Tag Archives: entrepreneurship

Why Product Managers Need To Get Out Of The Office

By Kevin Dewalt

For the past few months I’ve been doing Customer Development on product managers to explore their viability as a customer segment for my new startup, sohelpful.me. I’ve been asking them about their challenges in getting insight to customer problems. I haven’t had a job as a product manager in over 15 years, but if you’ll forgive my naivety, I would like to offer a few observations on how the role of product managers has to change, at least if their employers want to survive the coming onslaught of worldwide competition from startups.

The Best Product Managers are Learning from Entrepreneurs

The management science of entrepreneurship has changed more in the past 5 years than in the previous 500. Through Eric Ries’ Lean Startup movement and best practices like Steve Blank’s Customer Development, we are finally seeing the emergence of repeatable patterns and best practices for mitigating the risks of product failure. Prescient product managers — often former entrepreneurs themselves — are seeing these best practices emerge and looking for ways to bring them into their own organization. Unfortunately, many are describing practical challenges with getting their employers to embrace this change.

No Established Processes for Connecting Product Managers & Customers

Unlike entrepreneurs, product managers are beholden to an organization’s behavior, rules, and roles. These structures often create practical barriers between product managers and the very tedious process of developing problem-solution assumptions and testing them with customers.

Customer Input Filtered by Other Stakeholders

Many are frustrated with what they describe as filtered customer input — often by sales or marketing teams who are focused on the most recent customer conversation. They recognize the importance of this feedback,  but feel that it needs to be considered in a larger strategic context.

Overwhelmed with “Inside the Office”

Product managers tend to be multi-skilled, dynamic people — those who are already overwhelmed trying to get an organization to execute. Many describe themselves as spending way too much time focused on day-to-day fires or “project management”.

Your Employers Need to Wake Up: The World Wants Your Customers!

Forget Silicon Valley. Through my free startup help sessions, I’m giving advice to entrepreneurs worldwide – Beijing, Bangalore, Singapore and Manila. They’re often 3-5 person teams trying to build highly customized solutions to micro-segments of your customer base — for a lot less. At least 50% of my discussions are about doing Customer Development on the American market. Their biggest challenge is “getting out of the office” — talking to customers to get insights. They’ve read Ash Maury’s Running LeanEric Ries’ The Lean StartupJeff Gothelf’s Lean UX, and watched Steve Blank’s (free) Udacity CourseI try to help them find your customers to get better insight using lower-cost techniques like recruiting them over Craigslist for problem-solution interviews. For the moment, your employer has some practical advantages over these new competitors – language, time zone, trust, experience, and relationships. In the long run it won’t be enough if your employers don’t wake up to the reality that your job has to change. But, alas, they probably won’t change. Most likely you’ll realize it before they do, but by that time you’ll already be gone — you”ll be “getting out of the office” building your products in your startup. Perhaps after they acquire your startup — for 1,000x your salary — they’ll listen.

Kevin

Kevin Dewalt is an American entrepreneur & investor currently living in Beijing, China. He writes about his experiences building products at his blog and on Twitter.

Lean Startup in a Large Company

I’ve started reading Ash Maurya’s book, Running Lean, and have begun educating myself on Lean Startup practices, a term trademarked by Eric Ries. It’s is a fascinating approach to launching a startup, and has a passionate cult following that’s trying to break through into mainstream practice. Being a product guy, I view startups as new product development – both require business modeling, validation with customers, investment, product build and market launch. (I’m not saying a startup is the same as NPD in an established company – I’m just saying they share similar traits.)

I like Ash’s Lean Canvas that he discusses in his book. For capturing an initial vision of a business model concept, it’s fast, concise and portable, with key building blocks identified all on one page vs. creating a 20-page or 15-slide business plan that takes too long to build and no one will ever read anyway. Multiple models or canvases can easily be sketched out in a single afternoon. It allows for fluidity, as sections can be left blank and then filled in or refined based on learnings. It also forces thinking in the present with a “get it done” attitude. Most importantly, it uses a customer-centric or “tuned in” approach. (Tuned In is another book I admire.)

Ash candidly admits the methodology he proposes in his book is for web application startups. But at the end, he throws down a challenge: “What about ‘Running Lean for X’?”

So I began to think:

  • Can Lean Startup practices be applied at an established company? At a large enterprise?
  • What about Running Lean for a B2B2C product?
  • And what if that B2B2C product wasn’t software, but a service?
  • Can Lean Startup practices be applied to Product Management?

This last question intrigued me the most, because I have always felt that Product Management could be more entrepreneurial in its approach, yet like almost all Product Managers, I’ve had Pragmatic, ZigZag, Crossing the Chasm, and other frameworks drilled into me as the gold standards for identifying, developing, positioning and launching market-driven products. If Lean Startup principles can be applied to Product Management at enterprise firms, does it challenge these tried and tested methodologies, evolve them, or – dare I say – render them obsolete?

Ash encourages his readers to field-test concepts and models first-hand. I like that approach. And because I do currently work at a large B2B2C company that sells services rather than software or tangible products, I’m doing just that. I started applying Running Lean and Lean Startup concepts on some new ideas I’m kicking around. The focus, as Ash encourages in his book, is “Validated Learning”. As I tried to capture my vision onto a Lean Canvas, I immediately ran into challenges:

Who is the real target customer? In B2B2C, consumers may be the end-users of the product, but what if an intermediary is actually the one paying for it? So do I have two target customer segments?

The first question cascades into a series follow-up questions.

Whose problems are we really solving? If I do have two target customer segments, do I have two sets of problems to address? Two sets of solutions? Different unique value propositions for each one?

How to succinctly capture the Solution? In B2B2C, doesn’t the product ultimately have to have features appealing to both the C and the B?

Revenue streams: The nice thing about B2B2C is you can get pretty creative with revenue models. In the services industry, you can get even more creative. And that’s where again I found the Lean Canvas constraining at first. How can you concisely capture a potentially complex revenue model?

And how do I capture all of this on a 1-page Lean Canvas?

In the end, I decided to focus on the C, approach it strictly from the customer standpoint, and treat the B as a channel, largely because it made the exercise easier and thinking from the customer’s perspective comes more intuitive to me. I’m not saying this is the right approach. I’m saying it’s what allowed me to get through the exercise (so far).

I’d love to hear from you. What do you think?

Should Product Management/Marketing be more Entrepreneurial?

I’m a big advocate of following frameworks. It helps think through structure, roles, responsibilities, process, etc. And I do believe product management and product marketing are disciplines that should be pursued as such. But I admit to being torn between corporate best practices that tell you to do plenty of market research, analyzing trends, buyer behaviors, competitive research, setting specific goals, executing to a plan, etc., and just “getting the product out there” and letting the market tell you what works and what doesn’t, and making appropriate course corrections.

As a good corporate citizen, I’ve created business cases and business plans for my products, but I’ve always felt by the time you complete all the analysis, seek the approval for the needed funding, and then complete the product development, the market has already shifted and you’re too late. But on the other hand it’s almost impossible to get funded without a business plan in a corporate environment. Understandable: there should be coherent ROI for aligning the corporate resources and even spending the company’s money on acquiring new ones.

But this process assumes a certain amount of predictability in the future. Yet, the future is unpredictable, particularly in today’s age.

On the other hand, entrepreneurs are quick to get products to market, learn quickly from mistakes, and adapt. In other words, they don’t fear failure.

Is there something to be learned from this for product management? Is there a case to be made for a more “intrapreneurial” style of product management?

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