Archive for the ‘Product Management’ Category

Social 2.0: The Next Wave of Social Applications

The year 2011 belonged to social applications. Several iPhone apps that enabled some kind of social activity were launched last year. There is still no abating of this trend but it is obvious that majority of such applications will die in the next 18 months. After all, how many social networks will you update after you had a good meal or watched a great movie? Many technology pundits are decreeing the death of social networking applications. I have an entirely different take on it. Just like Web 2.0 companies brought real business models and value to dotcoms, it is time for “Social 2.0”, a set of applications that will bring value out of gigantic social databases such as Facebook, Twitter and the likes to solve real problems.

Humans are social by nature and love to brag to their friends and society at large. The Social 1.0 services gave us ways to share our updates with our connections online. The clear winners are Facebook with a friends graph of 800M users and Twitter with loose ties of 150M+ people and between them they accumulate billions of updates everyday. In addition, some specialized networks such as Foursquare capture our other activities. However, the whitespace in this industry has shrunk considerably. There will certainly be a few innovative companies that will provide new ways to connect and share information but it is increasingly becoming difficult and expensive to capture mindshare away from Facebook and Twitter. However, it doesn’t mean that social is a done deal.

While the first wave of social companies was successful in gathering what’s on our mind, our pictures, likes, short updates and check-ins, the next wave of social companies will build value-added applications on these gigantic social databases. Under billions of Facebook and Twitter updates is buried a wealth of information that can help us make buying decisions, quickly find great deals, and help reduce inventory by aggregating demand in real time.  It is time to stop inundating people with multitudes of social networks to get their specific status and move on to mine information gathered by friends and followers graphs. The best of social is yet to come.

Welcome 2012: the year of Social 2.0!

Speed and Design: Key Differentiators for a Startup

We live in a fast-paced startup world. Anything you think is already in the works somewhere with very little whitespace for innovation in a crowded space of social, mobile and cloud startups. My partner and I have been working on ideas for almost six months and were trumped twice in the beginning by Facebook and Google that launched similar products. Having learnt the speed lesson, we didn’t waste time to start working on our next idea. We did some smart things like quickly launching a beta for validation and learning a great deal in the process. Our key learning being–programming is no longer a competitive advantage for a startup; it is speed and design.

The 1990s were heydays for technology startups when it was hard to find programming talent. Finding great programmers was a distinctive competency of any startup then, but not anymore. Don’t get me wrong, programmers still make or break a company but they are not the core anymore. In a fast-paced world where innovation cycles have drastically shortened and consumer expectations are sky high, it is the pace and design that sets an application apart. This is more prevalent in consumer startups but B2B applications are also seeing the same phenomenon. Today, the cost of startups has gone down dramatically and so is the time to market. Many entrepreneurs are embracing a lean startup methodology that promotes validation before scaling and being quick to market to collect valuable user feedback. We launched our recent service in beta in less than four weeks and almost 100 users were using it in less than three weeks of launch. A quick launch not only deters your competition but also helps you validate the problem space. The days of building a perfect and complete product before launch are past us. The mantra now is define a minimal viable product, launch quick, and iterate.

 

Apple has set a high bar for design. With less than 5% market share but almost 50% profits of the mobile phone industry, Apple has proved that design is not only dominating but also a profitable aspect of your product. The iPhone and iPad have set new standards for intuitive design that almost everyone expects from a new application. Today, designers are more expensive [and busier] than programmers and there is a talk in the startup community on how important it is to have a design person as a co-founder. A great usability is the gate to get your users into your service/application. Despite strong revenue streams being core to Web 2.0 companies, it is still eyeballs that define the success of your application. A low tolerance for poor usability sets high bar for an intuitive design for a successful application. Be cool is the new slogan.

 

Don’t wait–move fast and design awesome for success!

Startup Mantra I – Solve Real Problem of Your Customers

How often do you hear a technology startup is a cool place to work because one can unleash her innovative brilliance without much questions asked?  Many successful technology companies, including Google have legitimized this work culture by giving employees a free reign to work on their ideas during office hours. However, I think Google manages their process much better than a regular startup on the street as many of their ideas survive to see a day on the internet. Albeit most fails! Why does innovation fail so often in startups?

A good friend and a budding entrepreneur Pete talked about some reason for it in his blog. He says that a startup is an organization working to deliver a service or product under conditions of extreme uncertainties. The uncertainty is not only in terms of the right solution but also the right problem for a startup’s customers. Pete had a point that many a times the problem itself is not very well defined, which makes the discovery process even more challenging. In my experience, most entrepreneurs can speak at length about their company’s solution but very rarely about the real customer problem they are solving. Why is it?

As a product manager, I am trained to uncover problems our clients face so that we build products that our customers will buy happily. Market research, client interviews and fact base creation are regular tasks for a product manager. The first lesson a product manager learns is to never ask a client about their desired solution but the problem they are facing. Mostly clients cannot articulate the solution but can talk at length about their problem. The question is how many startups go through this discovery route to find real problems of their [potential] customers?

Many of you might be aware of now popular Lean Startup methodology that encourages companies to unearth customer problem cheaply and quickly. Eric Reis, the inventor of Lean Startup term has been marketing his methodology aggressively and many entrepreneurs are embracing it. We also adopted it at our startup and decided to launch our first prototype for less than 1/3 the original cost. The idea is to test our hypothesis with a limited product and a controlled set of users to get an early feedback. These are still early days of our lean startup but we are already seeing the benefits of laser focused minimum viable product and longevity of our budget. We will know our fate soon [hopefully] but either way I will keep you all posted. Go lean budding entrepreneurs and solve your customers’ real problem!

Interesting Idea But Failed Startup!

Entrepreneurship is the heart and soul of the great American economy. It is a fact and manifests itself in so many successful and not-so-successful startups, self-made billionaires and success stories. Most of my friends and acquaintances are either running a startup or planning to start one. These folks are highly educated, successful in their fields and very ambitious. I am sure this is not unique to just my limited network but a typical story of an immigrant community in America. While a startup is a great way to unleash one’s potential, I am surprised how much of it hinges on the next great “idea”. Most people consider idea and startup as synonyms especially in the technology industry. I keep hearing – “I have this great idea” or “Do you have a good idea? We can make a business around it”. I wonder how much of a successful startup is about a great idea.

The biggest risk with a startup is to not find a viable business model. Since most start-ups are genesis of an idea, they generally lack a sustainable business model at least in the beginning. Startup failures galore, the rare success stories are full of mid-course correction or stumbling upon something different while working on the original idea. I believe it is not an “idea” but a “market-validated idea” that should be the basis for starting a new business. It is easier said than done as most of the time it is not easy to articulate the concept in early stages, let alone validate it with potential clients or markets. However, this is not a reason to cut the process short. It can save entrepreneur toil, frustration and lost capital on a promising yet non-sellable idea.

I recently learned in a “pragmatic marketing” training that “your opinion is interesting but irrelevant”. I thought it summarized the idea-based startup thinking very well. Everybody has an opinion [read idea] but is it worth launching a business or a product around it? Only a factual research can confirm it. There is a reason that early-stage business cases have sections on market research, sizing and potential customers. A thoroughly researched, market-validated idea is certainly worth taking a dip into the entrepreneurship ocean. Otherwise, it doesn’t hurt staying on the sidelines and enjoying the sun! So next time when you hear a cool idea, ask how many potential clients also found it useful.

Get to the Point – Have a Fierce Conversation

Communication skills are the most difficult to master and key to success in personal and professional life. I am still on the borderline if it is an acquired or a native skill? I am fortunate to have some great communicators in my professional network and friend circle. They are great story tellers, suave talkers, and interesting conversationalists. I am always mesmerized by such people and look for their secrets to learn and improve myself. However, unlike mathematical equations and scientific facts, there is no one universal style that one adorns to be a great communicator. Everyone has a different way. I am a straight shooter and like to communicate the way it is. I always wondered if it was the right way! Then I read a life-changing book – “Fierce Conversations” by Susan Scott.

The core idea of the book is how most conversations in both business and personal lives are fake with participants avoiding to discuss the “undiscussable”. I found the idea of laying out the issue on the table in first sixty seconds and having a constructive dialog around it to be profound and a game changer. It is simple yet seldom followed conventional wisdom. The example of a tough feedback session generally starting with appreciation and “fake” praise leading to a queasy topic is common place at work. The recipient can sense the negative undertone in praise and wonder what is going to hit him next. Now turn it around and imagine if the same session starts with a candid feedback but with the intent to discuss it honestly and constructively to help the recipient.

I followed this principle in a recent meeting with a very difficult client. This client got into a habit of raising trivial issues to our senior management and complaining about everything. In our call to resolve a recent issue, I asked the client if there was more to this issue that we are not hearing. I told them how much we appreciate their business and want to make them a happy client but can’t achieve it without learning and addressing their real concern. At first the client was struck by my candidness but she quickly opened up to tell us how communication failures in the past led her to directly raise small issues to our senior management to grab our attention. Imagine how much time we saved with this insight! We now have a decent chance to make them a happy client by fixing this problem.

I haven’t yet found the magic potion to be a great communicator but by following some of the advice from the book I will certainly become a better communicator. Simple ideas such as avoid loaded statements – sugar-coated and irrelevant statements, replace “but” with “and”, and use silence in conversations are highly effective to make any conversation thoughtful, and worthwhile. Stop me when next time I try to take a long winded road to my point.

Wish you all fierce conversations!

Techie to CEO: The First Step

I spent the better part of my career in technology function, mostly developing software.  It was exciting to write the most efficient program, design complex solutions, and manage large software projects. Even though I always thought of myself as more of a business person, I never paid much attention to the commercial side of technology. The techie inside had a simple business logic–customers will line up to buy the best software. Of course, I was entitled to be paid because I could write the best program irrespective of company’s performance. Then, I moved to presales and it changed everything!

Two years of selling complex software to fortune 1000 companies and working with sales and marketing was an eye-opening experience. The realization that it is not the best software but the best-positioned solution that sells was startling. Customers didn’t care much about algorithms in the software, but how would it solve their business problems and deliver value. Total cost of ownership, payback period and return on investment calculations didn’t factor in the most optimized program or complex design. While software features were important, it was relationships, sales presentations, product demos, and managing client expectations that were critical for a successful sale. Sales and marketing folks–often perceived as “more talk and less substance” were the front and center to close deals and bring money to keep the lights on.

I still believe that development is a very important function of a software business but now I also understand the importance of the commercial side. It doesn’t surprise me when a developer boasts of being the heart and soul of the business while thinking of sales and marketing as just the face. I was in the same boat a few years ago. It is easy for a techie to ignore the importance of sales and what it takes to acquire a client. Most software companies intentionally isolate R&D from business realities, thereby making it even more difficult for technologists to understand business realities. However, if you are a techie with entrepreneurial aspirations or an ambition to grow into senior management, then start learning about how your business sells and makes money. Your superior technical skills definitely make you indispensible for the company but your sales skills will grow you into top management ranks. A strong technical expertise coupled with great business skills is a potent combination. Remember, it is money that makes the world go and your career.

 

Maximize Your Efforts: Set, Measure, Correct

We make so much effort to do better in every sphere of life – be it giving the best to our kids, improving our personal lives, or proving our worth at work. I wonder why so often we work hard but get disappointing results. There are many reasons for it but one that happens often is that we lack setting, tracking and improving our efforts towards a goal. Goal setting and tracking is a best practice in corporate world and that’s why there are sales quotas, management objectives, appraisals and not to forget notorious quarterly targets for public companies. Then why don’t we follow the same in personal life?

I have been trying to play golf from almost a decade. Hope you notice the word ‘trying’! But when I look back, I most improved my game when I had a target in mind. My first goal was to score in 90s and then 80s.  I could pretty much do it in the first year with regular practice and coaching. Next eight years were a wash because I never set a goal for myself. It was more of a walk in the park with friends, enjoying beer and an occasional great shot. Setting goals is important.

The next step is to measure performance against those goals. It was easy to measure a three-digit round against a goal of being in 90s. However, many times it is not so black and white, or we don’t think deeply enough to set the right metrics. Moreover, there are times when we don’t want to measure to avoid that extra pressure. Come on, don’t we already have enough on our plate with work and family?  However, I felt the best when I met my goals. I still remember my first round of 81. A great feeling that stayed with me for months! It is great to savor small successes but only if we measure them.

Finally the most important – analyze and correct. Once you measure you know where to focus. While hitting long shots was sexy, I found I was losing most shots in the short game. It made me focus on pitching and putting. While practicing putting, we adjust every putt based on how the previous one did. If it falls short of the cup, then we hit the next one a little harder. If it broke too much to the left, we adjust the angle next time. Similarly, it is important to analyze and adjust our efforts based on results.

Now consider practice putting when you can’t see where your last putt landed.  No matter how many times one practices this way, one can never improve putting. If we don’t get feedback, how can we improve? Exactly that’s why it is important to get feedback to correct it.

Well, you got it. To improve you have to correct, to correct you have to measure, and to measure you have to set goals. Alright, it is time for action.

 

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