Why Product Austin

If you are in a marketing, product, or tech position, there is a meetup just about every night in Austin. There are so many great (and usually free) talks that it can be hard to keep up with them all. The key ingredient you are looking for is a high quality to noise ratio.

I am biased as one of the co-organizers of the group, but I think in its first year, Product Austin is off to an amazing start. From Jared Spool, to Nir Eyal, to Andrew Allison, Product Austin has been able to bring some very knowledgable speakers to share their wisdom and best practices. The topics have ranged from getting traction with customers, to designing culture, to UX strategy – 100% on point for anyone interested in learning about building and growing a product business.

If you haven’t been able to join Product Austin this year, the good news is that it isn’t too late. The majority of the talks have been recorded, thanks to the sponsorship of the Capital Factory, and there is one more final event left in 2015.

Join us to hear the founder of Growth Hackers, Sean Ellis, talk about the overlap between product and growth. You can also view several of the past talks recorded below.

Big thanks to Prabhakar Gopalan for his excellent job recruiting such an amazing lineup of speakers and getting them to come to Austin!

Hope to see you there in December or at a future meetup!

Designing Culture: Applying Design Principles to Hiring and Building a Culture with Andrew Allison, CEO of Main Street Hub:

Finding Your Product Distribution Channel with Justin Mares, author of Traction, A Startup Guide to Getting Customers:

Building a Growth Machine with  Brian Balfour, VP of Growth at Hubspot:

Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products with Nir Eyal, best selling author of the book, Hooked:  How To Build Habit Forming Products:

UX Strategy Means Business by Jared Spool, the founder of User Interface Engineering:

Strategies for Growth with Kenneth Berger, Slack’s First Product Manager.


The Curious Leader

Continuing on the topic of curiosity, HBR has a recent post worth sharing, “Why Curious People Are Destined for the C-Suite”.

The article brings up a great point about the challenge of being a leader and remaining curious. When you are in a leadership position, it can become dangerous if you believe you are suppose to have all the answers. It can lead you to make false assumptions and avoid exploring potential issues.

From the HBR article,

In many cases, managers and top executives have risen through the ranks by providing fixes and solutions, not by asking questions. And once they’ve attained a position of leadership, they may feel the need to project confident expertise. To acknowledge uncertainty by wondering aloud and asking deep questions carries a risk: the leader may be perceived as lacking knowledge.

Leaders need to ask questions and be diligent about searching for new information that can help decode where the business needs to go in the future.

Another great point from the article was on the topic of getting out of the building. While often used in the context of visiting customers, the authors stress the importance of getting exposed to new thoughts and information. New inputs increase the number of opportunities to ask questions and discover new insights. From the post,

Leslie notes that curiosity seems to bubble up when we are exposed to new information and then find ourselves wanting to know more. Hence, the would-be curious leader should endeavor to get “out of the bubble” when possible; to seek out new influences, ideas, and experiences that may fire up the desire to learn more and dig deeper.

Read the rest on HBR at, https://hbr.org/2015/09/why-curious-people-are-destined-for-the-c-suite


Curiosity and Product

Last week, I attended a conference hoping to connect with as many business managers as possible to discuss a new product.

One of the gentlemen I spoke with was just a few years out of college and was more of project implementer than a project executive. I politely asked him a couple of questions about his job as I scouted for someone else to speak with. What happened next completely surprised me.

He had a fresh set of eyes on some of the challenges in our market and his perspective  unique compared to the feedback we usually hear. He provided a context that a more seasoned customer would not even realize was part of the problem. The conversation left me with several new ideas to take back to our team.

It was an insightful conversation that almost didn’t happen because of my assumptions and lack of interest.

When you ask what qualities you should look for in a product manager, you will hear results like:

  • determined
  • detail-oriented
  • communicator
  • problem-solver
  • empathetic
  • confident

This list goes on and while are all very important, you hardly ever hear that a product manager should be curious.

Curiosity is what drives discovery. Curiosity is what enables you to fill gaps. Curiosity is what allows you to discover something you didn’t even know you were looking for. Curiosity is what enables you to take an idea to the next level.

You might be thinking, what about being creative or innovative? In his book, A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life, Brian Grazer has a great response to this question. Grazer writes,

But as indispensable as they are, “creativity” and “innovation” are hard to measure and almost impossible to teach. (Have you ever met someone who once lacked the ability to be creative or innovative, took a course, and became creative and innovative?) In fact, we often don’t agree on what constitutes an idea that is “creative” or “innovative.”

Grazer continues to make the following points on the value of being curious,

With the iPhone, the cup holder, the easy-to-use dishwasher, the engineer has done something simple but often overlooked: he or she has asked questions. Who is going to use this product? What’s going to be happening while they are using it? How is that person different from me? Successful business people imagine themselves in their customers’ shoes…. But the truth is much broader: curiosity doesn’t just spark stories; it sparks inspiration in whatever work you do. You can always be curious. And curiosity can pull you along until you find a great idea.

And one more final bit of inspiration from Grazer on why you should never stop being curious:

“We are all trapped in our own way of thinking, trapped in our own way of relating to people. We get so used to seeing the world our way that we come to think that the world is the way we see it.”

BTW – highly recommend getting a copy of A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life. It is a great read and excellent motivational reminder to stay curious.

Don’t Worry About Failing Fast, Worry About Learning Fast

Failing fast really isn’t useful unless you have way to internalize the failure and determine what to do next to improve.

In his book, Smartcuts, Shane Snow, writes on the topic and uses the example of the famous Second City improvisation club to help illustrate. Shane writes:

When releasing a new product, a company will spend months, sometimes years, fine-tuning, building up to one critical moment: the launch. Then on launch day the product either is a success or a failure. People buy it and the company makes a profit, or they don’t and the product fails.

The Second City, on the other hand, puts its students on stage in front of live crowds every week. The class I sat in on wasn’t just practicing for the big show in four weeks; they were practicing for the little live show they did every week, the one with a crowd that would give them feedback on their material-in-progress. That’s how in just eight weeks— half a typical college semester— a class can put together a full-length sketch comedy show and it will be extremely funny. They know, because they got the feedback early, and often.

“Speed is an essential part of our game,” Leonard explains. “The rapid feedback . . . it’s non-stop.”

Failing isn’t the point. It is the feedback from the failure and your ability to make adjustments that improve your position.

On the Stratechery blog, Ben Thompson shared a recent example on iterating to make your product better. Ben was writing on the topic of online media vs. print while comparing BuzzFeed and the New York Times. Ben writes:

There is a famous parable in the book Art and Fear that goes like this:

“The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

Perhaps the single most powerful implication of an organization operating with Internet assumptions is that iteration – and its associated learning – is doable in a way that just wan’t possible with print.

If you don’t make adjustments that improve your product, failure is just a path to more failure.

You are Blind to Change

In his book, Only the Paranoid Survive, Andrew Grove writes, “The lesson is, we all need to expose ourselves to the winds of change”.

What he was referring to how easy it is to get comfortable. How easy it is to get complacent. How easy it is to miss that someone is eating your lunch.

Max Bazerman researched this topic in his the book, The Power of Noticing: What the Best Leaders SeeMax explains,

Research on change blindness documents the striking degree to which we fail to notice information in our environment. Unfortunately some of the information we miss is important, even critical. And much of this failure occurs not with physical information that we should be able to see with our eyes but with changes in economic conditions, changes in unemployment rates, changes in medical conditions, and so forth. Even people in society who are charged with noticing often fail to do so…….One important hint from Simons and Chabris’s research is that we are particularly unlikely to notice a change when it occurs gradually.

In other words, we’re particularly blind to the slippery slope.

Sometimes you do have to sweat the small things because those small things, add up to major changes.


About Products: A Few Things I Think I Think – Part 3

Continuing on the theme, here are few more articles and books that I have spent some time thinking on. Hope some are useful for you.

  1. Be like Charlie Munger. Sue Decker writes, “He says he has constantly seen people rise who are not the smartest but who are learning machines. They go to bed every night a little wiser than they were when they got up”.
  2. You may have caught the article where Bill Gates and Warren Buffett discuss the best business book they have ever read, Business Adventures, and then realize it was published in 1969. I can attest that the examples in it are very dated but some of the stories are priceless. Learning about the failed launch of the Ford Edsel and the invention of xerography are worth the small price of admission.
  3. Additionally, would recommend The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon and Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal. Lots to learn about building products and companies and overcoming the many obstacles in the way (some self inflicted). On Bezos, “He reaffirmed his commitment to building a lasting company, learning from his mistakes, and developing a brand associated not with books or media but with the “abstract concept of starting with the customer and working backward”.  
  4. Having trouble with your engineering team? It may be you, not them.
  5. When it comes to prioritizing features, you need to not only understand the customer benefits but also the complexity involved – there is always a cost.  “When you create an interaction for a product, you have to design more than what it looks like. You even have to design more than what happens during the interaction. You have to design what happens after the initial user interaction. And then you have to keep going.”
  6. If life is like soccer,is a product manager a goalie, a forward, or the one selling peanuts in the stands?  From the article, Baseball or Soccer?, “Once we acknowledge that, in life, we are playing soccer, not baseball, a few things become clear. First, awareness of the landscape of reality is the highest form of wisdom. It’s not raw computational power that matters most; it’s having a sensitive attunement to the widest environment, feeling where the flow of events is going. Genius is in practice perceiving more than the conscious reasoning.”
  7. If you try to be more than one thing, you are going to have issues – Why multi-claim positioning statements don’t work.
  8. Read How Great Leaders Think: The Art of Reframing. It will help you be a better thinker when it comes to looking at problems from multiple angles and help you avoid missed opportunities. From the book, “Framing involves matching mental maps to situations. Reframing involves shifting frames when circumstances change. But reframing also requires another skill—the ability to break frames“.
  9. Ask your customers why? Don’t ask your customer why to the point of being unproductive. “Often, there isn’t just one root answer and even if there is, it may not be all that valuable on its own.”
  10. a16z’s podcasts are phenomenal. There hasn’t been one that I have listened to without walking away learning something new or with an idea to go chase. Check out Everything You Need to Know About Amazon and Ben and Marc Explain (Practically) Everything for starters.
  11. If you are debating adding a new feature to your product, can you answer questions such as, will everyone benefit from it? Read a classic post from the awesome Intercom blog on when to add features to your product roadmap and when to gently say no, “Rarely say Yes to a Feature Request“.
  12. I recently had the chance to interview Robert Hoekman Jr on designing successful products. Robert had some amazing thoughts to share on the topic and it is worth reading everything he has created. One of my favorite articles, Want To Create A Great Product? First, Forget “User Friendliness”. Also, check out his latest book, The Tao of User Experience.
  13. “There are no superior products. There are only superior perceptions in consumers’ minds”, from Having a Better Brand Is Better Than Having a Better Product.
  14. Do you have you have to display a lot of information in your product (aka a dashboard)? Check out these dashboards laws for advice on how to actually make it useful for your users: “If you don’t know what to take away from your dashboard, your users won’t“.
  15. Think about this profound insight:

Bonus content –  if you have not heard about the Hardcore History Podcast I would highly recommend listening. I just finished the three part series on the Wrath of the Khans and it is amazingly good.

Paradoxes in Scaling a Startup

I ran into this video a few weeks ago and have been meaning to share it. It is a short interview from Professor Mohanbir Sawhney, from Northwestern University’s Kellogg Business School.

In the video, Professor Sawhney talks about how when a company starts it needs to be opportunistic. This phase is when a company is trying to find a business model that works – called product/market fit in the lean startup approach. This involves a lot of discovery, building hypotheses, and testing.

This brings me to my favorite quote from the interview,

You have to stay opportunistic to start with but if you stay opportunistic, you die.

At some point, you must find a product that works for a specific market and become laser focused on it. This what Professor Sawhney calls moving from being opportunistic to strategic.

Essentially, you need to place your bets on the table and stop looking at other games.

From a product perspective, this is the phase where you really need to focus on what you are building and who you are building for. This is the point when it becomes crucial that you start saying NO as often as possible to “opportunistic” features that don’t fit your strategic focus (see this most excellent video from Intercom’s Des Traynor, Product strategy is about saying, “NO”).

Check out the full video of the discussion below:

(As a side note, I owe a big thanks to Professor Sawhney for convincing me to go into product management. Until I took his technology products class, I was flirting with the idea of a career in management consulting. Thankfully, his class convinced me that I wanted to stay in technology and work on building products for living!)

Why I Won’t Use Your Product

(excerpt from my ProductCamp Austin presentation in Feb.)

That’s great that the product you are building is cost effective/innovative/game-changing but the fact of the matter remains, I already have a solution in place for the problem you are trying to solve. Even though it might not be the best, I am not only use to my current solution but it is part of my routine. It just doesn’t matter.

If you have hopes of dislodging this solution, you have to do so in a way that is not slightly better but has a difference that can be measured in magnitudes.

Ben Yoskovitz, author of Lean Analytics, has a great quote on this topic:

Most products don’t hook people because they don’t provide enough value–they’re missing that unique thing that solves people’s problems 10x more effectively than the alternatives.

In order for your product to be adopted there needs to be a path to help users make the transition. You can have the best product in the world but if users can’t figure out how to adopt, they still won’t use it.

A perfect example of this is the Nest thermostat. With a focus on design and self learning, Nest makes managing your home’s heating and cooling easy and cool. But think about how many consumers installed their own home thermostat before the Nest? I bet it was close to 0%. If the makers of Nest were going to get consumers to use their product, they were going to have to get over the installation wall.

So how did they find out what the issue was and how to best fix it?

They studied existing thermostats on the market and installed hundreds of them to figure out how to make it as simple as possible. From MIT’s Technology Review,

Fadell and Rogers have made sure that at every stage of installing and operating a Nest thermostat, you discover that potential problems have been solved for you. When you attach the device to a wall, there’s no need to drill holes or use plastic anchors to hold any screws. Nest’s engineers reviewed every screw on the market and then invented their own, with wide-spaced threads that can bite wood or powdery drywall without making it crumble.

Change doesn’t happen by accident. Plan for it or don’t be surprised when it doesn’t happen on its own.

Ready to learn more, here’s some great books on the topic:

Let mek now if you have a good one to add to the list!


The Product Manager’s Quick Reference

I am presenting today at Product Camp Austin on the topic of thinking big and small as a product manager.

I will be posting slides shortly but wanted to provide reference links. These are a selection of articles and books that I would highly recommend for all product managers to read, save, and read again.


The Rise of the Social Business Software Buyer

Picture this.

Your wife tells you that you need to find a better hotel for the next vacation. You jump on Google and zoom in on a few based on location, star rating, price and user reviews. At this point you are probably surfing on Trip Advisor, Kayak or Expedia. As for your next step, you will most likely visit the sites of the one or two hotels that you’ve selected to check all the amenities and whether you can get an even better deal.

Now picture this.

Your boss tells you that you need to find a better software. You jump on Google and zoom in on a few based on your use case and (if you are lucky) price. At this point you are probably surfing on the vendors’ sites skimming through all the marketing hype. As for your next step, you will most likely engage with a bunch of sales reps and start the lengthy process of comparing features, requesting each vendor to speak with one of their reference that fits (if you are lucky) your profile and negotiating best deal.

You get the picture.

Business software buyers should deserve the same information transparency and access to independent user reviews as do consumer buyers. And they will. Brian Solis and Jeremiah Owyang have laid the ground for this revolution in their insightful Social business and Collaborative Economy research. In fact the shift is happening right now and as a marketer you need to pay strong attention. Your world is about to change. How you will influence early on your buyers through voice of your customers will be as much if not more important than what you do on your site. As a sales rep, you also need to pay strong attention. Your buyers will know more about your software than you do when they reach out. How you establish early on a trusted relationship with them will be key to securing the deal.

Joining the revolution.

Today I am pleased to announce that I have decided to join TrustRadius, a quality “Yelp” site for Business Software powered by in-depth, structured and vetted crowd sourced user reviews and discussions. As a product marketer (and former software vendor), I see TrustRadius as a game changer in the way business software buyers will identify, compare, collaborate and select software in the future. In fact if you are in the market for social media, marketing automation or Business Intelligence tool, give it a go today and check the following overview video. Then seat back and think about how this is going to change your sales and marketing world, or better, read this very insightful article on the consumerization of B2B buying behavior by Tony Zambito.

You have a choice to make.

Watch this revolution happening and do nothing about it OR embrace it and adjust your marketing strategy and sales initiatives around your customers’ buying journey. I am definitively planning to blog more about the rise of the social business buyer and the broader implications on the world of software marketing, business technology research and analysis. In the meantime, how do you plan to adjust?

Leave a comment or send me a note at bertrand@trustradius.com. I would love to hear your thoughts on TrustRadius and/or broader impact on your sales and marketing world.