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 I would love to hear your thoughts on TrustRadius and/or broader impact on your sales and marketing world.



Continuing on the theme, here are few more things that I have been thinking about as of late. Hope some are useful for you.

  1. This is very sound advice and could easily support a full book on the subject – Beware of chicken and egg products. Make sure your product provides immediate utility.
  2. This is a lot harder than it sounds – When you’re faced with a feature that only 8% of your user base are using, you have to make a call: Kill it or Keep it.
  3. I am a big fan of the power of a story and the importance of baking it in. Looks like there is now some positive research on advantages of focusing on your story.
  4. If you are faced with a choice between cheaper or better, the answer can now be empirically quantified: make it better.
  5. What do your users want to be “badass” at? Watch this video from Kathy Sierra to help figure it out.
  6. Don’t underestimate first impressions. The First 5 Minutes (REALLY) Matter.
  7. When it comes to marketing, it isn’t all about conversions. Well, it really is all about conversions but your entire marketing strategy can’t be about hoping to show up at that right moment before purchase. You need to spend more time thinking about the Think and See consideration stages.
  8. Customers hire products to get a job done. If you want to get more customers, you can  make your product better at the job it currently does. Otherwise, you need to start focusing your product on a new job.
  9. Call me biased, I am a product guy after all, but this is truth – Product comes first. If people love your product, the tiniest announcements will get attention. If people don’t love your product, no amount of marketing effort will help.
  10. Getting to simple is not an easy path. If you are looking to get there, start by looking at authentic design. What’s authentic design? Authentic design is about doing away with features that are included only to make a product appear familiar or desirable but that otherwise serve no purpose. Authentic design is about representing function in its most optimal form, about having a conviction in elegance through efficiency.

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

When it comes to building a product, you are always making decisions.

  • What are you building now?
  • What are you building next?
  • What are you not going to build?

There is no secret way to make to make it easier but there are some techniques that can help.

The most important thing to realize is that when you are gathering data, you are completely bias. You are going to look for data to help support your cause whether you realize it or not. Even when you run into data that points to a contrary decision, you are more than likely to ignore it.

From the book Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath,

Researchers have found this result again and again. When people have the opportunity to collect information from the world, they are more likely to select information that supports their preexisting attitudes, beliefs, and actions.

and to support the point,

In reviewing more than 91 studies of over 8,000 participants, the researchers concluded that we are more than twice as likely to favor confirming information than disconfirming information. (So, scientifically speaking, you’d probably read twice as many four-star reviews as two-star reviews.

Your best bet is to realize that this is human nature and to look for ways to counter it. The Heath brothers have put together several techniques to help – widening your options, reality testing, attaining distance, and preparing to be wrong, You can find a nice summary here (email reg required).

About Products – A Few Things I Think I Think

Inspired by David Lee’s post, I put together a list of current topics that I have found thought provoking. Hopefully, you will find some of them useful too.

  1. I think Clay Christensen’s Milkshake Marketing should be required watching. 
  2. If you are focusing on a SMB SaaS product, read Tomasz Tunguz’s article on the subject. When it comes to a successful SMB offering Tom is spot on when he writes, “The most successful SMB SaaS products typically offer a 2 step value proposition: an initial value proposition to the end user and a longer term value proposition to a manager/decision maker.”
  3. If you have not read the book, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, stop right now and go get it.
  4. At some point when building a new company, you have to move from building a product to acquiring customers. Seth Levine writes about the importance of focus during this stage. Seth says, “The important shift here isn’t the shift in hiring more sales people or more marketing people, it’s the shift to recognizing the most important thing is to get more customers. If the whole organization is thinking about this, including engineers, I bet you would come up with a variety of ideas and priorities to meet this. And instead of just the sales guys thinking about sales, you involve the whole team.”
  5. If I had a nickel for every book that was published in the last year about innovation, I would have a lot of nickels. HBR has a good article explaining why more organizations can’t seem to find a way to change – “Companies pay amazing amounts of money to get answers from consultants with overdeveloped confidence in their own intuition. Managers rely on focus groups—a dozen people riffing on something they know little about—to set strategies. And yet, companies won’t experiment to find evidence of the right way forward. “
  6. I think it is worth paying attention to how you can Engineer Serendipity. You never know what you are going to get.
  7. If you are working on a freemium product, learning about your customers is hard. There is a big difference between all the feedback you are going to get from the free users on your site and the select few that are willing to pay you money.
  8. How many times have you heard, “Make it simple”? Probably not enough. David Lieb writes about minimizing cognitive overhead and how if you want to make things simple, sometimes you need to make your users do more – “Minimizing cognitive overhead is imperative when designing for the mass market. Why? Because most people haven’t developed the pattern matching machinery in their brains to quickly convert what they see in your product (app design, messaging, what they heard from friends, etc.) into meaning and purpose.”
  9. Want more engagement? Create a movement – “In a digital and social age, pipes are less important. People are the channel. You don’t own or rent them. You can’t control them. You can only serve and support them.”
  10. Just when you think you have found every useful site there is on the net, you run into a couple of more worth checking out – 100 Websites You Should Know and Use.

Finally, I  put together some thoughts on developing new products and the challenge of trying to tackle two markets at the same time. If you want to check it out, it is on the On Product Management blog.

A few thoughts on 2013

I have been thinking about what to do in 2013 with this blog for the last couple of weeks/months (and yes, I know I am a bit behind with my New Year’s resolutions). Here’s a brief history over the last five years:

  • It all started as a place to jot down notes on a side project and learn WordPress
  • It became a place to learn how to blog
  • And then to experiment with video
  • Evolved into thoughts on product management and product marketing
  • Then added a podcast

It has been a great learning experience and honestly, a lot of fun. But something has been nagging at me that now is time to take it in another direction. The hard part is figuring out now what? If this was all just a side experiment, what to tackle now? Should I officially shut it down, let it fade away, or do something else?

Looking at the blogs I have been reading the most at as of late (SVBLTE,, Seth’sQuora, cdixon to name a few  ) they seem to focus more on quality than quantity. They share good advice, lessons learned, food for thought, and lots of personality.

Some writers write occasionally and put together novel worthy prose. Others focus on sharing quick, snack like content meant to prompt a thought or an ah-ha moment.

The best advice I have found on the subject was to write for yourself – “Writing is therapeutic. To teach is to learn“. That sounds like a good reason to me.

Thanks again for taking the time to read over the years and hanging around while I figure this out.


Posted in random byJoshua Duncan

The Product Marketing Podcast #18 – Losing Product Leadership

start with the customer marketing podcast on product marketing and product management

In this episode of the Start with the Customer Podcast, I am excited to be joined by Jim Holland, of the Product Management Tribe, and Scott Sehlhorst, of Tyner Blain.

The agenda for the call was to discuss what happens when Product Management gets pulled in too many directions. While the aim is to be the product leader, spreading yourself too thin can result in product management becoming more of an administrative function in the organization. Jim’s latest blog post, That Sucking Sound…, did a great job of describing the problem so we wanted to spend some time digging deeper into what’s happening and how to best handle if you find yourself in a similar scenario.

I hope you enjoy the podcast and would love to hear your feedback!

You can listen here:

or download from iTunes and from TalkShoe.

Show Notes:

Runtime: 46 mins

  •  What’s happening and how did we get to this point?
  • Product Admin and Product Janitor?
  • Signs of trouble
  • Feeding the agile engine
  • Who’s replacing product management as the strategic product leader?
  • Not losing track of the Voice of the Customer
  • Final thoughts/comments on 2012

Giving Thanks for the Twist Image Podcast

It is the season for giving thanks so I want to take a minute to express some gratitude for what I think is one of the best resources out there for marketers.  It doesn’t matter if you are focused on outbound, inbound, sales, PR, social, or product, the Twist Image Podcast, hosted by Mitch Joel, is guaranteed to make you better at what you do.

How’s that?

By providing you a weekly update on what’s working today for marketers and what you should be thinking about next. By letting you hear directly from thought leaders like Avinash Kaushik, Mark W. Schaefer, Jeremiah Owyang, Ben Casnocha, David Weinberger, Seth Godin and many more. And by letting you hear from the authors about upcoming books so you can figure out what to read next (and what to skip).

The most impressive part? The Twist Image Podcast has been released weekly since May of 2006.

Just think about that for a moment. Putting together 333 episodes of marketing advice for FREE is not only a ridiculously amount of work but also takes some serious dedication.

Definitely worth some thanks!

If you have not been listening to the podcast, here’s a few of my favorites from 2012 that I would recommend you check out:

  1. SPOS #329 – Avinash Kaushik Digs Deep Into Facebook Marketing – Want to really understand Facebook as a marketing platform? Start here.
  2. POS #313 – From Economics To Likeonomics With Rohit Bhargava – Do you care if people really like your company? Hear why you should with this podcast.
  3. SPOS #310 – The Startup Of You With Ben Casnocha – Startup thinking isn’t just for companies. Learn from the the author of the book on how you should be thinking more like a startup when it comes to your career.
  4. SPOS #308 – Return On Influence With Mark W. Schaefer – Want to understand online influence and sites like Klout? This podcast is for you.
  5. SPOS #306 – Truth In Marketing With Jonathan Salem Baskin – Let the truth set your marketing free.
  6. SPOS #304 – Creating Brand Movements With Scott Goodson – Learn how you can move your company beyond the brand and into something much bigger – a movement.
  7. SPOS #301 – Knowing Things With David Weinberger – some deep thoughts on knowledge and the internet and how’s it changing over the last twenty years.
  8. SPOS #297 – The Hard Work Of Creativity With Julie Burstein – Understanding the processing and work that goes into being creative.
  9. SPOS #296 – The Art Of The Pitch With Peter Coughter – All marketing professionals have to sell their ideas. Learn how a master of pitching  ideas approaches the task.
  10. SPOS #295 – Mobile Marketing Impact With Gary Schwartz – mobile and marketing. Need I say anything else?
  11. SPOS #289 – Content Marketing With Joe Pulizzi – Want to understand content marketing and how it may work for your business  Start with this podcast.
And as a bonus, Seth Godin has been on the podcast several times and is always worth a listen for his insights and ideas. So here are a few more to add to your listening list: