Startup lesson

Startup

Was very excited to hear that Alex Bloomberg, price treat creator of one of my favorite podcasts – “Planet Money” is trying to make it out on his own. See: Hearstartup.com. That said, Act 1 of This American Life episode 533 is painful to hear because it makes a lot of rookie mistakes. It’s especially painful because Alex is a great storyteller, yet he fails to perform a simple audience analysis before he meets a powerful investor.

I encourage every startup enthusiast or entrepreneur in the making to listen to what happens to a seasoned storyteller in a pitch meeting. How Alex’s personal attachment to his startup clouds his storytelling approach.

I wish him well. I hope he stops asking for funding. He is essentially building a small business. It could be a great small business that keeps him and maybe a couple of more people gainfully employed but there is no big exit.

I would hate to see him take on a lot of debt pursuing a dream that won’t come true. I really don’t think he is going to get a big time investor excited about his idea. I do think however, that he will create great content and will do well if he can limit the scope of his endeavour.

Your life’s narrative

My Life

Once again a great story from This American Life (TAL) inspired me to write a blog post.

As a product manager, nurse you are often dealing with anxiety. At a large company, ambulance you might also feel disenfranchised. You might also be feeling that you do not deserve to be a product manager, sales especially after making a bad decision or after meeting a much more experienced member of the product team that you recently joined. So, here’s how to deal with this. First, listen to the above podcast.

I’ve liked all books by Michael Lewis. He is able to curate great stories and write them in a very accessible way. His story on Emir Kamenica on TAL is a great example of the power of positive thinking and the power of exercising your choice on how to react to a given situation.

What could easily have been an “I’m a victim” story, Emir reframes his story as an “I’ve been so lucky” even when it’s not true in all its details. Yet, this has had a profound impact on his life. The power your life’s narrative has on you is staggering. So, its important to be aware of what story your mind is making up about yourself and then change it so that it empowers you instead of sucking away your energy.

Additionally, remember that Stories are what we make up to explain facts. An unlimited number of stories can explain a set of facts. I learnt this from “Crucial Conversations”. It’s a great book. Here is a summary of it.

So, first try to write down your life narrative. Who you are? And how you got where you are today? Then, do this exercise, as outlined in a simple blog post by Michael Hyatt

And, you may find that you are able to run in a different gear than today.

–Anubhav

Writing effective call to action messages in software

I recently had a to review an important call to action dialog. We had just finished an important feature and wanted to drive its usage. The call to action dialog came up automatically and urged the user to try this feature.  The team had taken two stabs at rewriting it but it was still too long & repetitive. Additionally, it was written from the point of view of the team and not the customer.

Since I have limited writing experience, I started searching for “Effective Software dialog messages” or  “Better messages in software” but did not get good results in both cases. This made me think about the problem differently. I then searched for “Writing effective call to action messages” and found a rich volume of work that helped me re-write this message.

Here are the blogs I found useful:

  • http://blog.crazyegg.com/2013/07/24/call-to-action-examples/
  • http://blog.hubspot.com/blog/tabid/6307/bid/31435/How-to-Write-Call-to-Action-Copy-That-Gets-Visitors-Clicking.aspx

I felt the following rules applied most to us, while these are obvious, they can be hard to do right:

  • Keep it consise
  • Focus on the user’s benefit
    • Designers saved 30 mins a day by using “feature x” instead of feature x is great, try now
  • Eliminate risk for the user in trying this new feature
    • Try it now, you can always disable it from the preferences menu
  • Use numbers, where possible. For example:
    • “Feature X” saved 15% of time spent in doing something in a recent user study. Click yes to try now
    • 11 tools have been revamped to make you more effecient in this release, click yes to try now

I now feel that I should take a class in writing or rhetoric. There are many available on coursera. Let me know if you’ve had a good experience with any of them.

–Anubhav

 

To sell is human – Dan Pink

I had a great time reading this book by Dan Pink. I had seen his presentation at the HOW Design conference in Boston this year and had been meaning to buy the book for sometime. Here is an ok summary of the book but I really recommend that you buy the book, especially if you are in product management or a small business owner.

While the early part of the book felt preachy to me because it made assumptions about the readers state of mind. I wish he would have said, “If you agree with the following tenets, skip to chapter x”.

Part 3 is the where the book really shines. The parts where I learnt the most were:

  • Mimicking
  • Limiting choices to increase sales
  • Learning the power structure of a meeting by noting down who talks
  • Improv classes to improve your listening skills
  • Make it personal
  • Make it purposeful

All the above items help as product managers need to have crucial conversations with business owners and other teams to get what is best for their product. Additionally, the book is inspiring in general and gets you going if you are having a bad day.

Further, the books insights gel really well with what I learned from a great talk that I Christine Mau (@mauhaus1) gave at the HOW design conference as well. I learned so much from it. I wish I had great help in implementing it in my father’s business of manufacturing measuring instruments. We can really benefit from making it personal and radically changing the packaging.

Any how, going back to Dan Pink. I also discovered that he hosts a monthly interview series with authors of many books that I’ve read and enjoyed. See this.

 

Storytelling as software product management skill

Telling stories as a product manager

I was reading “A whole new mind” by Daniel Pink on my flight to Boston this week and it reminded me to write about storytelling. As a new product manager I never appreciated the power of Storytelling. I always felt that it was unnecessary and that my slide decks should present the facts and the numbers and everything else will just follow.

Working on Adobe Story and Adobe Collage changed all that. What kept Story alive and got Adobe Collage to get approved was the stories they were enabling. It was not the TAM, see it was not customers but early on, recipe for any new idea to work, you have to tell a story. A story that:

  1. Establishes the problem
  2. Explains why current solutions fall short
  3. Describe, in a limited way, how your solution fits
  4. Show how the world is better for the user post your solution
  5. Brownie points if you are able to also talk about how your solutions solves a larger problem

Perhaps, storytelling is the most important skill you’ll need to develop as a product manager. Stories make your product ideas far more sellable than just a fact based slide deck.

There are great books or sites that explain how to structure a story. But, simplistically, you are trying to fill in the following blanks (excerpt from: http://improvencyclopedia.org/games/Story_Spine.html

  1. Once upon a time… (context)
  2. Every day… (state the problem)
  3. But, one day…(your solution)
  4. Because of that…
  5. Because of that…
  6. Until, finally…
  7. And, ever since then…

Always tell the story from your software user’s perspective. Include lots of photos to humanize your deck. Be clear on the persona so that executives can relate to the problem and care for your user.

Also read, Tell to win by Peter Gruber

Project lifecycle

This chart from @maureenmcq does such a great job of describing the phases of a project for a software product manager that I had to share it.

http://maureenmcq.blogspot.in/2007/07/novel-episode-1-i-begin-anew.html

 

While it is written in the context of writing a book, medicine it is relevant for software projects and business ideas as well. Read her blog at:

 

Ben Horowitz – The hard thing about hard things

I read Ben Horowitz’s book on my flight from SFO-LHR and could not put it down. Here is why:

  • It was really well edited and uses an optimum amount of words
  • Clear and unambiguous writing, sale illness which is great in a business book
  • It talks about challenges and various approaches to problem solving instead of providing a panacea
  • It has the best description for a product manager role I’ve read ever. The contrasts between good and bad product managers are really well thought out and inspiring.
    • Even if this is 15 years old, pharmacy it is still very relevant.
    • Of course, order not everything applies and this is written for product managers in startups and not in large companies.
  • Ben’s take on analytics is refreshing in this time of “lean” shit. Analytics cannot dictate product vision. Most analytics provide lagging indicators. Product strategy comes from making time for it.

It’s a must read if you are in business or a product manager. I’m adding it to my Product Manager book list.

Books and podcasts for product managers

I’m sharing the books and podcasts that I’ve read and listened to over the last few years on product management, business and life in general that I’ve found useful. Hope you get a chance to read and listen to them.

Books

Title Author Year
The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers Ben Horowitz 2014
Lean Analytics Alistair Croll and Benjamin Yoskovitz (5 April 2013) 2013
Lean UX Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden 2013
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change Charles Duhigg 2013
The $100 Startup: Fire your Boss, Do what you Love and Work Better to Live More Chris Guillebeau 2012
Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative  Austin Kleon 2012
The 4-Hour Work Week: Escape the 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich Timothy Ferriss 2011
The Lean Startup: How Constant Innovation Creates Radically Successful Businesses Eric Ries 2011
The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable   Nassim Nicholas Taleb 2008
Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets  Nassim Nicholas Taleb 2007

Podcasts

WTF Podcast with Marc Maron Marc Maron interviews comedians, actors and musicians in a genuine and thought provoking way
The Economist – Audio Edition Must have if you want to learn about the world and economics in general
Podcast | This American Life Learn how to tell a story by listening to these amazing stories from NPR and Ira Glass

Benefits of being a product manager closer to the throne in software companies

There are significant benefits to be being closer to the throne in a large company. By this I mean that groups and individuals who sit closer to the power center of a company generally get to drive strategic imperatives more than similarly capable teams and individuals in a different office or geography. This maybe be common sense but as I suffer through another situation where a team loser to the throne is getting to drive strategy, here I feel the need to list out why this happens and how to fix it.

  • Co located leaders get more facetime with execs.
  • GMs want “daytime” answerability on high viz projects
  • Co located leaders also get greater  chance of getting into impromptu demos and hallway conversations that move “their” case forward
  • Most large companies are still driven by personalities than the substance of their ideas.

Unlike Amazon, cialis sale where there is great focus on getting the personality out of the presentation, ampoule most companies still hero worship and a great presenter with a bad idea can 90% of the time run away with it and get ownership over higher visibility, strategically important projects. This makes driving strategy incredibly hard for remote sites even if you do everything I outlined in my previous post on driving worldwide business out of India.

This is incredibly frustrating for strong talent in remote geographies and leads to either loss of talent or indifference. Inspite of my being in the US almost 1 week a month, I still find that co-located leaders can bypass me and drive parallel projects. Argh!

So.. how do you fix this? The changes have to be made at the top of the company, where the incentives to change are low and will lead to more pain for them in the short term. Thus, this is incredibly hard but necessary for building strong geographically dispersed teams. Here are somethings that will help.

  • Establish clear ownerships for software implementation and business execution and if possible, keep them at the same place.
  • Get comfortable with “non daytime” answerability.

This can only happen if the company agrees to not change strategic priorities on a monthly basis. Where such changes are common, it becomes harder to make this work.

  • Remove middle management by having business owners report to the GMs directly.

Most software companies have both software implementation managers and business owners reporting to middle management who report to more middle managers before reporting to the GM for that business. This leads to terrible waste.

More after I board my flight to London.

–Anubhav