When’s the right time to invest in a Chief Product Officer?

Understanding the CPO role

The role of a Chief Product Officer (CPO) is becoming increasingly crucial. Responsible for the product strategy, vision, and execution within a company – effectively ensuring the products fit the market. They are the driving force behind product development, managing the product lifecycle from conception through launch and beyond, and play a critical role linking customer needs, commercial goals and technology. But when is the right time for a business to invest in a CPO, and how does this role differ from that of a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) or a Chief Technology and Product Officer (CTPO)?

When to consider a CPO

The decision to bring a CPO on board often hinges on the size and complexity of the business, and importance of product to the value proposition. A product business (like ISMS.online) may develop the need for a CPO quite early in its evolution, where as a tech-enabled services business (like Moneypenny) may find a great CTO, with a product mindset, is what they need. You will also tend to see dedicated CPOs in larger organisations. A CPO becomes essential when:

  • The business is a product business, and winning in the market relies on continuously evolving the product
  • The scale of the organisation and/or product portfolio diversifies beyond the scope of what a CTO can manage while also handling technology infrastructure

CPO vs CTO vs CTPO: Clarifying the roles

While a CTO’s primary focus is on the technological infrastructure of a company, a CPO’s role is distinctly different. Some of the key distinctions are:

  • Vision and strategy: A CPO defines the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of a product, while a CTO focuses on the ‘how’ from a technological standpoint.
  • Customer-centric: CPOs are deeply entrenched in understanding customer needs and market trends to guide product development, unlike traditional CTOs, who may be more internally and operationally focused.
  • Cross-functional leadership: CPOs often work across various departments, including marketing, sales, and customer service, to ensure a cohesive product strategy.

The CTPO role is something we see commonly in businesses we invest in (those valued at up to £300m), as there is a need for the CTO to have a product focus, but the business isn’t of a scale where a separate role makes sense. Product thinking is also bought into organisations in other ways; Chief Marketing and Product Officer (CMPO) is another role in our portfolio, and we often see product teams reporting to a CTO.

When should you implement a CPO role?

Product thinking is a valuable discipline for companies of all shapes and sizes. Whether you start to dedicate a C-level exec (be that a full CPO, a CTPO or a CMPO) or not depends upon how central product is to value creation for your customers and your organisation and the scale of your business or product portfolio. A larger, more complex business may benefit from additional senior resource; and as you scale, the incremental cost becomes less of a barrier.

About the author

Duncan Ramsay

"I split my time between assessing new deals for ECI and supporting our portfolio companies in driving their value creation agenda as a member of ECI’s Commercial Team. I have spent my career focused on growth, both working within a “real business”, and in consulting – and I bring that experience to bear at ECI."

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