You are reading the very first installment of Peltier’s Product Digest!

In this occasional series, I will be sharing interesting articles I’ve found related to product management and its related disciplines. I’ll be adding my own analysis, insight and critique on the industry, on practices described in other sources, as well as occasionally on software products.

Starting with Digest #2, this will be an email-only publication.  Please sign up on the mailing list today so that you don’t miss any!
As just a taste of what’s to come, here’s the first edition….

The articles chosen may be recent or from the past. In this initial installment, it just so happens there are a couple of New Year’s posts that caught my attention during the break.

So without further delay, let’s begin.

Big Bites

Here is where I drill into impactful post(s) or passage(s) with lengthy commentary.

The Secret of Great Product Managers: Balancing the worlds of ‘techie’ and ‘fuzzy’

I’m always excited to see a post on VentureBeat to help raise the profile of our profession among the startup community.  This essay presented a slightly different angle than we usually see from those who aren’t current practitioners.

As product professionals, we talk regularly about the difference between startup product management and enterprise product management.  We hold extensive discussions around the “right time” to employ product management at a startup, when the founder can no longer manage products on his/her own, and what that role should look like.

We don’t always talk about it from the other perspective: How good are the product chops of the founders?  And if those are lacking, does it suggest a need to bring in product talent sooner than otherwise?

This is important to those who invest in startups, namely venture firms.  William Hsu of Mucker Capital shares that perspective for us:

When I meet a team of entrepreneurs, especially a team without a founder who has worked as a PM at a large tech company, I always try to decide if they have “The Product Mindset.” This means they can straddle the soft and hard sides of being a product manager….

The Product Mindset involves knowing when to move from free-formed creative destruction to disciplined execution. It is understanding the conceptual distance between a vision and a business model. It is the ability to innovate and create on a blank canvas with large brush strokes, while also being able to iterate using big data and analytics…..The Product Mindset is a balancing act.

Product managers are frequently considered to be the “mini-CEO.”  Product responsibilities include gaining support (including funds) from internal stakeholders, P&L responsibility for the product as its own independent business, and of course guiding development and direction of the product. Therefore it makes sense to seek out this kind of seasoning, and I’m a little surprised it isn’t brought up more frequently.

Hsu provides good examples to illustrate the wide range of tasks a product manager needs to be comfortable with.  He gives passing reference to PM responsibilities while focusing on our way of thinking.  Here is some of the content pertaining to the scope of responsibilities:

They are either a design/UX maestro or an expert project planner or a user acquisition guru, or…keeping engineers motivated with Redbull and pizza….The best product managers do all of the above, and often, none of the above. They are essentially the CEOs of their product….They guide an idea from its infancy through the typical product development cycle and towards market adoption.

Product infancy is where a lot of startups currently live–trying to find product/market fit.  This is where ideation, customer development, and pivots live. This is where enterprise product managers are able to be more flexible than in the past. At the same time, they are pressured by large company forces to create a plan that predicts the future and execute upon it.

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Market adoption in a large product company implies a number of things. One implication is the ability to motivate an outside sales team to sell one’s product along with the others that are available to sell. Another, especially for B2B products, is often the ability to “cross the chasm” and reach the early majority after successfully penetrating a market niche.  This involves identifying the user flows critical for the initial niche; identifying workflows important for later expansion; coaching marketing and sales in how to pitch the product; ensuring that after-sale support is effective to encourage reference customers; and so on.

Everything in the middle–guiding the product design, elaborating on user stories, motivating engineers, gathering market feedback and driving positioning, helping with user acquisition–is product management domain.

Once the founders find themselves too busy to ensure everything in that continuum is lined up and moving in the same direction, it pays to start thinking about bringing on great product management.

Fundamental Software Problems that Haven’t Been Solved Yet

I don’t exclusively read blog posts by startup investors, but it just so happens that over the break, the two most interesting posts I’ve read happen to have been from notable VC guys.

Most of you know of Brad Feld.  His New Year’s Eve post about looking further out into the future struck gold from a product perspective.  He’s talking about vision.

Here’s the passage that I found inspiring:

Every day, when doing something on the computer, I think “this is way too ****ng hard” or “why isn’t the data immediately available”, or “why am I having to tell the software to do this”, or “man this is ridiculous how hard it is to make this work.”

Don’t we all find ourselves griping in a similar way?  These are product opportunities! At the very least, I hope we’re managing to avoid creating similar pain for those using our own products.  Feld goes on to list a few areas worth exploring:

Identity is completely ****ed, as is reputation. Data doesn’t move nicely between things and what we refer to as “big data” is actually going to be viewed as “microscopic data”, or better yet “sub-atomic data” by the time we get to the singularity. My machines all have different interfaces and don’t know how to talk to each other very well. We still haven’t solved the “store all your digital photos and share them without replicating them” problem. Voice recognition and language translation? Privacy and security – don’t even get me started.

Speaking of venture, guys, I must cite a reference from the post Feld wrote in response to.  Fred Wilson (AVC) posted his summary of what happened in 2014, and he listed a problem we have solved.

My parents, much to my chagrin, have resisted replacing their Windows laptops with iPads.  They’re “comfortable” with Windows, its UI metaphors, where to go to find their documents, etc.  They’re also “comfortable” with virus protection, having to ensure documents are backed up, and having to search the hard drive for the document they need.

Wilson echoes my pleas to my parents that, frankly, computer use no longer has to be so difficult:

We finally got rid of files. dropbox, google drive, soundcloud, spotify, netflix, hbogo, youtube, wattpad, kindle, and a host of other cloud based services finally killed off three letter filenames like mp3, mov, doc and xls. spending a week in the caribbean with young adults and bad internet was the tell on this one for me. they don’t even have mp3s on their iphones anymore!

Those of us still working in an environment of shared drives and Microsoft Office documents probably still know our file types.  Still, we can probably look back to a time in the past when those file types were more frequently used than they are now.

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Feld didn’t even touch on health IT, one of my personal areas of interest.  But he listed off-the-cuff a number of large areas of opportunity in software.  Even with all those areas of opportunity still needing to be solved, I think the ongoing “escape from file types” as an example of how our industry can solve big problems!

Let’s solve some more in 2015!

Small Bites

Here is where I point you to some interesting reading material with short explanation of why it might be valuable.

The Habit of No

Ethan Austin reminds us of why startup founders and product leaders have to practice the habit of saying “no” to stay focused and deliver a compelling product.

What Good Product Managers Need to Succeed

Interesting defense of product written by Paul Sullivan of ThoughtWorks.  Sullivan responded to an article asking “Is it time to fire your product manager?” with this list of several contributors to success.  Are you enabling your product team to be successful?  “Give them direct access to users” was the point that struck home most impactfully for me.

And that concludes this inaugural edition of Peltier’s Product Digest.   See you next time!

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