Failure Stories #5: Building the Wrong Product then Doubling Down on Your Mistake | Chris Hatfield (LinkedIn, Meta)
In this first recorded edition of Failure Stories, Chris Hatfield (Director of Product at LinkedIn) shares a story about building the wrong product at Facebook
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Chris Hatfield is the Director of Product for International and Marketplaces Growth at LinkedIn where he leads a global product team enabling success for all of LinkedIn’s business lines. Prior to that he led growth at Meta (then Facebook) on their Community Products which included Creator Products, the topic he discusses today.
This is the first recorded edition of Failure Stories. You can read more of them here.
In each failure story I ask two questions:
What would you consider to be the biggest professional failure of your career – what’s the story behind it and why was it such a big flop?
How did that experience shape you; how did you transform it into a learning opportunity?
Below is the transcript from my conversation with Chris on building the absolute wrong product for creators and then doubling down on that mistake.
Adam Fishman: Failure. We've all experienced it, but hate to talk about it. And why is that? Even the smartest and most talented among us get it wrong, have moments of immaturity, and learn some painful lessons. Because it's so hard to admit failures, I'm publishing this recurring series with some of the most successful company leaders.
Adam Fishman: And the struggles along their journey to success. My hope is that this normalizes the losses and mistakes that we've all experienced, but are just too afraid to share the ones that make us deeply uncomfortable and are a big part of what has forged the successful people you follow today. Those whose advice you clip, whose newsletters you subscribe to and whose templates you share.
Adam Fishman: Welcome to today's installment of Failure Stories. In this conversation, I sat down to talk with Chris Hatfield. Director of product at LinkedIn and former head of growth for community products at Facebook. I hope you enjoy our conversation.
Chris Hatfield: So 2017, Facebook had changed its mission to be much more community oriented.
Chris Hatfield: I was in the video org, and we looked through and said, Wow, a lot of the video that people are watching are coming from BuzzFeed, or Wall Street Journal, or New York Times, and it's not really community focused, it's much more broadcast focused. So, where could we lean in? I was tasked with figuring out what...
We should go after and video creators became in hindsight, the obvious choice. People whose livelihood depends on and their skill set is completely grounded in interacting with their community and bringing them into the content and the conversation. So this was our first pass at really getting video creators on board and I was tasked with figuring out what was our strategy and what was our path forward. The other important piece of context is that part of the scope that I had was this app called mentions, which was an app for public figures. I don't know if you remember it.
Adam Fishman: I remember mentions.
Chris Hatfield: Yeah, yeah. The idea, like if you, you know, if you post something and you get 40, 000 comments and notifications on it, Facebook, the blue app doesn't work as well. And so how can we build something that kind of aggregates all of those things?
Chris Hatfield: So I have a lot of engineers who worked on that. So we went to our VP, we pitched, we said, here's the five pillars. Here's how we're doing against our key competitors. YouTube is obviously the place for video creators. They had a 10 year head start, a couple billion dollars in revenue going on all of that.
Chris Hatfield: And so there were a bunch of different directions we could go, right. I'm not going to remember the framework exactly, but it was around, you know, content creation, community management, monetization, and probably like one or two other ones and the question was, Okay, well, we can't do all of them at the same time.
Chris Hatfield: Where are we going to go? And the reason this became a mistake and what I fell into is I was solving more for the team than I was solving for the member. Right. So I was like, I have this app and one of the needs is content management and community management. And the app does that. So I could just make some changes.
Chris Hatfield: I could get something out quickly. I could use the engineers that I already have on the team. We could really show some progress here. Right? Like that was the idea. And so we sold it and now like, okay, I guess go for it. Why not? And over the course of the next year we did some great work on the app.
Chris Hatfield: I think the app ended up really great. We had a lot of video creator feedback and they were helping us build it and we're building the features they said they wanted. And it was really smooth and clean. And you could switch between your profiles. You could have, you know, if you had a social media manager, you could bring them in.
Chris Hatfield: And so from a community and content management perspective, it was a very good product. Yeah. Problem was it wasn't the product that actually mattered to creators. And we, we knew this in like the back of our minds. Like we saw all the research and you talked to them, monetization was the thing that mattered.
Chris Hatfield: Yeah. If you don't, if you build monetization, content creators will like run through a brick wall to create content for you. And if you don't figure it out, they will give you a lot of suggestions on things that you could build that are kind of annoying that you'll build and nobody ever uses. Right. And so the mistake, I guess you could say that part of the mistake was the initial path.
Chris Hatfield: You know, choosing that path instead of really doubling down on monetization, but the real mistake came six months in once we had that sunk cost and we doubled down on it again, right? I remember vividly being in a product review and the VP asking, turning to one of the, partner partnership leaders and asking her, you know, Is this something that you and the people you work with are really excited about, or is it just one more thing to manage?
Chris Hatfield: And she said, yeah, it's just one more thing to manage. Nobody cares. And so like the logical thing at that point, or not logical, maybe like the right thing to do at that point would be to swallow my pride and go back to the team and be like, look, this isn't the right thing to build. It's not going to solve the problem.
Chris Hatfield: But instead we're like, well, VidCon is in four months and we want to get up on stage and talk about something. So let's go. So we kept going and came out with fanfare and, you know, we got people to use it because it's a Facebook product and we have partnership people, like we have channels to get people to use it.
Chris Hatfield: Didn't help. And then six months later was sunset. And at that point, then we had to go back and tell everyone that everything they had worked on was not valuable. Like, Hey, sorry, I messed up all this time and energy and effort and late nights. It's actually now it's just going to be gone.
Chris Hatfield: It's the equivalent of like over a year and a half having done nothing. I mean, it's over a year. And then, yeah, so like, obviously, you know, now in hindsight, that was so much more painful than taking the pain up front and just saying this isn't the right thing to build. But the reason it was a failure story for me for a couple of reasons.
Chris Hatfield: One was not having the courage up front to say, Hey, I know that monetization is the thing that matters. It's not my team, but it's the right thing to do and we're going to go and do it. And the other was doubling down on it and like that real thing that I've taken away now is just if you solve for the member, if you solve the real problem, then all of the people and org and, you know, promotion cases and all that, that'll get sorted up.
Chris Hatfield: It might take a little bit longer, but it's like, it's a surefire way to grow the pie as opposed to like growing my slice of the pie.
Adam Fishman: Yep. So you fell kind of victim to that classic fallacy of, Escalating commitment to a failing cause
Chris Hatfield: 100 percent my pocket twos were gonna like take me all the way, you know.
Adam Fishman: I love that analogy.
Adam Fishman: One of the things that you mentioned, you know, that there were kind of signals everywhere throughout this project that maybe you were too pot committed or maybe you weren't solving the right problem. I think one of the things that you mentioned when you gave me some notes about this was that you talked to a lot of creators, which cool check that box, right?
Adam Fishman: Talking to talking to customers, but they didn't really give any critical feedback. So, okay. But also that nobody was like, yes, I'm going to use Facebook more because of this, or I'm going to use it period because of this, right? I'm going to abandon what it is that I'm doing today and come to Facebook.
Adam Fishman: And so tell me a little bit more about like how you think about when you talk to customers now, how you can actually really understand if the thing that you're building is more of a vitamin or more of a painkiller, and this product was clearly not the painkiller. That you needed it to be to drive that adoption.
Chris Hatfield: Bottom shelf vitamin, for sure. It really comes down to me, like I see a lot of people younger in their career, ask the question of members or customers or whatever, do you like this or how would you improve this? Right. And it doesn't get to the core of like what behavior you're trying to get them to do.
Chris Hatfield: So going back, what I wish I had asked them was asked these creators was what would make you stop creating content for YouTube and only create content for Facebook and then copy and paste it to whatever other platform. Right. And that I think you'll get to the, Oh, stop YouTube. YouTube is my paycheck.
Chris Hatfield: Yeah. Okay. Yeah, you guys would need to pay me like 50% more because I also don't trust your subscription model versus YouTube subscribe button and these are the real issues. And I also have a lot of trust issues. I would need to understand more about that. That would've been a much more productive conversation.
Chris Hatfield: I've definitely taken that to heart, which is really pushing, you know, if you're in a UXR conversation or like some, you know, customer meeting, like you don't want to push them to the point where it's mean, but you do really want to get the answer of… I don't want you to be nice to me.
Chris Hatfield: My feelings is not the optimal function here. Getting the answer is the optimal function.
Adam Fishman: I like that. What you mentioned there about you don't want to ask them what would make this product better for you, because that actually is the wrong direction that you want them to go down because they will give you a million ideas, but the problem is not Oh, if only the product were a little bit better.
Adam Fishman: I would use this more. The problem is just is the product actually solving the problem that they have. And they're not going to tell you that when you ask, Hey, how would you make this better? What would get you to use this more or something like that?
Chris Hatfield: So put them on this narrow path that's never going to lead anywhere.
Adam Fishman: I want to transition a little bit to ask how you transformed this whole experience into a learning opportunity. Just tell me about that, what you've taken away and, and what you do differently now.
Chris Hatfield: So it was really painful to have this thing that I had spent so much of my time on. Completely fail, and fail for things that I had had signals on earlier, right?
This wasn't something that came out of nowhere. So I really do live by I'm only going to focus on solving the member problem. That's my number one thing.
Chris Hatfield: And I've had managers tell me that it's like it's very refreshing because I'm not talking about How do I bring in more scope into my org to better set myself up for promotion or take on the flashier thing that's better for this other piece? It also just feels much more true to my values of I only want to build something if it's valuable. So how do I get dead set focused on what the value is and make sure that the entire team is aligned around it?
Chris Hatfield: I'm definitely at a point in my career where I am able and privileged to try and live my work by my own personal values. And so, it's a lot more fun, too, right, to build something that's actually useful and valuable. And again, it might not be the flashiest thing or, you know, the thing that gets written up on TechCrunch, but it's the thing that solves a real problem.
Chris Hatfield: Um, and if you play the long game at any company, like that gets noticed over time. And so that's like the advice I've tried to give people younger than their careers where they're like, Oh, I really want to work on project rocket ship because the CEO was just talking about project rocket ship. And it's like, well, do you believe project rocket ship is going to Be useful, maybe, but like, it's a great thing to, for me to like get some visibility.
Chris Hatfield: And if you're working on a one year timeframe, it makes a ton of sense. Right. But if you really want to add to the value of the company and you're thinking of your career over the next like three to five years, then work on the thing that matters to the member.
Adam Fishman: Yeah. The one thing about project rocket ship is that CEOs tend to always have a new project rocket ship every six months or so.
Chris Hatfield: So notice that your rocket ship is heading to a planet you weren't even entirely aware of. You're going to the moon and now you're just heading off in a different direction.
Adam Fishman: The last thing that I wanted to end on is. One of the challenges that you said you were wrestling with was this idea that, Hey, I should have gone to the team earlier and said, this isn't working. We’ve got to cut bait. And we’ve got to work on something that actually does matter, and maybe that was monetization or something else entirely.
Adam Fishman: I had a boss who once told me his philosophy that I've adopted, which is bad news doesn't get better. And what have you learned kind of about that approach or this idea of having to let down a team when it comes to the work that they've put in? And managing that conversation with them to say, Hey, look, this thing that you poured your energy into just isn't working out.
Chris Hatfield: Two pieces. One is I always try to play the long game with people, right? I'm never optimizing for how does someone feel this week? I'm optimizing for what sets people up for success. Over the long term as a manager and I believe that that is aligned with like how do you build the right thing for the member in the long term?
Chris Hatfield: So those two things align there. The second piece, though, is to help them understand how their efforts helped get us to this point potentially more quickly than with another path. So I don't want to talk to them in terms of how I was framing it about myself. So maybe this is like some self care therapy that I need to like continue to work on as well.
Chris Hatfield: But you know, talking to them around the idea of It's fine that this failed. What's important is that we failed in XYZ time and the fact that you all put in so much effort to get us there and help us understand now as opposed to a year from now means we got to pivot to this other thing, right? Or means that we got to shut this down and I think for most people, that transparency is super valuable to them because they know the next project they work on, they're not going to be working on something that people already think isn't valuable, right?
Chris Hatfield: No one expects you to be right 100 percent of the time. Now, they can obviously debate could we have known this sooner or how, and that's a great post mortem to have. But I don't think that anyone will say well, I wish I could work on this for six more months just so I can make sure to commit like these features on this thing that I know we're shutting down.
Adam Fishman: Yeah, that's great. All right, I have one more question for you. Well, actually one and a half. I'm actually very curious about how things are going at LinkedIn. I think that one of the things that I've noticed for me personally is that I spend a lot of my social And brand building energy from me and my business and my content, writing my podcasting, I spend it on LinkedIn.
Adam Fishman: Now, I don't spend it on some of these other platforms. And so I'm just wondering, it seems like LinkedIn is doing a lot right to support both working professionals, but also people building personal brands in the professional space without making it become a cesspool of just clickbait and things like that.
Adam Fishman: So I'm just sort of wondering, how does it, I know this is not necessarily your purview, per se, but how does all this stuff get balanced and worked out at LinkedIn? I'm just really curious to get your thoughts on that.
Chris Hatfield: Well, first, you're totally right. I mean, it's not the exact area that I work on, so take everything with a grain of salt, but there's been a concerted effort over the past 12 to 24 months on how do we make the content that people see and interact with valuable.
Chris Hatfield: And that's difficult, right? There is a lot of self promotion and clickbait things that people put out there. So how do you identify and find those and make sure that it's the real knowledge that people are imparting upon their followers or their network to come back. So I think you see it.
Chris Hatfield: We've done a couple of things. One is that everyone has a really clear understanding of what the mission is How do you create economic opportunity for all the professionals in the world? And that really rings true. So when you think about things like we call it the knowledge marketplace which you experience through feed, notifications, et cetera, you know, how do we make sure that that's helping advance economic opportunity?
Chris Hatfield: And then that creates a very clear rubric which is then very difficult to turn into an algorithm, et cetera, of how do you find that right content, but at least the direction is very clear. So there's not a lot of argument around that. And then from there, I think there's a great culture of experimentation as well of just like, how do we, you know, ship this?
Chris Hatfield: How do we get feedback? How do we understand what's going on? think on Linkedin especially because, as you mentioned, so many people building their professional brand, we get a lot of great anecdotal feedback. So it's not just data, which I think can kind of blind you at times. If you think about some of the other social networks, like you're not going to have as deep of a connection necessarily with every individual member.
Chris Hatfield: Whereas at LinkedIn, everyone there is a working professional and all the people we work for are working professionals. And so it's people that we used to work with giving us feedback. And my messaging inbox on LinkedIn is constantly flooded with, not flooded, flooded makes it sound like a bad thing.
Chris Hatfield: It is full of great feet, great and actionable feedback that I'm able to, to bring in, so I think it's kind of those things of just like, it's a really clear mission, which gives us guidance, great feedback, you know, we're tight connection to our member base, and then that experimentation philosophy,
Adam Fishman: I love, love to hear that. So thank you for building an awesome platform and continuing to build it. I'm investing a lot of my time and energy there.
Chris Hatfield: I'll pass that along to the team as well.
Adam Fishman: Awesome. This is my half question. I think I know the answer to this, but if people want to follow along and be helpful to you, where should they, where should they do that?
Adam Fishman: My guess is LinkedIn.
Chris Hatfield: Great platform called LinkedIn. Uh, yeah, you can, follow me on LinkedIn, I post there a lot of the newsletters and everything that I put out, it’ll show up there.
Adam Fishman: Awesome. Cannot wait.
Chris Hatfield: I'll make sure. Including a new, a new artifact that's just up on Reforge as of last week.
Adam Fishman: Nice. I will have to check that out. Maybe I'll link to it in this post. Well, thanks a ton, Chris. This was a really great conversation. I'm super happy we could have it and thanks for sharing your failure story and your valuable learnings. I appreciate that.
Adam Fishman: All right. Thank you for listening to today's installment of Failure Stories. If you want to read more of these, please visit FishmanAFNewsletter. com.
I hope you enjoyed todays experimental format and conversation with Chris Hatfield. If you’d like to see more of these as recordings please let me know in the comments or reply to this email.
I’ll be back with Part 2 of the Discovery Series next week!