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GREAT IDEAS: Inspired by Silicon Valley's Marty Cagan

Google’s leadership secret told to us by Silicon Valley Product Group’s founder


Larry Page and Sergey Brin, co-founders of Google, were good really practitioners of a concept called empowered product teams.

They learned it from their long-time executive coach Bill Campbell.

According to Marty Cagan (pictured), founder of the Silicon Valley Product Group, and author of Inspired, the idea is this:
  • Hire good people
  • Give them problems to solve rather than solutions to build.

“That’s a very different practice for leaders than in most companies. Most companies and leaders don’t understand this way of leading,” he said, in an interview with The Growth Faculty this week.


Marty Cagan spends his days teaching start-ups how to create successful tech products.

He says to succeed, you really have to….

Solve for 3 hard things:

  • You have to solve for your customer. Not how cool your technology is, or how smart you are.
  • You also have to solve for your company. Not how to create just something customers love, but how to do that in a way that makes money, doesn’t get you in trouble with the law, and doesn't do something unethical.
  • You have to solve for the technology. Just because something you worked on last year wasn’t possible, doesn’t mean it’s not possible today.

4 risks to tackle in product discovery

It turns out it’s really hard to come up with something that people will pay for. And, even more than that, switch from what they’re currently using to your product.

Product discovery is tackling 4 big risks:

  1. Will they buy it? That’s called the value risk.
  2. Can they figure out how to use it? That’s the usability risk.
  3. Can we actually build it? That’s the technical feasibility risk.
  4. Can it work for our business? That’s the business viability risk.

Stop calling it a Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

Marty Cagan makes the point that MVP (minimum viable product) is one of the most important concepts in modern product. But the “P” in “MVP” should never be product, he says. It should be prototype

And, if you’ve spent months building it, it’s way too much time. 

“I’ll give you my little secret. I can tell in about five minutes when a start-up has made this mistake. They tell me they’re working on an MVP, which, of course, is good, but then they tell me they’d been working on it for 3 months and they’ve got another month before they can test it.”

He says you can do a lot of prototypes in hours.

Most important lesson. Be humble. 

“That arrogance when you think you know just what to build, ‘It’s going to be awesome!’ Whenever I meet that in a founder, I’m like, well, come back to me after you’ve learned that you’re not right most of the time,” he told The Growth Faculty. 

"Because the truth is, none of us are right most of the time. In fact, even great companies, they don’t always admit this publicly, ……. nine out of ten, eight out of 10 of their ideas don’t work.” 

One of the things you can’t know is whether people are going to buy it, whether they’re going to switch to it.

“Our industry tends to want a silver bullet. You know one thing that solves all problems. Agile suffered from that, lean start-up is still suffering from that. Right now, design thinking is suffering from that. 

All of these things I just mentioned are absolutely useful in the right circumstance. There’s a backlash against all of those things right now because they’ve been oversold to so many people, and they think they’ll solve all problems and they don’t.” 


(8 getting to know you questions we ask all our authors)

Book you would recommend: Trillion Dollar Coach, because Bill Campbell coached Larry and Sergey at Google, he coached Steve Jobs at Apple, and he coached Jeff Bezos at Amazon. And this is not well known.

How did you get your first ever job? I was lucky because I was an engineer in the first wave of really computer science graduates. So I didn’t even have to leave my college. HP and Apple and Microsoft came to our college, and I listened to a professor of mine who told me to join Hewlett Packard, which had a great reputation at the time. I joined their research lab and spent 10 years as a developer. So that was really my first job.

If you weren’t doing the job that you doing now, what do you think you’d like to be doing? That’s a really hard question. I don’t know. Honestly, I am really lucky. I get to work with teams all over the world and it’s amazing.

How do you push yourself when the going gets tough? I haven’t had that much trouble dealing it. Being your own boss makes it a lot easier.

What’s one of the best decisions you’ve ever made to improve your career? I would say to go out on my own and start doing this Silicon Valley Product Group. It was hard for me because I had spent 20 years working with companies, and I loved... My identity was being a head of product at companies, and I loved doing that. And it was a pretty big leap of faith for me to do it. And I wasn’t sure, but I had a very good friend that was confident that I would love it and he was right.

What’s a fun fact that’s not widely known about you? I have a house in the mountains in Colorado and that’s a great escape from the sort of the stresses of our industry.

What’s been your lowest moment and how did you recover from it? Oh, well, I remember in early eBay, eBay was new for me because it was a marketplace and I had always done products for developers. It was a lot of fun, but it was very new. And I remember making some really big mistakes, really not understanding the dynamics of buyers and sellers. And one of the big lessons is that it’s not enough to give them a product that they love. They also have to be able to learn it and digest it in time. And I have scars from making those mistakes.

What’s a prediction you might make for 2025? Our industry has done a very poor job on ethics and I am trying to get people to add a fifth risk. You heard me talk about the four big risks and the fifth risk would be ethical risk. Should we build this product? And if my hope and wish for 2025 is that, it’s really ingrained and institutionalized in tech companies that they worry much more proactively about negative effects to society and to people on the products we build.

To buy Marty's book Inspired, click here

The full interview with Marty Cagan, author of Inspired, can be accessed by members of The Growth Faculty.  If you would like to become a member of The Growth Faculty, and be eligible for discounts to our live events, click here. If you'd like to increase your professional development why not consider becoming a member of The Growth Faculty? One membership, unlimited access to 30 live virtual Time For Transformation masterclasses and the best live virtual events - PLUS year-round leadership content On Demand with videos, podcasts and book summaries. Join a community of knowledge seekers who are inspired by the best. Access $4350+ value for just $398 AUD. See who's up next.