Startup Roots Speaker Series #6 Recap – Product Management

I wasn’t in town last Thursday, so I asked two of our fellows, @sharonlourdes and @laurenceputra to write the session recap as seen through their eyes. Slight edits have been made for the purposes of consistency, grammar or style ;-).

Last Thursday, Startup Roots held the Product Management panel with Andy Croll, Navjot Pawera from BubbleMotion, Meredith Chan from Mig33, Wen Huang, Zwee and Gary Teo from Savant Degrees.

Thus far, most Startup Roots talks have covered speakers’ past experiences in this year’s startup buzzword – pivoting. Perhaps the most memorable (and extreme) case being that of Derek Siver’s, “If it’s not a hit, switch”.

Most of these covered pivots in their ideas, or customers they were targeting. However, for both technical and non-technical founders, product management is the pivotal (haha pun intended) issue faced on a daily basis.

As aptly put by Zwee of Savant Degrees, Product Management is an area that should be holistically considered over all three grounds – Business, User-Centric Design (UCD) and Engineering. The following takeaways are structured within these 3 roles as much as possible, though they are all interlinked. After all, customer development and sales in a startup depends heavily on how well a product is being managed in the marketspace.

1. Product managers are CEOs of their product (Business)

This was unanimously concluded by all 5 speakers in response to the question, “regardless of your skill sets, how does one get into product management?” The PM’s role is to consider the product throughout the technology adoption cycle, and most importantly, assess if the product fulfils a market-driven opportunity.

In the area of technology adoption cycle, the PM (or ideally the CEO) has to be aware of the balance that needs to be struck between user segments (potential, new, intermediate and power users) and the released product (one single product at in market, or to be released at any point in time). Apple is a good example of a company that has managed this well.

The Macbook is a good example of how the PM has taken into account inducting new and intermediate users, but without sacrificing the demands of power users. High power features are nicely hidden away in a wonderland called terminal, allowing the power user to enter into deep exploration grounds. Yet, for most, we only see a nice minimalistic set of features to control 😉

The second aspect of technology adoption cyle is often forgotten – choosing which stakeholder to focus on in a community-based product. For example, Groupon chose to gather a large audience of merchants, and releasing it out to us, the consumers. Similarly, Facebook chose to focus on the users instead of merchants. Ultimately, who to target does not solely depend on who gives you the ka-ching ($). Instead, Navjot highlighted the importance of starting out with the side that gives you the most value.

For the aspect of a product spinning off from a market-driven opportunity, let’s hop over to the next section.

Disclaimer: Technolody adoption cycle sometimes mean the concept of early adoptors to late adoptors. But as the speakers were sharing, they could also have been referring to the Usage Cycle of a product.

2. When user feedback becomes less of a concern (Business + UCD)

There is sometimes the dilemma on how to internalize user-feedback to a product’s development. Meredith cheekily commented that she sometimes has to filter out customers responses in order to gain better focus.

Wen Huang raised a good point with regards to the conceptualizing phase of most successful products, that they typically arise from a founder’s observation or perception of the market, and subsequently coming up with a product that fits a gap. It is impractical to get user feedback directly during this stage of product idea identification. The iPad is a classic example of such market-driven opportunity (v.s. an individual consumer’s obvious wants).

Instead, how user feedback plays a part is when a prototype or version 1 is showed to them. Still, it is hard for a consumer to accurately tell you what they want, if you post to them question such as “Would XYZ be useful for you?”. Chances are, consumers will say yes, but the pain may not be sufficient to spur their purchase.

3. UX, the V in MVP (Engineering)

Last by not least (phew, this is a long entry!), Andy Croll neatly summarizes the role of UX in product design in a startup. In a MVP (minimum viable product), if the UX is horrible, there is no V. Imagine releasing an app that runs in terminal of Macbooks! For the techies, such a product is definitely viable. But it’s definitely not viable for the lay user. So if you are releasing an app for mass-market consumers you definitely need a good GUI, that’s ultra intuitive, and doesn’t need the manual to operate.

To wrap up this long post, all 3 fields in important in product management. But ultimately, to ensure a startup’s survival, the CEO or founder will need to understand the importance of product management.

Photo courtesy of @derrickko
Comic strip courtesy of & Walker Information

About James Chan

James Chan is an entrepreneur, investor, geek, photographer and husband/father based out of Singapore. Apart from frequent travels to Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia for work, James can also be found online via his trusty 15" Retina MacBook Pro or iPhone 6+.