12 Skills You Need to Unlock a Product Management Career

So you want to become a product manager? You’ve worked in sales and/or technical support for tech startups, but you want to be part of the magic in creating the product.

I can see why you’d be drawn to the role of product manager. It’s a really fun job within a startup. I would argue it’s the best position in a startup, but I’m biased.

The role of product manager in a startup is rewarding. In most companies, the position of product manager sits at the very center of all departments acting as the hub between sales, operations, engineering, marketing, and the customers.

When people ask what it’s like to be a product manager, I usually reply with one of a few snarky responses.

I’m a professional translator. I speaking the languages of business, technology, marketing, and customer pain.

I’m a jack of all trades, master of none. I do a little bit of everything.

Of course, these responses are in jest.

I can’t even count the number of times I have had colleagues approach me with the same exact question.

What resources would you recommend to become a product manager?

Honest moment here… Every single time someone has asked me this question, I wonder why they are asking me. I have never viewed myself as the expert. I have just tried, and failed, and tried again. Repeatedly. I guess that’s what makes me qualified to help someone get started in doing the same thing.

I often refer people to a similar set of resources to begin learning. I refer them to the standard faire of authors like Marty Cagan, Eric Reiss, Steve Blank, or Steve Krug. All of these authors do an excellent job teaching things that a product manager must know.

The major failure in this is that none of these resources really prepare anyone for the day to day responsibilities of being a product manager. It’s all about the hard skills when the soft skills are equally as important for success.

Being a product manager requires you to sit at the nexus of three important things. The business, the technology, and the customers. You’ll literally speak to people in all three categories on a daily basis. Often communication the same information in different ways.

 

HARK!

Business

Every business is different, so I recommend you focus on general business concepts when learning about business. When you take on your first role as a business analyst or product manager, you’ll get the opportunity to learn about a specific business.

Key things to understand when learning about the business are:

  1. Understand different business models. We use money in exchange for solving a problem. Study and understand how startup business models work. Follow the flow of money exchange between an individual and business.
  2. Learn all about customer service. Learn how customer service teams work and how to best support your customers.
  3. Understand how to craft a marketing message. Part of the role of a product manager is to guide the company in understanding the unique value proposition for your product. You’ll need to learn to communicate this effectively.
  4. Learn how to identify, track, and analyze business metrics. Data is your best friend as a product manager. How will you know your product is successful? How will you report back to the business the metrics that show that you’ve been successful.

Technology

If you’ve been working in a technical role, this may be easy. I recommend trying to round out your skills in this area. Don’t focus on being an expert, focus on being conversational on technical topics. Be able to ask questions that help you better understand the technology of your product.

Key things to understand when learning about the business are:

  1. Learn about data relationships. This doesn’t mean you have to build a database or know how to write a SQL query (bonus points if you do!). You do need to know how data is stored, accessed, and related.
  2. Understand web usability concepts. Usability concepts will help you to guide and inform the overall product design. There are plenty of basic intro courses for UX design on the web. I suggest you take one of the intro courses.
  3. Take an introductory programming course. If you’re willing to put in the time and effort, it will propel you forward working with a highly technical team. You’ll earn respect of the team by knowing basic fundamentals.

Customers

This is probably the most commonly overlooked parts of product management. Every startup product manager will tell you they’ve done this well, myself included. I suck at this part of product management. It’s easy to get sucked into the day-to-day of the design, build, ship routine and forget to do the necessary customer research.

Here’s the concepts you need to know to best understand your customer:

  1. Know how to build a journey line. I wrote an article explaining step by step how to build a customer journey line. Practice this process by picking any industry or job role you find.
  2. Grow a thick skin. The best kind of feedback you’ll get as a product manager will be seemingly negative. It will come as an enraged customer, an upset technical support rep, or even a screaming CEO. You’ll need to have a thick skin to take this feedback, deconstruct it, and turn it into actionable pieces of information to build your product.
  3. Build your level of empathy. Empathy is a must have skill for product managers. Empathy allows you to look beyond your own ego to understand the pain of your user.
  4. Learn how to conduct customer research. By conducting effective customer research, you’ll be able to best understand who your users deeply. You will be required to get to the root of their pain. If you find a pain they are willing to pay to fix, you will have created a winning product.

So do you still want to become a product manager? If you’re anything like me, you’ll look at this list of contrasting fields of study and get excited about all the things you can learn. I’ll be writing here about how to build up some of these skills.

If this article helped you in any way, would you mind doing two things for me?

  1. Leave a comment below telling me what single thing his holding you back from starting your career in product management?
  2. Sign up to receive lessons, tips, and guidance on becoming a product manager.

 

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These Useful B2B Products Make You Feel Successful

Emotion plays a very strong role in why customers buy and use products. This is even more important for B2B products where the buyer is not always the user.

Building B2B products that drive highly engaged users can be difficult. You find yourself balancing the needs of new customers while keeping your current customers engaged with added value.

The following B2B products have been built very intentionally to drive an emotional response from users. By using these products, users immediately feel more successful doing their job.

Trello

I love this product. It’s a great way to keep track of anything organized across a team of people. Trello’s simple lists and cards are such a delight to use because they are so simple.

Cards are self contained list items that can contain assignments, due dates, attachments, etc. Lists can be used for categories or statuses. The flexibility is part of what makes it so great.

trello

Using Trello will make you more organized. Dragging a card from “Doing” to “Done” will always make you feel like you’ve made progress.

Better productivity doesn’t always make you feel successful, but Trello is able to accomplish both.

Slack

Who would have thought that in 2015 you could innovate the chat room experience. There’s no shortage of solutions on the market, so how has Slack been so successful?

They’ve focused on building the best damn team communication product ever.

Slack is not just about chat. I’s about the community, the integrations, and the teamwork.

slack-screenshot

If your team uses Slack, you’ll immediately see the benefits in your business. People will be more in touch and you’ll see reduced re-work.

Buffer

This little app is epitome of a B2B product built as a delightful customer experience. Buffer is a B2B product for better sharing on Social Media. Their app connects to your Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Pinterest, etc. accounts and posts content you select on your behalf at scheduled times.

buffer

The delight in Buffer’s product lies in the feeling that they’ve got it taken care of. All you have to do is find content you want to share, “Buffer it” and it’s taken care of.

Square

Square’s product has come in like a wrecking ball and disrupted the small business credit card processing market. Their product has lowered the barrier to starting a business.

square-stand-register

Square’s combination of hardware and software products make it dead simple to start accepting credit cards. Entrepreneurs find immediate satisfaction in being able to collect money for their products and services.

Entrepreneurs need nothing more than a bank account, product, and smartphone to be in business.

Square has empowered entrepreneurs by removing the barrier to be in business.

Moleskine

Bet you didn’t expect this one. I never said B2B products had to be apps.

Moleskine notebooks keep you on track and be the landing place for all your fleeting thoughts and ideas.

moleskine

All of these products have a few things in common…

  1. The product creates immediate value. The reason for using this app is obvious to the user. The user draws a correlation between using this product and an improvement in their ability to do their work.
  2. There’s a very low learning curve. The user can get started quickly with little to no training. This reinforces point one where the user is able to see the value immediately.
  3. The product is delightful to use. The user enjoys using the product. They are so excited by using the product that they are willing to tell their friends or colleagues about it.

Are you delighting the people who use your product?

 

 

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How to Brainstorm a Startup Idea That Doesn’t Suck

Most startup ideas suck. Every startup founder wants to believe that their idea is really great.

The truth is that great startup ideas are not aha moments, they are refined by learning.

Before you build anything, you need to try this method to refine your idea and understand your customer.

Idea: Uber for haircuts

Let’s take this rough startup idea and refine it. We have this idea that we can use technology to help improve the experience of getting a haircut.

Identify the audience for your idea

Before you get started with this method you’ll need to know your audience well. Hopefully you’ve already done some of the work to eliminate risk from your idea.

You should have a customer persona in mind. Maybe you’ve even documented the persona.

For our Uber for haircuts example, let’s look at mens haircuts. For no other reason than it’s what I know best.

Map your customer’s journey

This exercise can be done alone or collaboratively with a group. We’re going to map out the journey of your customer.

We will use this process to identify the highs and lows of your customer’s journey.

Start with two axes

Start by simply drawing two axes (x and y, not the tool) on a whiteboard or piece of paper.

Now place a happy face above the x-axis and sad face below the y-axis. It should look like this:

journey-line-blank

The x-axis is time. The y-axis is happiness. Now let’s map the customer journey.

Map their journey step-by-step

Now is the really fun part. We’re going to think through the steps to getting a haircut. Don’t think about solutions.

Focus on the journey. You want to map every step to getting a haircut. Make sure to have empathy for the customer.

List the steps:

  1. Realizing that he needs a haircut
  2. He walks into the salon for a walk-in appointment
  3. Waits for next available stylist
  4. Reads magazines while waiting
  5. His name is called
  6. Explains his desired hair cut to the stylist
  7. Stylist cuts his hair
  8. Stylist washes his hair
  9. He pays for his haircut

Now that we have a list of steps the guy goes through to cut and style his hair, let’s map them to our journey line.

Our goal is to take each step of the process and map it against a happiness scale. How happy or unhappy does each step make him feel?

journey-line-complete

Don’t just work with your own assumptions. Use customer feedback to learn and refine this journey line.

Interpreting the results

Now that we have a completed journey line. Let’s use this as our map to brainstorm and refine our business idea.

The low points give us new ideas to improve the experience.

Chances are the low points are where your original idea came from. The scheduling of haircuts is definitely a point of unhappiness in our example.

Be on the look out for even better ideas. Can you cut some steps out of the experience? Is there a very unhappy point that you hadn’t realized before?

The high points tell us what drives joy.

Use the high points just as much as the low points. The high points tell us what points in the customer journey are delightful experiences.

Being aware of what drives customer joy can help you enhance those experiences.

Build a successful startup by focusing on your customer

This journey line exercise can be used to eliminate risk from your startup idea and make sure your idea doesn’t suck.

Don’t even have an idea yet? Stop racking your brain and use this method to find new ideas. Follow the same process by picking any industry or customer persona.

What methods have you used to refine your idea? Let me know on twitter @chrisredrich or in the comments below.

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Getting to the Why: 5 Ways to Extract Customer Feedback

Customer feedback is a double edged sword. Startups need customer feedback to iterate, but making sense of the firehose of information can be overwhelming.

Startups cannot build their companies in a vacuum devoid of customer feedback.

Customer feedback comes from all over the web including Twitter, user forums, Facebook, and Yelp. How do you take this disparate set of comments and make sense of it?

Value vs. Solution Feedback

Let’s talk about two different types of customer feedback you’re startup should be looking for. You’re startup should be placing customer feedback into two buckets: value and solution. Let me explain.

Value feedback helps you understand if the problem you sought to solve is important. To build a successful startup, you must solve a problem that makes your customer open up their wallet and give you money. This type of feedback sounds like:

“I don’t have a need for your product right now.”

“I like your product, but I can’t justify the cost.”

“Your product isn’t the right fit for my needs.”

Solution feedback helps you understand if you’ve adequately solved the problem. This is just as important to your startup’s success. You need to be sure that you’ve solved the problem you claim to solve. This type of feedback sounds like:

“Your product is missing [feature]”

“I need to be able to [end user goal]”

“How do I [end user goal]”

You’ll need to account for both types of customer feedback when trying to learn from your customers. Let’s look at different ways to collect customer feedback.

1. Using surveys for customer feedback

Surveys are the go-to market research solution. They can provide both qualitative and quantitative research insights. If you already have customers, a survey is a great way to gain both value and solution feedback.

Assembling a survey has never been easier. Survey Monkey, Typeform, and Google Forms all allow you to create a customer feedback survey in minutes at little to no cost.

Keep your surveys simple

Use very simple surveys. Long surveys will create abandonment and you won’t gain the insights you’re looking for.

Keep your survey to no more than 10 questions including demographic questions. If your survey is anonymous, demographic questions will help to know a little more about the customer without knowing their name.

Don’t ask leading questions

Leading questions will bias your survey results. Don’t do it.

Bad survey question: Many customers make software purchasing decisions based on price. What influenced your decision to purchase [product]?

Good survey question: What factors did you evaluate when deciding to purchase [product]?

Use open-ended questions to start

Open-ended questions are a good place to start when writing your first survey. Open-ended questions allow respondents to type their own response instead of forcing options on them.

2. Using Net Promoter Score for continual feedback

Many software product companies use the Net Promoter Score as a metric for customer loyalty. The premise is a simple survey that asks 2 simple questions:

  1. How likely are you to recommend [brand, company, or product] to your friends and colleagues? (0-10 rating)
  2. Why?

Responses of 0-6 are your detractors,  7-8 are your passives, and 9-10 are your promoters. By subtracting the percentage of promoters from your detractors, you form your NPS score.

nps
Image Source: Medallia

The theory is that a higher NPS score correlates to higher customer loyalty. The score’s effectiveness is debated. What I like about NPS surveys is actually the second question.

Read every survey response. When your customers respond to an NPS survey, they’ve taken the time to tell you why they either love or hate your product.

When you read through the survey responses, you’ll begin to see patterns. Hone in on those patterns and use one of the other methods in this article to learn more.

Delighted is a new tool that will help get you setup and tracking NPS in very little time.

3. Use customer interviews to gather feedback

Customer interviews are one of my favorite ways to gather customer feedback. You can gather both value and solution feedback in every interview.

You can conduct customer interviews in person or remotely. I’m particularly fond of in-person interviews because you will be able to understand the customer’s environment along with your feedback.

Learn about them as a person

Take the opportunity to have a natural conversation with your customer. Don’t make the session feel like a research study.

Speak naturally and observe how they respond. Try to understand them as a person.

Ask about their usage of your product

You’re there to learn about your product, so ask questions about how they use your product.

What does [product] do well?

What doesn’t [product] do well?

What frustrates you most about [product]?

Understand why they were looking for your product

Ask questions that give you insights on why they purchased your product in the first place. Try to understand what motivated them to purchase your product.

4. Exercises and games can help discover unmet needs

Innovation Games are an excellent way to discover unmet needs with your customers. There are a variety of options that you can use to gather all types of customer feedback. I’m particularly fond of a game called Speedboat.

Speedboat helps you to understand what your customers do and don’t like about your product.

The game uses a simple metaphor to tease out product deficiencies. The boat symbolizes your product. Game participants add anchors to the boat that symbolize the things that slow down the boat.

speedboat

Here’s an example of the low effort required to play Speedboat. All you need is a boat and some sticky notes.

As participants play the game, they’ll begin to group similar anchors together.

5. Usability testing will extract solution feedback

Conducting regular usability tests will help you gain solution feedback from your customers. The barrier to usability testing is remarkably low.

The goal of user testing is to understand how your particular solution works. The great part about user testing is that you don’t necessarily need to use current customers to get solution feedback.

UserTesting.com is an excellent resource for conducting rapid usability tests at a low cost.

usertesting_results

Harnessing customer feedback will transform your business

Using all five of these methods will help you turn customer feedback into actionable steps to improving your business.

The collection of your customer feedback may be overwhelming. Break down your feedback into value feedback and solution feedback and look for patterns.

Patterns will help you form hypotheses for your next great product feature or idea.

 

 

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The 3 Product Management Tools Your Startup Needs Now

The human desire for tools that improve workflow dates back millions of years. Tools have evolved far beyond the days of stone hammers and spear-heads, while our desire to find new and better ways to do our jobs remains unchanged.

Product managers tend to be on the forefront of new technology products. Product managers are notoriously early-adopters. We try things, we tinker, and we learn.

Early in my product management career, I scoured the web looking for tools to help me be a better product manager.

The product management role is so diverse that there are thousands of products to help product managers. Some products are marketed directly to product managers such as Aha, ProdPad, and ProductPlan.

Lists of product management tools focus on delivering more product, not a better product. 

Process is an important part of your startup’s growth, but this isn’t the sole responsibility of your product manager. The tools you use for product management should help you build a better product.

Product managers need to build customer relationships

Direct connection with your customers on a daily basis is the fastest way for product managers to fail quickly and iterate. Building these relationships starts with knowing who your users are.

Enter Intercom.io.

Intercom is the best-in-class tool to enable your product managers to talk directly with your customers. In fact, you’ve probably run into Intercom already without knowing it.

They’ve made it easy to get started with just a few lines of code to drop into your website and application. Within 24 hours you can begin talking with website visitors, users, and customers.

intercom

 

Every product manager should already be communicating with customers. Intercom eliminates the barrier to user research.

Measuring customer usage will help you make better decisions

Every product manager needs data to support their decisions. Unfortunately, accessing usage data is often a nightmare.

SQL queries, multiple platforms and not tracking a necessary data point can make it nearly impossible to use data to drive product decisions.

Pendo.io solves this nightmare for product managers. Pendo helps product managers build more engaging products by storing all user behaviors within your app.

I was an early customer of Pendo.io almost a year ago when they first launched. Their product does something that no other analytics tool do: they track what you aren’t tracking.

Pendo tracks user behavior in your app. When you decide you need to know how many times a specific button was clicked, they’ve got you covered. No additional instrumentation is needed.

pendo

Your startup needs usage data to support your decisions. Pendo removes the headache of instrumenting your app.

Validating product ideas help you to fail fast

Startup product managers must fail as quickly as possible. There’s no way around this.

Building products and features without user testing is like throwing away money. Development is expensive, so why build something you haven’t validated with users?

If you’re a product manager in a small tech startup, you’re likely responsible for at least part of the user experience design.

Balsamiq is hands down the fastest way to sketch and communicate your product ideas.

I often skip my notebook entirely and jump into Balsamiq. I attempt to get my ideas in front of users as quickly as I can.

balsamiq

 

Combine Balsamiq wireframes with InVision and UserTesting.com and it’s possible get real user feedback in less than 24 hours. Start to finish to validate your idea in 24 hours.

Conclusion

Tools are only as good as the person using them. Tools inherently require humans to get the best results. If you implement any of these three tools into your product management process, you’ll see results.

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How I Pivoted Product Strategy and Grew SaaS Deal Size by 10x

Sometimes the most mundane projects can turn out to be turning points for your startup. Of course, you may not even realize the impact of some of those projects until months or years later.

Years ago I was just starting out as the product manager for a SaaS collaboration product when the founders asked me to take on a new project. The project was to analyze a large set of data to help “cross the chasm” of growth. If you’re not familiar with the concept of the startup chasm, I recommend you read Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm

The chasm is the point along the product adoption curve between early adopters and the majority. You don’t want to get stuck in the chasm. Getting stuck in the chasm is where startups go to die. Like Evel Knievel, you need to have enough momentum heading into the chasm to jump this large gaping hole.

Early Adopters

 

We weren’t quite stuck in the chasm, but we needed to gain momentum to cross the chasm. I had no idea what kind of impact I was about to make on the company when I started.

Nearly falling into the chasm

We had gained significant early growth, raised our series A, and iterated our product features based on lean customer development. The business strategy was an early form of growth hacking. We were acquiring customers using referral programs, content marketing, and paid marketing.

The product was a SaaS collaboration product for small-medium sized business. Our early product thesis was that email was the worst way to collaborate. We sought to create transparency among teams and create new ways to work that removed communication as a bottleneck.

We built the company using a self-service SaaS business model. We offered a 30 day trial with no credit card required. We employed a few customer support reps who spent their free time contacting each trial via phone to introduce themselves. Our conversion rates were strong enough to keep customer acquisition costs within our target range.

After the 30 day trial we offered 5 paid plan options ranging from $49 – $249/month. This is the holy grail of SaaS, monthly recurring revenue. Pricing had a few levers including per seat and storage.

Everything seemed to be going well until our customer acquisition costs started to increase, a flood of new competitors entered the market, and new customers became more cost sensitive. Price was decreasing, costs were increasing, and thus our SaaS margins were being compressed.

To cross the chasm to the early majority, we needed to shift to selling solutions, not feature sets.

Analyzing product, customer, and usage data

I jumped in as the new product manager hell-bent on solving this business problem. Nobody in the company had done customer development. The growth of the company had come from being an early market entry to the market. At the time, we had already grown to around 3,000 customers and 250,000 users.

Goal #1: Understand our customer base

I wanted to understand who our customers were. Everyone had their own gut feel based on the names on new deal alerts, but nobody had sought to segment our customers and understand the who they were.

Remember we sold ourselves as “collaboration for small to medium sized business.” The SMB market is broad. For all intents and purposes we were a horizontal product. We had customers in many market verticals from architects, to lawyers, to virtual assistants.

I started with a list of customer account records exported from our proprietary provisioning tool. I sucked this list into a Microsoft Access database table. I then started sifting through the customer names. This gave me a few gut thoughts on where to focus.

There are excellent API tools out there for automating this process now, but I had to sift through each customer record and visit their website and understanding their industry. I created a rough taxonomy for classifying the companies into industry segments.

Goal #2: Understand their product usage

I then pestered our CTO for product usage data. Files uploaded, tasks created, tasks completed, number of users, anything that could be easily accessed with SQL queries. I married this data with the industry classifications to better understand which features were being used by various industries.

From this I learned that while we had a good number of legal customers, their product usage was primarily focused in file storage. Little to no collaboration was happening. This represented a churn risk and little room to differentiate against competitors and falling storage prices.

Goal #3: Understand their upgrade patterns

Of course, I also needed to understand their buying behaviors. Some segments may have high concentrations of customers, but low customer lifetime value. I brought this data into my database and started pivoting against it.

From the billing data I learned that while we had a strong number of customers that were virtual assistants who had strong usage patterns, their customer lifetime value was less than $500. This barely even passed our metrics for turning a profit on the customer. That market wasn’t going to work.

Testing and iterating hypotheses

Through the data analysis stage of the project, I formulated a hypothesis of markets we may be able to focus on: brand marketing teams, marketing agencies, and architecture firms.

My research then moved over to understanding the customer needs by doing research interviews with customers in each of those industries. I spoke with 3-5 customers in each group to learn more about their business, industry, and needs. From these calls, I was able to identify patterns and commonality in their vocabulary.

I built target buyer profiles for each industry and gave them to a few of our sales reps along with a lead list for each market. I monitored the metrics from this outbound sales efforts. I meticulously reviewed the notes from every call to iterate our pitch.

The trick was to modify the pitch week over week. Our product had the features we needed. We needed to craft a pitch that sold those features as a solution to their problem.

Pivoting the product strategy

After a testing the hypotheses over the course of several months, we learned a lot about each industry. We learned that marketing agencies had the greatest need, architecture firms needed heavy project management features, and brand marketing teams struggled getting budget approval.

Over the course of the following few months, we continued to sell into marketing agencies. We were receiving strong reception from the market and I began to prioritize my product roadmap around the needs of marketing agencies.

This pivot changed the course of our company.By pivoting our focus to marketing teams and agencies, we increased our average sales price from $3,000 to $35,000 with the same product. Yes, that’s 10x the sales price.

All we did was change who we were selling to. The same product packaged as a solution to a specific problem within a specific market vertical.

Are you struggling to cross the proverbial chasm? Struggling to understand who your users are? I can help. Visit TheStartupPM.com.

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Introducing The Startup Product Manager

Dear startup founders,

Today’s the day. I’m launching my first service offering just for you. You’ve launched your first rev of your product, you’re growing your company, but you find yourself stuck between closing early sales and shipping product. You really need a product manager, but you don’t have the time to recruit or the budget to hire the right person.

I’m here to help.

You see, I’m a startup veteran with five years of experience leading product for web and mobile products. I managed product at Central Desktop through an acquisition.

After a few months of searching for my next adventure, nothing seemed right. My passion is helping startups continue to ship incredible products.

So today I’m launching an offering for early stage startups that need the help of a professional product manager.

For just $1500 per month (and no equity!), I’ll be your trusted product advisor to help you carry your product’s vision forward so you can focus on turning your idea into a company.

Here’s how it works:

Monthly check-ins

Each month we’ll have a check-in call via Skype or Google Hangouts. We’ll review key metrics, customer feedback, development timelines, and competitors.

Throughout the month, we’ll be in contact via email and using a web-based collaboration tool.

Idea Validation

I’ll help you validate new product ideas. Send me the napkin sketch from the bar and I’ll break it down and evaluate the idea. I’ll talk to some of your customers (or target customers) and see if the idea has legs.

Product Strategy

We’ll work together on formulating a killer product vision, strategy, and roadmap. Your startup’s growth will hinge on building the right products for the right market. Let’s not waste time and money building the wrong things.

Wireframing & User Stories

Let’s face it, sometimes the most mundane tasks need to get done. I’ll break down your ideas into wireframes and user stories for your development team.

Sound like a good plan?

Great, let’s get started now.

Still in doubt? No problem. There’s a 100% money-back guarantee. If you are not completely satisfied by the work I provide in the first month, I’ll provide a full refund.

Got questions? Send me an email.

 

 

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How to eliminate risk from your startup idea

Whether you are new to startups or a startup veteran, you will face the fear of building something that nobody cares about. Startup founders (myself included) build before validating ideas. This guide is not intended to replace the fantastic work of Steve Blank, Marty Cagan, or Eric Reiss. They have all spent many years doing research and failing to bring us these concepts. If you are a startup founder and haven’t read their books, you need to.

So you have an idea that you want to develop. You’re excited and you want to just start building. If you are anything like me, you love to get to the building. You want to get your hands dirty in Sketch, spin up your Heroku dynos, and in ten minutes you write your first line of code.

Slow down turbo.

too-fast

How do you know if your idea is worth building? How do you know if a market exists? You don’t need an MBA for this, I promise. Take a pause and follow these few steps to eliminate the risk from your idea.

  1. If you’re looking to raise VC to fund your startup, this process will show potential investors that you know what you’re talking about. VC pitches are full of market stats, industry trends, and sales pitches about the next great idea. Imagine if you showed up and pitched a VC saying.

    “I’m building [your idea], I have iterated the idea 10 times while talking with 10 target customers and all 15 customers are begging me to build this product. Oh, and here’s some market stats and trends.”

  2. If you are self-funding your startup, this process will help to eliminate the risk of wasting money.
  3. If your goal is residual personal income, this process will give you a jump start on finding your first customers.

The process for eliminating startup risk is a pretty simple concept. The hard part is suspending your biases listening.

Eliminating Risk

 

1. Identify the target customer.

You’ll need to take your idea and figure out who will use it. This isn’t just an exercise to write down a user persona. This is an exercise in understanding people.

Who, in your network, would you identify as the first customer of your product? Go talk to them.

Ask questions and listen. Try to understand them. Understand their daily work, their environment, and their life.

If it doesn’t come up in natural conversation, ask about the problem your idea is trying to solve. For example, if you are building the Uber for car washing you might ask questions like:

  • How often do you wash your car?
  • Do you use car washes?
  • What is the best car wash experience you’ve had?
  • Do you have a go-to car wash?

Listen to their answers. Suspend your own personal understanding of the problem. It is easy to hear what you want to hear to validate your own understanding. Listen with intention for things you don’t already know or haven’t thought of.

Do this same process 10 times with people in your network and you’ll form a strong understanding of your customer.

2. Iterate your idea.

Your original idea most likely was wrong, so you’ll want to iterate the idea. The key in this step is to iterate your idea, not the exact solution. You are trying to learn and craft your value proposition in this step.

From those 10 conversations you had with potential customers, you’ll likely have picked up on patterns. Adjust your idea to fit the new knowledge about your target customer.

Go back to those 10 people with an offering and see how they respond. Present them with a primary value proposition. For example…

“What if you had an app to order up a carwash while you work?”

Sit in the silence as you let them respond. You’ll be able to gauge their excitement by body language and initial response. You’re looking for enthusiasm and excitement. The best scenario is that you don’t get enthusiasm on the first attempt because this allows you to ask questions and refine the idea.

If you do this step well, you’ll end up with 10 potential customers that are ready and waiting for your product to come to life. In the most ideal scenario, these 10 customers will be your first evangelists to help you kickstart your marketing efforts.

3. Iterate your prototype.

Now that you’ve got an idea that’s worth solving, now you get to start building something. Eliminating risk is all about validating your assumptions as early as possible. You’ve eliminated the risk that customers don’t exist, you’ve eliminated the risk that customers don’t care, now we’ve got to eliminate the risk that the problem can’t be solved.

Start to build some prototypes of your idea. Start with rough sketches and outlines and talk to your customers. See if the concept makes sense.

Once you’ve got a concept that seems to work, start increasing the fidelity of your prototype. Start doing usability tests and make sure your solution meets the users’ expectations.


 

The Lean Startup Machine has created an awesome framework for this process. It’s called the Validation Board and it organizes your validation into steps and iterations.

If you do this 3 step process, you’ll cut as much risk as possible to ensure your startups success. If you take one thing away from this article, It’s that you need to talk to real customers early and often. So many startups fail because they assume that they are the experts.

Now go talk to some customers and iterate.

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3 Team Leadership Lessons You Can’t Miss

The differences between leadership and management are well studied, documented, and taught in business schools; however, the two are almost always confused in practice. Look at any job description for a product management leadership role and you’ll find things like “Directly manage product managers and team members” with no mention about being a leader.

The funny thing about the product management role in most software startups is that product managers don’t usually “manage” people. They most often do not have direct reports. They are typically hired to manage a product, not people. Instead they are tasked with leading development teams to build successful products.

Good product managers will pick up a very useful leadership skill by working in this structure. A product manager cannot direct a development team to build anything, they must lead the development team to follow their vision.

This isn’t to say that management is not a necessary function. It most certainly is a necessary role in some industries. In software development we need more leaders and fewer managers. This is likely why there is a trend of flattened organizational structures in startups.

Here are my three tips for leading high functioning startup product development teams.

  1. Leaders realize they don’t have a monopoly on good ideas. 
    Ideas are a dime a dozen and aren’t worth anything until executed. Great leaders realize that they don’t corner the market on good ideas. A manager will suck the team dry of any energy to generate new ideas. Leaders bring their team a problem, managers bring a solution. Your team has great ideas. Harvest those ideas.

    Michael Dell once said “Ideas are commodity. Execution of them is not.” Stop thinking that your ideas are superior and start harvesting the team’s ability to be creative.

  2. A well functioning team moves at warp speed.
    There’s this phenomenon that happens when a strong leader has inspired a team around a collective vision. You see this in early-stage startups that are able to build an MVP product in their garage in just a few months. The team is inspired and moves at warp speed. I have seen many startup founders trying to artificially create this warp speed.

    The only way to create this warp speed of teamwork is by creating a vision for a future greater than what one person can accomplish by themselves. A vision for a future that inspires the team to come together and ideate and create. A manager will set deadlines and dictate specs, a leader will outline the vision and opportunity and say “Let’s go.”

    Managers often get sucked into micromanaging teams because the team hasn’t been given the ability to function autonomously. The irony is that it seems like team output improves; however, you are actually limiting the team output. If a manager has to micromanage, the maximum output of the team is inherently capped at the managers ability to delegate. Avoid this at all costs.

  3. Leave the ego at the door.
    A great leader has to set his or her own ego at the door so that the rest of the team will do the same. 3 weak team members with strong teamwork is better than a single team member with weak teamwork. That is to say that one rotten apple will spoil the bunch.

    Harry S. Truman once said “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” A strong leader will foster a teamwork built on a collective belief that the team rises together. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Leading high functioning teams takes practice, patience, and personal growth. If you find yourself managing people, try some of these lessons and see how your team dynamic changes.

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The Must-Have Skill for Product Managers

I was recently in an interview and I was asked what skills and traits made a great product manager. I paused for a moment and collected my thoughts before responding.

Instead of jumping to listing the skill qualifications for a great product manager, I jumped to the must-have “soft skill” of great product managers. This one qualification makes the difference between a project manager and a product manager.

Empathy.

If you accept that products are built to solve user problems, then the only way you can understand those problems deeply enough is to have empathy for your users.

There are plenty of product managers without this trait. You’ll likely find them pushing requirements through development teams, focusing on requirements documents, and resting on their assumptions about the market.

Product managers that put people first will build products alongside users and customers. Their ideas come from talking with real people.

A product manager with strong empathy can tell you names of real users of their product. They can tell you about who they are and what they do. They can tell you all about the inefficiencies of the users day (even outside the product).

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