Product Interview - Brad Luttrell @ GoWild
This is an archived post from 2020 which was posted on my previous blog, Product Distilled. It was a project in which Chris Davis and I interviewed local product leaders in the Louisville, KY area. Check out all the posts and let me know if you'd like to see more.
Brad Luttrell is the CEO and Co-Founder of GoWild, an outdoor technology startup in Louisville, KY. GoWild is an activity-based social platform for outdoor enthusiasts. For consumers, our social platform provides the best way to share and learn about the outdoors, including a robust e-commerce experience. For brands, we drive niche customer leads. We’ve worked with Garmin, Polaris, First Lite and National Wild Turkey Federation.
Tell us a little about yourself outside of work!
My childhood took place in coal country. I was born in Harlan County, Kentucky and grew up in the Cumberland Gap. It’s relevant to start there because much of that foundation has shaped my story thus far. The area is rich with culture and adversity, which I think naturally gives people more character. I picked up storytelling from small-town preachers, my papaws and my dad. It’s a common trait in the region.
In addition to being a bit of an orator, I was always trying to create something (adults dub this “entrepreneurship,” but as a child it’s pegged as "curiosity” and “creativity”). I wrote comics about Pizza Man in second grade and attempted to sell them for a nickel each, for example. The passion for storytelling took me to the University of Kentucky, where I had a great run as a student journalist. I graduated with a mediocre-at-best GPA but a good amount of national journalism awards, and I felt like I was on top of the world. My career took me to Memphis, then to Louisville, where I fairly quickly came to realize journalism wasn’t what I wanted, and I wasn’t actually that good of a photographer.
I did what journalists at the time called “going to the dark side”— I went into advertising. I worked at a small agency as a social media content creator and worked my way up to a public relations position. It’s a long story, but I was essentially fired for starting a side hustle, which took me to another agency. I worked my way up from essentially a blogger through various other titles and eventually to the agency’s Creative Director. I acquired a good bit of experience in branding, advertising and web development (as a creative, not a developer).
This work history is important background on my current role for a couple of reasons, most notably in that I don’t have a business degree of any kind. I don’t have any financial background. And I can’t code. What has helped me in my current role the most goes back to being a storyteller and having a passion for creating, which I credit to my roots.Former collegiate and pro athlete. Played basketball at the University of Louisville, Howard University, and eight years professional internationally. Started designing flyers in college for extra money … which turned into web design… which turned into a full-service design and branding company.
How would you describe your role within your company's product organization?
Ultimately responsible. I have three co-founders who are brilliant at what they do, and each of them serve as a pillar for the organization, filling out our design, data and development efforts. As CEO, it’s of course my job to find funding and drive client sales, but beyond that, it’s critical I have the vision, and drive the company’s culture. I have to anticipate our shortcomings and create an environment in which our team feels comfortable taking the appropriate risks to keep us moving fast. That will mean failure, and it’s my job to ensure we’ve created (and operate within) an environment that doesn’t immediately chastise those failures because those kinds of environments create fear. Fear reduces risks, and without risks, you can’t have innovation.
So in short, my role is to ensure we’re creating an environment that empowers innovation.
What are you working on right now that’s exciting to you?
We recently launched a really sophisticated e-commerce product within our social platform, and I’m excited about where that product stands today, but even more so given where it’s going. We serve outdoor enthusiasts who are passionate about what they do. They’re anglers, hikers, hunters, campers and so on. Using the right gear for the job is critical for any of these community members, and we’ve created a very natural way to discuss, browse, share and shop gear. One of our mentors, who has time-after-time been referred to me as the godfather of e-commerce, told us this has potential to be“Amazon on steroids.” That’s a great compliment, but it’s also a tremendous mountain to climb. Seeing all of the potential in the product our team is building is the most exciting thing I’ve ever worked on.
What is the most important part of your day?
I wake up really early, before my kids and honestly before a lot of our team is stirring, and I dig into whatever is on my plate. I find those first few hours to be incredibly productive for me, whether that’s with investor follow ups, business development, reviewing product evolutions, or diving into our latest marketing campaign. It’s less about the task itself, and more about finding that time when you have no interruptions and can get lost in the tasks.
What drains you at work?
Any startup founder who has been in the game long enough knows the entrepreneurial highs are exhilarating, but the lows can hit hard. If you’re not ready, they can be gut-wrenching, panic-inducing and possibly company-ending. Investors will change their mind last minute. Potential clients will back out. Good people will have to be let go. That is what you sign up for as a founder, and no matter how expected these moments are, they still royally suck when it’s happening in real time. It’s the most draining experience I have endured, but it can all be gone in an instant, just as quickly as a roller coaster tops its next hill and tears into a descent. One of my most important skills I’ve learned is the ability to have a short-term memory and long-term vision.
Work & Product
Do you have a daily routine to stay organized or perform better at your job?
Starting early before everyone else is an important part of my routine(I will also work late for the same reason). I have a lot of ways I stay organized with certain email or task management tools, but I don’t think a routine really keeps me performing better beyond just giving me that critical work time. Learning to prioritize is the hardest part of performing efficiently and effectively when it’s your company and you don’t have someone telling you what you should be working on.
How do you go about gathering customer feedback?
Every single person who signs up for our app gets an email and direct message from me on our platform. This invites anecdotal, personal feedback from them, which is incredibly helpful. This means I’m corresponding with thousands of people every single month. It’s not sustainable, but it’s what’s right for us right now. We have a few other team members who are also built into the onboarding process, which is sometimes built in for feedback capture. Beyond this, we conduct quarterly surveys to capture more systemized customer feedback on the product.
How do you make user feedback actionable?
Think about what actions you’d take when you ask the question. Too often I see surveys with questions that provide some interesting insights, but they leave you saying “I wish we had asked them about…” That means you didn’t spend enough time on your customer feedback surveys.
Honestly, the hardest thing as a startup is to not take action on customer feedback. Don’t act on every single piece of feedback you get. That’s the surest way to achieve death by 1,000 cuts. Look for trends and look for what we call “UX SOS,” basically major flaws within the system. If three people message you to say, “I’d really like it if I could attach a location to my post,” you don’t go out and reprioritize for that. That’s not a trend; it’s three people with a decent suggestion you can work in over time. You might not even pay attention to that request if you get a dozen in a week. However, if you get three people saying they can’t post, share the app or take some other critical action, that should be a red flag. That’s a critical flaw. That’s a user experience SOS.
Keeping the product roadmap in mind is critical. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up with some “Frankensteined” version of your original concept. Trust your gut, and implement feedback when it makes sense.
What is something you've done recently with your product that was a huge hit with users?
Our e-commerce product(Gearbox) has had the best adoption rate of any product we’ve ever launched. We’ve hardly had any negative feedback and immediately had consumers requesting functionality to expand that product’s capabilities. Early concepts of this product were in the original business plan back in 2016, but where it landed was something that was crafted out of user feedback, our team’s collaboration and a strong product vision.
What advice would you have for someone who is hoping to grow in their product-focused role?
Don’t wait for someone to hand you the perfect product to build. If you’re a UX designer, go design a prototype for an app you may never build. If you’re a developer, take some online classes or watch some educational videos to expand your skills necessary to build faster and better. Too often I’ve interviewed developers or designers who have gotten stuck in a rut of doing what their day job demands and“haven’t had the opportunity.” Go do it. No one is stopping you from spending a few hours a week furthering your education and your skill set. No matter your day job, you’re actually perfectly positioned to push yourself to grow your role—you have job security and time. Use it to build something on the side, even if it’s just for show. Our entire company has spun out of an idea that started in a basement over pizza and beer. We boot strapped a product in those off hours, and it turned into a real company with thousands and thousands of people using the product. But it does take a lot of work. Ideas without action become regret or missed opportunities.
What’s a lesson that you learned the hard way, but would never take back?
A few times we’ve gotten so in the weeds on a huge project, which requires you to get in the weeds and move incredibly fast, that we’ve forgotten to come up for air and see how everything else is going. You can add something incredibly cool or useful to your product, but if it renders other expected or existing functionality as useless or harms the user experience, you haven’t sent the message you think you have. Rolling out new tech for the sake of new isn’t good. You can have a buggy release from time to time if your audience believes in what you’re doing, but if you roll out a big change and bugs, you put fear of “change” into the of your users minds, and that can be a hard thing to overcome.
The short answer to this question is I’ve learned to make sure our larger product rollouts aren’t harming the foundation of our platform.
What is one piece of advice that had a big impact on your life?
When I was in college, I did photojournalism workshops. They were typically a week long and in rural areas of Kentucky. I remember renowned photojournalist Dave LaBelle addressing the room:
“You won’t find stories driving around. Walk the streets. Talk to people. And step into the culture if you really want to document it. Anything short of this is a discredit to those whose stories we attempt to tell.”
I’m paraphrasing from memory, but 15 years later, this lesson stands strong. This simple advice is the core of ethical, accurate documentary work. While my time as a journalist was short lived, I’ve grown to see Dave’s advice as a lesson in life, not just journalism. This advice holds strong in product development too: Don’t just assume. Walk the streets. Talk to your audience. Know them. Know what they like, and what they don’t. Don’t just immediately act from what they tell you to do— they’re coming up with the easy solutions. It’s your jobs to hear their complaints, find the real problem, and reverse engineer a solution. You can only do that if you really take the time to walk the streets.
If you could wave a magic wand and fix something about one of your favorite products, what would it be?
The Gmail app has a bug where it will not mark an email as read, and it drives me nuts because it’s such a basic functionality expectation, yet it could be disastrous for me if I were to accidentally miss an email from an investor or client.
What is a book, podcast, or website that you think more people should know about?
Explosive Growth is an incredible book for product-minded entrepreneurs, designers, developers and anyone scaling a business. It was written by Cliff Lerner, and it honestly shocks me that this book is not more recommended. I’ve read several books by the“leaders in tech” that are just nowhere near as good or applicable as this book.
What would you do with your time if money was no issue?
My job wouldn’t change. I love what we get to do every single day. However, if money was no issue, I would travel more, for both leisure with my family, and for hunting and fishing. I love traveling and learning how other cultures—even within our own country—hunt, gather and cook their food, and how they spend their lives. Few experiences can open your mind like seeing the rest of the world doesn’t think like you do.
Is there something that you want to plug?
Shamelessly, if someone is into the outdoors at all, I’d ask they try our app out. You can find it at downloadgowild.com.
How can our readers keep up with you?
LinkedIn: My professional pursuits—the ups, downs, wins and losses—are documented pretty much daily on my LinkedIn account. I prefer to start a connection there instead of email. If someone wants to reach out, that is very welcomed.
Instagram: My outdoor pursuits, general interests and some family content is on my Instagram account (@bradluttrell).
GoWild: And of course, fellow outdoor enthusiasts should connect with me on GoWild, where I share recipes, hikes, hunts, fishing trips and my entire outdoor experience.
Twitter: I document dad jokes, attempts at comedy and other thoughts I probably shouldn’t bother to write down on Twitter (@bradluttrell).
My Podcast: I have a podcast where I talk about technology, conservation, music, food, the outdoors and more. It’s called Restless Native. We release at least every other week, sometimes more. You can find it at everrestless.com or wherever you listen to podcasts. I have several episodes with my co-founders where we dissect our own product.