Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Great Product Managers Steal - The Hardest Easy Job in Tech

We've all heard the (wrongly?) Picasso-attributed quote, "Good artists copy; great artists steal." And there is a similar quote around coding circles, "Great developers are lazy." However, this refers to the common practice of reusing code that someone else has already written. Well, the same holds true for product managers.

Now, before the trolls gather, I want to explain. I do not condone the use of wget as a tool of the trade. However, I do believe that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Also, inspiration is often derived from the collective conscious; that great site you used to do X, seeped into your latest instantiation of the feature you're working on. Which is to say, others can also be inspired, by the same things you were, to draw the same conclusion that you did. But, not all stealing is equal. So, now that that's out of the way, here's how I steal.

Product managers are problem solvers and lucky for us, if you have a wide enough lens, there are very few new problems. For example, MapReduce looks like something implemented in the Linux Kernel, which looks like a classic queuing problem. Now, this is easier said then done. As a product manager you are constantly looking to competitors, best of breed companies, and hockey-sticking startups to try to determine how you can bring some of that to your product / company. And if you aren't, it certainly doesn't help that your 'business counterparts' are. But, does implementing a me-too search engine make you Google. In actuality, it probably makes you more Cuil than cool. So, be careful where you steal from, because it might not work for your business.

Personally, I prefer to steal from as close to home as possible. Now, what does that mean? Currently, I work for Best Buy; a company in the middle of a great retail turnaround. Now, every analyst and pundit thought we were long-for dead; the nerdy kid who loses his lunch day after day to the elusive interwebz; a part of the new world of retail we just don't understand...

So, steal from close to home? You can't be at Best Buy long without hearing the story of Dick Schulze, our founder, and the company's entrepreneurial roots. And if you're lucky, you can find Dick on-campus and ask him about it yourself. The gist is retail is a simple business. When an entrepreneur worked in a single store everyday, he was able to deliver an experience that allowed him to build what you know today as Best Buy. As a product manager for Best Buy, that's where I choose to steal from. Dick's customers back then, are my customers now (more or less). The company culture from then, is the company culture now (more or less). Rather than trying to turn Best Buy into Amazon, I rather turn Best Buy into Best Buy, just a modern version of past glory days. In the current era, that means web, mobile web, apps, omni-channel experiences (where the web and the store meet), in-store analytics, complex algorithms and the like. But, we can't focus on new applications of new technology in an old space. We have to focus on customer problems, which tend to be old, core problems that are incrementally different because the world has changed. For example, customers have always wanted competitive prices and a great in-store experience. But, now, the bar is higher than it has ever been. And since everything old becomes new again, I prefer to look back and see what worked in the past and use it as the inspiration to go forward.

As product managers, we have to discover what delights and what solves actual customer problems and scale that to the world we live in today, with an eye on where we might be tomorrow.

Now that you've seen what makes it easy, let me introduce you to what makes it hard. The world has changed. The customer is more sophisticated than ever and is ever becoming harder and harder to impress. In most cases, the customer knows more about a particular item than an employee. If I want to buy a blue dinglehopper, 30 seconds of internet research makes me as, if not more, knowledgable than the sales person. And the advantage of being able to get something now, by going to a store, is quickly waning. After all, how many things do we actually need RIGHT NOW? And if you are Best Buy, it's really hard. Why? Because our solutions have to work for more than 100,000 Blue Shirts, in more than 1100 stores, selling hundreds of thousands to millions of products, to more than 250 million annual visitors.

So, when you steal, steal solutions to customers' problems and ALWAYS start with the biggest problem. Nothing hurts more when you deliver a product only to find out that Your Solution Is Not My Problem

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

What Sprouts Farmers Market Can Teach You About Social

In a world where everyone is offering some widget, gizmo or gimmick that promises to give you Facebook-like viral growth / visibility, I see a lot of social done wrong. While working for startups, I sought out these solutions to help 'get the word out' and in my current role, not a day goes by where someone doesn't try to sell me some social service that'll fix all our problems. So, I feel very comfortable saying that most of the market focuses on how to enable social sharing...in hopes that people will just share whatever content it's attached to. Now, how many of you have added sharing widgets to your website?  How did that work out for you?

Today was different. In the most unexpected of places, I had an experience that I'm going to share with you and, hopefully, you'll see why I was so excited to get home and blog about it.

After picking up my son, we stopped at Sprouts Farmers Market in Hemet, CA (It's where I live, don't judge me). Now, my son Joey has autism and April 2nd was World Autism Awareness Day. He was proudly sporting his newly acquired Build-A-Bear Autism Speaks Bear, just like he is in the picture below.

During checkout, I was reaching for my wallet, when Joey told our cashier Yesenia that this was his bear, he cleverly named it "Autism" and that he had autism.  She warmly smiled and commented that she liked his bear.  Then, Joey noticed  that Yesenia's name tag / lanyard had a blue puzzle piece pin on it, much like the one on his bears' t-shirt.  Now, for any of you that don't know, the blue puzzle piece is Autism Speaks's logo.  Honestly, I'm not exactly sure why, but, Joey got SUPER EXCITED.  Then, Yesenia told us how Sprouts supports Autism through Autism Speaks and how, during their recent fundraiser, there were puzzle pieces like the one she had all over the store.  To which Joey replied, "I can paint puzzle pieces all over the store too!" In all honesty, I think he took her explanation as permission and might have even asked her for paint to start drawing on the windows in the front of the store. She smiled and, cool as a cucumber, rolled with Joey, without batting an eye. And then it happened. Yesenia asked Joey if he wanted her pin.  I'm not even sure she finished her offer before Joey said sure. At this point, I was in tears. Then, after almost handing it to him, she realized it was probably better to give it to me, which was very thoughtful.  Especially since she pretended not to notice me crying. 

As a parent of a child on the spectrum, you never know what your child is going to do or say, especially in public. But, it's stop phasing you pretty early on. However, you remain VERY sensitive to how other people react to your child's quirky behaviors, especially when you are in a public place, late in the day, when the meds are clearly wearing off. Oftentimes, people react poorly and the only saving grace is that despite the lack of sensitivity, understanding and patience in the world, your child really doesn't understand how terrible the people interacting with them are treating them. Needless to say, Yesenia small act of kindness was an example exactly what to do and I was very impressed.

Instantly, I wanted to take out my phone blow up my Facebook stream, letting everyone know what happened...but what one-liner would do this story justice?  So, I came home, snapped some photos on my phone, sent them to my email account and wrote a blog post.  Seems like a lot of effort, but well worth it for this moment. 

As a former Disney intern, I know Disney spend tons of resources drilling this type of customer service into their cast members, under the guise of creating "magic" and they are world-class at it. But, I wasn't at Disney. I was at the grocery store, with my son, in tears, because Yesenia decided she wanted to do something special to make Joey's day and create an experience that this parent and grocery-purchasing customer will never forget. And now I'm sharing this story, on their behalf, because I was so moved that I want everyone to know about what happened to me today and who was responsible for the experience. And that's the key.

The key to social is moving people so much that they feel compelled to share the experience with anyone that'll listen.  Whether it's something funny / clever, emotionally meaningful, visually stunning or cat-related, there are many ways to move people. Social isn't about a button or widget; it's about creating moments worth sharing.

They did, so I did. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Magic Words of Early-Stage Startups

There is nothing like putting your product out there for the first time, especially if it's your first product. Whether it's good or bad is irrelevant. As a entrepreneur, especially a first-timer, you're convinced you are on the cusp of changing the world.  That's how I felt when I started the now defunct Browsemob, (God rest its soul). The whole world was going to name-their-own price, while shopping on any e-commerce website, using our bookmarklet tool.  And who knows, someday the world still might.

I sent hundreds of emails, hit up events / conferences, cold called and sometimes just showed up to try to convince potential investors, potential advisors, potential clients...basically, anyone I could get a hold of that could possibly further the cause, that Browsemob was the future and this was their chance to be a part of it.  It was a truly magical time, filled with ups and downs.

Honestly, most people ignore you, grin fuck or never reply.  But, the experience taught me the magic words of early startups, which I'll share with you.  Whether you are talking to a potential investor, advisor, customer, employee (paid or unpaid), co-founder, random person you bump into at a bar, whomever...when you hear them, you know you've reach the optimal outcome.

Now, before I tell you what they are, I feel obliged to tell you that you have to have a refined, coherent spiel, which only comes with practice. Also, when pitching your product, you can't lead with an obvious ask for the magic words, otherwise they won't come or they will come, but it'll be disingenuous.  And now, the words..."What can I do to help?"

Those six words mean that you have done your job pitching an idea, that's not quite a business yet, but one day could be.  It means you crossed the credibility threshold and have at least 1 shot at getting someone to do you some sort of kindness, based on whatever it is you've just shown them; for entrepreneurs the world over, they've led to first customers, round leaders, introductions to co-founders / early employees, high-profile advisors and so much more.

So, get out there and hustle.  And when you hear, "What can I do to help?" smile, think of me & don't screw up the ask :-)