Product and marketing in the start-up

One of the things that surpises me about European tech companies vs Valley ones is the amazing shortage of the discipline of product management in European companies. To me product management is the critical role in a tech company–and sometimes, but not always, the de facto mantle of the CEO. It is also what perform the function of marketing in a young company until you get to a much later, more mature stage.

Marketing is a strategic function about delivering customers what they want. It isn’t a jazz hands and rubber chicken and t-shirts. It is the heart of successful companies–Unilever, Coke, Apple, Google. A company which gave its customers what it wanted (Yahoo) started to give its customers what its CEO wanted (entertainment) and went from being yesterday’s Google to today’s Yahoo.

In young technology companies, marketing is product. Because if you can’t get people to love your product without persuading them that they should or need to love it, you will never get to a stage of sustainable economics.

Product management is the thing that ensures you give your customers something they love. It is also about bridging what our current and future customers want us to do; what our company wants to be; and what we are capable of doing. As David Packard, P in HP said:
‘”Marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department.”

In the evolution of tech startups, it means introducing new disciplines into the business as the business matures and as the technology is proven.

The most important is product management. Product management is the process of bringing a market-driven focus to companies to ensure they build products customers want to use (and buy). Product management is also about helping the company make choices. Technology is neutral (you know, the gun itself isn’t bad, it’s the finger) and technologies can be used to do an awesome range of different things. But to get technologies to end users, you need focus. You cannot afford to take your technology and apply it everywhere. That leads to the curse of the ATTAP (all things to all people).

Technologies which do seemingly go everywhere normally have a few things in common:

  • They get distributed by application vendors rather than the developers themselves (RFID, chipsets, ram are examples)
  • They actually took a really, really long time to get there (Microsoft operating systems)
  • They are really really focussed on a niche application or job (car vanity mirror lights)

So a key discipline of product management–and one which is never popular–is trying to focus on customer value points, the fewer the merrier. It isn’t because the guys in product are stupid, it’s because they are strategic. (We might still be stupid tho’)

Product management need to do a range of things, some of which are strategic and some of which are tactical.

The strategic capabilities include market sizing, competitive positioning, identifying problems in the market, understanding operational metrics, building the business case, identifying key buy/build/partner decisions, creating a framework for portfolio management.

Certain ones are distinctly tactical: product marketing, presentations and demo, briefings, white papers, documentation–and in the case of a small firm the PR around what we do.
Other things sit in between strategic and tactical like positioning, describing the market requirements document, use case scenarios, release milestones, the marketing plan, early access customers and the like. (Indebted to Steven Johnson for these insights.)

But it is important to note the product management is an in-between role. It requires business, commercial technical and market knowledge. It is also a role which involves ensuring voices are heard appropriately and that the company and management have the right tools to make the decisions in the right way. Good product managers don’t pontificate on high and vomit our things the company must do. Good product managers build frameworks to coral what we are trying to achieve and ensure the company can make the right decisions. Despite being called ‘management’, the difference between a great product manager and a mediocre one is often the soft skills of leadership rather than the iron discipline to apply process.

Bad product managers market technology, even to technical buyers. Because a product is better when it is measured as better by your customers (and potential future customers)

There is the discipline of empathetic design. That is designing solutions that are empathetic too and sensitive of what users desires and believes. To quote Rayport and Leonard, empathetic design is a research porcess which helps understand things typical market research cannot:

  1. Triggers of use: what makes people use your products or service? Are they using it in the way that you expected?
  2. Interactions with the user’s environment: how does the product fit into the user’s unique operating system?
  3. User customization: does the user reinvent or redesign the product to better suit his/her own purpose?
  4. Intangible attributes of the product: i.e. does the smell associated with cleaning products make them more attractive to the consumer?
  5. Unarticulated user needs: the observation of consumers encountering a problem which they don’t realize can be fixed or may not even view as a problem.

Empathetic design is closely related to user centricity. In user centricity, we ask the question: What is the job the customer is trying to do when they use our product? People use products to solve problems.

A segment of our users may use a product to solve the problem that is ‘I want to be delighted be engaging myself in something technically interesting’, other may have other jobs they are trying to accomplish. Getting to the bottom of these jobs by asking users, watching them and pondering helps us understand why people might use our products and what our product needs to emphasise (and our marketing support) as important. It helps us understand how our customers segment and how we should handle those different segments of customers.

It also fleshes out other types of ‘competition’ for example, the competition for Toothpaste in India is not just other toothpaste, it is also twigs from the neem tree (available for free) which people have used for generations to clean their teeth. Not brushing your teeth is also a competitor to toothpaste.

Then there is the discipline of making sure that people get value from what we offer. this is the usability axis. This is about ensuring that the most important things people want to do are easy and simply to do; and the less important things are backgrounded. A good working definition for usability is as follows:

A product has a high level of usability when :

  • It requires less mental effort to use
  • the frequency of mistakes using it is less, or when the mistakes are less disastrous
  • it is more powerful, where “more powerful” means that it can be used to do more or do it faster
  • it is more learnable, that is, when a person can figure it out quicker

Then there is the discipline of ensuring that when delivering the customer utility (that is giving people what they want) they have a superb time. They feel the service is more than functional, they understand what it means, what it means to them and that the like it. This is the arena of user experience. (All the below quoted from Thomas Baedkal)

You want people to feel happy before, during and after they have used your product. To do that you need to take all kinds of things into consideration. Things like:

  • Environment
  • Colors moods
  • Smell
  • Touch
  • Audio feedback
  • Visual feedback
  • Trust
  • Branding
  • Show-off effect
  • Usefulness
  • Practicality
  • Coexistence
  • Emotional effect
  • Etc…

None of these things can be accurately analyzed or measured ex ante. It is a touchy feeling kind of thing at one level. The sort of thing engineers may try to optimise but can’t. We can test it again and again during the creative process and through research–but that may be out of the means of the typical startups resources.

Fnally the discipline of judgement. Some of these can be measured easily and cheaply, some cannot. There are obvious trade offs. Not least from resources that can be brought to bear but also between managing competing user needs, and also when one discipline points one way and one discipline points another. Company culture is another one. Some companies have a culture of beauty first, functionality second. The experience they design is so beautiful that people will put up with nags and niggles while (and if) they get it right. Other companies are function first and will make more progress geting the function right and them systematically turn to beauty. In each case, the balance of the management and team’s biases determine which gait your prefer.

And what happens when your usability edicts clash with your user experience intuitions or research? A straight fast road is highly usable. A meandering, scenic road may provide a much better user experience. Which do you build? Judgement can help.

And when you have previous little direct data in your market because what you are doing is brand new? Judgement can help. Judgement applied may tell you that while what you feel you are doing is totally new, it is only totally new if your users value it as such. And more than likely only components of what you do are totally new. So you then need to separate out what is actually just a different take on the old world and what is the new, new for which data will only be forthcoming when you have users using your services in anger.

So for a European start-ups, on this eve of Seedcamp week, I would love to see some awesome entrepeneurs who get product and get product management and get the practicality and simplicity good product management entails. Let’s hope.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted September 12, 2008 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    Great post. My two takeaways (and how I run NewsCred:

    1) Keep it simple. Focus on what you do best and what your customers want most, and then ruthlessly work on delivering that product. Keep paring it down until you are supremely targeted/agile/focused. Trying to do too many things for too many people is the worst product strategy and is destined to fail.

    2) I loved the part of the post about empathetic design. So delight your users. Every feature you build should delight users and improve their experience and make them love the product more. If less than X percent are delighted, get rid of it (you can figure out what X is for your startup).

    Great stuff Azeem!

  2. stefaniehartman
    Posted March 4, 2009 at 5:00 am | Permalink

    The biggest mistake that business personals make at the onset of their business, is that there is more expense involved than profits earned. I would prefer to start my business in a simple moderate manner and then go in for bigger projects once I have got the tact in dealing with them. The initial year would be a learning year where you would be observing your business grow and making a lot of mistakes in implying good strategies.


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  2. By Roo Reynolds - Links for 2008-09-22 on September 22, 2008 at 9:11 pm

    […] azeem.azhar: Product and marketing in the start-up – “A company which gave its customers what it wanted (Yahoo) started to give its customers what its CEO wanted (entertainment) and went from being yesterday’s Google to today’s Yahoo.” […]

  3. […] Product and marketing in the start-up [Azeem.Azhar] […]

  4. By Infovore » links for September 27th on September 28, 2008 at 12:01 am

    […] Product and marketing in the start-up « azeem.azhar "Marketing is a strategic function about delivering customers what they want. It isn’t a jazz hands and rubber chicken and t-shirts. It is the heart of successful companies…" (tags: azeemazhar marketing product company startup business ) […]

  5. By Aaron Johnson – Links: 9-29-2008 on September 30, 2008 at 8:48 am

    […] Product and marketing in the start-up « azeem.azhar Quote: Product management is the process of bringing a market-driven focus to companies to ensure they build products customers want to use (and buy). Product management is also about helping the company *make choices* (emphasis mine). (categories: productmanagement marketing business startup ) […]

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