Last week Silicon Valley and the Internet industry lost one of its pioneers. For those that knew him, Mike Homer was unique and unforgettable. I worked for him for a time at Netscape, where he was the one of the principals there, initially running the marketing organization, and later the Internet portal effort.

Mike had an amazing career, first at Apple and Go, then Netscape, and then he went on to be CEO of Kontiki and an angel investor and advisor behind dozens of exceptional product companies, including Google and TiVo.

During the service, two things impressed me as I looked around at the leaders of our industry that came to pay their respects to Homer.

The first was the tradition of mentoring and coaching, personified by the man that gave the eulogy, Bill Campbell, and Homer himself. I was but one of probably thousands that personally benefited from his generosity, intelligence and insights. When I decided to write a book on great products, Homer was one of the very first people I went to. He didn’t hesitate to offer his thoughts and introductions to others.

The second thought, which is the subject of this article, is on the nature of great product leaders. At the service, when Bill Campbell talked about Mike’s career, he mentioned how Homer often knew his products even better than the engineers. And I flashed back to meetings where this was exactly the case.

You had to see Homer in action to know what I mean by this, but Mike “embraced” product. Not a gentle embrace; a bear hug type of embrace. He loved products and creating something great. While Homer seemed to genuinely enjoy the entire ride of building companies, he took his products very seriously, and showed little mercy for those that didn¹t feel the same.

When I look at other industries (the US auto industry comes to mind especially), many companies today are lead not by people that are passionate about their company¹s products, but by accountants or professional managers that believe that all businesses are fundamentally the same, and that a balance sheet analysis, or good people management skills, is all they need to turn things around.

But if you look at the great companies of our industry ­ Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon ­ to name just a few, these are all lead by people that are absolutely passionate about their products. I don¹t mean passionate the way a good sales person will get excited during his pitch. I mean passionate in that they live and breath their product, never rest until the product is great, and are intimately knowledgeable about every detail and nuance.

Countless formerly great companies started with such a leader and then lost that person. While they may still harvest profits for years to come, they lose the fire. And when the leader lacks this passion, this is reflected over time throughout the organization. The company becomes a different place, and attracts a different type of employee.

Fortunately, there are many such passionate and inspiring product leaders, especially in Silicon Valley, but I¹ve found them in all corners of the globe. These are the ones that will create the great companies of the future.

I should also admit that sometimes when I’m at a company lead by a passionate product leader, the product team will complain that they wish the CEO would let them worry about the product and stop second-guessing every decision they make. I try to tell these people how fortunate they are and what it’s like in companies that don’t have these types of leaders. I’ve worked in both kinds of companies and I’ll take the deeply involved product leader every time. Yes, they will push you harder, and make you prove it
rather than just trust you, but the bottom line is that they care because they get it.

Mike Homer got it, and we honor him by our passion for our products, and our willingness to share generously what we¹ve learned with others.

PS: Mike was the victim of the neurodegenerative disorder Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, known as CJD. If you¹d like to help fight this disease, please see www.cjdfoundation.org.

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