Sunday, April 1, 2012

Product Management: be your own customer

The most important thing that PM can do is to build a compelling product.  Although PM is not the person who executes product development, PM articulates what to build, whom to sell it to, and how to sell.  Because PM is responsible for whether product provides good enough value for customers to buy, PM needs to be grounded with market situation including competitive landscape.

Henry Ford on his first Ford car;
he raised his workers salaries to allow them to afford
the cars that they are building
In order to build a compelling product, it's no surprise that most PMs emphasize the need to understand customer.  Market research, customer focus group, persona marketing are all aimed at understanding customers problem and how to create a compelling product that solves their problem.  Therefore having a couple of key customers who are willing to spend time to talk about their problem is very valuable.  Especially they are customers who are forward looking and believe in your capability to deliver (Steve Blank calls them earlyvangelists) can be critical to building a successful product.

Then why would leading innovators like Henry Ford and Steve Jobs left contrarian quotes like following?

“If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse”
- Henry Ford
“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
- Steve Jobs
They seemed be advocating that product should be invented and designed by not talking to customers.  Their premises are that customers often don't know what their problems are.  Unless solution is presented to them as a product, people don't show much interest or even see the need to improve the current situation.  Does this mean that PM should not spend energy to find out about their customers?

It depends.

Before I explain, let me first say that customers should absolutely be the focus of your entire existence.  You have to know the customer inside and out.  That's because life blood of organization is cash flow, and without customer there won't be cash flow (remind yourselves how DotCom burst obliterated many startups without cash flow).  Without customers, company will seize to exist.

Then how would PM find out about customers without talking to them as Henry Ford suggests or putting together focus group as Steve Jobs implies?  

Simple.  You become your customer.  

It works beautifully when your mission is to build a customer product.  You being one of the consumers, you can innovate, design a cool new product and bring it to the market and succeed.  But only way this will ever work is that you are absolutely certain that you know everyone's problem.

Yahoo in 1994;
notice 23,836 entries in the catalog
In fact there are many products built this way.  Dropbox launched from early prototype that Drew Houston put together to solve his own problem of hosting files in his flash drive.  Facebook started out as college social network for no one else other than Mark Zuckerberg himself.  Yahoo was put together to organize the exploding websites that were discovered by Jerry Yang and Davlid Filo for themselves back in 1994.  Good place to start building a product is to solve your own problem because you understand the problem better than anyone else.

For all other cases, you should have at least several customers that you can call up anytime to talk to.  Teresa Torres advocates that as PM you should talk to your customers every single day.  I agree.  There are other ways to supplement this dialogue with customers.  You should be religiously checking all customer feedback and bugs reported by customer as well as how your competitors are pitching their ideas.  Any chance to understand customers should be given top priority.

So I would say this to aspiring PMs: To build a good product, find out about customers.  To build a great product, be your own customer.

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