Archive for the 'Product Management' Category

What is innovation?

A few months ago, I was interviewed by a group of entrepreneurs from Mexico about my thoughts on innovation.  Here are some key discussion points that came up in our conversation.

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What is innovation?

When people use the word “innovation”, most of the time they are thinking about scientific or technological innovation.  To me, however, innovation simply means coming up with new ideas on how to solve problems, and then successfully implementing these ideas into viable solutions, and it applies to every discipline.

Coming up with a non-invasive way to test a diabetic patient’s blood glucose level is innovation. Coming up with novel ways to incentivize a sales channel to double their product sell through rate is innovation.  Coming up with visualization tools for budget-versus-actual analyses to help a cost center manage its expenses is innovation.

Why is innovation key in a startup?

Innovation is critical for any organization that needs to maintain a competitive edge, but for a startup, it is a matter of survival.  Startups are always pressed for time and resources.  They are constantly looking for  new and non-obvious ways to solve problems and meet objectives quickly.  They are constantly solving new problems never solved before.  Being creative and flexible is key.

How do we come up with a process for innovation?

In my mind, the very nature of innovation is non-linear, whereas processes and frameworks tend to be rigid and structured. In my opinion, innovation and set processes don’t go well together. Rather than creating a documented process, we should focus on creating an environment that encourages risk taking and spontaneous, out-of-the-box thinking, which in turn encourages and nurtures innovation.  We should make it ok for team members to try things that aren’t guaranteed to work.  Also consider building in some intentional slack, so people have the space and breathing room to come up with great ideas during their down time.

How can you tell if your organization is innovating successfully?

It’s one of those “you know it when you see it” things.  An innovative organization simply exudes creative problem solving vibes.  There are also objective signs: more patents being applied for; faster turnaround in responding to market needs and customer requests; loyal and happy customers who trust an organization to solve their problems effectively; these all help to show that the organization is innovating where it matters.

Are there best practices for encouraging innovation in a startup?

One thing I advocate is the “tiger team approach”.  I like to pull a cross functional team together from different departments.  This project team gets  together and works on a well defined problem with great focus until it is resolved.  The diversity within the team ensures that the problem is looked at from multiple perspectives.  Effective collaboration results in effective innovation.

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Book Review: “Disciplined Entrepreneurship” by Bill Aulet of MIT

My friend and colleague Bill Aulet (currently Managing Director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management) has just launched his new book, “Disciplined Entrepreneurship – 24 steps to a successful startup“.

disciplinedeship

There are a million books out there teaching various aspects of entrepreneurship, many of them I consider required reading for any aspiring entrepreneurs in today’s startup ecosystem. But I agree with Bill when he says that all these books and materials teach only a part of the whole. First timers need a comprehensive introduction to the whole tamale. Which Bill does fantastically in a nice dose of MIT style firehose.

Bill hammers home the importance of testing your assumptions in the field. Other books do this too, but Bill makes it practical.  The single most fatal mistake an entrepreneur can make is to get so attached to their starting idea that they push forward despite warning signs along the way. A rigorous approach to testing assumptions is a powerful weapon against getting caught up in the focus group of one.

What I particularly like about this book is the approachable way Bill demystified the sales process, explained sales models, and outlined how to quantify and track key metrics like LTV (Life Time Value for a customer) and COCA (Cost of Customer Acquisition) beyond the blunt instrument of a financial statement. The chapters on sales and marketing are particularly valuable to technical founders who haven’t personally seen marketing and sales in action.

Another wonderful thing about the book? It doesn’t discuss product roadmap until Step 24 of 24 – which is exactly apropos. First, you establish your right to exist. Then, you can worry about product roadmap. A product no one buys is not a business. Fixating on future products before the value proposition has been proved on the first offeringis a fool’s errand.

Here are some quotable (tweetable?) quotes that I particularly like:

  • “The single necessary and sufficient condition for a business is a paying customer.” (On why having a product no one buys doesn’t make it a business.)
  • “Focus is the most important skill for an entrepreneur.” (On not boiling the ocean)
  • “If there is already a market research report that contains all the information you need, it is probably too late for your venture.” (On why one must do primary research instead of relying on Google search to learn about the market and customers)
  • “Get started doing, rather than getting stuck in analysis paralysis.” (On not agonizing over whether you have picked the right beachhead. You have incomplete data – just make a call and get going.)
  • “(Entrepreneurs) overestimate the enthusiasm their customers has on their product.” (Touché.)
  • “If the only feedback you get is ‘everything is okay’, then it is likely the customer doesn’t care much about your product and its value to them.” (On anticipating and embracing negative feedback)
  • “You cannot will a market to exist any more than you can change the laws of thermodynamics.” (On the need to be willig to change fundamental assumptions, including the choice of a target market, based on new data)
  • “Free is not a business model.” (Enough said.)
  • “Costs shouldn’t be a factor in deciding price.” (On how cost based pricing almost always leaves money on the table.)
  • “It is always easier to drop the price than to raise the price.” (Duh!)
  • “A sound ratio for the LTV to COCA is 3:1.” (Via David Skok – a good guideline for unit dynamics once a startup has reached product market fit.)
  • “The COCA will almost always start at a very high point because you need to first create the market.” (Something a lot of first timers don’t realize, causing panic, when it is part of the process to develop the business model.)

I very much enjoyed reading this book and the many examples.  If you are a first time entrepreneur who wants to learn what questions to ask, definitely add this book to your collection. It is a dense read, but it will arm you with the vocabulary and concepts to probe deeper in each area. Highly recommended.

“Good, fast, cheap” – all 3?

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Years ago when I inherited my first truly complex, multi-disciplinary program, a beast with 1.5 million lines of code among other things, a wise mentor told me about managing to three things: content, schedule, budget.  Namely, one gets to pick two out of three, and the third item has to float.  

I didn’t realize it at the time but most other people refer to this triad of parameters as “good, fast, cheap – pick two”.   

This is great as long as we are doing armchair product development.  However, in real life, for better or for worse, these three parameters almost always look overconstrained. 

  • GOOD: For any new product or service, intensive customer development will tell us the absolute minimum set of features/functionality we need to provide.  Once you truly grok the buyers and users and have invested in coming up with the short list of stuff they need, it is really, really hard to cut anything off of this list.
  • FAST: To keep pace with today’s fast moving markets and customer needs, everything that needs to be done needs to have been done yesterday, or we risk becoming irrelevant.  One can never release products or services quickly enough to meet the needs and expectations of the business and its stakeholders.
  • CHEAP: There are very few startups (or any other businesses for that matter) where the product organization isn’t short staffed and/or watching the run rate like a hawk. Even if budget is unlimited, there is the mythical man month issue to contend with. The current headcount almost always defines the budget for any internal projects to be done within the next few weeks.

How do we run projects when all three parameters appear fixed? Asking people to do more faster on a going basis isn’t awe-inspiring or effective (at least not if you care about burnout prevention).  

What I find is that while all three look equal, if we take a few moments and think about the situation critically and rationally, we can usually find the one that is less equal than the others. The one that is a nice-to-have disguised as a must-have. With the grace of some corporate will, there is often maneuvering room on this one.

In some cases, it might be that the headcount is fixed (a true budget constraint), and a specific delivery date that are set by external circumstances outside of our control (a true schedule constraint). For instance, if you are in consumer electronics and you want your product to be in physical Best Buy stores for the holiday season, you are going to be showing the buyers a looks-like, works-like product in final-looking packaging in April, together with every other CE product that is competing for shelf space during the same holiday season.  In that case one might have to make some hard choices and cut beyond the MVP feature set in order to meet that date, with a plan to augment the product with additional features and functionality later on (e.g. with software updates delivered over time).  

In other cases, it might be that your headcount is fixed (a true budget constraint), and you need to get enough work done to facilitate a specific workflow for a specific customer or set of customers: your product or service is useless until you achieve critical mass on this workflow (a true content constraint). In that event, whatever the business pressures might look like, you simply will have to negotiate enough elapsed time to get the job done.

At the end of the day, overconstrained projects are self-inflicted problems for an organization.  If we are willing to ask the hard questions, and make difficult tradeoffs with eyes wide open, we can usually find a sensible solution that optimizes the outcome for what truly matters.

When an idea is 10+ years ahead of its time

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CES is happening this week. Since I’m a tech geek, I’ve been avidly following news and blog posts about all the gadgets and technology trends that are being announced.

So far the thing that interests me the most is the connected cars phenomenon. Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Ford each have their own proprietary platform that connects to the internet and allows you to get information from the internet and/or use your mobile phone to check the status of your car. This seems to be an idea whose time has finally come. Here is a video showing the Mercedes-Benz system. (As a former Audi owner I would have loved to show the Audi system instead… but this video is more digestible.)

This is especially interesting to me because some 15 years ago, while I was with a product design consultancy, I was part of a team that worked on an “infotainment car” concept with a cutting edge automobile company that shall remain nameless. We did an ethnography study where we shadowed research subjects for an 8-hour day as they drove around, going about their normal business with us and our videotaping equipment in tow.

We crunched the data, and came up with what we thought people would want to do in the car: get location based information such as nearby restaurants, get turn-by-turn navigation help, get entertainment such as music and video in the car, and get help and support if they get into trouble. We understood that the user’s eyes have to be on the windshield and we thought of wacky ideas like a heads-up display (HUD) superimposed on the windshield, so that critical information may be presented to the driver without requiring them to take their eyes off the road. We called this the “infotainment car” concept.

Considering this was mid 1997, US cellular networks were in the dark ages (GSM/GPRS was not even approved as a standard), and the most advanced connected car technology on the market at the time was General Motors’ OnStar system (equipped with a GPS, an analog cellular uplink and people answering calls), the infotainment car concept was truly a glimpse into the future.

We eventually visited the automotive company’s advanced research lab and saw such a concept car with all the requisite technology. This concept car would have worked from a technology standpoint. Its only problem was that the technology was very expensive and far from mature, and the content and infrastructure was sparse, and in some cases, non-existent. The ideas were wonderful and in hindsight, more than prescient, but the content and technology limitations made it impossible to realize the full richness of the user experience. The concept car stayed in the lab for another 10+ years.

Fast forward to today, and look how far the technology has come. The cellular uplink is now smoking fast – witness the 4G LTE radio integrated into the Audi. This makes it possible to have a really great data download and media streaming experience. Location based information is accurate and plentiful. Many people (myself included) keep large amounts of personal data in the cloud, making it ever more possible to have an excellently consistent connected experience anytime, anywhere. Advanced display technologies are starting to become a reality. Audi is even talking about a heads-up display.

Here is proof that an idea alone isn’t enough to make a successful product or business. Execution alone isn’t, either (the automotive company knew how to make such a car, albeit at a crazy price point). The right external conditions are the third requirement.

I have another case study that supports this observation. Another company I worked with that shall also remain nameless had thought of the exact same core idea as the MakerBot Replicator. Here is a video from the company explaining this incredible 3D desktop printer.

That idea came up well over 10 years ago and remained unactionable until recently, when relatively more cost effective 3D printing technology, better options for the substrate, as well as 3D digital content creation technology caught up with each other.

As a product person, one must stay on top of technology trends and be alert and aware when the conditions arrive that makes a brilliant but previously impractical idea come into its own. Being in the right place and in the right time is a pre-requisite to success.

Product Planning Series: Requirements

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This is the sixth post in my Product Planning Series.

The mere word “requirements” can make a lot of startup people wince. It conjures up the bad old days where folks spend months developing an MRD, PRD and a Functional Specification. It brings up images of Stage-Gate and classic Waterfall processes.

There are situations where big long planning documents make sense.   For example, if you are developing a medical device that needs to go through the 5(10)k process, you really have very little choice.  You have to go by the medical devices handbook which pretty much stipulates that you need to write all those documents and place them under a document control process.

However, in a startup situation, where you really don’t know if your problem, solution, and business model will jive with customers and users, overinvesting in planning documents just leads to lost time and productivity.  It also sends the wrong message to the team: instead of being open minded and work closely with customers to define the product and the business model, you are making up too much of it in the office. By the time the big MRD is written the world has already changed and the requirements could be obsolete.

I am against over-investing in requirements documents. However I am even more against not writing anything down and relying on tribal knowledge to implement a solution. That works if there are, like, 2 people in a startup. When you have more than 3 or 4 people working on the same thing, communications becomes very important. Working in a fast paced startup where new data comes in constantly is not an excuse to punt on basic common sense.  Good team communications practice begats good project execution, which will increase the probability that your product will do what you want it to do in the marketplace.  By the way, this goes for hardware AND software.  Even an agile process needs a holistic view of the end goal.

Here are some requirements do’s and don’ts in a startup setting.

DO

  • Write SOMETHING down
  • Get buy-in from ALL STAKEHOLDERS.
  • Be practical and specific. Leave it loose at your own risk.
  • Build a top level project plan that identifies key tasks, milestones and interdependencies
  • Develop a lightweight 2 year roadmap
DON’T
  • Start building anything without buy-in
  • Write a 100 Page MRD
  • Overspecify details on each feature in classic Waterfall fashion
  • Build a 5 year product roadmap with a great deal of detail
At the end of the day, for a development team to be productive, they really don’t need big long documents to describe everything. They just need a few slides on a few topics.  Here are the topics that I find useful to write down for the team. A lot of this stuff should be available for free, from the business case and who/what/why/when discussions.  Some of it is technical – like a lightweight description of the MVP.
  • Clear description of the market problem that is being solved
  • “Elevator pitch” of the solution (preferably with images)
  • Description / analysis of first target segment
  • Buyer and User Personas
  • Detailed storyboards on top 1-3 typical workflows
  • Specific examples for details encountered in each workflow
  • Considerations for human factors / human cognition
  • Top level design directions to be followed by product design team
  • Lightweight functional description of minimum viable product (MVP)
  • Quick and dirty 2 year product roadmap
  • Any external business drivers (e.g. trade shows, funding runway, etc.)
The most important thing is to do the thinking and research that will support the materials presented in these types of documents. The second most important thing is not to overthink things when you write them down.  Use the minimum possible number of pages to convey the information – don’t overinvest.  That way you will not feel too badly if customer development tells you something new and you have to trash some of these documents and write them over.

On brand loyalty and the iPad 2

iPad 2 versus Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1
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I have mixed feelings about mobile products from Apple.  On the one hand, they are gorgeous.  The hardware is well designed and manufactured, the software interface is fabulous, and the user experience simply delights.  On the other hand, they are made by Apple, and I have a serious problem with their business practices.  

Apple’s closed ecosystem completely turns me off.   But it’s the experience of doing business with Apple on behalf of a previous employer that has permanently soured my ability to truly enjoy Apple products.  To this day I cannot look at an iPhone or an iPad and not get flashbacks.

This is why I carry an AT&T Samsung Captivate running Android 2.2 (Froyo), and conduct all my business using Google apps on my phone.  Samsung and Google are two brands that I dig.  I find Samsung to be almost as good as Apple in hardware product design.  Their mobile business unit is highly innovative and the Galaxy and Galaxy II lines are fantastic.  The cosmetics, fit and finish of their phones are impeccable.  I like their oversaturated displays – even my friends who are die-hard Apple fans have had to concede that the 4″ AMOLED display on my phone is more vibrant than their iPhone 4 display. And It’s Not Apple.  

As for Google, I can’t exactly remember life before Google Apps.  Even my grocery shopping lists are kept as a Google Doc.  And That’s Not Apple, either.

This personal hangup explains why I did not get an iPad2 the minute I decided I needed a tablet device.  Instead I spent weeks researching available choices: Acer IconiaAsus TransformerMotorola Xoom? … etc.

I ended up convincing myself that the Samsung Galaxy Tablet 10.1″ would be the right choice for me.  This thing looks breathtakingly on paper. It’s the same size and weight as the iPad2 (thinner and lighter by a hair – not a meaningful differentiator), but it’s not made by Apple.  

So I eagerly waited for the device to come available at my neighborhood Best Buy on Friday 6-17-2011.  I ran to the store on Saturday in order to play with one, benchmark my experience against the iPad2, then buy the Samsung tab.  I thought it was a shoo-in.

Instead, I found that the device was stunning in every hardware detail… but (GASP AND ALAS) I liked the iOS experience on the iPad2 far better than the Android Honeycomb 3.1 experience on the Samsung Galaxy Tab.  Honeycomb is a fine OS, but it doesn’t hold up a candle to the usability of iOS 4.  And we’ve all read about the wonderful advances in iOS5, coming soon to an Apple device near you.  So I went home depressed… and ordered an iPad2 on line.

If ever there is a cautionary tale about the fickle nature of brand loyalty, this is it. I really, really wanted to get an Android tablet, made by Samsung.  But in the end, the better product won.

Moral of the story: invest in the user experience.  Make it delight the end users.  It will pay off in the end.

Product Planning Series: From use cases to storyboards

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This is the fifth post in my Product Planning Series.

My approach to product development revolves around user-centered design. The basic tenet of this philosophy is that the product team must be equipped with a thorough understanding of the end user’s needs, wants, expectations and limitations in order to create an excellent product solution to solve the user’s problems.

This understanding begins with user personas at a high level and becomes fleshed out via use cases and user stories.  The UX design team can then ideate on a solution to the problems the user is trying to solve and create storyboards to imagine how the solution may be implemented in the context of the product.

The words “use case”, “user story” and “storyboard” can mean different things to different people.  This is what I mean when I use these words to describe the tools and artifacts I use in the product design process.

  • Use case: A high level thought experiment of a workflow from a user’s perspective.
  • User story: A brief description of a part of a use case or storyboard that succinctly defines a task the user has to complete, from the user’s perspective, with no assumptions placed on design or implementation. Used to describe functionality that will go into a backlog to be prioritized and managed by a product owner (in classic Agile methodology)  It is usually much more granular than a use case and describes a snippet of what the user needs to do to complete a workflow.
  • Storyboard: An output of the design process that illustrates the experience of the user in a journey to complete a workflow using the product. In my experience, this is the fastest and most effective way to turn a high level UX idea into something concrete that the product management team can use to test with customers and the product development team can use to plan their work.
I find that these three things are fairly universal in their applicability to all kinds of products, hardware and software alike.   In cases where the use cases are complex and the solution is non-obvious, it is vastly faster and cheaper to iterate a design idea at the storyboard level than to code it up and then review the actual working code output.
With the right talent on the task, one can literally come up with 5 or 6 storyboard iterations in a single day without investing in any engineering development.  The impact on software products is substantial – it can take weeks to program just one of those iterations, so storyboards saves time and money in a tangible manner.  The impact on hardware products is game changing – a single iteration for a hardware implementation could take months or longer.  Storyboards allow the product team to iterate, test and learn, so that we can come up with a better end result in a shorter period of time with the least possible investment in engineering development.
Once the product design is vetted at the storyboard level, it becomes much easier to fill the rest of the design gap with a detailed design solution, and development will then be able to implement the design efficiently and effectively.

Product Planning Series: Project Management

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This is the fourth post in my Product Planning Series.

Bringing up a new web app is much more than a technical project management effort.  Any new product or service development program is a massively interdisciplinary exercise.  In order to have a successful outcome all affected constituencies will need to be involved in developing the program plan, so that key milestones and dependencies are identified from the get-go and actively and aggressively managed so that there will be no surprises halfway down the line that will result in a significant project delay.

Here are some of the interdepartmental milestones that need to be worried about for our consumer SaaS example.

On the customer research / persona development side:

  • Product discovery research done – target persona(s) chosen and fleshed out
  • Needs, wants and expectations fully understood for target personas
On the business planning side:
  • Finalize pricing structure
  • Finalize channel strategy (for our example this is direct to consumer, which makes life very simple indeed.)
  • Where applicable, develop ROI analysis for target customers (this will be used by product marketing to convince prospective customers to adopt the product or service)
On the product planning side:
  • Product strategy fleshed out – this basically describes the product concept that solves customer problems
  • Basic product roadmap developed with some idea of phasing of which problems to be solved when and how over the next 12-24 months (I like to make a 1-2 year actionable roadmap and a 5 year vision roadmap)
  • First pass definition of minimum viable product (MVP) complete (this is a hypothesis based on customer learnings to date)
  • User stories developed (this usually requires a second round of customer research) – a paragraph per story
  • Key user workflows fully mapped out at least to the flow chart level (this is particularly important if you are developing something for a target user persona that is not readily relatable by your program team.)

On the design side: (these milestones are specific to my consumer SaaS example. Some other day I will write a different post for hardware products.)

  • Determine high level navigation architecture (what are the organizing principles of the information and actions you can take on this web app?
  • Wireframe key pages to illustrate workflow
  • Design a few example pages to “put the breadcrumbs closer”

On the technical side:

  • Development platforms chosen
  • Server side architecture design finalized
  • Server set up, ready for development
  • First proof of concept with rudimentary UI showcasing any high risk items that needs to be investigated (e.g. if you were testing out a brand new private video streaming service that has just come on the market)
  • Key third party technologies integrated (e.g. shopping cart, knowledge base, etc.)
  • Intermediate internal releases as parts of the app comes up for testing
  • First instantiation of the MVP (minimum viable product) with a relatively complete user experience, released for beta testing
  • First release of the MVP (start to charge for the service!)
On the customer research side:
  • First set of product discovery interviews done, ready for persona development
  • User workflows vetted with users at the wireframe/storyboard level
  • Customer Advisory Board (CAB) assembled, ready to advice program team on features and benefits
  • Continuous testing of intermediate releases with CAB members
  • Usability study of implementation for key workflows (Do some in-house lab testing with fresh subjects – not CAB members, and do some across a broader audience with services such as www.usertesting.com)
On the product marketing side:
  • Design and develop content and assets for landing pages, conversion pages, etc
  • Develop PR strategy to get the word out (for this example, work should be done well in advance to get key blogs to cover the launch of the web app.  Facebook page should be set up with appropriate content and prepopulated with fans drawn from the early tester community.)
  • Decide on, and execute, any one-time campaigns to promote the release (e.g. email campaign)
  • Develop any product collateral (e.g. quick start guide, user manual, video tutorials)
  • Update any corporate web pages ahead of time for a coordinated launch activity
On the business development side:
  • If applicable, business development activities to land partners will need to carry on in parallel with all these other activities. For instance our music app for small children might benefit from having Suzuki string teachers on the roster to provide expert answers.  The business development activity for this app would then involve recruiting and engaging these partners.
On the customer support side:
  • Determine customer support policy – first tier, second tier, email / phone coverage, languages and hours supported, turnaround time, etc.
  • Develop on line help / FAQ (this could be done entirely via a searchable, hierarchical knowledge base)
On the legal / regulatory side:
  • Develop end user license agreements / terms of use
  • If applicable, obtain regulatory clearance if the product or service requires it (our example does not require anything, but a medical site that, say, provides diagnostic guidance to various illnesses might have to look into FDA 5(10)k)
There is a lot of work that goes into developing a new business and many different constituencies are involved.  A little bit of planning up front goes a long way towards helping to make the program a success (and to minimize the level of stress in the development process).

Product planning series: Staffing for success

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This is the third post in my Product Planning Series.

I decided to write this post after realizing that the actual activities and functional disciplines involved in building a new product are not necessarily apparent to people new to the game or seasoned professionals who come out of an unrelated functional discipline (e.g. finance).

Disclaimer: while the activities involved are generalizable, the actual staffing suggestions are only appropriate for a small company with a total headcount of 20-50. Companies much smaller or much larger than that will have a very different approach to staffing.

Activities involved in bringing a new product to market
There are several activities involved in bringing a new product to market. These activities need to happen regardless of who actually does the work.

  • Strategic product management – market sizing and analysis, identifying a market problem worth solving, choosing a target market segment, developing a business case, coming up with a pricing model and go-to-market strategy, etc.
  • Technical product management – persona development, requirements gathering, use case development, specifications development, generally advocating for the customer and end user’s needs and wants within the organization
  • Project management – generating a program plan that spans disciplines, with clear task breakdowns, milestones and deliverables, then managing against this plan
  • Technical development – implementing the product according to specifications, whatever form the specifications come in
  • Quality assurance – checking the homework of the implementation to ensure it works as advertised
  • Product marketing management – planning and executing market launch activities for this product to generate awareness
  • Customer support – fielding inquiries from buyers and end users about the product, how to purchase, how to use, and resolving issues as they arise
  • Sales – attracting target customers to try and / or buy the product

Hiring the right leaders to head up the product team
In a one-person startup, that one person will have to wear all of these hats. In reality, that is hardly optimal. Not only would this make for one grossly overworked individual, but I personally don’t know any one person who is fantastic at all of the above activities. Most of the time you will need multiple people to make up a product leadership team. Following are my personal take of who should be on this team. Your mileage may vary.

  • Product Manager – enough said. This person takes care of product strategy, requirements gathering and product definition and is in charge of customer research. He or she is the internal advocate for the customer.
  • Development Manager – this person heads up the technical organization and manages engineers. QA often reports to the Development Manager as well.
  • Product Marketing Manager – this person is frequently not the product manager. PMM is predominantly an outbound function, while PM is an inbound function. The PMM comes up with the right messaging to communicate the benefits of the product and takes care of market launch activities.
  • Sales Manager – this person uses positioning, messaging and other support materials generated by the PM and PMM to convert customers. Customer support often reports to sales as well.
  • Operations Manager – in hardware companies, this person is concerned with manufacturing, operations, inventory management, and supply chain management. In web software companies, this person is concerned wtih server care and feeding, failover policies and the like.

Development team for a consumer SaaS web app
Having put together the leadership team, and hopefully defined the product to an actionable degree, you will need to assemble a team to do the actual development. The talent required on the development team depends 100% on the actual product or service itself.

For the example I’ve been using (i.e. a music education SaaS offering for young children), I would need to hire / assign the following people:

  • Project Manager (PM) (this can be the development manager). This person is the Gantt Meister. (If you don’t know what a Gantt Chart is, you should probably not be the Project Manager yourself.)
  • Information architect (IA). This is the person who has the most impact on user experience (UX) – they worry about how end users achieve their goals and how information is presented to them.
  • Graphic designer. Contrary to what some people think, great information architects often don’t do all of the graphical presentation themselves. One way to think about it is that the IA worries about the cognitive aspect of a workflow, while the graphic designer worries about the esthetic presentation of this workflow. Between the IA and the graphic designer, the look and feel and actual UX of the web app is determined.
  • Client side web developer. This is a developer who is highly adept at manipulating XHTML/CSS and is comfortable with various technologies to implement the designs created by the IA and the graphic designer. They can make any interactive effect shine on the front end. Some of them are strong graphic designers in their own right.
  • Server side engineer / architect. This is a software engineer who chooses the right technical platform to develop on, architects the code, and decides how this code interfaces with various components such as the database, authentication engines, and client side code. They would be the right person to design and implement an external web services API if it exists.
  • Database Administrator (DBA). This is the person who designs, implements and maintains the database for the web app. For small apps the server side architect can double as the DBA, but for very large apps it’s wise to have a dedicated DBA.

Of course, this entire discussion is moot if it’s a one person startup 🙂

Product planning series: who, what, why, how

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This is the second post of my Product Planning series (which uses a new web app as an example to illustrate how you go about planning the release of a new product or service.)

In my last post I outlined some of the questions that you should ask to establish a business case for your new product or service. Once that’s done, it’s time to define who you are building the product for and the problems they face, what your proposed solution looks like, why you think it is better than anything else out there, and how your solution will work to solve these customer problems.

Who
The first question some people ask is: why segment and target? If one does a wonderful job with product development, shouldn’t the product sell to anyone who might find a use for it? My answer is this: it is not possible to develop a wonderful product without knowing who you are designing it for.

Let’s say our web based B2C consumer SaaS offering is an educational site for children that focuses on advancing the musical education of kids who are learning an instrument.

Right away we can see that the buyer (a parent, grandparent or teacher) is different from the user (a student). You will need to build a buyer persona and a user persona. The buyer (parent) wants the child to learn. The user (child) just wants to have fun. To be successful the product must both educate, to meet the needs of the buyer, and entertain, to satisfy the wants and expectations of the user and to ensure stickiness and compliance in product usage.

If the word “persona” is new to you, Pragmatic Marketing has an excellent article explaining the persona concept, and Scott Sehlhorst has a great article on this topic. You can also consult my post on using ethnographic techniques to develop personas.

The purpose of developing the persona is to use the target buyer and user to help decide what to build and how to present it. What age group are we targeting – do you need to cater to the pre-reading crowd? How high do we go in the age bracket? These affect the user interface and use cases because clearly a 15 year old violinist playing first violin in a youth orchestra has vastly different needs and wants than a 5 year old violin novice working on basic bowing techniques.

Persona development goes far beyond demographic information and goes deep into situational scenarios. What is it like living in the households of these music students? What is their daily schedule? How long do they spend on music practice each night, and for how many nights a week? When do they practice music? How involved is the parent? Are they distracted by their siblings? What parts are hard to learn? What are the objectives of the child and what problems does he or she face? What are the objectives of the parents and how do they measure their child’s success?

A good persona provides demographic and psychographic information, as well as additional information about the attitudes and motivations of the persona in the area of product use. It is well worth the initial investment to develop a good set of personas, then clearly delineate the problems they face. It will help make development more efficient down the line and help you develop a great user experience that is tailor made to your target end users.

What
Once the buyer and user personas are defined, and their problems are well understood, it’s time to figure out what the solution to these problems might look like. For example, it is very hard to motivate a young child to learn all those pesky Italian musical terms. Perhaps an on line memory game might help them remember those terms. Another example is that the child may need to work on posture. Perhaps a video feature that allows the parent to take a video with their cell phone, then upload to a server and share it privately with the teacher might help. A third example is that the child has forgotten the correct technique 3 days after the teacher demonstrated it. A video snippet of the lesson might just do the trick. And having this all in one place encourages usage and compliance.

As a product team comes up with solutions, there are invariably way more ideas than what would fit in a desired timeline. Here is where the persona will be useful: the product team can use the persona to help them imagine what is of the most use to those personas, and develop a release roadmap where features that deliver the most benefits and value are released first, followed by other features that either broaden the offering or offer secondary benefits.

Why
Many wise product and startup people, including the folks at Y-Combinator, have commented on the need to focus on the customer, not the competition. This is very true. However that doesn’t mean you get to punt on doing a thorough competitive analysis to understand exactly what is out there in the market. This helps you in several ways:

  • You can check to see if your solution really solves an unmet need. If to your chagrin you find something that solves the problem quite well, it’s better to know sooner than later so you can pivot to solve a different problem that REALLY represents unmet needs.
  • You can learn from the successes and failure of other people who were in the market before you.

With a good understanding of the competition you are well poised to articulate your competitive advantage which is necessary for developing an actionable and meaningful positioning statement.

How
Interestingly, many technology startups start with the “how” as the basic premise for starting a company. Someone comes up with a brave new technology, develops a prototype for it, gets it to work, falls in love with it, then sets off starting a company with a field-of-dreams business plan.

That works sometimes if the technology is really world shattering. In consumer SaaS, the technology itself is sometimes commodity software. So for those types of products, the “how” comes only after having figured out the who, what and why. The “how” is concerned with how to actually implement the solution. For this example, you would pick the technology platform to develop your new site on – fielding considerations such as open source versus proprietary platforms (my vote: Open source), database of choice (I like MySql), programming platform (for complex web apps: Java EE back end with Javascript or HTML5 front end; for quick hacks, I like Ruby on Rails). You will need to make decisions early on about hosting and server care and feeding too: certain platforms bring a hefty server side license fee and you will need to account for it in your projected server fees and expenses.

Once the platform is picked, you can now work on defining and designing the product in detail, staffing up for success, and executing the plan to bring your offering to market in the desired timeframe.


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