Rich Mironov needs no introduction. He is veteran in product management and has provided full-time and short-term product management consulting to more than 75 tech companies. We thank Rich for taking out time from his busy schedule to be part of ‘Three Question’ series for product managers.
Product Mantra: Which experience is more valuable for a product manager, sales, marketing or engineering? This considering that most professionals make their way into product management from one of these three functional roles.
Rich Mironov: Product managers need a balance of experience. For PMs who were previously developers/technologists, their engineering backgrounds are already solid. But They typically have little marketing/sales experience. They need to shore that up by sitting in on sales calls, digging into lead gen statistics, scouting competitor products, working out customer ROI models, trying (and failing) as a copywriter, listening in on tech support calls, etc. An ex-developer’s most likely failure mode is to assume that customers care about the finer details of features and interface, and that the buying process is rational.
Likewise, ex-marketers already understand messaging and channels, but will need a lot of technical street cred to work successfully with development teams. They should learn about software architecture, code-and-test processes, technical debt, and how much harder it to BUILD stuff than TALK ABOUT building stuff. An ex-marketer’s likely failure mode is wildly underestimating the effort to add (even small!) features, and to make customer commitments without agreement from development.
Etc. None of us comes to product management with a balanced experience base. We have to get out of our individual comfort zones to fill in the gaps.
Product Mantra: Thousands of products are being developed worldwide every year. Unfortunately most of them fail in their purpose. What are three most common blunders committed by product managers in early stage of the product development?
Rich Mironov: IMO, most products fail because their target buyers aren’t sufficiently interesting in the new product. We talk ourselves into believing that prospects are much more excited than our objective evidence indicates. Three common forms of this overall blunder:
- Willingness to build just what we’re told to build, as described by executives or salespeople or developers. Over and over, I see products in development that “our CEO said that people wanted,” or that make sense on paper, or that only one customer demanded. Every product manager should gather first-hand input from a few dozen potential buyers in the actual target segment – and confirm that the specific product has a paying audience. (As Steve Blank says, “Get the heck out of the building.”) Our job is to validate other people’s seemingly good ideas.
- Not having a back-of-napkin revenue model: vaguely how many units do we need to sell in the first couple of years, at what price, to justify our expensive development team? Does Sales or Marketing agree that these projections are reasonable? Has any player in this market ever achieved similar sales results? Too often, I see companies spend $M’s in development without running the basic financials.
- Assuming that product management is the best source of good ideas. Our job is to make sure that good products are build and good decisions are made, not to be the smartest folks in the room. Some terrific ideas (and a lot of bone-headed ones) come from developers, from channel partners, from customer suggestion boxes, from executives, from competitors, from analysts. We need to filter the incoming stream, discard the obviously useless 95%, and have the best thinkers in our organization give the interesting 5% a thoughtful review. And then validate-validate-validate the proposed mix of features/fixes/new products. We leave our egos at the door.
I see fewer products fail because development is hard (which it is) or because most releases are late (which they are). No matter how great our engineering teams are, they can’t save us from mediocre or stupid product plans. So the most wasteful thing we can do is excellently build a market-failing product.
Product Mantra: How soon should a start-up hire a product manager or for how long a founder(s) should continue playing the role of a product manager.
Rich Mironov: I usually recommend that a start-up hire its first professional full-time product manager when it hits 12-20 people. That’s when the informal communication overhead of a 6-person company (everyone sitting around one table) breaks down, and everyone is suddenly having trouble staying current on customer commitments, priority priorities and development capacity. Someone (a product manager) has to provide just enough process so that the development team can stay productive. See a recent 45-minute talk of mine on this: http://www.mironov.com/startuppm/ .
This can be a very touchy discussion, since founders SAY they want to give up day-to-day control over product details, but rarely ACT that way. They’ve been making every single feature/UI/architecture decision early on, as the company sailed past a series of potential disasters, and that worked well when things were small. Changing their management style and operating model is VERY difficult. Newly arrived product managers at small start-ups have to earn the trust of the founders by handling increasingly important decisions in full view – so that founders can slowly relax their grip on every button placement and color choice.
About Rich Mironov: Rich coaches product executives, product management teams and agile development organizations. He is a seasoned tech executive and serial entrepreneur: the “product guy” at six start-ups including as CEO and VP Products/Marketing. Read more.