My product management toolkit (25): understanding the “unit economics” of your product
As a product manager it’s important to understand the unit economics of your product, irrespective of whether you’re managing a physical or a digital product. Unit economics are the direct revenues and costs related to a specific business model expressed on a per unit basis. These revenues and costs are the levers that impact the overall financial success of a product. In my view there are a number of reasons why I feel it’s important for product managers to have a good grasp of the unit economics of your product:
Helps quantify the value of what we do — Ultimately, product success can be measured in hard metrics such as revenue and profit. Even in cases where our products don’t directly attribute to revenue, they will at least have an impact on operational cost.
Customer Value = Business Value — In an ideal world, there’s a perfect equilibrium between customer value and business value. If the customer is happy with your product, buys and uses it, this should result in tangible business value.
P&L accountability for product people (1) — Perhaps it’s to do with the fact that product management still is a relatively young discipline, but I’m nevertheless surprised by the limited number of pr0duct people I know who’ve got full P&L responsibility. I believe that having ownership over the profit & loss account helps product decision making and and accountability, not just for product managers but for the product teams that we’re part of.
P&L accountability for product people (2) — Understandably, this can be a scary prospect and might impact the ways in which we manage products. However, owning the P&L will (1) make product managers fully accountable for product performance (2) provide clarity and accountability for product decisions, (3) help investments in the product and product marketing and (4) steep product management in data, moving to a more data informed approach to product management.
Assessing opportunities based on economics — Let’s move away from assessing new business or product opportunities purely based on “gut feel”. I appreciate that at some point we have to take a leap, especially with new products or problems that haven’t been solved before. At the same time, I do believe it’s critical to use data to help inform your opportunity assessments. Tools like Ash Maurya’s Lean Canvas help to think through and communicate the economics of certain opportunities (see Fig. 1 below). In the “cost structure” part of the lean canvas, for example, you can outline the expected acquisition or distribution cost of a new product.
Speaking the same language — It definitely helps the collaboration with stakeholders, the board and investors if you can speak about the unit economics of your product. I know from experience that being able to talk sensibly about unit economics and gross profit, really helps the conversation.
Now that we’ve established the importance of understanding unit economics, let’s look at some of the key components of unit economics in more detail:
Profit margin per unit = (sales price) — (cost of goods sold + manufacture cost + packaging cost + postage cost + sales cost)
Naturally the exact cost per unit will be dependent on things such as (1) product type (2) point of sale (3) delivery fees and (4) any other ‘cost inputs’.
In a digital context, the user is often the unit. For example, the Lifetime Value (‘LTV’) and Customer Acquisition Cost (‘CAC’) are core metrics for most direct to consumer (B2C) digital products and services. I learned from David Skokand Dave Kellogg about the importance of the ‘CAC to LTV’ ratio.
Granted, Skok and Kellogg apply this ratio to SaaS, but I believe customer acquisition cost (‘CAC’) and customer lifetime value (‘LTV’) are core metrics when you treat the user as a unit; you’ve got a sustainable business model if LTV (significantly) exceeds CAC. In an ideal world, for every £1 it costs to acquire a customer you want to get £3 back in terms of customer lifetime value. Consequently, the LTV:CAC ratio = 3:1.
I’ve seen companies start with high CAC in order to build scale and then lower the CAC as the business matures and relies more on word of mouth as well as higher LTV. Also, companies like Salesforce are well known for carefully designing additions(“editions”) to increase customer lifetime value (see Fig. 2 below).
Netflix are another good example in this respect, with their long term LTV view of their customers. Netflix take into account the Netflix subscription model and a viable replacement for another subscription model in cable. The average LTV of Netflix customers is 25 months. As a result, Netflix are happy to initially ‘lose’ money on acquiring customers, through a 1-month free trial, as these costs costs will be recouped very soon after acquiring the customer.
Main learning point: Youdon’t need to be a financial expert to understand the unit economics of your products. Just knowing what the ‘levers’ are that impact your product, will put you in good stead when it comes to making product decisions and collaborating with stakeholders.
Why you should stop using product roadmaps and try GIST Planning
Over the years I created my fair share of product strategies, roadmaps and project gantts. I don’t do them anymore. I found a better alternative which I’ll explain below.
First, here’s what I used to do:
This form of planning is a ton of work — just getting all stakeholders to agree is a massive undertaking, yet ROI is very low. The plans quickly go out of sync with reality — the longer they are the more they are wrong. It took me awhile to realize that my fancy roadmaps and project gantts were already outdated the day I published them. Also, it’s a waterfall (different from the famous project waterfall), meaning that there is almost no room for agility — changes at the top cause huge ripple effects of replanning and project cancellations at the bottom. Agile development addressed project waterfall, but didn’t change planningwaterfall. And then there’s the impact on innovation and culture. As roadmaps allow only for a few big projects to be funded you have to prioritize and kill many potentially good ideas upfront. In top-down orgs the winner ideas come from management. In bottom-up orgs getting your idea to win became a very big deal, hence pitching, salesmanship and hype are now mandatory product management skills. To me it all felt very mid-20th century.
So, what’s the alternative?
This is a planning system that I started using while working at Google and further adapted over the years based on the principles of Lean Startup and Agile Development. I’ve introduced it to multiple companies and the results are very consistent — lightweight plans that are built for change, lower management overhead, improved team velocity and autonomy, better cross-company alignment and ultimately better products and solutions.
The system is called GIST after its main building blocks: Goals, Ideas, Step-projects, and Tasks. Each has a different planning horizon and frequency of change, and may use different tools to track, but together they constitute all the core planning any company and team needs to do.
I will do a longer post on each part of the system. Below is an overview.
“If you tell people where to go, but not how to get there, you’ll be amazed at the results” — George S. Patton.
Most strategy plans commit a cardinal sin — they specify solutions (use technology X, partner with company Y, launch country Z) rather than goals. Any modern army general will tell you this is backwards — you give the troops objectives and let them figure out ways to accomplish them (the principle of Mission Command). This method is more empowering, requires less managerial overhead and is far more robust — solutions may come and go based on the situation in the field, but the objectives stay the same.
Goals embody this principle — they describe the company strategy in terms of desired outcomes: where we want to be, by when, and how will we know that we got there. Whenever anyone in the org is is wondering “why are we doing this project?” a goal should give the answer. I became most familiar with goals at Google where every quarter we meticulously spelled out our goals in the form of Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). Some believe that OKRs are one of the reasons why Google is so successful.
“If you want to have good ideas you must have many ideas. Most of them will be wrong, and what you have to learn is which ones to throw away“— Linus Pauling
Ideas describe hypothetical ways to achieve the goals. The key word here is hypothetical — there can be many ideas how to achieve a given objective, but at most 1 in 3 ideas will deliver a positive result (often the ratio is far worse). The ideas of experienced leaders, product managers and designers don’t have a better success ratio than the average.
For these reasons in GIST we never kill ideas upfront, put them into a prioritization deathmatch, favor management ideas, or choose the ideas that are most hyped/pitched/politicized. This is what we do instead:
Collect all ideas in an Idea Bank, most commonly a spreadsheet or a database — all ideas are welcome and the bank can hold hundreds of ideas indefinitely.
It’s tempting to pick a promising idea, turn it into a 9–18 month project and start executing. This is a common mistake and a very costly one — spending quarters, or even years on a yet unproven idea is likely throwing good money in the bin because most ideas just aren’t worth the investment.
Instead we break the bigger project behind the idea into small step-projects, each no more than 10 weeks long, and execute them one at a time. For example: mockup → prototype → MVP → dogfood → beta → Launch
In accordance with Lean-Startup’s Build-Measure-Learn principle, each step-project is actually an experiment that tests the idea. In a successful progression we will put in each step-project a somewhat more complete version of the idea in front of more users for a longer duration of time.
The end product is usually profoundly better than the one we imagined initially (see this post for an explanation why).
Because step-projects are so small we avoid all the nasty side effects of long projects and we are able to test many more ideas in parallel with lower investment and with quicker learning. Ideas that don’t work get dropped early, ideas that work get more investment. No need for pitching or politics. The ability come up with an idea and see it come to life and tested in a matter of weeks is incredibly liberating and enjoyable for everyone involved. You’ll never want to do another long death-march project again.
Finally, each step-project is broken down to bite-size activities which we call here Tasks. This part of the system is well covered by agile planning tools, kanban boards and other modern dev project management techniques. Nothing needs to change at this level. The only difference is that the layers above are now agile as well and ready for change.
The planning cycle
Planning with GIST is multi-tiered and iterative:
Goals are typically set for an horizon of one or more years — this is where we want to encourage long-term thinking. They are defined at the beginning of the year and evaluated and adjusted every quarter — we don’t want to pursue stale goals.
Ideas are constantly collected and prioritized. We never stop looking for new ideas.
Step-projects are defined at the beginning of the quarter. The team picks the goals and ideas it wishes to pursue this quarter, and defines step-projects accordingly. The quarterly step-project list (typically stored in a spreadsheet or database tool) is evaluated and reprioritized every 1–2 weeks, in sync with task iterations planing.
Tasks are planned in 1–2 week iterations in per the teams’ preferred dev method, for example Scrum sprint planning, and adjusted daily.
Do you still need roadmaps?
I believe you don’t. Roadmaps are usually used for these purposes:
Work planning — hopefully by now I convinced you don’t want and don’t need roadmaps for this.
Internal communication — My experience has been that coworkers and board members readily understand and embrace the language of goals, ideas and step-projects — it’s not a hard transition and they appreciate the realism and authenticity. Of course the entire planning system should be visible to anyone in the company and to the board.
External communication — with customers and partners the expectation of a “formal roadmap” might be highest. As always it’s our job to move the discussion from features to underlying needs. With GIST you can give answers like “We have a goal to deal with in-product collaboration by end of Q3. I can’t say exactly how it will work yet — we’re considering a number of ideas and keeping things agile, but we should have an MVP by end of Q2. Would you like to be an early tester and give us feedback?” With any luck this will do the trick better than any roadmap chart.
GIST is not a radical new idea — rather an amalgamation of ideas and methods that have been around for years, but often live in separation. It attempts to addresses all layers of the planning stack and creates a living plan that is built for change.
No split of ideation, planning and execution — they all happen concurrently all the time
Goals rather than solutions or vague strategy statements.
Idea banks rather than product backlogs.
Short sub-quarter step-projects rather than long multi-quarter/multi-year projects.
No betting on just a few big ideas that take forever to implement — we test many ideas quickly and pursue the ones that work.
Iterations — we revisit every part of the plan regularly and systematically and stay agile at all levels.
Things move quickly in the mobile app universe. To succeed in the field of mobile UX design, designers must have the foresight and prepare for new challenges around the corner.
To simplify the task, I’ve listed the biggest, impactful trends for 2018 and, most likely, beyond.
1. User Journey Simplification
When we interact with apps or websites, we have a particular goal. And usually, the less effort we spend on achieving this goal, the better experience.
Linear User Flow
A linear design experience is UX with a specific beginning, middle, and end that allows users to complete one action with each step. Linear user flow is good for users because it allows to estimate how much time it’s required to complete a task.
When your app has a lot of information or actions, there’s no need to show everything-all-at-once. Designers will use technique callled progressive disclosuretomake information or action visible only when users need it. Progressive disclosure has an opportunity to reduce cognitive load and improve comprehension of the interface.
2. In-app Gestures Paired With Animation
With the release of iPhone X designers faced a new challenge. The lack of physical Home button leads to the fact that even the most basic interactions with a device are gesture-based now. What does it mean for designers? This means that designers will have to pay more attention to gestures.
If you want to understand what challenges gesture-based interface have, read Don Norman’s article on the topic:
The article states critical problems related to gesture-based interactions such as discoverability and learnability issues. In the attempt to solve those problems, designers will focus on motion design and microinteractions.
Animation will be used:
To make it clear what interactions are available (animated hints)
To clarify spatial relationships between UI elements (animated transitions)
To provide feedback on the interaction
3. Content-Centered Experience
Well-curated and easily accessible content is what makes a mobile app appealing to its intended users. Designers can keep content front and center in 2018 by:
Removing visual clutter and improving comprehension is a popular goal among many UX designers today. Designers remove irrelevant information (noise) and prioritize relevant information (signal) by putting content first and elaborating clear visual language.
Prioritize content over chrome
Stripping away all the visual clutter can help you focus on the core of the message you are trying to communicate.
Clear Visual Hierarchy
Have a clear order with how UI elements are presented to make content comprehension easier. Strong visual signifiers (such as contrasting colors for call-to-action buttons) are used to direct user on certain interactive elements or essential information.
4. Full-Screen Experiences
With the release of Samsung Galaxy S8 and iPhone X, frameless design became a trend. More screens space available for users and they expect to have full-screen experiences.
HD Images and Videos
Not only the fact that your app should provide full-screen experience is important. The quality of assets will have a direct impact on user expectations about your app. Images should not appear pixelated on a mobile screen.
5. Vibrant Colors
Color is one of the most powerful tools in the designer’s toolkit. Color can draw attention, set a mood, influence users’ emotions and actions. When it comes to mobile app design, this is definitely the time of vibrant colors.
Color As Functional Element
Color will be used not only for aesthetics, but it’ll also be a part of the functional experience. For example, designers will use color to visually separate different types of notifications.
6. Emotional Experiences
In 2018 we’ll see more emotional intelligence integrated into the mobile experience. EI is no longer all about animated effects showed when a user completes specific actions. EI is a powerful way to make the experience more engaging and delightful.
Better Way To Express Emotions
Expressing emotions is natural for people. Even in the era of command string interfaces, we used emoticons to make other people understand what we feel.
In the era of mobile devices, we have an opportunity to share even more broad specter of emotions. Face recognition will be used to provide more relevant reactions. One of such technologies is Animoji — animated emoji which respond to facial expressions via the iPhone X camera.
Natural Interactions With Apps
More focus on gestures will change the way we interact with apps. For example, the way we like our content. Instead of tapping on the button or icon, it’s possible to make it more natural by drawing ‘heart’ icon on the screen.
Mimic Emotions In UI Feedback
As humans, we establish an emotional connection with all products we use. Therefore, we expect some level of human-like feedback when we interact with products. Even though we know that the products aren’t humans and can’t feel emotions, we want to believe that they can.
7. Dominance of Video
2017 saw a surge in the popularity of video as a content marketing format. According to Hubspot, 78% of people watch videos online every week, and 55% watch videos online every day.
In the context of mobile devices, designers will adapt video format for the medium:
Adapting Video For Short Attention Span
The average human attention span has fallen from 12 seconds in 2000, to eight seconds in 2015. New ways of content delivery appear as a result of adapting to the change. Formats like 360-degree videos and Facebook Live were created as a result of such adaptation. In 2018 more users and business will use this format to deliver important and timely information.
Adapting Video For Portrait Orientation
According to Luke W, 94% of the time mobile phones used in portrait orientation. This means that all content (including video) should be adapted for this orientation.
8. Biometrical Authorization
Apps that utilize biometric-based technology can bypass the need for a traditional login requirement. With biometrics, all that’s needed is a specific physiological or behavioral characteristics, such as facial recognition, fingerprints, or voice recognition.
More People Will Use Biometric Authentication
Biometric authorization isn’t exactly a new technology. A lot of people today use biometric authentication as a replacement for passwords. According to Apple, average iPhone user unlocks device 80 times per day, and 89% use Touch ID for unlock. In 2018 biometrics will be more accessible and we’ll see more use of biometrics for authentication and identity management purposes. It’s something that can also boost security for both end-users and businesses that incorporate this technology into their mobile apps.
Face ID As a Replacement For Touch ID
In 2018 we’ll use one of the most protected and at the same time easy to use object for authentication— our faces. Face ID which became available for iPhone X users has the opportunity to become the most natural way of authentication in the coming year.
9. Conversational design
2015 comScore study says the average user only uses around three apps frequently, and at least one of them is a messaging app. People love chatting. That is why chatbots and voice-activated assistants, powered by artificial intelligence, will be a hot trend in 2018.
Chatbots As Assistants Integrated In Messaging Platforms
Most likely we won’t see chatbots as a full replacement for regular GUI experiences, but they will be integrated into messaging platforms (such as Facebook Messages) to serve as assistants. Businesses will have real-time automated conversations with their customers.
More Sophisticated Voice Assistants
Graphical user interfaces aren’t the only way we interact with our apps today. The significant progress in natural language processing and computational power made it possible to use a different type of interface — voice-based. In 2016, Google stated that roughly 20 percent of all mobile searches were done with voice activation. It’s easy to see why the next big thing for coming years will be voice-activated interfaces. Voice-activated interactions boost the user experience by eliminating the type, which also eliminates another potential source of friction for app users (since people have to learn to use an app).
The best interface is no interface
Importance Of Copywriting
The popularity of conversational interfaces amongst designers and developers will raise an awareness of the importance of copywriting for this type of interface. Since chatbots are almost entirely based on a word exchange between user and machine; each word has to be carefully selected.
10. Advanced Personalization
Personalized UX will continue to be a hot trend in 2018.
Provide Content Based on User Location
Since mobile devices are travelling with users, the apps installed on the devices can utilize location data to provide content which will be relevant to user’s current location. This make services more responsive to the environments around them. Some apps like Starbucks have already utilize this property to provide special offers for users. In 2018 we’ll see more apps use those capabilities to make experience better.
Tailored User Interface
Personalization in UI design isn’t only about content. All users are all different — some of us have poor eyesight, others might be colorblind. So why should the apps have the same UI for everyone?
Personalization will be also about adapting a layout to a person. This can be achieved by utilizing information already provided by the user and by using device sensors (tracking how users interact with app and what problems they face). Based on this information, apps can determine if the bigger font size is required, or it’s important to make the sound louder when playing videos.
11. Augmented Reality
Besides conversational interfaces, another direction which promises to completely change the way we see and use apps is the fast emergence of augmented reality (AR). A year ago, Mark Zuckerberg predicted that all screens will eventually be replaced by lenses. It’s already clear that 2018 will be a year of augmented reality. A lot of people will use their mobile phone or tablet as a lens into a virtual world.
It Will Be Much Easier To Create AR Experience
There are already plenty of AR-based apps available on the market today. But until recently, creating AR app wasn’t an easy task. In 2017 both Apple and Google released AR frameworks that allow building AR apps much easier:
AR For Entertainment
Most of us are familiar with Pokemon Go which was a great example of how AR experience can be used for entertaiment. But AR isn’t limited only to games. For example, AR lenses integrated in messaging apps can be used in apps to create more engaging user experience.
AR As a Solution For Real-life Problems
AR is fastly becoming a technology that solves real problems and delivers real value for users. For example, AR Measure makes it possible to measure the real-world objects without a traditional physical measurement tape.
12. Cashless Payments
Cashless payment is quckly becoming a new standard for many users (the number of people who use this method of payment almost doubled in 2017).
It’s so powerful that it’s able to change daily commerce. For example, in regions like China cashless payment is quickly becoming a preferable way of payment.
What does it mean for mobile app developers? This means that in 2018 we’ll have to provide Apple Pay/Android Pay as a default option for our products (both offline and online).
Tehran’s busy streets have five times as many taxis as New York, offering huge potential for a ride-hailing app.
And with Uber locked out of Iran for the foreseeable future due to U.S. sanctions, startup Snapp is seizing its chance to become the leading local player.
“The Iranian Uber” launched in 2014. Its current CEO, Shahram Shahkar, joined early last year.
“I felt that there was this underdeveloped market that I could potentially use the skills and experience that I’ve gained abroad to help develop further,” Shahkar, who previously studied and worked in the U.K. and Canada, told CNN.
Snapp is available on iOS and Android and also has an Apple Watch version. The app promises to find its users a ride in less than five minutes.
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Shahkar said his company — backed by South African mobile firm MTN — has seen the number of rides grow by 70% a month on average during the past year. It has hired more than 400 people in that time and now has 120,000 active drivers.
It offers four services, including Snapp Rose, which provides female drivers for women and families.
In designing the app, Shahkar took account of other local market factors. To begin with, it bans the customary haggling that often takes place between Iranian vendors and their customers.
“From day one, we have used pre-trip pricing to show the cost of the trip to both the passenger and the driver,” Shahkar said.
And he had to work around sanctions that left the country with few links to international banking and no credit card networks. People using Snapp either have to pay cash or use a debit card issued by an Iranian bank.
How will new tensions with Iran affect its economy?
Some sanctions were eased at the beginning of 2016 after Iran agreed to rein in its nuclear program. That has allowed Iran to pump more oil, giving a boost to the economy.The International Monetary Fund expects it to grow 3.3% this year and 4.3% in 2018.
Most of Iran’s 80 million people are under 30, and many of them, like Hossein Chardoli, are desperate for jobs. Unable to find work as a hardware engineer, he now drives for Snapp and makes about $900 a month, more than the average income in Iran.
Chardoli is hoping Snapp’s rapid growth will continue so he can earn even more.
“It would mean I can go from one city to another and make more even more money,” he told CNN.
He may not have long to wait. Snapp is already available in fourcities and will “soon be covering all the major cities of Iran,” Shakhar said.
Snapp claims to have 80% of the market but doesn’t have Iran’s streets entirely to itself. Other local apps such as Tap30 and Carpino are vying for a share.
But like Uber, big regional competitors are steering clear of Iran for the time being.
Careem, which is based in Dubai and operates in more than 70 cities in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, said it has no plans to enter Iran.
— Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Shahram Shahkar as the founder of Snapp.
The answer to the question “what does a product manager do” depends on a lot of things. At a small startup, you might find a product manager cobbling together product mock-ups, scheduling check-in points with contract developers, and conducting informal interviews with potential users to distill and diagnose needs. At a medium-sized technology company, you might find a product manager running planning meetings with a team of designers and developers, negotiating product roadmaps with senior executives, and working with their colleagues in sales and customer service to understand and prioritize user needs. At a large enterprise organization, you might find a product manager rewriting feature requests as “user stories,” requesting specific data from their colleagues who work in analytics or insights, and attending a lot of meetings.
In other words, if you are working as a product manager, you will probably find yourself doing a lot of different things at different times—and what exactly those things are can change at a moment’s notice. However, there are a few consistent themes that unite the work of product management across job titles, industries, business models, and company sizes:
You have a lot of responsibility, but little authority
Did your designers and developers miss a launch deadline? That is your responsibility. Did the product you manage fail to meet its quarterly goals? That’s your responsibility as well. As a product manager, you are the person who is ultimately responsible for the success or failure of your product—regardless of how well-supported that product might be by the rest of the organization.
Working in a position of high responsibility is challenging enough—but to further complicate matters, product managers rarely have any direct organizational authority. Is there a designer on your product team who’s showing up late to meetings? An engineer whose attitude is proving toxic to the team at large? These are your problems to solve—but you can’t solve them with the bludgeon of “because I said so” or “you’re fired.” You must lead through influence, not authority—which requires developing an entirely different set of skills and approaches.
If it needs to get done, it’s part of your job
“But—that’s not my job!” is a phrase rarely uttered by successful product managers. Regardless of whether or not it falls neatly into the boundaries of your written job description, you are responsible for doing whatever needs to get done in order to ensure the success of your team and your product. This might mean coming in early to bring coffee and breakfast to an overworked product team. It might mean insisting that you get face-to-face time with a senior executive to resolve some ambiguity around your team’s goals. And it might mean calling in a favor from elsewhere in the organization if you and your team simply don’t have the capacity to do what’s needed on your own.
If you work as a “product manager” at a very early stage startup, you might find yourself spending most of your time doing work that feels like it has very little to do with “product management” at all. Product managers I’ve known at early-stage startups have found themselves working as ad hoc community managers, HR leads, UX designers, and office managers. If it needs to be done, and it isn’t anyone else’s job, then—surprise!—it’s your job. Even at large enterprise companies, there will almost certainly be times when you need to step up and do something that is “not your job.” And, since you are likely being held responsible for the performance of your team and your product, “that wasn’t my job” plays as well at a Fortune 50 corporation as it does at a five-person startup.
You are in the middle
As a product manager, much of your job comes down to translatingbetween the needs, perspectives, and skill sets of your stakeholders and customers. This would be challenging enough if your only goal was to synthesize this information into an actionable product plan. But as a product manager, you also sit in the middle of the people who hold these needs, perspectives, and skill sets. You have to understand their communication styles, their sensitivities, and the differences between what they say and what they mean.
Even if you are working at a highly “data-driven” organization, you still cannot escape from human complexity. In fact, the more insistent an organization is that it is “objective” or “data-driven” or “meritocratic,” the more likely you are to find yourself navigating a tangled web of unspoken resentment and unresolved conflict. Others might be able to keep their heads down and “just do their work”—but making connections is your work, so you are in it.
While product managers may find themselves doing all kinds of different work, there are a few consistent themes that also define what this role is not, often to the great consternation of people who see product management as a high-status, visionary role.
You are not the boss
I’ve often seen the role of product manager described as the “mini-CEO” of a product. Unfortunately, most of the product managers I’ve seen actlike a “mini-CEO” are more interested in the status of the role than they are in the responsibility. Product managers who walk in acting like a big boss almost always lose the respect of their team, and eventually find themselves powerless to actually meet their goals. Product management punishes arrogance with a swift and brutal justice that is…well, pretty great, actually.
You are not actually building the product yourself
For some people, “product management” evokes visions of brilliant inventors and tinkerers, toiling away to bring their game-changing ideato the masses. If you like to be the person actually building things with your hands, you might find yourself deeply frustrated by the connective and facilitative nature of product management. Furthermore, what feels like a good-natured wish to get into the weeds of technical and design decisions might come off as infuriating micromanagement to the people actually tasked with building the product you manage.
You can’t wait around until somebody tells you what to do
As I learned on my first day as a product manager, it’s exceptionally rare that you will be given clear guidelines and instructions in this role. Larger companies—especially larger companies like Facebook and Google—are more likely than other companies to have a well-defined set of expectations around the product manager role that are comparatively easier to jump into. But even at those companies, you will have your work cut out for you figuring out what you should do, who you should talk to, and discovering the “unknown unknowns” that are unique to your organization and context.
If you’re unclear about a directive coming down from senior leadership, you can’t sit around waiting for them to clarify it. If you see something in a mock-up that you think will be a problem, you can’t wait until somebody else catches it. Just as you need to get out ahead of identifying the work that needs to be done, you also need to get out ahead of any disconnects in communication or understanding that might harm your project or your team, and be relentless about resolving them.
What is the profile of a great product manager?
Some organizations are well-known for favoring a certain “profile” for product management candidates. Amazon, for example, looks for MBAs. Google, on the other hand, prefers candidates with a computer science degree from Stanford. Generally speaking, the “classic” profile for a product manager is either a technical person with some business savvy, or a business-savvy person who will not annoy the hell out of developers.
While there are plenty of product managers who fit this profile to some degree, some of the very best product managers I’ve met—including product managers who cut their teeth at Amazon and Google—don’t fit any “classic” profile. The truth is, great product managers can come from anywhere. Some of the best product managers I’ve met have backgrounds in music, politics, non-profits, theater, marketing—you name it. Generally speaking, they are people who like to solve interesting problems, learn new things, and work with smart people.
Great product managers are the sum of their experiences, the challenges they’ve faced, the people they’ve worked with—and they are constantly evolving and adapting their own practice to meet the needs of the specific organization they are working with.
When I consult with organizations that are looking to identify internal candidates for PM roles, I often ask a few people to draw out a diagram of how information travels within the company—not a formal org chart, just an informal sketch of how people communicate with each other. Without fail, a few people continuously show up smack in the middle—these people are the information brokers, the connectors, the expansivethinkers who are actively seeking out new perspectives. These people rarely fit the “traditional” profile of a PM—in many cases, they are entirely non-technical. But these are the people who have already proven their capability at difficult but critical connective skills, and have often shown the initiative to take on this kind of work without much recognition.
What is the profile of a bad product manager?
While great product managers rarely fit a single profile, bad product managers are quite consistent. There are a handful of patterns they tend to fall into that are easy enough to recognize and diagnose:
The Jargon Jockey
The Jargon Jockey wants you to know that what you’re describing is really more of a level six product horizon. The Jargon Jockey is appalledthat you haven’t heard of Arie van Bennekum—one of the signers of the Agile manifesto! The Jargon Jockey defines words you haven’t heard with other words you haven’t heard—and seems to use those words and terms more and more when there’s a high-stakes disagreement playing out.
The Steve Jobs Acolyte
The Steve Jobs Acolyte Thinks Differently™. The Steve Jobs Acolyte likes to lean back in chairs and ask big, provocative questions. The Steve Jobs Acolyte would like to remind you that people didn’t know that they wanted the iPhone, either. The Steve Jobs Acolyte doesn’t want to build a faster horse. The Steve Jobs Acolyte wouldn’t say that your customers are stupid—at least, not exactly—but they are definitely not visionarieslike the Steve Jobs Acolyte.
The Hero Product Manager
Have no fear, the Hero Product Manager is here with an amazing ideathat will save the whole company. The Hero Product Manager is not particularly interested in hearing why this idea might not work, or that it’s already been discussed and explored a million times. Did you hear about what the Hero Product Manager did at their last company? They pretty much built the whole thing single-handedly, or at least the good parts. And yet, the people at this company just never seem to give the Hero Product Manager the resources or support they need to deliver on all those amazing promises…
The Product Martyr
FINE, the Product Martyr will do it. If the product didn’t launch on time or didn’t meet its goals, the Product Martyr takes complete and unequivocal responsibility for screwing everything up (again). The Product Martyr says it’s no big deal that they pick up coffee for the whole team every morning, but the way they place the Starbucks tray down on their desk seems just a liiiiiiiiittle more emphatic than it needs to be…
The Nostalgic Engineer
The Nostalgic Engineer would way rather be writing code than stuck in all these meetings. Did you know that the Nostalgic Engineer used to write code? Really good code, too, before there was all this “jquery” nonsense. The Nostalgic Engineer is happy for the product team to work on whatever they think is most fun. Did the Nostalgic Engineer mention that they would rather be writing code than be stuck in this stupid meeting? No offense, of course.
These patterns are shockingly easy to fall into—and I’ve definitely fallen into all of them at one point or another in my career. Why? Because by and large, they are driven not by malice or incompetence, but by insecurity. Product management can be a brutal and relentless trigger for insecurity, and insecurity can bring out the worst in the best of us.
Because product management is a connective and facilitative role, the actual value product managers bring to the table can be very hard to quantify. Your developer wrote 10,000 lines of code. Your designer created a tactile, visual universe that wowed everybody in the room. Your CEO is the visionary who led the team to success. Just what did youdo, exactly?
This question—and the urge to defensively demonstrate value—can lead to some epic acts of unintentional self-sabotage. Insecure product managers might start making big, awkward public displays of their contributions (the product martyr). They might start speaking in gibberish to prove that product management is a real thing that is really complicated and important (the jargon jockey). They might even start devaluing their own work for the sake of showing that they could be doing higher-status work if they wanted to (the nostalgic engineer).
For product managers, the value you create will be largely manifest in the work of your team. The best product managers I’ve met are the ones whose teams use phrases like “trust them with my life” and “make me feel excited to show up for work in the morning.” If you’re starting to feel insecure about your work, then talk to your team and see what you can do to better contribute to their success. But don’t let insecurity turn you into a bad product manager—and please, please, don’t quote Steve Jobs in a meeting or job interview.