Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Product Management: Attention is the scarcest resource.

I have a confession to make. I don't read all my emails. I don't even remember the last time my inbox was showing 0 unread message. I think it must have been back when I was in school using Pine to check my email over 14.4Kbps modem connection. Since then I practically gave up on keeping up with everything that came my way.

In my defense, large portion of those emails are hundreds of marketing promotions, notifications of one type or another, product announcements that I signed up but never cared to read, etc. But I'm even too lazy to clean them up. (Yes, I know there are tools out there to help, but that also takes time.)

Overflowing email inbox is just one of the symptoms of larger systemic problem. I simply don't have time to consume all the information available for me. Even if I wanted to, I now realize that I don't have time and energy or will to sit down and go through them all.

I open Twitter to get a couple of gulps from never-stopping torrent of live updates. I log on to Amazon Instant Video to choose a movie from many thousands of selections that can be immediately streamed to my iPad. (I hear Netflix has even more selections. Who knows what to do with ever expanding list to watch?) I google for any information that I want, and get millions of hits available with a click of mouse. I am inundated with information. I have way more than I can handle.

All these point to one thing. It is getting harder to share messages because our attention is getting scarcer.

This is a big problem for all entrepreneurs, sales and marketing people. Our coolest product announcement is yet another spam in the inbox that can be flat out ignored. I know because I have thousands of such emails in my inbox.

Then what can we do about them as sellers? How do we make our message stick out among sea of information?

1. Reframe our perspective: Our mission is to help people get ahead, not sell our widgets.

I just don't care for people pitching their ideas without having a clue about how my day goes around, what problems I have, what I spend the most time worrying about, and my goals for immediate and longer term future. Granted that sellers are not there to provide life coaching, but at the least I would expect them to first guess what kind of challenges I have, and offer the solutions around them.

Us sellers have to remember not to treat our customers like yet another account to close, but someone who we can help to get ahead.

This also means if we cannot help a customer, we may refer him to someone else who might be able to help him.

It's about whom we can help and how we can help them. It is not about us and our widgets.

2. Invest our own scarce resource: Spend our own attention on customers.

If we realize that our scarce resource is attention, then how could we expect customer to invest their resource to open up our automated spam mail that was generated by the latest marketing campaign program?

Before asking customer to invest their time and energy, spend our time to find out about customers and trying to understand what's bothering them the most. Pick a problem that we can solve for them, and talk to a few willing customers who need the solution now. Once customers understand that we are genuinely committed in helping them solve their problem, they will return the favor by investing their attention in us and our product.

Don't expect customers to start paying attention just because our product offers freemium model. Cost to customers is not zero because they have to go through the trouble of test driving our product.

3. Make personal relationship with customers.

No one likes to buy things from someone unknown. If I had a choice of buying from someone I know or someone I don't, I'll always go for someone I know. Even if I had to pay a bit more for the same product, I would choose to go with someone I know, provided that I like the seller.

It's the same reason why it's good to have a trusted mechanic. A mechanic who knows my car history and demonstrated trustworthiness with earlier work is a more attractive choice than trying to find someone new based on the lowest price or friend's recommendation each time. If I like the guy, it's an even easier choice for me.

Be a helper to customers first. Then become a friend to them. Earn their trust and build relationship that can last. It will pay for the investment itself and many times more by returned visits and their references.

Now even if marketers are doing all these, someone like me may not be the best person to market to. Only if I can share what my iPhone email client was showing the other day with all the spammers... (Luckily it turned out to be a bug that fixed itself shortly.)

Wow, 2.1 billion unread messages!
What did I do to deserve so much love!

Monday, December 23, 2013

5 invaluable lessons that I learned in 2013

It's December. We are at the final pages of 2013. When I look back at the end of year, it always feels like everything happened so fast. A year goes much faster than a lazy Sunday afternoon. Some moments make you feel like you have too much time on your hand. In reality, time marches on whether you are spending them wisely or not.

One thing that I realized over time is looking back and learning from them is really important. When you are heads down in the trenches and working on details, it is too easy to lose track of what you are doing well, and what you are not doing so well.

Especially this year, I made many mistakes (or I should say I realized I was making many mistakes). Some were expensive mistakes both in terms of my career and in terms of becoming a better person. I'm sure all these mistakes set me back a few years of trust that I built up, and I know I will have to work harder to earn them back. I want to make sure I write these lessons down so that I am fighting the right battles. Fighting hard is important, but whether you are fighting the right battle is much much more important.

I want to share with my future self and others around the web the lessons that I learned from my mistakes of 2013. Hopefully I become wiser by remembering them. Maybe some of you can learn to avoid my mistakes. Or at least feel better that you are not alone in making them.

Lesson 1: Tell others what you'll do, do it, tell others what you have done.

If tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, it is just as good as not happened at all. I didn't realize the importance of communication. I struggled to share things. Maybe it had to do with my introverted personality. Maybe it came from my Korean upbringing where I believed that greatness of a man comes from working quietly whether someone notices you or not. I didn't know why exactly (and I still don't). But I didn't like talking about what I was doing.

This keeping things to yourself went beyond not seeking recognition. Often I would not say things even when someone brought up a topic that I was working on. I thought "hey, I'm working on that secretly, and soon I'll surprise all of you with great work that I did undercover." I felt smug that no one had an idea as great as mine, and no one else had all the background to solve the problem that I was going to solve it myself soon.

When I finally came up with something, I would tell a few, not all. Only deserving few could hear of my great work. The rest who I thought weren't as smart as me, I did not bother explaining what I did. I thought it was waste of my time and energy to sit down and trying to raise the group average.

What a total mistake that was.

My logic was wrong at so many levels, and it took me a very long time to untangle the entire clusterf*ck. I'm still recovering from this disease, and I have a long way to go. But I know enough to realize that this was hopelessly wrong way to go about things.

First, no idea is any good if no one else understands it. If all I was interested in was intellectual masturbation of making me feeling smug, then yes, I'd been doing a good job at it. But I was not interested in creating something just for myself. If all I wanted was something that suited me, I could have done that all day long sitting at my desk. It's called daydreaming. Instead, what I wanted to do was create something useful. Something that people could appreciate. And there is no way to do that without telling people about it.

There is one more very important thing. I realized that surprise is not a good word in world of business. No one, I mean NO ONE, likes surprises. When things go bad, everyone wants to know as early as they can, so that they can prepare for the bad news. When things go well, everyone wants to know as early as they can, so that they know how to repeat the success and continue investing on things that are working well. This is especially true with management team. They must know what's going to take off, and what is going to fail as early as they can so that they can plan things accordingly: take a closer look at failing projects, identify root cause, reallocate resources to more successful one, etc.

Yet there I was. Hoarding information and refusing to share them. From organization's perspective, I was information black hole. Taking everything in, yet refusing to share them. What a dumb idea.

Whatever you do, communicate. Tell people about your idea, do the things that you told them, and tell them about what you did. Communicate among peers, communicate out to customers, and communicate up to managements. If things happened that no one knew about, it is as good as them not happening at all.

Don't be an information black hole.

Lesson 2: Don't imitate something that you don't feel right about.

I am good at imitating. Thanks to my insecure self as a young kid and emigrant life as a high schooler, I learned to quickly imitate others and blend in when I needed to. It was a survival skill that I learned over time. I became a good observer and mimic people around me to gain acceptance and approval.

As much as this skill can be an asset, I learned that it could be detrimental to becoming my own self, someone that I can be proud of at the end of each day.

Whenever I was thrown in a new situation I looked for models around me to get me started quickly. Often it was my peers and my boss. I looked for things that I could pick up and imitate, and would carry them out without thinking about what that meant for creating my own self. I became an extension of my manager's interactions with me. I would do things because it would be expected and acceptable within the organization without really thinking about whether I agreed with them or not. I was turning into a robot that was doing things to fit in, and get approval even deep inside I did not want to perpetuate certain set of behaviors.

That was a wrong way to go about it.

At the end of the day, when I laid down on my bed and thinking about how my day went, it did not sit well at all how I behaved. Even when everyone around me accepts me, ultimately I must be able to accept myself for what I did. If I don't feel right about what I did, I should stop.

Be yourself. Use your own moral compass. No one is going to be there to comfort you when you are at your death bed not happy with whom you have became. If things don't feel right to you, stop.

How you influence people around you, how you make them feel, you are going to be remembered by those things, not so much by how much approval you received. If you are not happy with how you make coworkers and customers feel, change it. In the end, you are responsible for your own action.

Don't forget that even your greatest role models have flaws. Be selective what you learn from people around you.

Lesson 3: Follow up relentlessly.

I remember running into a friend of a friend on church parking lot. We were not that close, and did not hang out too often. But that Sunday morning, I don't know what got into me, I made a suggestion.

"We should get together for lunch or something."

I think it must have been the recent pregnancy of his wife, and I was talking to him about how my wife was also pregnant with our first child. I did not know anything better to say since we were on hi-bye type of relationship for a while, and thought it would be a nice gesture to suggest something. That was the best line that I could come up with at that time.

"Well, I don't think we can. My wife is having bad morning sickness."

When I made a suggestion, I was not really thinking about following it up. I was thinking that making a lunch suggestion would be a good way to end a conversation. It was not so awkward way of saying good bye. But he thought differently. He took my word at face value, and replied that he won't be able to.

At the end of this short interaction, I felt embarrassed. It made me realize that I was saying things that I couldn't really keep.

Trust is built on top of following up. If I said I was going to follow up, I have to follow up. Even if it was a hallway conversation or chitchats that we had by the water cooler, I must do what I say, and say what I will do.

People will come to trust you, and reward you with more important responsibility. Responsibility does not fall on your lap one day. You have to warn it by building trust.

Lesson 4: Be helpful to people.

Everyone is looking for friends who can help them. First be a helpful friend to those who are looking for one. Finding them is easy. Just look at your ever growing inbox. Whenever I miss an email that was directed to me, and not respond, I am missing the chance to be helpful to someone who are looking for an answer.

If people ask you for something, be the first to respond. You never know when you will need to ask help from them. Help them do things that they are supposed to do. Help them do their job better. If you help others, your team will do better. You'll have a tighter teamwork, and in the end you'll help create a winning team.

Lesson 5: Don't overwork.

This is a tricky one, because it took me a long time to realize. Working hard is not the same as working overtime.

Sometimes you need to put in 14 hour day, but don't let that be a norm, and don't let it become your routine. Quite simply you cannot afford to. I could not live on 4 hour sleep day in and day out. Maybe some of you can. But not me. Find a healthy balance that you can maintain. A good rule of thumb for me is feeling okay at the end of my day when I help my wife put kids to bed at night. Part of it is being around my family after dinner to spend a few minutes with them before they go to bed.

When I chronically overwork, things fall apart. First my body starts saying "uh-oh, you need more sleep and downtime." Then I see myself constantly looking for stronger cup of coffee into late afternoon. All the caffeine messes up sleep schedule, I end up losing sleep, and the bad cycle continues. While my body deteriorates, I become crankier. I start snapping on coworkers and customers (and even to my boss!).

No one likes to be around cranky people. Don't become one.

Give yourself enough time to recover. Be a smiling helper, not a cranky overworked cynic.

I plan to remember these lessons for a long long time for I paid a great price to learn them. Hopefully my blog will be around to remind me along the way.

What lessons have you learned this year? I would love to hear yours so that I may learn from them.

Happy holidays, and best wishes to everyone.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Don't protect yourself from changes. Embrace them.

I have come across three interesting articles last weekend, and I want to share them.  First one is how much we all hate the changes and tries very hard to resist them.  Second is about how we all tend to underestimate the changes that we are going to go through, yet when we look back, the changes that we went through are often much greater than how much we anticipated.  Third is Glenn Kelman's story about how he embraced the changes instead of protecting his ego.

For those who cannot wait to get to the punch line.  It doesn't make sense to protect yourself.  You are going to change so much anyway.  Why not change faster to get better faster?

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Product Management: Launching a new product? First go get some customers

"We don't make it until you order it."
                       - Jack in the Box

Jack in the Box used to feature this slogan on their TV commercials.  It was meant to tell customers that their food is made fresh every day.  Software industry is not going to win any customer by making things fresh.  But there is a good reason why just-in-time manufacturing makes sense for software.  It is to avoid building something that no one wants.

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we know what customers really want.  In most cases customers themselves don't know what they want.  They have a vague idea of what their problem is.  Sometimes the problem itself is not known to them.  Yet we software makers think that we know exactly what customers are looking for and will love our product that we are building.

Truth is that no one exactly knows what will work well in a real situation.  We all have guesses as to what could work, but our guesses are often too far off to be useful in its first iteration.  There are a number of odds stacked against any new product.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Simplify what it does to absolute minimum

I like simple things.  When I sign up for a service, I already have a problem that I would like to solve.  What I look for is the quickest path to solving the problem at hand.  From user's perspective it should be dead simple.  Simplicity of user experience means that someone else took the trouble of thinking through the intricacies involved in solving the problem, and laid it all out.  As a user, when I discover a simple product, I am thrilled.

There are different aspects to creating something simple, however.  Creating something simple is anything but simple.  There are three aspects that I can think of:

  • Problem that the product solves
  • Product UI and UX
  • Implementation

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Product Management: When to add a new feature

When do you add a new feature as opposed to improving the existing feature?

Past week I had a chance to spend time with a bunch of customers.  It always gives me a new perspective, a perspective that really matters to the company, i.e. the reality.  

Customers care about their unique problem.  They might not be at the stage where they can make use of all  the product features.  Their users may not have been trained on all the features, they may not have the browser version that supports the latest feature, or their internal roles may not have been set up the way product was designed to support.  Or they may not even know about the capability of the product.

Each customer is at different adoption curve.  They have a different set of problems they are dealing with.  When they are having user adoption problem, they are not interested in hearing all the great features that the product has to make it easier to scale the roll out.

Because of the unique customer perspective, many customers have their wishlist.  It is a list of enhancements to make their jobs easier.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Facebook Trusted Contacts & Mother's Day Notification

A couple of weeks ago, Facebook rolled out a feature called Facebook 'Trusted Contacts'.  Instead of relying on security questions and two factor authentication, Facebook is saying that they can solve the problem by using social graph.  Facebook is thinking that our identities can be verified easier by sharing the secret codes with our Facebook friends.  They can forward the codes to us, and we can enter them to regain access to our Facebook account.

A neat idea on the paper.  I like the idea of password-less login.  But asking them to send me a secret code that they received just so that I didn't choose to pick my security question or enter mobile phone number?  For me, the pain of bothering someone to solve my forgotten password problem is greater than regaining access to my Facebook account.

What about this push notification that I received from Facebook Pages yesterday?

Push notification that I got from Facebook Pages yesterday.
Sorry, Facebook.  My mom got a phone call from me instead.