Bruce McCarthy is Founder and Chief Product Person at UpUp Labs, where he and his team are at work on Reqqs - the smart roadmap tool for product people.


How to Sidestep "Competitive Necessity" (And Win)

I’ve seen a lot of roadmaps where the reason for many items was given as “competitive necessity.” I don’t deny that this is sometimes a reality, but it always makes me wary. When I see a lot of “me too” features driven by requests from Sales, I wonder if the product is positioned correctly or if it is really trapped in a perpetual game of catch-up that it will never win.

I wrote a piece on competitive analysis  back in 2008 where I asked:

“Would you rather have a conversation with a prospect about whether your feature list is longer than the competition's or about the benefits the prospect will derive from your product? Which of those conversations would allow you to charge more?”

My thought was that if you're concentrating on market needs rather than competitive checklists, you have a chance at that second, more profitable conversation. And I still agree with that thinking, but in this sixth post in the Dirty Dozen Roadmap Roadblocks series, I have a few additional thoughts to share that involve paying at least some attention to the competition, but not to duplicate or one-up them.

Do Your Win/Loss Analysis

Win/loss analysis is like flossing. Everyone knows they should do it, but few do it regularly enough. It is a critical part of your competitive analysis, though, and a great way to defend against what I would call “catch-up syndrome.”

Don’t take salespeople’s word for what lost them the sale. They are not objective here. I find that interviewing prospects that did not convert more often uncovers problems with the marketing and sales process than feature gaps. I also find that interviewing newly-converted customers more often highlights great positioning and consultative selling than it does competitive differentiation.

This is very instructive when you come to consider the priority of features intended to fill perceived competitive gaps. Does it matter if you don’t have every item on the competitive RFP if few of those are really part of the decision?

Be a Category of One

Seth Godin says, “When you define the category, when the category is you and you alone, your marketing issues tend to disappear.”

If you are solving a problem no one else is solving (or in a way no one else is doing that provides unique benefits) then there is no way to compare you directly to competitors and the pressure to duplicate every one of their features is lessened, perhaps to zero.

We all struggle with fixed development capacity, so we need to prioritize down to the few things that will have the greatest effect on business results. If you are weighing down your roadmap with catch-up items, you are slowing progress toward your ultimate destination.

When you ask yourself, “How can I become a category of one?” you are essentially asking how you can make all of those competitive-response features irrelevant in the eyes of your customer and focusing instead on what will make you indispensable.

Scare Yourself

An approach I like to use is to ask myself, “What is the scariest thing my competitor could come out with?” The answer to that question is probably the thing that should be at the top of your development priority list.

This approach can be a very hard sell in an established business, though. The natural reaction to a fearful situation is avoidance, and if your “scariness” exercise is perceived as purely hypothetical, then executives will “take it under advisement” and do nothing.

Instead, fight fear with fear. Convince them that if you were the product manager of your number one competitor’s product, this is exactly what you would be planning. Show them that technological trends make it inevitable that someone will do this thing in the near future and that, if it isn’t you, the consequences will be devastating.

I saw a vivid demonstration of this at a Board meeting once. Our president showed screenshots of a new competitor that was steadily duplicating our desktop software’s capabilities on the web. Where we had a subscription fee, they charged only on usage. Where we thought we had the most favorable terms with our suppliers, they had somehow gotten even better terms. Where we could only update the data in our product quarterly, they theoretically had the capability to update every day.

The temperature in the room dropped palpably during this presentation. Investors were seeing the value of their investments drop to near zero in just a few slides. The final slide was the kicker. It turned out this new competitor was … us.

We had developed a new brand and an online capability that no one else had. We had even gotten a break from our largest supplier for internet sales. Our investors intuitively knew this would be disruptive and when faced with the reality of it; and they were enormously relieved (there was actually cheering) to discover we were our own disruptors. The rest is history as our desktop version was phased out over time and the web took over.

Struggling To Differentiate?

If your organization’s roadmap is bogged down with "catch-up" features that are holding you back, pick a 30-minute slot to chat with me. I’m happy to help.

You may also be interested my popular roadmapping presentation from ProductCamp Boston, or in Reqqs, the smart roadmap tool for product people.

Use your product powers for good.


Don't Hire a Product Manager Because They're "Technical"

I’m going to take a controversial position on what you should look for in a product manager. I believe it is more important that you hire a good communicator than a good technologist.

Am I one of those people who believes product managers are really just disguised marketing communications people, the kind who don’t really understand what they are selling?* No.

But I do think that you can’t really understand market needs and craft a plan to meet them without the ability to listen, empathize and paint a picture of how people will benefit from your proposed solution.

Listening Is The Most Important Form of Communication

Note that I mentioned the “ability to listen” first in communications skills. I am not talking about being a good speechmaker. I am emphasizing the soft skills of getting behind a customer’s list of feature requests to understanding them, their job, their life, and their problems.

When I am hiring product managers, I look for the following qualities in this order:

  1. Communication Skills
  2. Analytical Approach
  3. Business Sense
  4. Domain Knowledge
  5. Technical Knowledge

Aspiring product managers often seek my advice on how to get that first job in the profession. A lot of them are engineers wanting make the leap to the business side. They have good experience with the software development process and usually have good analytical skills as well. And often the first question they ask is, “Should I get an MBA?”

This would check off 2, 3 and 5 on my list, but what I am usually evaluating while we talk is how strong they are in number 1.** Why? Let’s look at the process of developing a new product and the skills needed for each stage.

Developing a New Product

Technical Knowledge Comes Last

You might argue with a few of my checkmarks, but the trend is pretty clear. Technical knowledge is most useful when proposing solutions to market problems. It’s also useful when you are making trade-offs between different ways to implement a solution, and when evaluating the effort involved with solving equally valuable problems.

A product manager needs to be analytical enough to understand the business effects of technical decisions, but doesn’t have to come equipped with all of the relevant technical know-how herself.

In each of these situations, it’s a better idea to bring your engineering folks into the conversation and use their technical knowledge. Their technical skills are going to be better than the product manager’s anyway, and having a collaborative discussion between two smart people is bound to be more productive than your product manager sitting alone in her office dreaming up ideas.

Domain Knowledge Will Come

Another mistake hiring managers often make is to bring in domain experts with no product management experience. As you can see above, though, domain knowledge, while useful in picking and understanding a market, is only a head start on the process, not a differentiator in the end.

A good communicator (listener, empathizer, picture-painter) will pick up this market knowledge as part of the initial discovery process. To succeed, a product manager must acquire market knowledge, but doesn’t necessarily have to start with it.

But isn’t saying you can acquire some of this information on the job cheating? No. Communications skills are much harder to learn (especially quickly) than information about a market or a technology. Moreover, good communications skills will enable you to learn the other things, while domain and technical knowledge will not help you acquire good communications skills.

Communication Is the Foundation of Product Management

Good communications skills are necessary for understanding market needs and, as discussed above, will lead you to the necessary domain and technical knowledge. They have to come first. The analytical and business skills differentiate the Product role from others that rely on good communication, such as Sales and Marketing.

One of the key product person superpowers is rallying the whole company around a plan to make money by delivering value. Communication is the necessary foundation for getting buy-in on your product vision, making a business case – as well as providing requirements to engineering, messaging to marketing and support to the sales process.

*Of course, it’s not always their fault.

**My advice to these folks is usually to volunteer for some product management tasks at their current company that get them talking to customers. This will put the right kind of experience on their resume and will also help them evaluate whether they really like the job.


How Your Customers Can Hold You Back

In the introductory post to the Dirty Dozen Roadmap Roadblocks series, I said that:

“Rather than just taking requests, listening for unsolved problems in your market (and doing something about them) is the best way to avoid a roadmap that's really just a popularity contest.”

For this fifth entry in the series, I could think of nothing better than a guest post I wrote for my friend and self-described product ninja, Shardul Mehta, on his excellent blog, Street Smart Product Manager.

Roadmaps Are Not a Popularity Contest

The name of this blog has changed since I wrote that post, but the principles remain the same. In it you will learn:

  • Why Dell Idea Storm never went anywhere
  • The dangers of relying on customer requests for setting direction
  • When quantitative customer input is useful

Check it out and leave a comment for Shardul to let him know you appreciate him providing a forum for issues important to product people.

Struggling With Too Many Customer Requests?

If your organization’s roadmap is bogged down with many incremental requests from customers, feel free to pick a 30-minute slot to chat with me. I’m happy to help.

You may also be interested my popular roadmapping presentation from ProductCamp Boston, or in Reqqs, the smart roadmap tool for product people.

Use your product powers for good.


Prioritization Class in Boston Dec 12

Wouldn't it be great if no one could argue with your decisions?

Wouldn't it just rock if you could cut through all the circular arguments and bypass the endless debates and make decisions based on concrete data about what was best for the business?

I'm teaching a class with General Assemblies in Kendall Square December 12th called How to Set Product Priorities -- and you're invited.

In this session you'll learn about and apply an objective and collaborative prioritization method that balances value and effort. It helps stakeholders focus on what's important and come to consensus. It will help you get the buy-in you need to put together a product roadmap that inspires.

Even better: it's only $30 for 90 minutes of learning and hands-on doing. Unleash your prioritization powers on a Thursday night in December!

Details here. The class is limited to 25 so everyone gets individual attention. Sign up before all the seats are gone!



How To Get 1-Star Reviews For Your Mobile App

I Am Such a Nerd

The scene was Christmas 2012. I had a week off from work and I was looking forward to playing with my toys. Like any good product person, my “toys” included new apps I wanted to try out.

No, not games. I was looking forward putting some new productivity apps through their paces. In addition to CARROT (the sadistic task manager you have to try), I had downloaded Bank of America’s new iPhone app.

As regular readers will remember, I have been critical of BofA’s mobile efforts in the past, but I was excited about a new advertised feature of the app — mobile deposits.

That’s right; it is now possible to deposit checks directly with your phone. You sign the back of the check, take a photo of each side with the built-in camera, confirm the amount, and that’s it. Once you hit the OK button, the money is in your account (with the usual check-cashing delays, of course).

You never actually have to send them the paper check. Nobody keeps canceled checks anymore anyway, right? They are scanned and discarded, and your iPhone camera is acting as a scanner. I tried it with a $40 rebate check I hadn’t gotten around to depositing and it worked great. BofA had finally done something with mobile. Yay! I wouldn’t have to accumulate checks in my wallet until I had time to drive to the ATM anymore. So convenient!

I am so gullible

A few days later after the carnage of Christmas day, my family had accumulated several checks from various relatives who preferred to give money rather than presents. Terrific, I thought. Another excuse to use my new app and save a car trip.

The first check was $100 for my oldest daughter. It was deposited and transferred into her account in seconds. Awesome. The second check was the same amount for my youngest daughter and, for some reason, it wouldn’t go through. Blurry picture maybe, I thought. Tried again. Error: “Cannot deposit check.” Huh. I tried another check, this one for $25. No problem. Check number 4 for $150, no problem. Tried the $100 check again. Same error. It looked the same as all of the others so I had no idea what to think.

I called BofA support, waded through their voice menu, typed in all of account numbers, waited several minutes to get a human being, and, naturally had to repeat all of my identifying information. (I am used to this sort of inconvenience with large service providers like banks so I won’t even rant about that here. At least they are not the cable company.)

I explained my experience to the bored-sounding support rep. “Oh yeah,” she said. “You can’t deposit checks in the same amount for a six week period.” What? “It’s a security thing.” Really? “Yeah, I mean who has to deposit checks in the exact same amount all the time?” I dunno, I replied. Maybe everybody who has a regular paycheck?

I get it

This is a bank. Security has to be their first priority. And maybe somebody could deposit the same check a hundred times over with this app and get away with something. Of course, they could do that with a bunch of bad checks in slightly different amounts almost as easily and, according to the online help in the doc they have monthly deposit limits and can put any check on hold before funds are available if they feel the need to do so.

The problem here is that this (undocumented) arbitrary rule makes the app completely useless for most people. The whole idea is to save me the trouble of going to a branch or ATM to deposit checks. It’s a convenience feature. But now I have to keep track of every check I deposit over time and remember whether I had one in the same amount recently before firing up the app. I’m not going to do that and I’m not going to go through the process hoping for the best every time.

It’s not a lot of time, but I don’t think I am alone hating it when I get stymied in the middle of a task and discover my time has been wasted. If I am guessing every time, just hoping it will take my check, I will just go back to using the ATM.

What I Learned

As product people, we have to make compromises on functionality to get an app to market quickly, with adequate security, with adequate performance, etc. We try to make those compromises intelligently so that at least some market segments will have an overall positive experience. A compromise where everyone will sooner or later have an unexpectedly bad experience (and not know why or how to easily prevent it in the future), dooms your product.

Is it just me? BofA’s app has more 1-star reviews on the iTunes AppStore than all other ratings combined. Surprised?