Product Management: what people don’t tell you

Being responsible for “product” as a Product Owner, Product Manager, or Product Whatever, is glorified. Job adverts describe product management as being the ‘mini-CEO’ or ‘startup founder in a corporate,’ but that is far from true and far from reality. The truth is, being in product management is not an easy or glamorous job. Below what most people don’t tell you about product management (a recap of this Twitter thread by @jmj, Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager, and my own thoughts):

1. You have to say no a lot

Your number 1 job in product management is to say “no” a lot. You have to say no to distracting ideas and say no to keep your product on track for success. A lot of times, people will be frustrated with you because you are saying “no.” It’s up to you to communicate your vision in a way that makes the “no” understandable and acceptable, and you have to communicate why X is more important than Y right now, but don’t expect people to listen.

2. You’re accountable

Being in products means that when things break, you’re accountable. You cannot blame “the process,” “the technical writer,” “the QA,” “the salesperson” or “the team.” It’s your product, get ready to bite the bullet. A good product person takes full responsibility and measures themselves regarding the success of the product — no excuses.

3. You’re not the idea person

You are not the idea person; it’s your job to create good feedback loops and communicate why specific ideas are prioritized over others. Designing new products is a very, very small part of what you’ll do. Good product people crisply define the target, the “what” and “why” (as opposed to the how).

4. Being an influencer makes or breaks you

Since you do not have many direct reports, or in most cases: none at all, your ability to influence will make or break you. And being the boss wouldn’t fix it anyway. Remember: sometimes it is more important to convince your team than it is to satisfy your customer on the vision, the what and the why.

5. You have to be the expert

You have to be the expert, on everything. Good product people know the market, the product, the total product suite, the roadmap, and the competition extremely well. You focus your roadmap and your team on customers and their real problems; not on symptoms or anecdotes. You anticipate flaws and build practical solutions instead of putting out fires all day.

6. Explain continously

Cristal clear communication, from presenting on stage and pitching to customers, to writing opinion pieces, is essential. You have to explain continuously: how the product works, what our future vision is, why are some things the way they are, why some bugs are at the bottom of the priority list, why competitors appear better but aren’t, why customers don’t always know best, why you keep saying no, etc. etc. Good product people create explicit materials as FAQs, functional overviews, how-to’s, white papers, documentation, and blogs to guide customers and the rest of the organization. You take a written stance on important issues, instead of just voicing your opinion verbally as a complaint or problem “that is out of your scope.”

And those points are exactly why being in products is such a great job to have. It makes our work challenging and different every day. There is no need for a “leader” to tell you what to do, or a manager to request “more challenging work.” YOU are the one in control.

Joining henQ

New year, new job: after nine fantastic years at Backbase, I’ve decided it is time for a change. I’ve joined henQ, a Dutch venture capital firm with a focus on B2B software startups. As Partner at henQ, I will focus on finding the next winner in fintech, SaaS, enterprise software, and beyond, and I will be working with our portfolio companies on growing marketing, product, and tech.

As VP Product Management and before that, Global Head of Marketing, I’ve had the honor to be a part of growing Backbase by 10x or more in every measure. And I’m planning to do more than the same at henQ.

From my very first meeting at Backbase, I knew this was going to be an extraordinary journey. Back in 2010, I joined a team of 50 people selling an AJAX library and building a new portal product. Since then, we found focus, defined our vision, and executed on that vision, bringing Backbase to where it is today – the number one player in digital banking, and one of the most exciting tech companies in The Netherlands, if not Europe.

I am very proud of all that we have achieved at Backbase and most proud of the R&D and Products team I leave behind who will be making Backbase better and better every day.

And now I shift my focus to investing and henQ, I’m excited about getting the chance to work with more founders and more amazing teams rocking the b2b software world.

A for effort

We scored ourselves 85% on the Q4 OKR. We did not complete the key results, but the team worked very hard, and it would be unfair to them to set it to zero.

Successful companies and product teams know: the “a for effort” doesn’t move the needle. Effort without results doesn’t create more customer value, doesn’t bring more cash in the bank. And having a culture where effort and not outcome are valued doesn’t set up a team for success.

This doesn’t mean that if the result is not there, it’s a failure. Mistakes will be made and learning from mistakes is necessary for improvement. But you will only learn from mistakes if you recognize them, celebrate them and improve. Not if you give mistakes a pumped-up score, and commemorate the a for effort.

The ‘no discussion’ software stack

Email and Calendar? Google Apps
Communication? Slack
Simple website? WordPress
Newsletter? MailChimp

You’ve made it as a company if your product becomes part of the ‘no discussion’ software stack. The software stack that nobody challenges, and everyone expects to be there. The marketing engine seems to run almost by itself for the products in the ‘no discussion’ software stack, by word of mouth and by sheer brand awareness.

How do you become part of the ‘no discussion’ software stack? You are successful if your customers are successful. The best marketing trick is: have referenceable customers.

To get to referenceable customers your product needs to stand out, and above all: deliver. Deliver on the jobs to be done. Great products don’t deliver features. Great products deliver outcomes. To deliver outcomes, you first need to understand the un-served or under-served need of your customers.

“People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.”

Theodore Levitt.

Having a kick-ass product is not enough. Products in the ‘no discussion’ software stack excel at customer service and have a superior sales operation. And smart buyers don’t let themselves be distracted by a fancy feature or great online demo. They know true differentiation is in the operation. They even test your support and sales operations before selecting your product.

The good news? There is ALWAYS room for new players in the ‘no discussion’ software stack. Market dynamics change, new technologies can make existing products 10x better. Companies might trip, and products fall from grace. Or better outcomes, the real jobs to be done are found. And that is for crowded and competitive markets. There are plenty of markets still under-served. From complex markets that are highly regulated (fintech? transportation?) to markets traditionally served by governments (education? healthcare?). Or think about markets with a ‘defacto market leader’ already in power for multiple years (SFDC?). Are they still at the top of their game? There are plenty of opportunities.

The best customer experience: no human involved

It’s something I noticed especially when traveling. Whenever I think “wow that went smoothly” or the opposite “why does this always have to be such a struggle,” it boils down to “are humans involved?” — directly impacting on the overall customer experience.

Hotel check-ins are customer experience suckers #1. You make your reservation online, provide everything from your name to credit card information, and then when arriving at the hotel, you have to give the same information again. Including writing down your phone and email address on which you already received an Apple Wallet confirmation that turns out to be completely useless.

But it can be different. Take the Hertz car rental customer experience at most large airports. Make your reservation online, and when you arrive at your destination, you have e an email in your inbox with a stall number. There you find your car with the keys already in the ignition, drive to the exit, validate your credit card, and done. No queue, no waiting, no need to provide the information you already provided. And: almost no human interaction.

Hertz customer experience at kiosk.

And Hertz knows their customers love this experience. Last December they announced taking it even further: no more handing in your credit card, no: facial recognition and finger prints at the exit terminal, a quick smile and your done.

Customer experience is a hot topic in most industries, especially in the travel, tourism and hospitality branch. Is their solution removing the human worker?

Humans bring something: the personal touch, the personality. And in the end, I don’t believe it is the person to blame when you have a bad customer experience, or a check-in that seems to take forever. Most of the time it’s their system and process. And that is something technology can and should fix. We have to develop more systems and tools that enable the smooth experience and let humans be human, instead of the perceived show stopper. Not apps and tools for the sake of internal optimization, but apps and devices in the hands of people to enable them, not to be an annoyance.