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.