Microsoft created the “modern” role of product manager 25 years ago, and the job holds an aura of myth even today. Two-and-a-half decades later, the role of product manager is still misunderstood and ill-defined, and the most important qualities in a product manager are often overlooked. As a result, startups are missing out on valuable opportunities to improve their product, teamwork, and efficiency, not to mention chances of success.
Large Silicon Valley companies, such as Google, Facebook, eBay, and Yahoo, have standardized the function of a product manager, but many mid-sized and younger tech companies continue to churn out one-dimensional product managers that primarily exist to fill gaps within the company. Without the proper experience and training, many of these brilliant “PMs” become one-trick ponies. They are either a design/UX maestro or an expert project planner or a user acquisition guru, or maybe even someone whose main job is keeping engineers motivated with Redbull and pizza.
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We’ve all seen or even put together a presentation that included some version of the following slide:
(FYI, I found these slides on slideshare, I’m not commenting at all on the quality of the overall pitch or the company itself . . . I’m just using them as an example)
Evidently, entrepreneurs love putting these competition matrix slides together cause it took me all of 5 minutes to find a few examples.
Well, I hate it. I hate these slides and everything they represent. They are completely meaningless and ultimately an excuse for entrepreneurs to lie to themselves about the (lack of) whitespace they occupy. He who has the most check boxes does not win. He who has the most harvey balls does not go to heaven.
(Taking a deep breath . . . )
There are a few problems with thinking that any company can “out-checkbox” their competitors.
- Not all check boxes are created equal. I.e. not all features matter to the end user or customer. In fact, most users only uses 20-30% of any given feature on a website or app. Having the most air conditioning vents probably does not help (in most cases) sell more cars.
- The Frankenstein effect. Putting the best of everything together into a product does not automatically make it the best . (“We’ve got foursquare check-ins AND twitter messaging AND instagram photos AND Snapchat disappearing messages!”) Instead, any given set of product features needs to work coherently to deliver and re-enforce a small number of core value propositions. (Not the other way around)
- Steep usability / learning curve. Especially in the consumer space, users have extremely steep learning curves when it comes to new applications. In a world where attention choices are infinite AND manuals have become a relic of the past – nobody wants to have to figure out how to use all the crazy features and wrinkles you’ve put into your app. If facebook was launch as it is now (packed with random features), I guarantee you it would have been a dud. (By luck or skill, they’ve slowly added more and more features as their users got used to old ones.)
- The Tivo problem. Tivo was revolutionary when it was first invented. (Side note, how many technology products/services can we use the world “invented” ? . . . too few) The problem was that it did too many things too well, and everyone had a different way of explaining what exactly it did and why it was great. (DVR was not a word back then.) It was impossible for Tivo to establish a consistent brand positioning through word of mouth despite the fact everyone was talking about it. Don’t fall into the same trap of overloading your product with too many features and thus value proposition. Only the Swiss can sell Swiss army knives.
What to do instead you ask?
- Pick the right features for your product (easier said than done).
- Focus on making the couple core features easy to use, valuable, and easily discoverable.
- Stop going to competitors or just other popular websites/apps for feature inspiration – go to your existing/potential users instead – survey them or just pick up the phone and call.
- Really understand the Achilles heels of your competitors – talk to their customers/users.
- Discover truly differentiated value proposition first, than build features that re-enforce those value propositions.
- Feature matrix like above are actually fine (I’m just being dramatic), but make sure to have another slide that proves through 1st (ideally) or 2nd party research that users/customers actually care about the features you have over your competitors. That the marginal difference in value proposition actually overcome the switching cost to your app.
I love the lean startup ethos and methodology. It is by far the best thing that has happened to the startup community since the onset of the internet-fuel renaissance in entrepreneurship. These days at MuckerLab, we try to utter the basic concepts (mvp, iteration, hypothesis testing, customer development, etc) as much as possible to help our entrepreneurs and ourselves stay on track. People that have heard me talk at panels and conferences probably think I’ve been brainwashed by the cult of Eric Ries, and I would be flattered. BUT certainly before the lean startup movement there were wildly successful and visionary entrepreneurs. And long after “lean” becomes indistinguishable from entrepreneurship itself, there will continue to be failures and disillusioned entrepreneurs. Lean is not a panacea or a blue print for success. It’s a framework and like any framework, it can be misused. After immersing ourselves in the ethos and watching our entrepreneurs apply the lean methodology in their startups, we are starting to learn more how to adjust and adapt the formula in different circumstances.
It is certainly a lot easier to apply the lean methodology to consumer focused businesses than it is enterprise focused businesses. In enterprise, lean works, but it takes more patience, rigor, and flexibility. Customer development will always improve the signal to noise ratio for better product-market fit; but given how hard it is to scale enterprise customer development, it is extremely important for entrepreneurs to be wary of any data they are gathering given the small sample size and potential for sample biases. If possible, I like to start the customer development process with a very wide funnel as to diversify across multiple segments within the target market . . . and quickly narrow down to a specific receptive segment as additional data comes in (essentially abandoning certain customers along the way).
In addition, the enterprise software business follows adoption patterns that are significantly closer to the “Geoffrey Moore” model than the “viral” adoption model we come to expect in the consumer Internet world. In enterprise, early product market fit is just that – early. Until the product has crossed chasm – it hasn’t. In this market, the traditional top down category marketing playbook is still the only playbook to cross the chasm. CIO’s often (for better and for worse) allocate their budgets based on latest trends and research that are heavily influenced by industry analysts (Gartner for example) – so enterprise software entrepreneurs will have to invest dollar and time to slowly build mindshare for its product category and company. Initial product market fit only buys an option to play in the big leagues where old games are still played by old dogs. Most enterprise companies will not come close to achieving the types of exponential growth more common in consumer product (in which signal will overwhelm any noise) until much later in their company lifecycle.
The other interesting dynamic we are seeing is that network effects driven businesses (e.g. marketplaces, social networks, UGC applications) also require a slightly more patient and acquisition focused approach to “lean.” By definition, these businesses need a critical mass of supply / demand (e.g. users and content ) to achieve their core value proposition. As a product or feature is released to market there is a huge temptation to declare the “test” a failure based on initial data when in fact it has nothing to do with the product but as a result of the lack of content and/or users. Pinterest famously stagnated with the same basic product for over a year before hitting a tipping point and taking off once the site achieved usage and user escape velocity. In short, it is more about market-market fit than it is product-market fit. The product’s objective is to retain users and reduce transactional or communications friction, but aggressive acquisition tactics and often lots of luck is needed to truly test for product market hypothesis. There is a tremendous focus on avoiding type I errors in the lean methodology, but avoiding type II errors are just as important to the eventual success of a startup.