iSPIRT Playbook Roundtable: Positioning and Messaging – Lot of it is common sense!

If your grandmother does not understand your message, then you might as well not communicate is the crux of what was discussed during this Roundtable facilitated by Shankar Maruwada and Nandita Sinha.

This roundtable discussed the ‘What’ of the positioning and messaging and not the ‘how’ of the positioning. There was very little theory except perhaps setting the context and the entire session was practical.

To illustrate the significance of positioning and messaging, one of the participating companies gave an elevator pitch thinking the rest of us are his prospective customers. Then people spoke about what stuck in their minds about the pitch. It varied from ‘I lost him’ to ‘I was thinking of a completely different business model’. The person who gave the pitch looked at all the responses to understand if there were any surprises and what needs to be the part of their messaging.

Discussion on the first pitch led to the understanding of the following:

  1. The curse of knowledge forms a part of all the messaging – what is easily understandable for us is not understandable for the market.
  2. Often times, people start to have internal chatters – they start to think even before the pitch is complete and the attention span is just about 30 seconds.
  3. Most messaging is at a conceptual level and addresses the left-brain of their audience, which does not persuade people to make decisions. Try addressing to their emotions, their right brain and the easiest way is to do these through stories.

Using the first pitch as an example, Shankar explained what goes into creating a tight message and it was

  • Identify the customer segment. You can have one overall messaging of your offering and can have multiple messages for multiple segments
  • Setup is the context of your offering. It can be some challenges that your customer segment faces or the industry faces. There can be multiple setups to your messaging
  • Explain the benefits of your solution. How your offering is unique to the customers need will be the persuasive part of your pitch. Setup combined with benefits is what would make the message that you communicate
  • Features and supporting credibility will have to come after this phase of setup and benefits

After this, one more exercise was carried out where all the participating companies were asked to write down 3 setups and 3 benefits while avoiding features. All the pitches were discussed at length and I am sure all those who attended the Roundtable went back a lot wiser about messaging.

Shankar emphasized on a very important fact that you may not crack your messaging in one sitting and it has to be an iterative process. He also asked people not to think in words and instead begin with stories, then move on to thoughts and then switch to words. This is the best way in which you will get to do your messaging right.

This Roundtable was attended by 9 companies with 12 participants and 2 facilitators. This roundtable kicked off to a hilarious start, during the introductions most people in the room claimed that their Saturday night favorite drink was either butter milk, tea or coffee.

I am looking forward to more such sessions.

Don’t try to solve every customer problem by a line of code.

My First playbook roundtable. iSPIRT’s first initiative at Hyderabad, was a 4 hour insightful RoundTable that was  organised by the ProductNation free of cost for the attendees, which most Hyderabadi entrepreneurs gave a miss and are sure to be regretting the missed opportunity and the learning possibility that it offered.

Sridhar Ranganathan, ex-VP of InMobi, a Product Guru and Aneesh Reddy, the CEO of Capillary Technologies, which is in the business of providing mobile-based customer acquisition, tracking, and loyalty business, were the key speakers for the day .The first half of the session was mostly participants- driven where each of us were asked to share our day-to-day stories at work along with our expectations from the workshop.

Below were the most common challenges that emerged from our discussions:

  1. How to validate the need for a product?
  2. How to prioritize from the features wish list?
  3. What is the exact role of a Product Manager to drive successful product deliveries?

Validating the product need

Sridhar began the afternoon session by saying that, “The best way to validate the need for a product was constantly interacting with the customers and understanding their requirements.” He said there are 2 primary things for a product startup to be successful in the long run. One is Speed- wherein it is important for start-ups to be iterating faster as its always better to Fail Fast and recover quickly.

The second is to be data-driven wherein start-ups should be religiously looking and researching in terms of numbers both externally and internally .He recalled a popular quote, “Data is God and code is only a messenger”, which was truly an eye-opener as it made me realize the importance of constantly looking at data and then using that to validate the need of the product.

Aneesh shared a few of his real-life examples on how during their initial days at Capillary Technologies, they had spent over 6 months talking to every store owner be it big or small, to understand their needs and how they literally changed their product idea thrice before conceiving the final version. He also said that listening to customers played a prominent role in shaping the product rather than merely selling. He also spoke of how Capillary mainly stuck to one mantra i.e.- “Locking down on the cheque with the customer even before building a feature for them,” which not only drives a sense of stickiness and commitment with the customer but  also ensures the right customer need is addressed.

Priortizing from the Features Wish list

This is by far the most common challenge faced by all of us today, which Sridhar strongly advocated by highlighting the need for PMs to start questioning  every feature-benefit ratio in order to prevent any feature overload. He also stressed on the need for every PM to evaluate if every feature was designed for the ease of the end user. He added that it is important to add features in a disciplined manner and remove the excessive features ruthlessly. Bottom-line being – “Don’t try to solve every customer problem by a line of code.”

Aneesh also shared on how Capillary builds prototypes and demonstrates them to customers to ensure if the customer’s wish list has been fulfilled or not and that this has helped Capillary to keep the fine balance between what their customers are looking for and how the future of the product would shape up.

Role of a Product Manager (PM)

Sridhar began asking each of us to define what we considered the role of a PM to be and after everyone was done presenting their respective  viewpoints, he mentioned the below as some of the qualities he would expect a PM to possess:

  1. Empathy towards customers – the willingness to engage, understand and appreciate customer needs.
  2. Confidence to have a point of view
  3. Ready to build a product for the future
  4. Culture of experimentation and being data-driven

Personally what I considered the best piece of advice for PMs is, “to be responsible for the Outcome and not the Output”. This actually accelerates the need for PMs to question every effort for a feature request and evaluate what would be its ability to generate revenue.

Overall, it was an immensely insightful session. I would also like to thank Sridhar for taking time out from his busy schedule to enlighten us. Huge thanks to Aneesh for being extremely patient and for responding to all our queries.

I highly appreciate the efforts of Avinash to create such a splendid product management session wherein we not only get a chance to meet/network with product gurus but also help us rethink our working strategies. Last but not the least, I would also like to thank Pramati Technologies for being an excellent host for this Roundtable.

Eagerly looking forward to the follow-up session soon!

Post Contributed by Thulasi, Associate Product Manager at Versant Online Solutions Pvt Ltd and can be reached at thulasi(at)moozup.com

Product RoundTable Bangalore @ Vizury Office

We had some very good hosts @ Vizury office and also joined by their product folks Shiju and Subra for the Product Round table that was organized last Friday. The other awesome people who were part of the event were Siddharth Ramesh (Exotel), Jose (Weavedin), Vinay Simha (Dfy Graviti), Sridhar (ex-Inmobi), Avinash Raghava (Product Nation), Nari Kannan (The man with experience of over 7 startups and currently working on a project for Barack Obama), Anjali (Capillary), Chandra (i7networks), Santosh Panda (Explara), Venkatesh (Insieve), Pandith (Impelsys).

The discussions revolved around 3 things in Product:
1. How to track growth & health of a product or Product Metrics
2. Product v/s Sales (When to listen to customer and sales person and building the feature)
3. Product Marketing

and 2 small sessions of Santosh explaining his re-branding story from Ayojak to Explara and Venkatesh about how they balance in a unique way not building before selling and working on product demo’s without having to build the features.

Sridhar led the moderation of the session and showed his secret sauce of a graph designed for Product decisions:

The graph helps Product folks take decisions based on a problem, and how ideally first level and second level product problems when probed can be solved by Education & Processes. This sort of product thinking gives more bandwidth to technology & product managers to focus on building the tech as well, apart from features as a solution to everything. It helps keep your product from being stretched into a services play.

Nari Kannan & Sridhar again spoke about how the health of a product and its metrics can be linked to the business metrics by the GEM (Growth, Engagement, Monetization) theory.

A lot of discussions around how sales folks like to ask fore more features, and how to decide what to build and what not to, but the graph helped a lot.

A snippet on the learning from Santosh’s Ayojak to Explara journey was that he communicated the brand change much in advance internally and decided to leave aside feature requests etc. and kept focussed on the UI/UX and internal communication of the change. It helped everyone realize that multiple massive changes should not be attempted together.

Venkatesh also spoke about how they develop new feature requests in a staging environment, and release it just for the customer in a prototype without pushing the code into the product, and ask him/her if they will pay for this and is this what they want. It is an interesting way to get a yes from the customer before getting your tech team working on something which might or might not sell.

All in all, everyone had some great learning’s, a few beers and cookies along with chai and coffee thanks to the Vizury team, and we hope to get some more Product Roundtable’s running consistently and involving more of the product companies to have cross learning’s via sharing best practices.

SMBs and Indian Software Product Industry: Intertwined Fortunes

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. ― Winston Churchill

Small and Medium Sized Businesses (SMBs), the growth engine of India, are on the threshold of a tremendous opportunity. Globalization of trade and the rapid proliferation of computing and communication technologies are affording them a platform to expand their reach to national and global markets and compete head-to-head with global players. But on the flip side, those SMBs that do not recognize and capitalize on this wave quickly are likely to be swept away by the stiff global competition. If SMBs are to successfully counter global competition in their own backyard and elsewhere, they need to adopt software technology on a large scale, enabling them to run their businesses efficiently and effectively. But, few SMBs have the financial muscle or the technical know-how necessary to implement customized software solutions. Therefore, the majority of 13 million SMBs would count on standard business application software that requires minimum upfront investment and ongoing maintenance, to fuel their growth. Such software is distinct from the software deployed in large corporations and I refer to this as ‘Small Business Application Software (SBAS)’ to distinguish it from large enterprise application software.

Business application software (SBAS) such as accounting software, ERP, CRM etc., offers multiple benefits to SMBs –

  • As shown by research, SBAS significantly enhances the internal productivity of SMBs as well as their ability to manage relationships with vendors and customers, leading to superior firm performance.
  • It forces SMBs to adopt standard processes and best practices, moving them rapidly up the quality and value curve.
  • Most important of all, by streamlining day-to-day operations, it not only frees up the entrepreneur’s time for strategic planning but also assists her with the tools needed to make informed strategic decisions.

 

The question now arises – How can Indian SMBs get the right fuel for their growth? This is where a vibrant Indian software product industry plays a critical role. Indian SMBs cannot realize productivity and performance gains from software that is designed for developed markets. This is because the business environment in India (and other emerging markets) is substantially different from that of developed markets. It is volatile, with frequent regulatory changes, and rife with institutional and infrastructural challenges. For instance, there were 340 updates to Indian tax laws last year. That’s more than one tax law update every business day! Therefore, SMBs need software products that can buffer them from such volatility and help overcome the challenges associated with operating in this unique and dynamic environment. This is possible only when products are designed specifically for the Indian SMBs – and this is best done by a strong indigenous software product industry.

Indian software product companies are better positioned than foreign firms to support the Indian SMB market. This is because,

  • They have lower cost structures which allow them to meet the stringent price-performance expectation of Indian SMBs.
  • Further, because of their familiarity with the operating environment, they can build effective channels to drive software awareness and adoption among Indian SMBs- remember that Indian SMBs are more like enterprise customers than individual buyers in that they expect suppliers to sell to them.

 

In summary, there is a symbiotic relationship between SMB growth and a robust software product industry in India. SMBs need the software product industry to power the next phase of their growth and make them globally competitive. At the same time, the Indian software product industry, having missed out on the individual productivity and communication software wave, can leverage the large SMB market in India to establish itself as a global leader in the SBAS space. In other words, software product industry is the fuel for the SMB engine and the SMB engine can drive the Indian software product industry towards SBAS leadership. By moving in lockstep and moving quickly, India can create a competitive SMB sector and a vibrant software product industry.

Learning and growing together at the iSPIRT #Playbook Roundtable

iSPIRT Playbook Roundtable in Delhi Flickr Stream

The Product Management Playbook roundtable repeated last week with an intent to check progress. The mentors – Amit Ranjan & Amit Somani were keen to know the problems product managers faced while they executed on ideas discussed in the previous episode.

We could guess this would be one power packed session, especially from the conversations that ensued over lunch. There were active discussions, funny anecdotes and heartfelt laughter which filled the Eko cafeteria. New bonds were built and older ones renewed as we savored the delicious dishes.

The RoundTable was started with Vikram Bahl of Yavvy.com presenting his product management approach. Presenting a meticulously planned mind-map, his presentation discussed the challenges, the solutions and their outcomes. Elements from the previous round-table were clearly visible. “All of our metrics have now been divided into 1/1/1 (1 day/1 week/1 month)”, he told picking up on the 1/1/1 metric philosophy suggested by Amit Somani of MakeMyTrip in the previous round-table. He also mentioned that the “email-suggestion” and “leveraging-existing-paradigm” suggestions by Amit Ranjan (of Slideshare) had done them loads of good and the results were very encouraging. “This time, I got advice on stuff that goes beyond traditional product management, it was more around positioning and marketing”, said Vikram as he reflected upon the discussions.

Next, Bishal Lachhiramka of Drishti soft spoke about his own product management approach. Touching upon organisational structure, product manager roles and global benchmarks, this was another amazing discussion. Participants shared their own experiences and what has worked for them and what hasn’t.

Tarun Matta of IIMJobs also got some amazing feedback on some of the things they intent to do. Picking up on the experience in the room, he picked up on strategy and executive advice on what could propel IIMjobs onto the next orbit of growth.

We also had Shantanu Mathur introducing ‘Smartwards’ and Mayank Dhingra of Paytm bouncing off ideas on how to build product-management metrics for online products. Even though, this was their first round-table, they found themselves brought upto speed by the mentors.

The final few minutes of the day were spent discussing “how to divide and structure roles and responsibilities of different program managers”. Avinash Agarwal and Abhishek Sinha of Eko, presented a delightful case-study which helped sum up the discussion.

As Nakul Saxena of iSPIRT summed up, “I just see so many product managers negotiating the learning curve together. That is the surest way to move quicker and grow faster. In contrast to any other conference or discussions, the round-table presents every product-team with a close-knit group to discuss personal challenges and personal experiences. ”  

Doesn’t that sum up what these round-tables are all about. Participate in the next one to find out!
With inputs from Vikram Bahl of Yavvy.com

Action Plan for increasing M&A opportunities for Indian product startups

Indian product companies punch below their weight. Despite huge innovation and rising entrepreneurship, most Indian product companies are invisible on the global map. The reasons are many, but a big one is the lack of meaningful exits for companies that actually create value in their product markets. This paper focuses on a plan to address this gap.

The iSPIRT position paper of March 2013 identified several issues that need to be addressed to improve M&A activity in the US-India corridor. While discussions with the Product Nation community members strengthened the propositions made, we needed to get a buyer’s perspective before formulating an action plan. This led to an Executive Brainstorming Session with several prolific technology leaders and acquirers from Silicon Valley.

The brainstorming session at Palo Alto, CA on May 21, 2013 had broad participation from across the tech industry and was attended by M&A professionals and senior executives from Autodesk, Cadence, IBM, Intel, NTT Docomo, Facebook, Paypal/Ebay, VMware, and Walmart Labs. The iSPIRT team also had a private meeting with the head of M&A at Oracle. Representatives from Cisco and BMC could not be present due to last-minute issues.

On May 22, the iSPIRT team met with the CEOs of about 20 Indian startups, most with some presence in Silicon Valley to gain better access to their markets and customers. This meeting further stressed the need for improving M&A exits for startups, particularly for those that lack strong US VC backing. There was unanimous agreement within this CEO group that improving company readiness, visibility and access to potential acquirers would go a long way in planning successful exits. Inputs from this meeting have been included below.

iSPIRT M&A Connect Action Plan 2013 Version 2

6th iSPIRT Playbook RoundTable: Challenges in building a global software product company from India

In the continuing series of Round Tables product veterans Samir Palnitkar, ShopSocially and Jatin Parekh, AirTight Networks took the participants through a journey of discovery about why they want to go global and taking a critical look at the challenges they must overcome.

It takes a guy like Samir to lay the foundation for such a Round Table, having stoked the discussion with his experience and adding fuel by way of eliciting ideas and experiences of others. There’s no quick formula but the session did throw up some easy mantras to achieve those Global ambitions…

Some interesting takeaways from this session :

TEAM:

–       Hiring for overseas is always a challenge and you can’t be careful enough

–       Get a co-founder with a sufficiently high stake in the game, and one who is ready to adapt to the call of the hour.

–       If you know the person from earlier, nothing like it

–       Stay away from expensive consultants and retainers. Find someone who will take less cash (and therefore has had a prior successful exit / financially secure)

–       Write down the issues, objectives, compensation, way things are done, who does what, 5 year vision, etc. These discussions need to happen 

Experiences of those present:

–       One of the RT participant founders even camped in the US for 3 months to find the right guy, interviewing over 15 persons identified through various contacts. They evaluated trust, skill and cultural fit before deciding.

–       Most people do not want to be the lone member of startup in the US because all decision making would happen in India. One of them had a member already selling remotely so were thinking of moving that person to US.

–       If there are 3-4 co founders, there is enough mental bandwidth to get one person to US for 6 months to set things up.

–       Get partners to sell for you, they front end and sift thru the leads. May be encourage one of the partners to join you, as did one entrepreneur who had a good partner in E&Y front ending and finally robbed E&Y to get his co-founder !

–       In a nutshell, don’t compromise on this first hire. 

PREPARED TO TAKE THE FLIGHT ?

–       Start selling globally only if you can fund the sales cost for at least a year

–       It’s ok to do some services revenue to generate some cash. But this is also the biggest pitfall, if you end up doing too much customization that cripples you later. 

Key considerations:

–       You have to learn how to sell if you don’t already. Thumb rule is – if you can’t sell your product, nobody can.

–       You should have a sufficient funnel and regular flow of enquiry / conversion / sales and cash flows. Ok that’s a lot to ask but then that’s what it needs !

–       Prepare the Sales play book. A new person cannot invent the playbook to sell in US for you. 

PRODUCT MANAGEMENT

–       Do you want to keep Product Management close to the customer or close to the R&D team?

–       Typical challenges in this are the ability to be aligned. Clear internal communication is crucial in motivating the team for the higher purpose

–       Delivery teams are usually in India, however you need to deal with the challenges of motivating team from a distance and account for cultural differences

The practical Product Manager:

–       Understanding the higher purpose and communicating it again and again is very important. If engineers are in the same office as sales guys then its easy, motivation happens. But if teams are physically separated then you have to build the channel to keep that communication going.

–       Communicate back to sales what problems engineering is facing.

–       Product Manager must have a regular travel plan and must meet customers if working at a distance from the market. This is crucial to get the alignment early on.

–       The PM cannot be note taker, taking customer requirements and giving it back verbatim to engineering to build. He must understand, negotiate and make intelligent distinction between features and requirements.

–       Priorities should be clearly published in writing.

–       Engineers should have the freedom to think and push back on features, but within boundaries. That’s when they can understand the purpose vs just coding.

–       Engineers must have first hand communication with customers, go for customer meetings, handle support calls etc.

–       When hiring engineers, set the expectation upfront that you have to do everything, and even learn outside your core competence. A Startup cannot afford to have people rigid within their own area. 

MARKETING

–       The biggest conundrum is in expectation mismatch, US teams being very “look” orinted and India teams being “fact” oriented

–       Interpretation of specs is usually different for each team, and quality of collateral needs to be extremely high to appeal to a US audience

–       The simple approach is to keep everything that requires a “handshake”, in the US and to teach India teams to be perfectionists.

–       If you need to get copywriting, don’t even think of getting it done in India. The lingo, the flow has to be completely American – leave that to an American.

–       Use a professional UX design shop if you need to

–       Use professional agencies for PR, like PRWEB, etc. 

SALES

–       Necessarily should be close to the customer. If the product requires a handshake, then you definitely need a US team member.

–       At the very least you need someone to stay up at night and receive calls

–       Prospecting via Linkedin, using polls and doing cold calling from India are usually successful approaches 

Sales and Marketing in the US is a big discussion in itself. A lot was left to be discussed, perhaps deserving an entire session devoted to selling in the US market. Another day, another Round Table then. 

ProductNation is the Go-To destination for many a successful software product. There are several amongst us who have tasted success in the global market. Do share your experience right here.

Fifth iSPIRT Playbook Roundtable: Product Manager, the Skill in Demand

It is a cliché to say product management is both art and science. The product manager’s function encompasses a range of tasks, only limited by the company’s vision. Deep Nishar, Senior VP, Products and User Experience, at LinkedIn, told the audience at Nasscom Product Conclave 2012 that, “product managers should have brain of an engineer, heart of a designer and speech of a diplomat.” The product manager with such an expanse of skill set is hard to find in India. With the intention of bringing experiential learning and to ignite conversations among product entrepreneurs so that they learn from each other, iSPIRT, the think-tank for startups, is organizing Playbook Roundtables that facilitate transferring of key knowledge through an open discussion. In the fifth Playbook Roundtable organized at Chennai by iSPIRT, Sridhar Ranganathan, who has rich experience as a product manager, shared anecdotes quoting from positions he held at Zoho, Yahoo, and InMobi to define who a product manager is.

Sridhar’s naval architecture career did not last long. A chance meeting with Sekar Vembu, founder of Vembu Technologies, landed him a job at AdventNet (all three Vembu brothers, Sridhar, Sekar, and Kumar were part of AdventNet then). He was placed to manage a team that was working on a product. Not a geek, he took three months to understand Java Script. A management shake-up at AdventNet properly designated him as product manager. Then began his tryst with product management. At Zoho, the discipline of product conception, execution, and delivery was practiced with a high level of checks and balances. With a small team and margin for error almost non-existent, Sridhar learned to work with constraints to deliver software products. Moving on, he headed the team working on Maps at Yahoo. This proved to be challenging as managerial oversight was nonexistent but any senior level meetings thrashed any feeling of achievement. Sridhar by now had crafted the art of product management and he had an excellent team to work with. Then at InMobi, his challenge was scale. He was able to successfully navigate through the phase where InMobi’s ad impressions went up from 50 million per month to 2 billion per month.

The product culture

There were 15 participants from OrangeScape (Suresh Sambandam and team), Fresh Desk (Smrithi, product manager), Kallos (George Vettah), LPCube (Lakshman Pillai), Array Shield (Vasanthan Kumar), ContractIQ (Ashwin), Twenty19.com (Karthikeyan Vijayakumar), RailsFactory (Mahendran), Fix Nix (Shanmugavel and team), Social Beat (Suneil Chawla), and Humble Paper (Vivek Durai), represented by its mostly founders. Suresh was keen to know how with a small product team (Zoho instituted a culture of a seven-member team to work on a product), Zoho was able to recruit college drop-outs and train them to work on products. Sridhar said if the company is big enough and has a strong culture (such as escalation of wrong codes, build times, and customer complaints to the highest level if not done within a set time frame), such experiments are possible. In Google, you know the person who is going to work because of the recruitment process but at Zoho, you have to groom the person.

Sridhar strongly emphasized that data plays a big role in product management and went on to say that “if you build technology products, your core data model and technology stack determines your business model.” He listed various challenges faced by organizations such as SalesForce to remove duplication of data. For example, to change a primary key, Zoho needed 14 months. George Vettah added that Ramco had to reengineer its offering after SAP effectively took away its market share. Sridhar gave away one more of his product philosophies: “If there is a constraint in the product, and if you have the market, you could only pray that the market does not go away till you reengineer the product.”

Education to Product: the product continuum

Through a graph, he illustrated the various stages of the product continuum: Taking problem complexity on one axis and scale or impact on the other, he said, for low problem complexity and low scale, education (of the customer to tell them why your product) is needed. At the next level, process needs to be defined (to quote an example, the process of how to apply for a passport online), Still further, at the higher complexity and more users, you need to define the procedure (how to fill in the form of the passport application), and still at a higher level, you need to provide a solution to the problem. But for a very complex problem with the highest impact (nonlinear), you need a product. So by understanding the need and the impact, you can execute your product strategy.

The product manager

He said that the fundamental role of the product manager is to identify the product that has the maximum probability of success. “The success metrics of a product determines the product manager’s action,” he added. This was followed by an interesting discussion on how the founder passes the baton to the next product manager as the company scales up. Kaushik from OrangeScape provided a fine example. The product manager has to work on three aspects: hygiene, spoiler, differentiator. A hygiene part of the product is not impactful but without it the product wouldn’t work. The spoiler is beating the features of the competition, and differentiator is the difference that your product makes. Further, at the first level, the product manager has to find users for the product, at the next the user level should be scaled, say from 2000 users to a million users, and further at the next level, if there is a drop in user level due to competition, the project manger has to devise ways to retain the user level. These three different stages require product mangers of different skill sets.

Finding the right product manager

Finding the right product manager is a challenge. Sridhar said the right product manager is identified by his ability to align with the vision of your organization and should have the potential to grow with the organization. For him, the hiring decisions are not done in a day. Sometimes it stretches to two months as he engages in long conversations with the potential candidate. Then an interesting discussion on organization structure where most of the times the product manger is asked to “influence without authority” was discussed. “The product manager has to be temperamentally strong,” stressed Sridhar. In many organizations, the developers and engineers are not direct reports of the product manager. Engineering team is headed by a senior engineering head. But your input on the engineer decides his grading. So at most positions, product managers have to work with teams that don’t directly report to them. By telling the team the importance of the product and by selling the vision (by exercising influence without authority), you need to get the work done. Smrithi, from FreshDesk, said influence without authority was one of the attributes looked for in a product manager in her earlier employment. George Vettah added that research has shown that for product managers did not possess strong right brain thinking (creative) or left brain thinking (analytical), but somewhere that balanced both.

Building the product, managing the team

The ideal way to enforce build discipline is to have a release ready after every build. This is practically impossible but if achieved, gives the product management team an edge on product release. This also makes sure that the product isn’t broken. Several R&D prototyping needs to be done before the product is handed over for completion to the engineering team. Once the product is fixed and passed to engineering team, it’s difficult to tweak again. So spend as much time in R&D rather than “release early, release often.” Sridhar said managing multiple products only requires you to have user interface and data operability aligned.

The product manager has to find the right time to pivot. Sridhar asked the participants to read Lean Startups by Eric Ries. The author has dwelt at length on pivoting. Failures are part of product management but how the product manager negotiates such down moments counts. The product manager has to be mentally strong. For any of the product manager initiatives, winning the trust of the stakeholders is key, stressed Sridhar. He added that the satisfaction of seeing the product completed after your visual thinking on it is immense. He said that the product manager’s role is cerebral as it involves a lot of thinking.

There were intense discussions when each of the issues was discussed among the participants. Vivek Durai, who is now solely developing a product, said his priority listing has changed and his to-do list has a lot of elements to add up to. Kaushik said his respect for his previous product managers had risen after this discussion. Suresh felt some more improvements can be made to the discussion format. Suneil felt that the discussions were insightful and opened his world to product management. Karthikeyan Vijayakumar said he would implement a lot of stuff from the discussions.

M&A is critical for the Product Startup ecosystem in India

Small $20-30m M&A transactions are the lifeblood of Silicon Valley. Over 400 such transactions happened last year. Israeli companies accounted for over 20% of these transactions. India had only a couple of transactions to speak of. This has to change of Indian has to become a Product Nation. 

iSPIRT is focusing on this issue through its soon-to-be-announced M&A Connect Program. The M&A Connect Program team – led by Jay Pullur and Sanjay Shah – was in Silicon Valley last week for listening meetings with various stakeholders. As a part of this exercise they hosted a long brainstorming session with more than a dozen M&A heads of serial acquirers ranging from Facebook to Vmware.

One other listening meeting was with about 20 Indian product entrepreneurs camped in the Valley. I was privileged to attend this meeting. It was a delightful 3.5 hours discussion. There were three set of issues that were discussed. One set of issues related to improving discovery of Indian startups. It turns out that addressing this is not as simple as doing a SV delegation or getting TechCrunch coverage. More than that is needed. The second set of issues related to the regulatory friction of doing small M&A deals in India. The third set of issues were about improving the readiness and preparedness of product entrepreneurs.

There was active participation by all the attendees. These included:

  • Indus Kaitan,Bitzer Mobile
  • Suresh Sambandam,OrangeScape
  • Manjunath M Gowda, i7 Networks
  • Asif Ali, Reduce Data
  • Vamshi Mokshagund, Credii
  • Rohit Nadhani, Cloud Magic
  • Madhur Khandelwal, ShoppingWish –
  • Kumar Rangarajan & Satyam Kundula, LittleEye Labs
  • Deobrat Singh, Gazemetrix
  • Rajan Arora, SchoolAdmissions
  • Bharath Mundiapudi, Orzota
  • Annkur P Agarwal, PriceBaba
  • Srikanth N, Arktan
  • Jay Pullur and Vijay Sundaram, Pramati (they hosted the meeting) 

 

I was most impressed by the dedication and passion of the iSPIRT team driving this effort. Their selfless commitment to making a difference was heartwarming. I could sense that most of us attendees felt the same way. The self-help community that iSPIRT is creating is truly inclusive and impactful. 

If you are product startup interested in exploring a possible M&A exit in the future do watch for more details about the M&A Connect Program. Try and become part of this. Given what I heard in the meeting, I’m sure that this new Program be game changing for the ecosystem.  

It’s time to open the gates wider

There is a growing nervousness among foreign investors putting their money in India. The Global Entrepreneurship and Development Index 2012 revealed that India, Asia’s third-largest economy, ranked 74th out of 79 countries, making it an unviable country to start a business. There is a growing nervousness among foreign investors putting their money in India.

Fewer than 150 start-ups are promoted by venture capital or angel investors annually in India compared to over 60,000 angel investments in the US. In 2011, Indian angels, constrained by regulations that make both investing and exits cumbersome, invested only about Rs.100 crore in around 50 deals compared with Rs.2,000 crore angels invested in Canada.

These figures don’t surprise Indian product software start-ups. India has produced few of the world’s leading software products, has 3,400 software product start-ups, and adds 400 every year. But it needs the right environment and incentives to build a world-leading industry.

For several decades, the Indian ownership laws and the investment and business environment have not allowed a conducive setting for the brightest of minds, many of whom have migrated to California. The new Indian entrepreneurs spend significant time on product development to build patentable products with a global market. However, as soon as the product gains traction, venture investors and professionals advise entrepreneurs to move the holding structure, if not the entire business, outside India. The main reasons are as follows:

Financing:

In today’s world talent and ideas are mobile. Singapore, Hong Kong, Chile and the UK are offering attractive financing (debt and equity) to Indian companies to relocate their business. They are also offering tax benefits. This is starting to result in real migration of promising companies out of India.

Maze of rules:

In India, we have foreign direct investment, VCI (venture capital investment), foreign institutional investors, Reserve Bank of India, fair valuations and draconian consequences for inadvertent slip-ups, while in most major economies there are no restrictions.

Taxation:

Capital gains (20%) as well as dividends (dividend distribution tax of 12.5%) even for foreign investors. In most major economies, foreign investors are not taxed on their capital gains and dividend income on their investments and owned businesses. India’s tax policy does not help a product business to attract the right kind of investors and acquirers, and is a hurdle for those interested in foreign acquisition in a stock deal as Indian paper is not an attractive currency. In the UK, for example, investors can write off any investment losses against income, and this significantly reduces their cost of failures.

Open economy:

India does not treat foreign investors on par with local investors, unlike the US, the UK, Europe, Singapore and Hong Kong, which have no restriction on ownership and company structures, and for the most part, regulatory filings (except some strategic and security related issues).

India needs to build an attractive regime to retain the software products business and its intellectual property, which is highly mobile. Incentives and special regimes for businesses that create IP and file for patents will give the industry a big boost. Among the solutions are the liberalized ownership rules with exemptions from regulatory filings and specific regimes (FDI/VCI/FII, etc.), specific exemptions from capital gains and dividend taxes for investors and tax exemption on foreign income of Indian software product companies. Why not go even further and build a fully liberalized virtual special economic zone for ownership and operation of software product companies, with India signing an iron-clad double-taxation avoidance agreement the virtual SEZ.

India needs to proactively grab opportunities, or risk driving the whole industry abroad. We have the potential to create multi-billion dollar global product companies every year, and the benefits could run into trillions of dollars over a decade or two.

This article first appeared in the LiveMint

Don’t Build Something Unless Someone Is Willing To Pay For It & Asks For It Twice!

Notes from the  Product Management Roundtable In Bangalore. Having attended the first ever iSPIRT Roundtable on Product Positioning in Bangalore and closely followed the second one held in Delhi, I was eagerly looking forward to the Round table in Bangalore on Product Management by Sridhar Ranganathan. Sridhar is a senior Product Management professional having spent considerable time in product management roles in companies like Zoho, Yahoo! and InMobi.

The 12 startups that participated in the round table consisted of a healthy mix of companies across various stages wrt their Product organization – some already had a PM function set up, some were scaling fast and were looking for ways to make their first PM hire and some where the CEOs or the founders were themselves donning the hat of a Product Manager.

The session started with a round of introductions and an open discussion around various aspects of Product Management – need for Product Management, hiring of Product Managers and setting up the team, prioritization, building an MVP etc. which set the right tone for the rest of Roundtable.


Sridhar shared his experiences of being a Product Manager and a Product Management leader in his previous roles. His experiences at Zoho were particularly of a lot of interest to the participants, as Sridhar was at Zoho during the period it transitioned from a company making Network Management Systems to the Saas giant it is today. He mentioned how the founders had a strong faith in setting up a Product Management function and empowering the Product Managers to lead the product efforts. He said it was like changing gears from moving in 4 big ships to 11 speedboats – with a Product Manager navigating each speedboat (a product). One insight Sridhar shared stood out, that the founding team needs to strongly believe that there’s a need for Product Manager(s) in the company and remain fully invested in the idea. Otherwise, there are very few chances of a Product Manager making a meaningful contribution and succeeding in their role.

Here  are some key insights from the discussions at the Round Table:

Product Management is a highly cerebral activity

The importance of setting a conducive environment for the Product Management setup was stressed upon heavily by Sridhar.  It is imperative that between the Product Manager and the immediate Product team (engineers, designers, QA), there be a very high amount of trust. The decisions of the Product Manager will directly impact the work, and subsequently the performance of the engineering team. Similarly, the Product Managers needs to believe that his engineers are capable and are able to solve the challenges he poses to them.  Laying the right foundation and building trust among the team is absolutely essential for the Product Management team to contribute significantly towards the company’s goals.

Framework to Solve Customers’ Pain Points

The discussion then moved towards prioritization of tasks, catering to customer requests for feature additions and customizations. Sridhar presented a very interesting framework which is quite handy to place customers’ pain points in the right context and solve them appropriately.

 

Depending on the target group size is and the complexity of the pain point, one can address the pain points in different ways

  • Education: Can you provide simple walkthroughs of the product through screencasts or tooltips, put down a set of FAQs that customers can refer to and get the help they’re looking for?

  • Process: Can you tell customers on how to do something? As an example, creating a 1-page document on how to apply for a passport and redirecting customers to that section would be a way of setting up the process.

  • Procedure: Taking the above example itself, if you actually build a feature to help customers apply for a passport, it would be creating a procedure to solve a pain point.

  • Solution: Any customizations/hacks over an existing feature/flow would fall under this.

  • Product: Enabling the customers to do something completely through the product itself. E.g. Employee payroll processing.

Building an MVP

How much time should one spend in building the MVP? One of the keenly debated questions was on the amount of time to spend to build an MVP. While there were multiple inputs based on the nature of the product and the market each of the companies was targeting.  However, Sridhar mentioned that one should invest enough time so as to avoid having to pivot at a later stage.

Is your product a ‘painkiller’ or a ‘vitamin’? It is important to understand this very well beforehand and pitch the product in the right manner to your first set of customers. You may be overselling if you’re trying to pitch a vitamin disguised as a painkiller and grossly underselling if it is the other way round!

What features get built into the MVP? Don’t build the product or a feature just because someone says it’s a good idea or if your prototypes ‘look good’. You need to validate that the customer is indeed willing to pay for the product. It’s even better if they ask for something repeatedly, which indicates that they have a pain point and they are willing to use the product/feature.

Taking the MVP to the market. Choose customers who can challenge you and make you think harder. The first 5% of the customers give 85% of the important feedback and the interest tapers off as you get the next set of customers. It is important to keep validating your view of the market and be ahead of the curve. You may have built something that was relevant at a previous time or maybe talking to a customer set that’s no longer representative of the larger market out there.

When to get a PM and what should the PM spend time one?

Sridhar suggested that whether or not there’s a formal designation assigned, there should be a Product Owner from Day 1, which is invariably one of the founders. Over time, it will be good if one can identify a good Product person from among the early engineers and have a Product person for a group of 7-8 engineers. The Product Manager should ideally be able to do 70% of everything! For the effective use of a Product Manager’s time, a helpful rule of thumb is that he spends 50% of his time planning for the future, 30% of the time on current initiatives and 20% of the time on firefighting.

Data, Intuition & Processes

How much does one trust data and how much does one rely on intuition to make decisions?

One of the participants remarked – “If you torture data long enough, you’ll get what you want”. It was general view shared among the participants and endorsed by Sridhar that data is good for discussions and not decisions. There’s a strong element of intuition and market understanding that go into making decisions and there should be ample scope for that.  Finally, it’s the Product Manager’s call on the direction of the product and he needs to be able to take views from multiple perspectives. Data alone being the decision criterion may not be the best way to go about it.

What about processes? Do they kill creativity or actually help in better productivity and accountability?

A quick poll on what the participants thought about process threw up some interesting responses. The hardcore engineers found process to be a bit of hindrance. However when they put on the founder/senior management hat, they found that there needs to be some way to maintain accountability and provide better visibility to a larger group as a company grows. As one of the participants rightly said, process is ‘doing what you say and saying what you do’.

Sridhar cautioned against having too many processes (don’t put policeman unless there’s a lot of traffic) ot of traffic), he also shared some interesting ways of bringing in process. Rather than enforcing process, can the employees themselves be stakeholders in implementing process and are ihe also shared some interesting ways of bringing in process. Rather than enforcing process, can the employees themselves be stakeholders in implementing process and are incentivized for taking an active part in the process and evangelizing it?

Each of the participants took away some key actionables which they’d go back and try out at their respective companies. They’d also stay in touch to share their learnings and experiences to help one another build a strong product management function. After all, we’re working towards transforming a nation with products!

Transforming a nation with products

India is at a crossroads today. Gloom has replaced what seemed to be an unending boom just a few years ago. After a decade of rapid growth led by the services sector, the Indian economy has hit a plateau. While services exports continue to grow and create a surplus in services trade, they only constitute 35% of the country’s total exports and are unlikely to compensate for the deep deficit in merchandise trade that stands at 10% of gross domestic product (GDP). This deficit in goods trade is partly attributed to the services-led route of economic development taken by India in the post-liberalization era, in contrast to a manufacturing-led route to development that creates a strong base for goods trade.

From a national policy perspective, excessive dependence on services is akin to putting all one’s eggs in the same basket. For a country of India’s size, diversity, and global aspirations, a more diversified economic basket is an urgent imperative.

The current situation has created a need to nurture and bolster “products” or “goods” industries. But the challenging question is where to begin, and which industry might lead the charge. Given India’s rise to prominence in the last two decades as a software hub, could software products be the ideal place to start?
Unlike manufactured products, software does not need major logistics infrastructure, nor does it depend on inputs other than human capital. Further, software products can be delivered through the cloud.

Therefore, the software product industry holds the potential to circumvent India’s relatively weak position in manufacturing and yet capture a high enough degree of value to address at least some of our economic challenges.

In addition to the direct benefit of a healthy software product industry to the national economy, technology can bring about an order of magnitude improvement in the effectiveness and competitiveness of other sectors, be they industrial or social. Industries as diverse as healthcare and jewellery could benefit from standardized software applications that enhance their competitiveness. Therefore, a competitive software product industry will not only benefit the economy but will have a ripple effect across the society at large.

Though the aspiration for a vibrant software product industry is compelling, international comparisons show that we have much ground to cover. While the number of engineers in the Israeli software industry is only a third of those employed in the Indian product industry (including MNC captives), Israeli start-ups raise almost double the amount of venture capital that Indian start-ups do. Further, we have thrice the number of start-ups as Israel, but Israeli investors managed 40 times the number of exits compared to Indian companies in 2011. So far, India’s software product industry is punching below its weight category and needs a fillip.

In the past we have failed to realize our potential in products. Take telecom as an example. We have created mobile services giants like Airtel but have no telecom product industry to speak of. Our air force is one of the largest in the world and yet we haven’t been able to get the light combat aircraft (LCA) deployed in 30 years. We have somehow not been able to develop a product industry in India.

A challenge as big as this one is unlikely to have a one-shot solution. Yet, a vibrant product industry is unlikely to emerge by chance either. The solution needs to emerge gradually and iteratively, based on a continuous dialogue between software product companies, investors, policy makers and potential customers. Shaping policy, funnelling investments and stimulating the market can potentially steer the software product industry in the right direction.

This article first appeared in the LiveMint

Drinking from the firehose at iSPIRT PlayBook Roundtable (on Effective Product Management) at Delhi

When nearly two dozen product enthusiasts sit around a table passionately talking for 4-½ hours, expertly addressed by two product veterans – Amit Somani and Amit Ranjan, you can expect an information overload. And, it did seem like drinking from the firehose, trying to capture all the takeaways in the intense back and forth, where even a tea-break seemed imposed. A blast it was – this iSPIRT Playbook Roundtable Delhi edition on “Effective Product Mgmt & Delivery”, focused around learning for startups.

[This was the NCR session on Apr 13th. Initiated, as part of iSPIRT, by Avinash Raghava, and very ably facilitated & supported by Aneesh Reddy. Great facility and great Food by Eko Financials. Thanks guys, Awesome effort!!!]

iSPIRT Playbook Roundtable in Delhi (on Flickr)
iSPIRT Playbook Roundtable in Delhi (Click to see all on Flickr)

Thankfully, there was a structure, laid out initially across specific dimensions – Product Planning, Delivering, Hiring, Culture, Metrics, Customer. These themes kept repeating through the session with questions coming from participants across the breadth & depth of product management, and many times touching upon all the aspects of running a product company.

Here’s an attempt to sum up the takeaways from this long & exhaustive (not exhausting, yet!) session.

Planning & Delivering the Product

–       Product Planning in many start-ups is not an elaborate exercise. It is typically handled by one of the founders, and “build and adapt as you go” is the norm.

–       Delivering a great product is always an intersection of Engineering, Design and Product Management, with Product team in the driver’s seat. This intersection and collaboration is one of the critical factors in getting a great product delivered.

–       Getting the Engineers and Designers to collaborate is one of the key challenges. As per Amit R, what helped them at Slideshare was the fact that they always hired Engineers with a flair for Design. A great developer as part of the product team is 70% Engineer & 30% Designer, as per him.

Product Metrics

Amit S emphasized that metrics are very important for product managers. When the team grows (when you can no longer rely on people to just talk to each other and get things done), the metrics-driven product management becomes critical. Touching upon the right hiring in this context, Amit S insists on covering the candidate’s thought process around metrics (with open questions such as – what would be your primary metric if you were designing the Delhi metro).

Metrics & the Rule of 1/1/1: This is one rule around metric that Amit S follows. What will be your metric for 1 Week, 1 Month, & 1 Year. Break it down, with crystal clarity and follow it up religiously. (A great resource for B2C space around metrics is a presentation by Dave McCleor – Startup Metrics for Pirates).

Some learning around Metrics:

–       It is important to be clear of the vision, and how it connects to the primary metrics that you define. There’s a direct correspondence between identification of the key metric and the clarity of what the product is trying to achieve.

–       Relevance of the metrics to the specific goals through the product journey is important. As one goes along in the product journey, the dimensions on which key metrics are identified may vary. Initially it may be customer acquisition; And then it may be engagement; then conversion; retention; life-time value; and so on. 

All attendees at the Playbook roundtable iSPIRT Playbook Roundtable in Delhi

Customers

One of the key questions around customer aspect of product management is – What is the right spec for the product? One of the biggest mistakes product managers tend to make, as per Amit S, is when they confuse the “Customer Requirements” with the “Product Requirements”! Sorting this out is the core to the responsibility of a Product Manager.

Some of the tips & tricks around Product Specs:

–       When faced with a requirement, the first pass criterion (in B2B scenario) should be – if the requirement is relevant to at least 3 customers.

–       There are various tools to interact with customers, and get feedback: Surveys, Net Promoter Scoring, Feedback through the product interfaces, and so on.

–       Get the Information from Customers, Tone it down, Tune it further, and then arrive at the specs for “Engineering”.

–       What should the spec typically look like? Default Rule of Thumb – 1 Page Spec. It should be very focused, very clear, in what the feature is trying to achieve, and at the same time not too long.

–       A Good quality spec considers the “Least Granularity of time” with Clarity of thought. That’s from the Project Management perspective.  From the functional perspective, Amazon has a good model that can be followed. Every Spec at Amazon is a 6-Pager Document – forcing people to establish clarity of thought and articulation.

–       Another good alternative is the 1 Pager “Lean Canvas” by Al Ries.

–       Equally important is to figure out Non-Goals – “What is not in Spec”? What are the features you need to remove! (Cue Reference: Joel Spolsky on Functional Specifications and an example Functional Spec.)

–       It’s also important to be clear on “What” requires a spec and What doesn’t. Both at Slideshare and MakeMyTrip, the team goes through multiple “Lights-on” stuff that they need to perform to keep the business running on routine basis. And these are fast-track enhancements and modifications driven by immediate business needs and marketing requirements. The Lights-on requirements are different from Core Functional Specs for the product roadmap.

–       Another criteria that decides how detailed the spec should be is based on the number of users getting impacted.

–       How do you handle customer requests with investment requirements that are not justifiable on the ROI? There are multiple considerations to this. The “Life-time Value” of the customer is important, and if such investments allow you to enhance it and calculate ROI in longer term benefits, it may still work well. There are alternative ways to look at this though. In the experience of Aneesh at Capillary, they had divergent requests that led to a very different direction for the Product and transformed it from “Mobile CRM” to “Intelligent CRM”. Another possibility could be to look at partner ecosystem and see if there’s a synergetic way to address these needs.

–       How do you manage your customer requirements into “Not to have” features? How do you single out the noise? While it is nice to think of an ideal situation of getting the product requirements at the planning stage, when the customers use the product, they often come back with plenty of views that need to be funneled down. When you have to discard some requirements, it is important to “talk to a lot of people” to ensure weight. Also, some of the requirements die-down on their own, clearly indicating noise factor. It is a balancing exercise between reducing the hassles in customer feedback process and creating enough friction to dampen the noisy “Vocal Minority” (the term that Amit R uses to refer to the few customers that may be so noisy that their voice seems more important than is worthwhile for the product).

All attendees at the Playbook roundtableConversations on #prodmgmt

Hiring and Product Management Structure

As per Amit R, Product Managers should be (are!) Second-in-command in the sense that they decide the future of the company. Considering this, it is critical that one single product dimension doesn’t overweigh the hiring process. So, intake process for Product Managers needs to follow the 70% rule – The Product Managers need to be aware on all the broader and holistic dimensions of running the product business including sales, marketing, operations, design, and so on, with 30% depth on the critical Product Management areas.

Some of the specific tips on this from Amit S and Amit R, and some from participants:

–       Determine if the candidate can think holistically and de-clutter the thought process in the crowded set of inputs. Ability to deal with ambiguity.

–       Product management is typically a “common-sensical” thing. Look for common sense and intuitive angle.

–       A great product manager would do well on what can be referred bluntly as “dhandha” (Money part of the busines). You cannot afford to have a Great product with “no” money.

–       One of the participant companies built their structure around Customer Success. Majority of the Product roadmap is driven by the Customer Operations, Tickets, and resolutions – and driven by how customers used and viewed the product in B2B scenario. In such cases, they typically found it useful to move folks from Customer Success team into the Product Management areas.

–       In case of another successful participant company, the CTO is playing the role of Product Manager and it is working very well for them.

On the relationship between the CEO/Founder and Product Managers. As per Amit S, Product Manager is the CEO of the Product, while the CEO is (of course) the CEO of the Business. One of the challenges for the Founders is how quickly they are able to let go he Product Management and start focusing on the business and Product metrics. Amit R also emphasized that it can work cleanly with the CEO focusing on the business aspects while Product Manager focused on the Product aspects while maintaining the alignment. 

Where should the Product Manager Report? At high level one case say that it depends on where you are in the evolution of the product/company, and what the Product really means to the vision of the company. However, over time, Product Management needs to be separated from Marketing and Engineering. In essence, Product Manager shouldn’t report to the Engineering or Sales or Marketing. In corollary, there should not be a reporting into Product Manager as well. Product Manager is a “Glue” job, and is key to a healthy tension for the product direction.

Product Manager is WHAT of the Product – Defines what (functionally) should be built. Engineering is HOW and WHEN of the Product – Details out & manages “How” (technically) and “When” (schedule-wise) should the stuff be built.

One needs to also establish clarity on Product Management being different from typical Project Management. Also, there are strategic aspects of product that are owned by the executive management, however, you always need a “Champion” of the product that is independent of the other forces that drive the organization.

Importance of Data Guy! Another structural aspect that Amit R emphasized on (multiple times!) was the importance of a “Data” person in the Product Team. This role is almost as important as a Product Manager in the sense that Data & Analytics can play a key role in the product Roadmap definition. There are various flavors of the Data – Dashboards and reporting, Product Management level Metrics, Decision Science, for instance. Interesting to note is the fact that at LinkedIn, next set of products are heavily influenced by “Decision Scientists”. (Cue References: Hal R Varian, Chief Economist at Google and DJ Patil)

All attendees at the Playbook roundtable All attendees at the Playbook roundtable

While there was a whole lot of structure to these discussions, we had some extremely valuable side discussions that link back to the Product Management, and very important to address. Here are some! 🙂 

Positioning. For a clear direction for Product Management, the positioning of the product in the market is a key factor. How do you refer to the product? The answer to this question, in case of start-ups, seemed unanimous that the start-ups are too limited in resources/focus/energy to be able to create a new category. Aligning to an existing category with a differentiator is the key to early success. For instance, Slideshare referred to itself as “Youtube of presentations”, Vatika positioned itself as Parachute with Additional ingredients, “Busy” positioned itself as Tally with better inventory management and statutory reporting.

(Positioning is an important theme and comes with lot of related broader areas for considerations for Product Companies. We will have a round-table specifically around Positioning in near term) 

What’s a Product? (A rudimentary question, I know! But worthwhile to hear the perspectives! J) How do you differentiate functional Product Management from the technical side of it? As per Amit R, “Product is the core experience or core touch-point for your end-consumers with your business.” It is worthwhile to note that the various types of customers may have different ways to access the product and there may be different ways to define the touch-points for every segment. For instance, Slideshare follows a Freemium model where 5% of the Paying customers may have a different set of touch-point experience from the rest of 95% free users. So various segments, such as Free B2C, Paying B2C, Paying B2B, and Partner B2B may all have different touch points with the same Product.

How do you get the Product Managers to champion the cause of usability and aesthetics? As per Amit R, in case of Slideshare, CEO happens to be from the usability background and that helped a great deal, since the thought process permeates across. It is important to engrain the usability in the way of the product management, since you cannot bolt it later, as per Amit S. There are various ways MakeMyTrip tries to do that. One of the eureka moments, for instance, for Engineers and developers was when they were shown a “live session” of a user through the Screen capture tool. It also helps to have the live user sessions in front of the product team. Some of these approaches can build that appreciation for the user actions in the minds of product team, over time with sustained effort.

Retention and Customer Lock-in: Slideshare has learned the harder way that ignoring Emails as a mechanism for customer engagement and retention is costly. LinkedIn relies on Email based “Customer retention” and “Returning Users”. Jeevansathi.com uses a strategy to map the customers in various life-stages and uses various Email and SMS templates to engage them even through the very short life-time of 3-4 months.

The Mobile Storm: As per Amit S, having a Mobile Strategy through this year and next year is critical for the product companies. Web is no more the only option, and for some products, it is becoming a mere secondary. Mobile First makes sense. The transactional figures for Mobile are increasing at such a rapid pace, that an afterthought based Mobile based functionality may not work so well.

If this is any indication of the things to come, the product ecosystem will benefit immensely from the initiative. Looking forward to the furutre editions, and share more!

Please share your views!

Notes on Product Management – insights from Slideshare / MMT / ex-Google PM

Avinash Raghava, who is doing a wonderful job of getting product start-ups together all over India, organized a product management roundtable with the help of Aneesh Reddy(CEO, Capillary). They invited Amit Ranjan (Cofounder, Slideshare – acquired by LinkedIn) and Amit Somani (Chief Product Officer, Makemytrip, ex-Google) to share their insights with a small set of entrepreneurs.

Credit for all the good stuff goes to Amit Ranjan, Amit Somani and Aneesh Reddy. Notes are rough. If anything is unclear, feel free to comment.

Here are some quick notes/thoughts from the event:

Who would make a good product manager?
Someone who can do 70% of everything (coding, design, listening to users etc.)

Best way to find a product manager in India is to find someone who did a startup but failed – he/she is likely to know all the various aspects that go into managing a product.

Someone who can lead by influence and manage to juggle all the balls in the air. Should be someone who can say NO.

It’s a very tough position to hire for – you need to have patience – you might go wrong the first few times. Once hired, give them around 5-6 months to get the hang of the whole thing.

What does a product manager do? What is his role about?
A good product manager would understand the requirements from various constituents and write a detailed specification, plan for bugs, testing, urgent requests and then create a product roadmap/deadlines.

A product manager has to identify and write down what metrics will move once the product is launched (e.g launching the mobile app will increase our repeat orders by 9%) – in some cases it is just to ensure that people work on things that matter but overtime it also brings more accountability.

User specs should have – what all do you need, who will use it and why – need to be elaborate it before you give it – need a hypothesis that will it move an X metric. Read thetwo page spec document that Joel Spolsky wrote for a fictional website What time is it? It should also have non-goals – what the product does NOT try to do.

Engineers tend to underestimate the time it’ll take – product manager needs to be able to correctly estimate how long something should take. And you will get better at it with time.

Use the 1/1/1 rule – sit with the engineering team and plan what needs to be accomplished in 1 week, 1 month and 1 six-month period.

People want to see the product roadmap – it is important for the CEO / Product Manager to communicate this to their team mates since a lot of people feel uncomfortable if they don’t have a clear idea of where the product is headed. (Amit Ranjan mentioned that people may even leave if they feel that the founding team does not have a clear vision – but the nature of start-ups is such that it is bound to happen that the product roadmap keeps evolving)

You need to hire coders who have a design sense (that eliminates 70% of work later).

Role of special data or analytics person has become very important (Amit Ranjan said that he could see that products of the future will be decided and influenced by data scientists). It is very important to get such a person on board early. Someone who has crunched SQL and nosql logs etc and can find trends and look up aberrations. Read up on Hal Varian and DJ Patil to understand more about this.

Difference between customer requirements and product requirements – customer requirement only becomes product requirement when more than 3 people require it (it’s a rule of thumb) – (People shared various tricks they use to ensure that the customer requirement is serious – “just wait for a few days and see if they come back with the same request”, “ask them to email it and not take feedback over the phone” etc. – these are situations where there is too much feedback coming your way. In most cases, it is best to make it as easy as possible for people to give you feedback).

Keep product engineering teams small – Amit Somani mentioned Jeff Bezos Two Pizza rule i.e. if the team cannot be fed by two pizzas alone, it is too big. Read more here.

Try to do daily scrum – gives everyone a sense of what everyone else is doing and ensures that people are making progress

Everything is a 6 page document – another Jeff Bezos funda for getting clarity. So a specification or a product request could be a 6 page long form document which ensures that the person achieves clarity before building anything.

You need to benchmark your product against other products especially in enterprise. When starting a product from scratch this can be a really useful exercise.

Amit Somani suggested a mental trick – before building a product, write a one page press release for the product that comes out upon product launch – what will this press release have? What the key features? The target audience etc. This PR drafting exercise could help you decide what to build, what is critical, and for which audience.

Don’t ignore email as a channel for activation and returning visitors

Product activation – Use banners on your own website – do get them to take action – on landing page – on other parts of the website

Track at your mobile traffic – people at the roundtable reported some crazy growth numbers for mobile internet usage – huge sites are now getting 20% to 60% of their traffic on mobile. Mobile traffic is split 50%-50% on mobile browser (including WAP) and mobile apps. This was a big eye opener for many people.

Tools people recommended

Use Trello (a Joel Spolsky product) to manage your product

Use Zapier business tool to connect various sources of product input (e.g. taking Zendesk tickets and automatically creating Github issues)

Use Clicktale or Inspectlet to record user sessions

Use Morae for recording users’ reactions when they are using your product ((Amit Somani mentioned how they put a live usage recording on a LCD screen in the technology room so that engineers could understand how their products were being used – it lead to a lot “can’t he just click on the button! Why is he scrolling up and down!”). One way to get users for such recordings is to ask interview candidates who come to your office to use your product and see their reactions.

Use a call-outs software when introducing new product features (like Cleartrip / WordPress / Facebook do).

Concluding notes
This was one of the most gyan-heavy sessions that I’ve attended. It was useful to hear things from people who had been there done that. Aneesh (even though he is based out of Bangalore) had taken the lead to do this with Avinash and our hope is that the group meets every 6 weeks to keep the conversation going. We’ll keep you posted.

Feel free to email me at ankur AT Akosha dot com if you’d like me to give more details to you.

On a related note, there was some basic debate about what a “product” is. We didn’t get into it at length because everyone in the room intuitively understood what a “product” was. However, we had internally debated about it – if you are interested, do read –Understanding Product v. Service [ThinkLabs Notes 1].

Reblogged from the Akosha Blog by Ankur Singla

Some Takeaways from the First iSPIRT Playbook Roundtable on Positioning & Messaging for Products

“99% Practice, 1% Theory”. This was the ground rule laid down for the session by the workshop facilitator Shankar Maruwada at the beginning. Sounds very much like the tagline of a popular softdrink brand that’s No Bakwaas! No wonder it came from someone who has loads of experience in the FMCG space, built and sold an analytics company and has more recently given life to what is arguably India’s biggest consumer brand, Aadhar.

Shankar sharing insights at the iSPIRT Playbook RoundTable

The theory lasted just a couple of minutes with Shankar telling a simple, yet a compelling story of how the Indian flag evokes a strong feeling even though it is nothing but a geometrical shape consisting of rectangles and a circle! The point that a compelling visual and a strong emotional connect can touch a strong chord was driven home very clearly. Over the course of the next 3 hours, Shankar orchestrated a highly engaging and interactive session with the participating companies, making them think hard and think deeper to help them think in the right direction. What also helped immensely was that Shankar had gone through the profiles of each of the participating companies and knew the challenges each of them were facing.

The participants were involved in exercises that helped them think beyond the regular product features and benefits. Emphasis was placed on understanding and communicating the whys of the product rather than the hows and on ways of building an emotional connect with the customers that will resonate strongly with them.

The participants were made to think through the different stages of the communication to customers.  For each step, two companies shared their thought process in detail with other participants sharing their inputs for the two companies. The participants found it very helpful to pick the brain of other entrepreneurs and learn from other entrepreneurs. A couple of participating companies probably found their one-line message or the keyword that signifies their product offering by the end of this workshop!

Shankar sharing insights at the iSPIRT Playbook RoundTable

Here are some of the key takeaways from the workshop, based on the stage and the audience to which one is communicating to:

Idea

  • What’s the grand idea that can resonate with everyone? This is beyond the product features, pricing and has a much higher connect. E.g. Education with the reach of television, your own personal secretary..
  • If possible, use connections, metaphors and analogies for better impact. E.g. YouTube of…., Google of…..

Setup

  • What will make your customers sit up and take notice? This is something related to their business that they wouldn’t have thought of or know about and you instigate that thought through your messaging. This should make them care for your product offerings and be interested in exploring more and have them say, let’s talk! E.g. Did you know that you can now teach a million students right from your classroom? Did you know that 30% of devices in your corporate network go undetected and potential sources of malware that can disrupt your network?

Benefits

  • What is it that the customers can actually put to use? What are the tangible benefits that the customers can derive out of your offering? E.g. Deliver courses over low bandwidth and hence reach out to a large number of students even in remote locations, create attractive charts and graphs to derive meaningful and actionable insights out of your data, carry out quick experiments for merchandizing on your e-commerce website with very little involvement from your engineering team

Features

  • These are the features and functionalities built into the product. These would explain how the product works. E.g. Various roles built in for access control and permissions, different interfaces and interactions for different user types, alerts, reports and notifications. 

As you’d observe, the how part becomes more prominent as you move from the Idea stage to the Features stage and the why part becomes more prominent as you move in the reverse direction. Depending on the whom you’re speaking to in the scheme of things at the customer’s end, you can focus on the appropriate stage and communicate accordingly.

iSPIRT Playbook RoundTable

It is said that well begun is half done. Considering that this was the first such roundtable, the response from the product startup community was very encouraging and the participating startups found it to be very relevant and effective. The engagement with the participants will continue even beyond the workshop. The startups will be in regular touch with each other, share their inputs and the learnings derived from the workshop and update on the progress.

Here are some books that Shankar recommended:

There are more such Playbook Roundtables planned in the coming days across various locations and hope the product startup community will make the best use of those and benefit from them.