“How to build successful products by prioritizing team happiness above everything else” by Rian Van Der Merwe

7 min readNov 24, 2017


Most product management training and advice focus outward. We are taught to care about the market above all else, and we learn the ins and outs of product discovery, customer journeys, go-to-market strategies, and MVPs.

But what would your processes look like if you started by looking inward instead? If you focused on the happiness of your team first, and put everything else after that? These are the questions Rian Van Der Merwe and the Wildbit team asked themselves. At stage of PRODUCTIZED Rian shared some important lessons they learned on the way to making this approach successful.

Do What Fulfills You

When your company looks at the world a little differently, it kind of creates an identity crisis for an old school product manager. If you go to Wildbit’s website, it says:

Source: Wildbit

What Rian really appreciates working in Wildbit is that if one of their products fails, that doesn’t matter.

Because we exist for having our team doing the best work of their lives, we know that the products we’ll build together as that team will find an audience. And as long as we can be happy with that, we are able to build products that customers love,” Rian Van Der Merve

The talk gives an example of Wildbit’s CEO Natalie Nagele. At the recent Business of Software conference in Boston, Natalie talked about the beast in the incessant need to grow, and discussed how to keep having fun in your business. Users, revenue, employees — what that all does to your company and is that what you are always driving for? A couple of the key points of her presentation stated:

  1. Focus on your team first, so they can focus on your customer.

2. We exist for our team.

3. Team is committed to each other, not a product.

Focusing on your own team, doesn’t mean that you are not focused on customer market, it just means you start from a different point. If you exist for your team, you are going to structure your development process very differently. Your products could end up being more successful that way.

Wildbit is a remote team. They have a head office in Philadelphia, and about half of their team works remote. With 16 years in business and 27 employees, they built tools for developers to be better in what they do. All the work is being done remotely, from all over the world. So how is it possible for them to design a development process if it is completely build on trust? Below are the solutions that Wildbit has found to work for their team.


How can you create planning, prioritization, and development cycles that start from the premise that every team members is trustworthy and want to do the right thing for the product and its customers?

Wildbit works in six-week cycles. In this time period they create small autonomous teams that are responsible for developing and deploying strategy to build the product: that could be the start of a feature, that could be an improvement, that could be bug testing. After six weeks of intense work, there comes a two week period to “just chill.” They take two weeks to do whatever they want, starting from finishing a side project and ending with making plans for the next six weeks. That might seem to be really luxurious, but Wildbit’s working process is actually moving faster because of the way they structured their work. To prioritize focus areas (every two months) with a whole team, Wildbit uses an online Basecamp area, where everyone can submit their ideas throughout the cycle. The answers to 3 important questions What is it? Why should we do it? and Why now? help to use feedback form everyone in the team to actually later break up on smaller teams and learn on the go.

What about long-term strategy?

Wildbit makes a long-term strategy a part of their six-week cycles. How to not just look at what is important right now, but also find ways to test the future?

How to not just look at what is important right now, but also find ways to test the future? Source SlideShare

Try to integrate long-term ideas within short-term cycles, look at the edges of the product; make experimentation become a part of the 6-weeks cycle; define a bigger focus on “what might we do?”

Those benefits of combining a short-term and long-term planning can help you to stay focused on what you are doing, be flexible and plan short-term without being short-sighted.

The six- weeks cycle also includes experimentation, when MVP process becomes a part of iteration. The Wildbit team give themselves six weeks to build a product prototype and test it with real users, whose feedback helps to decide what direction to go.

“Talking to customers isn’t something we do, it is something we are,” Rian Van Der Merwe


How can you give each team full autonomy over their project deliverables, and introduce processes that’s not intended to check up on them, but intended to help be as effective as possible?

In the execution cycle the team should feel that they are involved and they can choose what to work on. The biggest mistake any enterprise can make is to assume that people dont want to work. People are not lazy. On the execution side each team is wholly responsible for their own project. The only way it is going to work out is through constant collaboration and communication. Some things that work for Wildbit:

Source SlideShare

The most important is to make sure that the people involved in the project are actually inloved in deciding what the product is going to look like. And again, that makes the part of the trust.


What are the core rules that the team wants to abide to? What is your shared understanding of the company’s culture and values, and how you plan to treat each other?

Source SlideShare

Wildbit has 10 rules that shape how they work and live. One of them (and the most important one) is “Don’t be an asshole.” Wildbit philosophy states:

You know how to be a good person: just be nice, be good, don’t skip out the work that your are supposed to do. Build the product for your customers, talk to them. We all know how to do it, we don’t want to make things so complicated.

Above all, We Are Honest to Each Other

Be focused on your team, customers, products. But first and foremost, focus on your team. And the other two will follow.

We are in the human business. So when it comes to how you do planning, when it comes to how you execute your product, when it comes to the kind of culture you have in your organization, don’t forget to ask yourself: Who am I?Who do I want to be? How can I be happier at doing this?

The answer to these questions will be different for each team, but they will get you on your way to a process that not only makes the team happy and productive, but delights customers as well. As we are happier making products, our customers will be happier with the products that we make.

A LiveSketch of Rian’s talk by Live Sketching

Access Rian’s slides presentation below:

About Rian Van Der Merwe

After spending several years working in Silicon Valley and South Africa, Rian Van Der Merwe is currently a Product Manager at Wildbit. Skilled in the user experience research, content strategy, interaction design and product management, he came to PRODUCTIZED to share his expertise in these fields.

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