Category Archives: Lean Startup

Alicia Dixon @ ‘The Three Questions for Product Manager’

Alicia Dixon

twitter at @Li_Li_D

Alicia Dixon is a Product Manager with a specialization in mobile software. Her expertise includes product development, product strategy, and market research. Throughout Miss Dixon’s career she has successfully produced enterprise and consumers products through positions held at leading companies including Hilton Worldwide, UPS, Dell, Blackboard, Fruit of the Loom, Nike & Toys R Us. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from Howard University along with an MBA from Baruch College, CUNY and an MS in Marketing from the University of Alabama. She is an active member of technology  community and sits on the planning committee for ProductCamp DC.

We thank Alicia for taking out time and be part of ‘Three Questions’ series for product managers.

Product Mantra: What is the biggest challenge facing the discipline of Product Management?

Alicia Dixon: In the push for designers to learn to code, and developers to learn design, and everybody doing product, I feel that one of the biggest challenges for product management is staying relevant.  Lately there seems to be a trend that everybody feels that they can do product successfully.  My personal point of view is that this is because people assume that doing product is easy.  I attribute this to the fact that the core skills and talent needed to do product are so esoteric.

You learn product by doing it and you can’t really get it from a book or class.  And there’s no one-method-fits-all approach to building successful product.  Thus, there’s an assumption that since the skill set is so undefined that it’s an easy one to master.  Those of us doing the job know this couldn’t be further from the truth.  We know that creating product is an art form.  And like all good art, you know when it is good or bad, but you might not be able to define WHY it is good or bad.

Unfortunately, there is a growing trend to push product away from working with potential customers to formulate business strategy and into areas that should be handled by other disciplines.  In an effort to clearly define the product role, hard requirements for the job (such as being ScrumMasters, Design Thinking facilitators, and multivariate testing experts) have become commonplace.  These attempts to make the parameters of the role more concrete have actually had an adverse effect; making product roles irrelevant because there are already groups that do project management, design, and analytics.  As those groups claim the job functions that are rightfully theirs and there are no other defined components to the product role, I believe that the result is those disciplines start to question why product is needed.

Of course, product is needed!  Why, you ask?  My answer is to give direction as to what comes next.  Product is out canvassing the streets to uncover the customers’ problems and bring those back to the organization to say ‘here’s an unsolved problem that we have an opportunity to fix’. Understanding the challenges that target users are facing and why of those challenges have significance is the cornerstone of the product management function.  Achieving this requires listening and empathy — two soft skills that don’t translate well into a job description or RACI matrix.  All of this means that the onus is on Product Managers to prove their worth.  Doing that is really hard when we are off doing tasks that we shouldn’t be doing in the first place.

Product Mantra: How best can a product management professional leverage upon the growing virtual community of product professional for his/ her personal development. Would you share some insights on this with our readers?

Alicia Dixon: Social media and online networking have made it so that Product Managers now have a thriving virtual community.  Through my own experience I can say that everyone I have met virtually who works on product has been very welcoming and friendly.  While it is tempting to seek out a relationship with the most popularly recognized product folks, I encourage you to connect with people who work on similar products or within your local area.

My advice for anyone wanting to acclimate oneself with this community is to start by consuming the popular blogs and following thought leaders on LinkedIn and Twitter.  Then start commenting on any post or article that you find compelling.  Share these within your network as well.  As you get more comfortable, create your own posts based on your specific experiences. Finally, don’t stop with the virtual community.  Make connections that you take into the real world.  Meet other product people for coffee, take them for drinks, and attend local meetups or ProductCamps.

Getting involved in this way will not only expand and improve your product knowledge it might just lead to your next opportunity. For example, a good online friend of mine is now slotted to be the keynote speaker at an international conference based on a referral I made. I spoke at the event last year and recommended her to the organizers. I knew that they were recruiting speakers for this year and that she would be great at it, so I was happy to connect them. Most of the product people that I know are eager to help foster the community in this way.

Product Mantra: Which is your most memorable experience from a startup and what do we learn from it?

Alicia Dixon: A key learning that I took away from working in a startup environment was that what is appealing at any given moment can quickly change.  My startup experience was actually at an internal startup at a 90 year-old company.  When I first joined the business, the product that I was working on was deemed the next generation evolution for the company.  It was to be the new and significant revenue stream for the business.  All of the executives were very excited about the new growth opportunity and trade publications spoke highly of the upcoming industry change.  At that time, the product was the core focus. So it was heavily funded.

However, the industry had a hard time moving forward with the adoption of a disruptive technology.  The need to continuously make iterative product improvements was a new paradigm which was not embraced by the company nor clients.  The one-and-done mentality (i.e. build it once, then sell until sold out) was so ingrained in the business that they just couldn’t get past it.  Over time, funding was gradually pulled from the initiative.

So the takeaway from a product sense is that one must continuously scan the marketplace to be aware of the receptiveness to what you are creating.  When you notice it begin to wane, it is time to move on, either to another product within your current role, or to a new position entirely.

Thanks Alicia.

Alicia Dixon on Social Media

  1. Follow Alicia on twitter at @Li_Li_D
  2. Get connected with her on Linkedin @ https://www.linkedin.com/in/dixonalicia
  3. Read her blog http://just1morething.com/

@mathurabhay

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Rich Mironov @ ‘The Three Questions for Product Manager’

Rich RichMironovMironov 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.

@mathurabhay

5 takeaways from Nobel Laureate Md Yunis’ experience for Product Managers

One Young World 2010, Professor Muhammad Yunus shared his experience on how he created something that was so wrong by definitions but yet successful in creating positive impact on lives of thousands of his customers. He has beautifully summed up the thoughts that I believe every product manager must carry while he or she is working on conceptualizing new product or service. These are simple yet powerful points that can help you build a product with differentiation and having significant value proposition.

video courtesy: Youtube

While I am sure you will enjoy the video, I would like to sump-up some of the points;

  1. Think beyond Rules: Rules defined by conventional or well established business should mean nothing to you. Do not let your thoughts be caged within these boundaries. Treat them as mental blocks and just let them go.
  2. Think / aim Gigantic: Note what Professor suggested to CEO of ADIDAS on vision. Yes they are difficult but I always believe that having challenging vision helps you build a stronger character and better professional. So just go for it.
  3. Create your customer: Conventional banks have 97% male customer whereas grahmin bank went to women and close to 99% customers are female. Create your customer, identify who else can you sell your product or services to. If you are someone who works on Go-To-Market and target market you would appreciate the value that professor brings when he talks about his experience of having a branch in New York City.
  4. Possible vs impossible: Yes indeed the gap has narrowed down. It is equally important to unlearn as it is to learn. Some of the Don’ts of past have become Dos of present times. So maybe it’s time to rework on your basic assumptions you had while conceptualizing your product or service.
  5. It is never crowded for innovation / innovators: Well said, in fact I am of the opinion that a crowded place offers best opportunity to innovate.

@mathurabhay

Three questions for product manager Roger Cauvin

Roger

Product Mantra: What prioritisation technique(s) would you use at a startup where product users are both internal and external?
Roger Cauvin: Product managers should build consensus with every member of the product team (including internal users) for a focused value proposition that keeps internal users and stakeholders aligned with the needs of the target market and with the product’s positioning. This sort of product strategy consensus enables all team members to execute cooperatively and to set aside personal preferences in deference to delivering the promised value. I recommend composing a competitive mindshare map to position (determine the unique value proposition of) the product.

The team should agree to consider every product decision in terms of the extent to which it supports the unique value proposition.

Some practical ways I’ve used to build this product strategy consensus include:

* Walk the team through the competitive landscape and positioning represented in the competitive mindshare map.
* Interview prospects and share and review the interview notes with the team.
* Compose a slide deck of buyer and user personas and review them with the team.
* Compose a lean canvas and review, in particular, the “problem” and “unique value proposition” sections.
* Take every opportunity to relate product decisions, requirements, and design back to the unique value proposition.

Product Mantra: What advice do you have for a product manager in a startup who is expected to do more than just product management?
Roger Cauvin: Depending on the situation, responsibilities outside the strict product management role may represent a personal growth opportunity.

For example, I ran product at a startup that lacked the resources to hire a user experience designer. Consequently, it became my responsibility to design the user experience for an overhauled version of the product. I embraced this responsibility as an opportunity to learn user experience (UX) patterns and practice mocking up user interfaces.

Simultaneously, however, I educated the rest of the executive team on how user experience is not part of the product management skill set, and how a dedicated user experience designer would likely produce a higher quality design in a more timely fashion. They agreed and were prepared to hire a user experience designer once the budget allowed for it. (Unfortunately, our funding ran out, so we were never able to budget for it.)

Another avenue worth pursuing is to identify colleagues interested in carrying out the responsibilities and empowering them to do so. In startups, we all have to be prepared to be fluid in the roles we play to work as a team to deliver the best business outcomes. That burden shouldn’t lie exclusively on product management. At any particular time, for any particular job to be done, the team has to identify the people best suited to take on the responsibilities.

Product Mantra: How would you go about introducing lean startup techniques at a startup?
Roger Cauvin: First, compose a lean canvas for your product(s). No excuses. Just do it. It’s a quick way of being explicit about your product strategy so you can begin testing the hypotheses and iterating on them. I suggest composing it in Google Slides so that it’s accessible from all devices and simultaneously viewable and editable in real-time by all team members.

Second, make sure you are interviewing and observing prospective buyers and users on a fairly regular basis. If you can’t tap into the sales pipeline to identify prospects, think creatively about your own network of friends and professionals who could connect you to prospects that may not be on your company’s radar screen yet.

Third, identify the metrics that matter and start tracking them. You may need to work with marketing and/or sales ops to gain access to the tools you need, such as Google Analytics or Salesforce.

Fourth, instrument the product(s) to track usage. Tools such as MixPanel enable you to track not only events and page views, but also “funnels”, which are sequences of events that comprise a use case. I recommend documenting the key events to track in Google Sheets. For web-based applications, developers can implement events by inserting simple snippets of Javascript.

Finally, you can build consensus for lean startup approaches by educating the team about them and their benefits. Start with an introduction to lean startup and follow up by posting and walking through a model of lean startup concepts.

Banish long Sprint Planning meetings

In the Agile world, a Sprint Planning meeting would typically have the Business / Product Owner listing and explaining each story to be delivered and the team goes about doing their best to understand each story based on questions and discussions. The team then estimate the effort needed for each story and commit to whatever they think is feasible within the Sprint duration. For a 2 week Sprint, this typically takes around 3-4 hours.

In many cases, discussions on stories unearth scenarios that need further Analysis by the Product Owner before they can be ready for development. These stories cannot be picked up for development even if they are of highest priority since there are some unknowns about them. This means that the Sprint backlog could consist of stories that are not of highest priority. Also, this results in a long Planning meeting due to more discussions and more stories to discuss.

Is there a way to change this and ensure that the Sprint backlog is filled with stories of highest priority and value? Also, is it possible to have a shorter planning meeting?

Fortunately, the answer is Yes…

The key is to remove the discussions and visit all possible scenarios up front.

The answer is to have an Elaboration session for the next Sprint in the middle of the current Sprint. The Scrum Master gets the team and the Product Owner together for the Elaboration session. Here, the Product Owner presents the stories for development in the next Sprint and solicits questions and feedback. The team and Product owner discuss all possible scenarios and get a complete understanding. There is a huge possibility that some stories might not be ready for development. The Product Owner then has the time to action these before the actual Sprint planning meeting a week later.

This way, the team is fully aware of the stories coming up in the next Planning meeting, the Product owner has time to fine tune his high priority stories and many stories can be committed to and taken up for development without much discussion at the planning meeting. All this leads to a short planning meeting and a less stressed out team. The additional meeting that is added would provide value by unearthing issues up front thus providing enough time for resolution.

I strongly encourage management and teams to try this option out. Do let us know how this worked for you.

Solving the puzzle – “water proof umbrella”

In my previous post, “Case Study: The Waterproof Umbrella” I wrote about “Out of Context engineers”. Engineers who are working on product or on feature but are not sure about its usage or need. While the earlier post was focused more on challenges, this time it is more about what a product manager should do to help engineers gain contextual knowledge.

There are ways by which you as a product owner can make the out-of-context engineers have a better understanding about product.

Detail requirements along with context : Charity begins at home, so why not start with little extra effort to help engineers understand something more about the product needs. When you write requirement definition or user stories, do ensure to include sections like “feature purpose”, “problem definition”,  “Expectation (from feature on implementation)”. A typical ‘User Story’ with ‘uses cases’ is not good enough for many engineers to understand the context or need, it rather just focuses on solution space and has bare minimal focus on problem definition or customer voice. Including suggested section along with accurate data helps engineers to connect problem definition with use cases and in-turn helps in designing an effective and elegant solution.

Customer experience : It is highly recommended that engineers who mostly have cubicle working habits should be taken out to meet customers, partners and field staff. When you go out to meet customers for a presentation or for a follow-up meeting, take one of these champs along with you. Let them have customer exposure, understand the expectation from horse’s mouth and feel the context. What is being suggested here is not something new but is definitely something which is not practiced so popularly; successful product companies like Intuit does practice this which is termed as “Follow Me Home”. You will also find a reference of this in “Lean Start-up” by Eric Ries. What this does is that it brings in a lot of contextual information to engineers, helps them understand that the customer focus is more on solving a problem and not necessary developing a feature as mostly perceived by engineers.

On many occasions, there are business or legal constraints due to which it is not possible to take an engineer along with you. For such scenarios, ensure that you share experience from customer meeting with the team and help team come to same level of understanding as you are.

Market updates : Send out updates in form of write-ups, ppts or even as a small talk once in a while to engineering team on what’s happening in market place, what is competition doing, newer announcements by government or by compliance agencies which could probably impact a feature or aspect of your product design. You chose the frequency, but ensure do not over-do or be so rare that engineers lose interest in such updates. This is an attempt to keep engineers connected with market place and also help them understand the business aspects of the product. They will sooner or later appreciate such information and also its implication on feature design or product road-map.

It is always advisable to have someone in the team who can challenge your understanding, only to help develop a better product and a better professional out of you. I take this as part of product manager’s responsibility to keep his team connected with the market and in turn with customer. Spend some extra time to detail out things that you might not have been doing, spend some time educating your team to ramp-up their understanding about business and problem you are trying to solve.

@mathurabhay