Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots

402: Lift Off with Emily Bahna

December 2nd, 2021

Emily Bahna a Managing Director at thoughtbot who leads the Lift Off team, where they focus on really leaning into the core of the company. The team works with new founders to launch new products or they work with existing companies that want to build out a new service or open up a new area to generate revenue for their business. But, the thing that ties Lift Off together, is that they start at ground zero to build upon an idea and actually build the first version product to get it out live into the marketplace.

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CHAD: This is the Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots Podcast where we explore the design, development, and business of great products. I'm your host, Chad Pytel. And with me today is Emily Bahna, Managing Director of thoughtbot's Lift Off team. Emily, thanks for joining me.

EMILY: Thank you.

CHAD: So at this point, we've talked with a few of the different managing directors at thoughtbot about their teams. And Lift Off is one of the largest teams that we have. And so what is it that Lift Off actually does?

EMILY: Lift Off is focused in on really leaning into the core of thoughtbot. We work with new founders launching new products or work with existing companies that want to build out a new service or open up a new area to generate revenue for their business. But I think the thing that ties Lift Off together is that we are starting at ground zero building upon an idea and actually building the first version product and getting it out into the marketplace.

CHAD: And oftentimes, those are pretty significant endeavors. The last episode that came out was with Dawn at Ignite who is more on the validation, early stage, getting things that are fairly straightforward into market as quickly as possible usually in a matter of months. But Lift Off the endeavors are usually quite a bit more significant than that, right?

EMILY: Yeah. I would say that the difference between validation...we're beyond the stage of validation. We're working with clients who are ready to build a foundation. They really need to put in the infrastructure that's going to take their product and get it ready to scale into the future. So they really need to make that investment into the longer-term strategy. They need to know what's realistic to build first. But they also have to keep an eye on the long road ahead of building something that can be something that can set out to grow down the road as well.

CHAD: I guess another way of putting it is that Ignite often works with brand new teams, brand new companies creating something for the first time. And Lift Off typically works with existing companies who have existing significant revenue who want to do something new, either a new business or a new product, or maybe they have an existing web product and they're going into mobile for the first time. That's another way of putting it, right?

EMILY: It could be. I think that when people are ready to move into the Lift Off space, it's about having the investment, the right kind of funding to move in that direction. Sometimes we do work with new founders that have a significant amount of funding, but a lot of times it is folks that are at the enterprise level that are building a new service line. They've got validation and market research already done. And they're building out a completely new line of business that they need to explore and set a new foundation in place.

CHAD: Do you have some examples of clients that have been projects of Lift Off?

EMILY: Yeah. We've been doing a lot of really interesting work in the health tech space, a lot of interest in improving patient experience. So we worked with a company called Relias in terms of moving them into a new service line that they'd never been in before, really focusing on improving patient care for therapists, physical therapy therapists. We've also worked with an organization called Groups Recover Together, building out a mobile application for an organization that helps people recover from substance abuse. And we also are working with an organization called Airrosti. That is also an organization that helps in the physical therapy space, so improving patient exercises or rehabilitation through an improved mobile experience, virtual experience to improve overall patient outcomes.

CHAD: I think it's not a coincidence that a lot of the projects that we work on in Lift Off are in the health tech space because that combination you were saying, a lot of what Lift Off does is really build products that are complex and that are going to scale and have a certain scale fairly quickly and need to really think about more of a platform that's going to be iterated upon into the future. And once you get into a highly regulated industry like health or finance or something, there are so many factors at play, especially if you're an existing business going into that. There's lots to consider. The projects are more complex. And so having a team of people that are focused on working in that kind of environment and know the challenges of doing that and an integrated design and development team who's comfortable operating in that space, I think that that's why it's not a coincidence.

EMILY: Yeah. I think there's also a lot of great energy in that space right now to move it to the next level. And to be honest, the pandemic really accelerated the need for improvements in patient engagement and allowing therapists or physicians to be able to care for patients in a virtual setting. It also is true not just in health tech, but as you mentioned, we've been actively working with a lot of FinTech companies as well, building out mobile experiences for companies that are helping people get out of debt or working in even some of these new areas like cryptocurrency and things that are changing pretty rapidly in the marketplace and being able to respond to that. But kind of working in a really complex environment some particular industries that have specific compliance security needs in order to be able to serve their customers in a safe way. So working through a lot of those challenges is what's really important and having a team that can navigate through those levels of complexity.

CHAD: I've talked with the other managing directors about the benefits of our new focus teams and how working on a similar project allows the team members to focus. The other aspect of it is there are parts of what we did under the studio model. And it may have been like there'd be one Lift Off project within...I think we should mention that you used to be the Managing Director of the Durham Studio. And it was a relatively small team working with local clients. And so you may only have one of these kinds of clients a year or maybe even less.

And so building up an expertise but also meeting the needs of those particular clients there wasn't enough work there, for example, to hire someone with a specific skill set or knowledge if it's only going to be few and far between. And that's been true in Lift Off because we used to, at thoughtbot, not really have product managers. Everyone was designers and developers. And that was because only a subset of our projects really needed a product manager at the table. For the most part, a lot of those smaller projects or the boost-style projects are just developers or designers working directly with a stakeholder. And so, within Lift Off, we've built a product management practice because of that specialized need within these kinds of projects, right?

EMILY: Yeah, I think just like you said, the ability to really focus in on the first version product is looking at ways that we could improve our process there and provide more support that's really needed for these kinds of engagements. So what we have seen with the more complex MVPs is a lot of these clients need reliability. They need to know that what they're building is the...They need to have more support in terms of the management of that, having someone who's dedicated to being able to straddle between the business objectives and working with the team navigating some of these more complex compliance issues, security issues, and keeping that on track.

Also, we've been leaning into improving our practices around defining what first version product is. We've been using design sprints to really help align both business owners and the team to determine what are the biggest risk factors? How do we define what we're actually going to build and start building that roadmap? And we've been leaning into those best practices and actually improving upon it.

And so we've looked at that and built out a discovery sprint that is not just a week-long but really extends that out to about three weeks to give us more time to do more user research, dive a little deeper through the design sprint exercises, but then bring in engineering, bringing an interdisciplinary team to look at the problem from both a product management point of view, a design point of view, and a development point of view to really determine the first version product roadmap and give more clarity to our clients and a clearer sense of what we can accomplish in the first.

CHAD: I can speak to this firsthand because I was advising and working on a project that started before we reorganized into teams and effectively playing that role. But as the project went on, not that we did a terrible job, but it became overwhelming for me with my other responsibilities and spending a couple of days a week. A couple of days a week is sufficient on a smaller project, but on a much larger project, it's essentially a full-time job to do all of that work. [chuckles] And I just didn't have enough time to be able to do that, let alone then provide a real active management of the roadmap six-plus months out.

So a very lightweight process with not a lot of definition works when that period is then over in 6 to 12 weeks, and you have something [chuckles] in the market. When you're trying to plan and trying to coordinate work and trying to give clarity around a product and everything that's six-plus months out, it's a whole nother ball game. And it requires a whole nother level of effort, and the clients want that. And so being able to give it to them not only makes them more successful and more confident and feeling like they have that reliability, but it also then puts our team in a better supported set up for success and that kind of thing because they have what they need, and the client has what they need. And everyone's able to really come together and collaborate on building and launching a great product.

EMILY: Yeah. I think we're always looking at ways that we can improve our process, and as we are taking on more of the complex projects recognizing the need for this role. What's really exciting is the interest in the product management role. It’s been an opportunity for our team members. We've had two senior developers who've wanted to move into that role. And it's been an amazing transformation of with them, similar to you, having that background, the hands-on background of understanding what it means to be a developer on a project but then being able to transition to a different role on the project and get more involved on the business side of things. But that's been extraordinarily successful in making that transition and providing the support that the team needs in order to be successful. So in some ways, it's like we were trying to do that job without really defining it. But now that it's been defined, just recognizing the value that that role plays on these types of projects and seeing the opportunity to even improve it.

CHAD: I wanted to tell you all about something I've been working on quietly for the past year or so, and that's AgencyU. AgencyU is a membership-based program where I work one on one with a small group of agency founders and leaders toward their business goals. We do one on one coaching sessions and also monthly group meetings. We start with goal setting, advice, and problem-solving based on my experiences over the last 18 years of running thoughtbot. As we progress as a group, we all get to know each other more. And many of the AgencyU members are now working on client projects together and even referring work to each other. Whether you're struggling to grow an agency, taking it to the next level and having growing pains, or a solo founder who just needs someone to talk to, in my 18 years of leading and growing thoughtbot, I've seen and learned from a lot of different situations, and I'd be happy to work with you. Learn more and sign up today at That's A-G-E-N-C-Y, the letter U.

So we have a bunch of positions open in Lift Off. But product management is one of those positions that we're looking for people, right?

EMILY: Yeah. We are actually opening up a position for Director of Product Management because the role is so critical to the work that we're doing, just like...I feel like we're extending our design and development model but then adding this third tier of product management, which is just as important in terms of the team that works best for these types of projects. It's having that interdisciplinary core of product management, design, and development working together for new products. A lot of it is really having that high-level oversight, the business strategy integrated in with the folks that can specialize in the development and the design piece. Having to look at the problem from those three different points of view just provides a level of reliability for clients that they just can't get with a single point of view.

CHAD: What is the size of the product management team now?

EMILY: Right now? Let's see. I think we've got about five. We have four or five active product managers right now.

CHAD: So tell us more about the ideal Director of Product Management. What do you think that they would be? Able to lead a team that size while also evolving our product management process and doing product management themselves?

EMILY: Yeah. I think I'm bringing in somebody who can help us improve our product management process specifically for first version products and really looking at it, and really shaping it, and pulling in the best practices, and really shaping it for the clients that we have I think is one thing I'm looking for the director to do. I'm also looking at the director to upskill our team. Like I said, there are a lot of folks like developers and designers that are actually interested in moving into that role and building up a potential career pathway for folks that may want to move into that area and to ensure that they are successful with that.

And then growing the team, we are hoping to be able to...I think we've got five active projects right now, so being able to grow our projects and to grow the team so that we can support those kinds of projects on an ongoing basis. So really extending that out and then working collaboratively with our design and development directors to look at how we can collectively put together best practices around first version products.

CHAD: Awesome. Well, what's on your radar now? What's next for Lift Off besides hiring a Director of Product Management?

EMILY: [laughs] That's definitely number one. I think what is up next is really focusing in on teamwork. How do we work collectively as a team? Are there ways to improve our process to better serve our clients? We've done a lot of things in the past year. Like I'd mentioned before, we've improved our design sprints and extended them to become discovery sprints. Those are just names, but it's really the beginning stages of kicking off a project more successfully. Looking at ways that we can improve our customer experience and being able to serve clients in a better way, improving our product management across the board for all our projects, looking at ways that throughout the first version product for our clients what other ways can we better support our clients? Either through go-to-market strategies or helping them recruit permanent team members onto their team. But I think what's next for Lift Off is really examining how we service clients and looking at ways that we can actually make it even better.

CHAD: Cool. Well, I want to change gears a little bit and ask you about you.

EMILY: [laughs]

CHAD: So your background, I think it's important to say is as a designer, right?

EMILY: Yeah, that's one of my backgrounds.


CHAD: Okay, you have a varied background. But what were you doing when you joined thoughtbot and moved into the Managing Director role? And how has that evolved over time?

EMILY: I think it's really interesting. You're always leaning into something. And as you look back at your past, even if it doesn't seem to make sense, you're always gravitating to something that is your North Star. Before I joined thoughtbot, I actually ran my own agency, which was called UX-Shop. And it was a team of one; it was me. As I was building up that agency, I recognized that I couldn't do it all. The types of projects that I wanted to work on were more complex. And so, when I started UX-Shop, I would be pulling in talent to create the type of team that would make that project more successful. It was hard to continually do that in a way where I had to recruit talent [laughs] and secure projects as well without having them as permanent employees.

When I joined thoughtbot, it was an opportunity where I had access to amazing talent. And I could really focus in on building that, first off doing it in the Raleigh, Durham office where we went from a team of four to I think we grew the team to about nine. And starting to really grow that office to transitioning to this new model where we went from a team of nine to...I don't know the exact number, but I think it's like 25, 28. We're heading toward the 30 mark. So it's a significantly larger team with the ability to really focus in on the kind of projects that I actually really love, which is new product design and development but going after those more complex projects.

And I think when I start looking back at my own career, I'm just starting to see patterns of the same focus but the opportunity to dive into it in a bigger way, in a more challenging way, and starting to tackle that. So thoughtbot's really given me the opportunity to take that ambition and actually apply it with the opportunity to have the talented team to be able to execute on those types of projects.

CHAD: How has going from a team of one to a team of four to a team of nine to a team of pushing 30...are there things that you've needed to evolve in your own skillset or experiences?

EMILY: Yeah. I think certainly building leadership skills, understanding how to work through a lot of challenges on what makes a team work really well together, making sure that we've got the guidelines and structures in place. There are a lot of things that I've grown just having the opportunity to work through some of those challenges. But also, in some ways, growing into a larger team has made some things a little easier. But it was nice having that progression from a smaller team to a larger team.

I don't know if I would have been as successful with growing to a team of 30 right off the bat without being able to work in that smaller space, kind of learn my lessons, and then build upon those and grow that unit, get better at what I was doing. The reason why Lift Off is really starting to thrive is understanding that that foundation is built upon a lot of trial and error and just learning how to navigate and improve my own personal leadership skills.

CHAD: Are there any particular resources that you called upon in order to do that?

EMILY: So certainly reaching out to folks who are in similar positions. There's a strong community here where I live in Durham, talking to a lot of founders or folks in the leadership space who are growing teams. I've had some coaching with executive coaching that's helped quite a bit, especially when I've been in situations that I just wanted to make sure that I was handling them in the right way. And then, of course, having access to the folks at thoughtbot like you, Chad, and people that I can talk to and get advice on how to navigate tricky situations have all been contributing to my education and making me a better leader in this space.

CHAD: Would you recommend coaching to other people?

EMILY: I would. I think it's a real opportunity for you to...there's a lot of things that you don't really know that you don't know. And there's a lot of ways of approaching things in a different way on how you communicate. That is the difference between really getting through and solving a problem versus having a situation arise and escalate and become problematic. And it's a little bit of understanding how to frame things in a thoughtful way.

It's also an opportunity to understand that sometimes you just need to have some space to think before responding and understanding how to navigate complexity, especially in today's world where leadership there's so much going on, transitioning to remote. There are different things that are pulling at us in different aspects and just really understanding the human element of your teams. So having someone who you can talk to in a way that you can share those ideas and get a different perspective, I think, is really helpful.

CHAD: Yeah. Well, if folks want to get in touch with you or Lift Off, what's the best places for them to do that?

EMILY: Well, there's always my email, I think just reaching out to me directly is the best place. I'm always happy to talk about Lift Off or have an intro coffee call with folks that are interested in what we do. So that's the best way to get in touch with me.

CHAD: Excellent. You can subscribe to the show and find notes for this episode at If you have any questions or comments, email us at You can find me on Twitter @cpytel. This podcast is brought to you by thoughtbot and produced and edited by Mandy Moore. Thanks for listening and see you next time.

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