Welcome to the first interview in our Age of Product Excellence series — a deep exploration of the Product Excellence Methodology, the Product Managers who practice it, and the excellent products that result. In this installment, we speak to Rian van der Merwe, Product Manager at Postmark, a transactional email provider trusted by the likes of Asana, 1Password, and more. Join us as we shine light on the strategies and thought processes behind this excellent product that customers use and love.

Rian van der Merwe’s path to product management began in the San Francisco Bay Area. Unlike most other professionals who find themselves in the region, however, he did not relocate for the booming technology industry, but for a girl — now his wife and mother of their two children.

Still, Silicon Valley made its mark. Rian spent 4½ years at eBay first as a Researcher, then as Senior Manager of Product Strategy. After eBay, he dove deeper into product management and founded Elezea, a PM-focused blog and newsletter that has been in publication now for 10 years. He hasn’t looked back since.

Postmark product management
Rian at work.

Enabling startups and developers to build great things

Rian currently leads product at Postmark, a transactional email provider that prides itself on lightning fast delivery and a sky-high IP reputation. Its mission — providing a solution that frees up time for startups and developers to build great things — is what gets Rian up and excited to work in the morning.

When shaping Postmark’s product strategy, the team starts with the problem the company aims to solve for its target customers. “When developers, companies, or startups make a product, email is not the interesting part for them, but they can’t do without it. Users need their password reset email. They need a confirmation when they sign up for a new product. They need their license key. And they need these things immediately. However, no one actually wants to work on these emails — it’s not the main problem they’re trying to solve.”

When shaping Postmark’s product strategy, Rian starts with the problem the company aims to solve for its target customers.

With Postmark, customers can set up their transactional emails, forget about it, and get back to work on their main objectives. In this way, Postmark provides “necessary plumbing” that eliminates a very real roadblock for the customers they serve. When deciding what gets built next and why, Rian and his team always loop back to this end goal.

Plugging in to customer needs

Rian comes from a research background, and has made plugging in to customer needs an integral part of Postmark’s product culture. “As a small team, all of us talk to customers all the time. I like to say that talking to customers isn’t something we do; it is something we are.”

“Talking to customers isn’t something we do; it is something we are.”

And when it comes to gathering insights and feedback, Rian takes a hands-on approach. He particularly favors one-on-one interview calls and periodically sends surveys to customers to gauge their feelings about Postmark. A key research tactic is keeping a pulse on how dissatisfied customers would be if Postmark no longer existed (the team borrows this from Superhuman’s quantitative method for determining product/market fit, also known as the Sean Ellis test).

These methods open up transparent, two-way communication that keeps a steady flow of knowledge flowing in to the product team. “Because we track all inputs so closely, we are able to go back to customers for more information. We conduct exploratory interviews where we figure out what core customer use cases are for new features, and we often present mockups and prototypes to get direct feedback.”

To digest and organize the multiple conversations that are always in motion, Rian and his team use productboard. With all insights consolidated in one tool, Postmark is able to connect them to individual features ideas, input them into Jira — the team’s incumbent tool — then seamlessly enter delivery mode.

Postmark product management team
The Postmark team

Staying true to core values when delivering new features

Being so in sync with customers has led the team down a new and exciting path that is broadening Postmark’s horizon. As we speak, the company is foraying into marketing emails, otherwise known as bulk email.

Postmark has always been an infrastructure product with a singular focus — delivering lightning fast transactional emails that are easy to integrate for developers. Their success has earned them a loyal customer base who love their speed and reliability. Over time, these customers began to express a desire to use Postmark for their bulk emails as well.

So the team listened. After numerous switch interviews and jobs-to-be-done interviews, Postmark recently delivered an experimental launch of bulk email capabilities — a feat not without its challenges. If executed incorrectly, bulk email can negatively impact Postmark’s stellar IP reputation, one of the product’s main selling points. This poses a problem for existing customers who want to maintain the efficacy of their transactional emails.

“We needed to figure out how to do things differently but still stay true to our values: simplicity, speed, and maintaining focus on our developer segment. We’re never going to be MailChimp. We need to launch bulk in a way that isolates and protects our transactional emails. No compromises.”

With the experiment underway, Postmark is carefully tracking core metrics to guarantee success when it comes time for an official launch. And true to Rian’s belief that “talking to customers is who we are,” they are working hands-on with participating customers to train them on best practices. These sessions are a source of valuable insights as Postmark dips its toes into new features and markets.

“It’s been really good to launch this slowly at first as an experiment and learn from it. Now we feel a lot more confident that there is value there.”

“It’s been really good to launch this slowly at first as an experiment and learn from it. Now we feel a lot more confident that there is value there.”

Empowering cross-functional teams with a sense of ownership

A lot of product managers spend their time evangelizing decisions to stakeholders with varying needs and interests, and Rian feels fortunate that this is something he does not have to do at Postmark. He credits this to how the company is structured and the teams’ unified approach to prioritization and planning.

“Our teams talk and determine solutions together until everyone has enough information to feel comfortable with what we’re doing. Everyone has a sense of autonomy and ownership. Even if someone doesn’t get their way, they know that it’s not because of some random decision.”

“Our teams talk and determine solutions together until everyone has enough information to feel comfortable with what we’re doing. Everyone has a sense of autonomy and ownership.”

This culture of transparent communication ensures that everyone is aligned on what to build next, and gives teams a chance to weigh in with feedback that they believe will make Postmark better.

Postmark’s value to customers

For every feature they goes into delivery, and when considering Postmark’s product as a whole, Rian aims for customers to have two primary responses. One is: “Well that was easy.” The second is: “I don’t mind paying for this at all.”

“We want to create enough value so we’re not seen as just another app that our customers have to grudgingly pay for every month. We want to be the kind of software that we ourselves would enjoy using and paying for. I feel like that’s such a great metric: ‘I happily give you my money.’ That is the best response to a product.

With their customer-focused product strategy and transparent product culture, we believe that Postmark is already well on their way to delivering a customer-focused solution with a value-add that speaks for itself. We couldn’t paint a better portrait of Product Excellence if we tried.

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We hope you enjoyed the first interview in our Age of Product Excellence Series. Hungry for more? Read our kickoff post on the defining characteristics of products considered truly excellent by their users.

Follow Rian van der Merwe on Twitter, and sign up for the Elezea newsletter here.

Dottie Schrock Jul 16, 2019