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Tom Conrad On The Seven Lessons He Learned Creating Products

Tom Conrad has an impressive resume. He worked at Apple in the early 90s, where he was on the Macintosh team. He’s also been the technical director at Berkley Systems for the You Don’t Know Jack video game series. From there he moved to the Senior Director of Engineering at His next high profile job was co-creating and leading product and technology at Pandora.

He’s gained a lot of knowledge through his work; and he went to Stanford University’s Entrepreneurship Corner to share his startup and career advice. This blog provides a synopsis of his advice.

1. Be Passionate About Your Work

When Conrad saw Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl commercial, he was hooked. He got all the documentation, all the product brochures, and all the information he could about the Macintosh. Conrad said that he went to college so that he could work for Apple. He ended up getting an internship with Apple because he sent them an “over the top” letter telling them he wanted to change the world through technology. The passion was clear in his letter, and that helped him get the chance to work at Apple.

2. Be Great at What You Do

Conrad says that Apple liked renaissance thinkers who are good at lots of things. The people that are most celebrated in the company are those that can write software, design user interfaces, deliver brilliant marketing insights, and have a great eye for design. Conrad was at Apple was four years, and while he was there, he wrote about 500 lines of code and dabbled in a bunch of other things. But he wasn’t great at anything.

Working at Berkley Systems was much different. Everyone had a role, they stuck to it and their job was to be great at it. There he learned that it’s best to find what you’re good at and invest in it. Conrad says you’ll have all sorts of opportunities to go wide, but look for opportunities to go deep.

3. Focus on a Small Number of Things

Conrad advises to stay focused on a few things and be great at them. In the early days of Pandora, they were all over the place in what they were doing. After some time, they decided they needed to focus on one mission, which was the world’s best radio station for connecting you with the music you love. They didn’t venture off into being another website, or becoming a social network for music. These types of things would just have been distractions to their mission of being the best radio station in the world. They focused on the mission and put all their energy behind it.

“Focus in all that you do in startups is incredibly important.”

Conrad says a great way to stay focused within the vision is to find metrics that make your successes seem small. Despite Pandora’s success, they still only control about 1% of listening radio hours within the United States.

4. Be Agile

Conrad advises entrepreneurs to look for ways to stay agile, because the advantage of a startup is moving quickly. As companies grow and scale, they have a much more difficult time in remaining agile.

During his time at Pandora, they remained agile by having no medium or long term plans. They knew what the three month plan was, but didn’t know much after that. This was intentional, it was not for a lack of ideas.

Having no long term plans is difficult, because many of the stakeholders in the company rely on it and are constantly. But there is a bigger benefit to remaining agile. Conrad says:

“So I would encourage you to look for ways to stay agile, particularly around product decisions at the last possible moment, because you’re going to constantly be accumulating new information about your business. And that really is one of your great advantages against larger companies. They might have more resources, but they don’t have the ability to react as quickly as your young company will.”

5. Be Decisive

Conrad was at Apple during 91-95, when Steve Jobs wasn’t around. There was a joke thrown around during this time. It goes: “Apple is the only place in the world where a vote of 1000:1 is a tie.”

A bunch of smart people at Apple would agree on one thing, but some other employee contradicts them and they keep going back and forth, leading to analysis paralysis. This made it really difficult to ship anything. When they did ship, it was a big kitchen sink release that tried to solve every user problem all at once. If they were decisive, they’d make a decision and ship better quality products.

6. Be Genuine

Pandora grew through word of mouth. This wasn’t any sort of viral referral system, it was actual word of mouth. When the team at Pandora learned that this was their main growth engine, they fostered a direct and genuine relationship with the users who loved Pandora.

Initially, they didn’t go to great lengths. They just had an informal get together with their users at a bar in San Francisco. They put a post on their blog announcing the event (here’s an example post), telling people to show up at the bar and discuss the music they’ve been discovering on Pandora.

About 30 people showed up, they spent about $50 on pitchers of beer, and met and chatted with their users. They considered it a success, and did more of them around the country. The founder Tim Westergren took a big part in this, where he’d travel and meet people for coffee. Initially only about half a dozen people would show up, but after a few years they’d get about 800 people showing up to their meetups.

In addition to these meetups, their new user onboarding also included a personal touch. Every user who signed up would receive an email from Westergren (which had his personal email address), where he would ask for feedback. Westergren would try to respond to every email. When he couldn’t get to each one, he’d have a team respond, who would identify themselves by their real name, so as not to appear as a ghost emailer for Westergren. Conrad says that these email exchanges are the gasoline on the fire for the word of mouth that drove Pandora’s growth.

Try to be human in everything you do. Avoid sending email from a donotreply address, use copy that makes you sound like a human, and avoid marketing speak.

You can read some of the recaps of the meetups on Pandora’s blog.

7. Be humble

While you work and accomplish things, it’s important to remain humble throughout your life. Hire people who are the same way. Realize that your success is not about you. Pandora’s success has nothing to do with Conrad. It has to do with the employees and the users.

Your product is about solving problems and helping people do things they could never do before. It’s not about making yourself a legend.


About the Author: Zach Bulygo (Twitter) likes marketing, finance, and learning about different businesses.

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