Recapping our Ask Me Anything session with our partner 1871

Kelly Gebo

I had the pleasure of joining my first Ask Me Anything (AMA) event a few weeks back, with our partner 1871. Members picked thoughtbot’s brains on all things product strategy, research, design, development and more. I thought the content and our suggestions might be useful to our newsletter subscribers and larger community, so here is a quick summary of the Q&A. Enjoy!

What is the origin of thoughtbot? What is or was the need that thoughtbot was created to address?

thoughtbot was founded in 2003 in an effort to improve the way people work while building higher-quality products that people love using. We are proud to have done so successfully for more than 1,000 clients. Our robot mascot is Ralph (we love to put him on our swag). We use a thoughtful approach to building web and mobile applications, collaborating with clients, and improving our own skills.

How does thoughtbot define digital transformation? What does the term mean to thoughtbot?

We see digital transformation as the exploration of using technology to fix a pain point in a business, commonly to help reach scaling or market goals. How we do that is using our design thinking approach to break down a current problem or situation with our clients. This helps us identify where workflows can be improved, either internally or externally, and we move forward outlining a potential solution. Our biggest efforts most recently in this space have been applications that help a team run their business better. If you want to chat about a digital transformation effort further, we offer free 30 minute consultations to help you think through your idea or roadblock.

When building a business as lean as possible, how do you allocate your spending for paid promotion? i.e. email strategy, PR strategy, Social media, print, etc.

Great question. I’ll be honest, marketing is a bit out of our wheelhouse. We primarily support our clients with product design and development, but when we do work with startups to launch their MVP, thinking through promotion is absolutely a part of go-to-market strategy. My advice would be ensure you have the foundational customer research to understand who they are and how to reach them. Try a bunch of different things yourself where possible before you extend budget formally. Keep track of what’s working, recalibrate, and try again. We do have marketing teams we bring in and a financial modeling partner within our partner network. I’m happy to introduce you to them directly for a deeper conversation on those items you listed.

Do you have any tips on ways to continue conducting quality research after launching?

A few of our go-tos would be making sure you have a solid analytics setup (e.g. google analytics) so you can track key behaviors. Nurturing a list of customers (current or potential) is another good way to test out things on social media or via email. You can send them brief surveys or put out a request for 1:1 user interviews (we incentivize those since they are a bigger ask). Depending on how much you want to learn, a variety of tools could do the job, the trick is finding ways to reach the right folks so you can get a good number of responses.

Can you describe thoughtbot’s approach to project management and design? What are your leading principles?

Our Product Managers do project management and a little bit more. They create space for the collective team to do their best work. Product Managers lead the efforts across both client + thoughtbot teammates to make sure that there’s alignment, information is flowing to the right team members, and that the proper mechanisms for communication, tooling, and working practices are in place and documented.

Product Design at thoughtbot starts from early strategy definition all the way to successful launch. We take a user-first approach to identifying user needs, problems, and motivations, and use design-thinking to translate that understanding into a consistent, intuitive, and highly usable experience. Our Designers also support user research and lead efforts to continually learn and iterate throughout the project.

We offer Free Office Hours if you ever want to chat with a PM, Designer, or Developer directly about an idea or strategy.

A lot of companies talk about being “innovative”. What does innovation mean to thoughtbot? How can you make innovation actionable vs. just a buzzword?

It is one of those buzzwords isn’t it 😂

The groups that come to us with dreams for innovation are usually startups that want to disrupt their industry, or established companies that want to grow in a new, and strategic way.

Innovation to thoughtbot is the ability to embrace big ideas and complex challenges and uncover concrete next steps in a potential solution.

We do that by leading our clients through a series of collaborative exercises to help them navigate milestones and answer important questions like “How do we best serve customers?” “How do I stay competitive?” and “How can I scale my business?”

What is the difference between quality customer research and mediocre customer research? Why is quality customer research so important?

Great question and so important!! I would say quality customer research uses a variety of methods and happens regularly in a product’s lifecycle. Mediocre customer research uses one form (survey) at the beginning of MVP planning, but never checks in with customers again. We like to test in a variety of ways including surveys, interviews, and live 1:1 user testing sessions, and keep testing throughout each phase. Of course we do this up front when a product strategy and roadmap is being defined, but also at future milestones, for example, as designs are finalized, when an early beta version is launched, or when we are hoping to inform the strongest v2. More details are in our playbook

thoughtbot has some great company values and people-focused initiatives, reviews, and benefits. How do you see your company culture impacting and enabling the startups / enterprise projects you take on?

Building a great culture ourselves, as thoughtbot, is how we all deliver our best work. We work to translate some of those best practices in our day to day work with our clients.

For example, sharing suggestions for facilitating successful meetings and overall team communication expectations allows us all to do our best work in a trustworthy and respectful environment.

One of our goals in partnering with our clients is sharing why we do what we do, which includes how a sustainable, healthy product team operates. We hope they are better equipped moving forward.

I wanted to pass this along, it has a good summary of remote work best practices & good tools.

Kelly, thank you for taking the time today to field everyone’s questions. I was wondering if thoughtbot helps with talent acquisition, too? How would you say you all help with upskilling employees?

thoughtbot can help with both—team mentorship and hiring. In terms of mentorship, we have supported product teams in a variety of ways: pairing, lunch & learns, workshops, training. It really depends on what the goals are. We would then identify what works best for that team in terms of learning and coaching.

For hiring, we can help write job descriptions, develop and conduct interviews and onboard new team members. Most commonly we help a client with their first technical hires.

In your opinion and experience, what are some common things startups and more mature companies alike tend to overlook when debuting a new product in a given market?

The importance of deeply understanding your customers and product market fit. You should do a lot of research before starting to build anything and by doing so, you’ll reduce business risk and be able to make strategic decisions on priorities. For example, research can help to define the most important feature set for your MVP and/or how to communicate your value proposition with end users. Products should be crafted with your users in mind, not built and passed along to users for their feedback.

If they’ve already done research and are ready to launch, I would say having feedback channels established and a plan for connecting with users post-launch. The quicker you can learn what’s working and what isn’t, the quicker you can make tweaks.

What is a common mistake that companies make when it comes to building or buying software?

Believing those options are exclusive. We see companies assume they need to build it all to be right for them, and we see companies assume they can find a perfect off the shelf solution, or a piece of software can be tweaked to fit their use case. In reality, the best strategy is to consider both and the best solution is commonly somewhere in between. We have a great blog on this if you want more info.

On your website there is a blurb that says “As a startup, you can learn whether your product concept is a market fit and be ready for rapid prototyping in days, not months.” How is thoughtbot able to help make a prototype in days instead of weeks or months?

We have a few low-code tools we use to create prototypes. I would say most commonly we use Figma to quickly spin up an early design direction in the form of a clickable prototype. This is a great first resource to test with users. It won’t do everything, and it won’t be perfect but it’s a great way to get input from users on what they like, don’t like, and general discoverability before you spend time and money on development. It also gives a great visual resource to communicate a vision to stakeholders.

What is an often overlooked but integral part of product development?

Great question - here is what comes to mind that really helps things go well.

  • Talking to your customers through user testing throughout the development process so you can regularly challenge assumptions.
  • Making sure the team knows why they are building what they are building so folks can become more autonomous and make the right decisions
  • Have clearly defined success metrics, OKRs, and objectives that answer why you are building


This event was so fun, we are going to host our own Twitter AMA with our PM Team.

  • @thoughtbot
  • #AMAthoughtbotPM
  • October 27th; 10 AM - 12 PM EST

We hope some of the discussion helps you move your projects forward, and to chat with us 1-1, please reach out!