getting lots of users. We’re getting people asking if they want to use it inside their organizations. And what are we measuring? We could be measuring revenue, but revenue is going to grow very slowly for a little while, right?

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And it doesn’t actually give us a lot of information. We could be measuring signups. We get an alert every night as to how many people signed up. Sometimes it’s up, sometimes it’s down. But what we’re trying to measure more than anything else is engagement, so people come back to the product. Right?

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And so you, so that’s A—you have just applied a filter. You’ve said, this is what we care about, and you’ve applied a filter using what we care about. I’m giving you the rules, CEO. I’m an executive coach today, I’m wearing a, I’m wearing a blazer. But I have, like, a ponytail. That’s what’s happening here. So, you know, blue was kind of a setup. So that’s A. So A is, we know what we’re measuring, and we know we’re going to evaluate it that way.

Now I’m going to ask you a prioritization question, and it’s going to be relatively real. Hey, CEO. We had a bunch of discussions. I have this many engineers in the organization and this much design. And what we’ve decided is you asked us to do two things. One is you want us to build an authentication framework, because potential enterprise buyers have been asking for this authentication framework to be worked in so that they can log in from their systems instead of giving us their emails. Okay?

So they say, that’s really important, and you’ve said that should be priority one. At the same time, everybody else really wants a better to-do list manager built into this. And we think we could get much better engagement if we, so you could go over there and sell it to that enterprise if you had the authentication. And over here on this side, I can get you better engagement if you give me the better task management inside of the cards. But I only have the resources to do one at a time, and I have to choose a sequence.

Rich: Let me do something in the service of our millions of podcast listeners.

Paul: Okay.

Rich: Because I’m gonna save them. I’m gonna save them from this hellscape you just put in front of them, as they’re biking.

Paul: Okay.

Rich: Nobody cares. Nobody cares about either of these features. Nobody cares. Nobody thinks in terms of features that have been released. All people think about is what’s in front of them. And usually, if it’s a business owner, it’s their business and the things that matter to their business. And if it’s a hobbyist, it’s whatever scratches their itch. Beyond that, nobody cares. You can recruit advocates and evangelists, like some companies just have successfully done that. But the context of to-do lists as a feature should never be framed that way. And this is, look, this is a page that, out of a lot of VC sort of strategies, a lot of young startup strategies, often say, pick a very narrow cohort with a very specific set of problems and, like, laser focus on them, speak their language, solve their problems. No one cares about you. Technology has moved so fast that, like, spinning up a product doesn’t take a whole lot anymore. There’s just a lot of stuff out there. There’s almost everything.

Paul: I mean, there’s 25,000 AI startups right now.

Rich: That’s insane. I think AI is generating other AI startups. And so that’s nuts, right? And that’s—

Paul: It’s 500, it’s 500 per state. It’s like one per town.

Rich: Yeah, that’s insanity, right? And that’s, that’s not connected to the real, and that’s a normal, like, hype and then cycle that tech goes through. God bless. It’s like, you know, you toss a lot of seeds and you see what grows. But in the end, if you’re trying to make a business—by the way, let’s get this out of the way. If you’re just, you’ve got an open source project and you feel passionate about a thing you want to make better, good for you, man. That’s, that’s a great feeling. I miss that feeling. I’ve been involved in projects where they weren’t really tied to building a business and paying payroll and growing.

Paul: Just straight-up making it better so that more people pick it up and go, “Yeah!”

Rich: That’s right. And they’re fun, they’re fun as all hell. But if you’re looking to make a business, go and live inside the problem space of the people that you think will be able to connect to your tool. Many, many startups have stories like that, where like, we found out that they like this in, like, sports management, for some reason. We never, we don’t even like sports, but somebody like latched on and we just kept going and then that was our building block.

Paul: All right, you’re the CEO, I’m the head of product. I just came to you asking me to help prioritize and you said, “Whatever, dude, get the hell out of my office.”

Rich: No, I think if you had said to me, and you did say it a bit, you said our enterprise clients, and I would have probably said, take me through the meetings you’ve had and the prospects that have talked to you that are contributing to a pattern that warrants investment. That’s really it, right? You said “everyone else.” I paid attention to who asked for to-do managers, and you said everyone else, which is…okay. Everyone else on earth?

Paul: It’s a risk of working with a lawyer is they actually kind of tend to remember.

Rich: It’s very, look, these are, you know what it is, dude? These are expensive bets. They’re never cheap.

Paul: No, they really are.

Rich: Building any of these things is costly. And so when you, you know, to cas—look, color blue? I’ll give you a pass on that one. That’s cheap. That’s cheap to put, implement. It’ll quiet you down. You’ve been saying blue, blue, blue for the last month. It’s getting pretty annoying. Let’s quiet Paul down. I’ve been given features to quiet me down. It’s happened to me. [laughing]

Paul: So now I’m going to ask you to resolve one more thing, which is over here on the color blue, I get my Mixpanel results, and I can see that since we changed to blue, five percent better engagement rate.

Rich: Mmm hmm.

Paul: Okay, so blue is a good idea. I’m a good boy.

Rich: Mmm hmm. Mmm hmm.

Paul: Over on the other side, the actual metric here with the enterprise customer is not really engagement, it’s revenue.

Rich: It is. Engagement often leads to revenue. If you can get them engaged down the road, if you have a big enough audience, they’ll pay. Some will pay. I think, look, I think saying, let’s try blue is a lot safer. It’s cheap to implement, and we can look at the metrics. First off, make sure you have true causation. Like, did you change blue and the headline? Then you don’t know which caused the uptick.

Paul: Fair.

Rich: We don’t know. Right? But if you can be focused about it and test it and validate it. Right? We have a great head of product at Aboard that is very metrics-driven. He, like, once he sees a sample size, he sees progress. He’s like, okay, that’s great. We just found this out. Let’s do it times 1,000 because it works.

Paul: Right.

Rich: And then we’re, you know, credit to him. And frankly we aren’t, we’re sitting here preaching about how to do it right. We have done the wrong thing very often because we get excited and we’re optimistic about what tech can do, and so we just go ahead and build stuff. And frankly, we should probably temper that more as we try to turn this into a real business.

Paul: Well, we’ll have to. The kind of change that you can drive into a startup is very different than the kind of change you can drive into even a growing sort of startup, right?

Rich: Correct, correct.

Paul: What’s the framework? If I’m out there, I’m listening to this. You’ve told me two things. One is let’s look at engagement. The other is, it doesn’t really matter. You have to just sort of figure out what the business needs.

Rich: If you have a thesis on what you think will help you succeed, test it. Don’t be arrogant and commit five months of design and engineering and deploy it, and then be like, what the heck happened? Test it. Test it cheaply, test it quickly, validate it, and if it seems to work, double down on it and keep refining it. And fall in love with an audience, fall in love with a certain user base that seems to be really weird and feels neglected. Be excited about insurance software. Because that’s where they live. They live there. [laughter]

Paul: That is actual—so on one side you have know what you’re measuring. On the other, be excited about things that are not the mainstream things to be excited about. Right? Like insurance. We know insurance quite well. It is underserved by enthusiasm. It is served. You can go get lots of insurance software—

Rich: You can pay the bills!

Paul: —but there’s surprisingly little enthusiasm in…and there are ways, you have to look for ways to find things interesting. You want to know what I find interesting about insurance? It’s where the economic world slams at high speed into the physical world.

Rich: Boy, I mean, that’s literally insurance.

Paul: That’s the function of insurance.

Rich: The train running into a parked car on the tracks is insurance. [laughing]

Paul: It is. My goodness. Our model for hurricanes is not perfect. So hurricanes destroyed some houses. I’m glad everybody’s okay, because the economic reality of people buying into insurance and the physical reality of hurricanes destroying houses is an entire kind of marketplace and ideology unto itself. We know insurance software. It’s very bad. You would feel that when the largest human endeavor, the market, meets the largest external thing, nature, something would be really interesting in software. And it’s bad software.

Rich: It’s bad software. I mean, we can, we could have another podcast on epic hospital software, that’s another one.

Paul: Which is another, which is another place where ideology, systems, and education meets the physical world. Why do you think, let’s close this out this way. Why do you think…? You know who has great software?

Rich: Who?

Paul: Day traders.

Rich: Boy, do they.

Paul: They have good stuff.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: They have good stuff. People who work with images, video people, they get good software. Why does insurance have bad software?

Rich: Because insurance software isn’t associated with performance, it’s associated with administration.

Paul: That’s why?

Rich: Which is incorrect, because your team could perform better, you could make better decisions with better software, but it’s historically viewed as, like, this replaced the clerical work. That’s how it’s perceived.

Paul: Interesting.

Rich: And I think hospitals are no different. Performance in a hospital is the quality of the experience, the doctor’s bedside manner, the doctor, the skills and capabilities of the doctors. The tools? It’s such an all the oxygen’s gone. It’s all towards caring for patients. And so the tool is purely administrative. It’s just, it’s almost like bureaucracy in software. Like, that’s all it is, right? It’s just, it’s like, I got to do it. It’s how I document the case. But I got to go back to doing the real job, which is caring for the patient.

Paul: I work at a hospital system. We’re building our own patient-management portal. I have to prioritize the product decisions that are coming in because I have to spend my resources wisely. Help me there. I can make it, like, where? Where—what would you, like, you just said, focus on performance. What am I measuring? What am I looking for?

Rich: I mean, hospitals compete with each other. We’re in New York City. Like, hospitals take TV ads in New York City. The patient experience undoubtedly creates a perception and establishes the kind of relationship the patient has with a hospital. And the patient experience, it’s essentially like the DMV. It’s like, just ugly cobbled together, not a lot of care. That’s why when you see a good experience sometimes, it’s like, wow, they care about me.

Paul: It’s a great reveal, right?

Rich: It is a great reveal, yeah.

Paul: Okay, so—

Rich: Anyway, we went on a tangent, but I think it is kind of—

Paul: [overlapping] No, I’m gonna tie it right back, which is, if you look at what Aboard is about and you look at sort of where we have spent a lot of our career, it is trying to get bureaucracies to celebrate the performance aspects inside of the organization. We’ve worked for very big companies that are very big bureaucracies, and we’ve tried to make software that people can pick up and use and be very effective, not just move the papers along, not just manage data, but actually do things with that data. Those are the jobs that we always loved. And that was where I think we took the most pride.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: Is by creating sort of more dynamic environments inside of really often kind of grim, gray buildings. Right?

Rich: Yeah, yeah. And people associate software with pain at work. They never associate it with anything positive or good. And the bigger the industry, the more it’s like, oh, I got to live with this thing, but I’m good at it. [laughing]

Paul: So if you want a positive, good software experience. Check out Sign up. We’d love to. We’d love to talk to you. Also, Richard. We are hiring. What do we need?

Rich: We need everything. We need project managers, product managers, designers. We need everybody.

Paul: We are a growing technology business. If you have any sort of interest in leaning in at all and a little bit of a portfolio or background to show us, just get right in touch. You can send the email to, or you can scroll down on the page and click the Careers link. We love to talk to you. Rich, that’s all I got for today—actually, I genuinely enjoyed beating you up on this conversation.

Rich: It was fun.

Paul: We made progress. We didn’t solve it, but we made a lot of progress.

Rich: We hope you enjoyed listening. Hit us up.

[outro music]

Rich: Have a wonderful week.

Paul: Bye!

Published on