Building your product mindset

David DeWolf, CEO of 3Pillar Global, discusses his new book, The Product Mindset, and how best to tackle being a product-based company, even in the government s...

Building a product company doesn’t simply consist of hiring engineers to solve a problem you see and put it out into the world, it requires a specific mindset shared by an entire company and understanding of the actual needs of real people. To understand how to get into this product mindset, we spoke with David DeWolf, co-author of The Product Mindset and CEO of 3Pillar Global.

ABERMAN: Why did you fall into this idea of the product mindset? First of all, talk to me about what this actually is, and what does it mean for businesses?

DEWOLF: You know the reality is, when you’re building a product, the mindset is different than doing other things. And what we have found is that there’s three fundamental things that are different about digital products than other types of software that people are building, and those characteristics matter. And so, what the product mindset does is, it defines those characteristics. And then secondarily, it puts forth the principles with which you should be thinking, in order to guide your judgment calls into it. It makes this idea of nebulous product really specific.

ABERMAN: I often find that the biggest difference between a product and selling services is actually getting yourself a situation where you can sell the same thing again and again. But also, create something that demand for what you want to deliver exceeds your ability to deliver it. Almost tearing some clothes off to get at something.

DEWOLF: Well you are getting to the heart of one of the principles of this product mindset, which is you have to build to need. You have to build to things that the market and your customer actually needs. Not only they need, but they will pay for. And that is so important, because when software developers or product managers are working, so often we get caught up in this idea of requirements, and just building software, we forget the overarching objective of: we can’t hypothesize what somebody needs, we need to get out and actually witness what they need, and help them figure it out. That’s how you build a product that resonates and expands throughout the market.

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ABERMAN: I think in some ways what’s happened is, technology’s become such a gee whiz kind of thing, that it becomes an interest in itself, that we forget the technology is just a tool to create something that people care about.

DEWOLF: You just hit the nail on the head, because what we have found over and over is that true innovation is not invention, it’s not about technology for itself. And it comes at the intersection of two needs. The first one is: you cannot forget when you’re building a product that there are business outcomes that you are driving towards. And often in today’s customer oriented world, we hear about design thinking and customer experience so much, we forget the business aspects of it. That I have to build a product that’s profitable.

That’s another principle, that’s a characteristic of a product that’s different: it has to self-fund. It’s not saving pennies, it’s creating dollars. And so, it’s at the intersection of these business outcomes and customer need, a customer actually wants and needs and will pay for, where true innovation happens, where you can create a really healthy business

ABERMAN: And at the end of the day, if I’m an entrepreneur, I’m probably an entrepreneur in the first instance because I want to change things. And you can’t change things unless you have resources.

DEWOLF: That’s right. Your profit, your revenue, is the fuel to be able to change things and impact the world.

ABERMAN: You can remain autonomous, which is what every entrepreneur values, and you can be your own boss, and you don’t have to ask people for permission, and all these wonderful things. So here in town, so many of us interact with the federal sector in some way, it is by far the largest source of revenue that many of our technologists use to start businesses or grow them and exit them. How does this product mindset play out in the world of government contracting and requirements? How does it play out where the customer is the government rather than the private sector?

DEWOLF: That’s a great point. We often come back in the product mindset, and we look at what ultimately it is we’re trying to get to, and it’s building to outcomes. And so in the commercial world, we talk about: what is the ultimate outcome you’re looking for? Is it revenue? Is it market adoption, is it market share? What is that measurable objective that we’re building towards? I think you can do the exact same thing in the government world. I think you can look at, what is the mission? Let’s define and be specific about the outcome that we’re trying to produce. And then let’s measure it, and make sure we’re working towards it.

Because product these days, especially these digital products, are all about navigating to get to success. We hear about pivots and those types of things. Well, to make pivots, you have to know what your end destination is, so that you know whether or not you’re on track. So I would say, let’s start first and foremost: what’s the primary goal, what is that outcome we’re pursuing, and let’s build towards that.

ABERMAN: You’re a technologist. And you’ve built a lot of things at 3Pillar over the years, you and your team. How do you get a technologist to really change their behavior, become product focused?

DEWOLF: The word that comes to mind, and this is actually the root of where the product mindset came from, was that over and over again, in failed product development efforts, I would hear the complaint that you know, they’re just lacking context. And it was described about engineers most of the time. But I heard it all over, and what we found was that, if you steep an engineering team, if you steep user experience and product management in the context, in how does this business make money? And what does the customer want? What is the market? Who’s buying?

They will make judgment calls in the moment that are oriented towards those outcomes you’re pursuing. But so often we say, oh, they’re just the technologists, they just know how to code. And so, here’s the requirement, build this, without telling them why. And so if you want your organization to have a product mindset, and to build successful product, you have to steep them in context. And that’s what the product mindset is all about: making sure everybody understands the outcomes we’re pursuing, the customer, and this reality that products are never done. You have to continually evolve and change to stay up with the expectations of the customer

ABERMAN: Salespeople, product managers, and technical people need to be talking, not in separate silos. So, before I let you go, this is really engaging and important. I’m sure you want people to interact with you, and learn more about this. Where are you telling people to go?

DEWOLF: Go to We are launching the book, The Product Mindset, at the end of the summer, and the site will give you all of the resources that you need to learn about the book. But also, we’ve done some extensive research with Forester on the product mindset, and how it’s permeated the business world, and how folks are struggling with this concept. And there’s some great rich data there that you can find, as well as some upcoming webinars, that I think folks will be interested in.

ABERMAN: Well, thank you very much for working on this. It’s a big issue, and it’s going to help drive the region. David DeWolf, it was great to have you.

DEWOLF: Hey, it was great to be here, Jonathan. Thanks.

ABERMAN: That’s David DeWolf, CEO of 3Pillar Global.

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