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.


Court Scribe or Hand of the King?

How to Lose Your Head

I had to let a product manager go once because he just did not have the influencing skills necessary to do the job. He was intelligent, thoughtful, articulate, hard-working and motivated, but he never quite understood that he was supposed to provide direction, rather than receive it.

Repeatedly, I found this product manager asking engineers what new features would do and documenting whatever they told him. I told him that his job was to understand the needs of a market and work with Engineering to devise a product that could (profitably) meet that need.

His interactions with Marketing and Sales echoed those with Engineering. He got the answers to their questions (mostly by asking engineers), but he never provided guidance on which markets the product was best suited for, what needs it met, or how to position it.

I had to let him go because he was not an influencer; he was really little more than a scribe.

Influence Without Authority

One of the key hidden superpowers of good product people is influence. Few if any people report to your average product manager, but they have (or should have) an outsized influence on their organization. They provide direction on what to build to Engineering; they provide direction on target markets and messaging to Marketing; they recommend possible alliances and acquisitions to Business Development. The list goes on and on.

When it's working well, a product person's influence brings multiple departments together behind a plan (called a product roadmap) that drives the company toward the vision set out by top management.

When it is not working, the product manager finds him or herself tossed about on a sea of strong opinions, has difficulty in setting or sticking to priorities, and becomes the whipping boy (or girl) for everyone's frustrations with poor business results.

An Illustration

I was having coffee recently with David Sprogis, a friend, entrepreneur and experienced product manager. David is fantastic with visualizations of complex topics and he sketched this diagram in his notebook to illustrate the spectrum of influence a product manager can have in an organization.

On either side of the diagram are the two chief groups a product manager interacts with. The PM's role is to balance the concerns of each and produce a plan that results in the Engineering team delivering something that meets business goals.

The PM's position on the vertical arrow in the middle represents their level of influence over the process. If the PM does nothing more than bring people to the table and write down what they come up with, that puts them at the bottom of the influence spectrum, acting as the company scribe for other people's decisions.

On the other hand, if the PM sets out goals and collaborates with both groups to devise a plan that Engineering can meet and that serves the needs of the business, they are acting in a much more strategic role. This role has often been described as the "CEO of the product" (though here is a cogent dissenting opinion). I have sometimes called this role "The Hand of the King," as it reflects the way a good product manager makes the day-to-day decisions that the king -- er, CEO -- doesn't have time for.

Another thing it reflects is that the Hand serves at the pleasure of the king and, like any employee, can be, um, dismissed easily.

Is this how you see it? Have you seen product people succeed or fail based on where they fall on this spectrum? Let me hear your stories in the comments below.



Product Priorities Start With Strategic Goals

This is the second article in a series called The Dirty Dozen Roadmap Roadblocks. In the first entry, I stated:

“A roadmap is your vision for how a product (or product line) will help achieve your organization's strategic goals.”

This next article is about setting the strategic goals that should guide the product roadmap and keep development on course. As a product manager, you need to establish an understanding between you and the executive team on the destination you are driving the product toward. Otherwise, how do you know when you've arrived?

Why are we doing this product again?

I have a psychiatrist friend who treats a lot of product managers. He says a lot of them end up frustrated in their work because they feel their executive team doesn't "get it" when they explain what their product needs. Product managers are generally a smart, analytical and strategic-thinking bunch, and my friend says they often come away thinking they are smarter than the executives that hire them.

Great CEOs are disarmingly direct and specific about the goals of the company, but often executives simply fail to explain the company strategy to their product team. Shame on them for that, but also, shame on the product manager who doesn’t ask at the outset why the company wants to do this product in the first place. What is it expected to do for the company?

Agreeing on these goals is essential in determining product strategy. Without this kind of explicit agreement, product people will naturally assume they should seek to maximize the sales of their product. This lack of direction can be disastrous for the company.

The problem with maximizing revenue

I remember a company with two new products. One product was getting traction much faster than the other, partly because it was simpler and easier to sell, but partly also because the product manager assigned to it was a stronger personality, had the confidence of the sales and development teams, and was able to direct more attention and resources to this product to ensure its success.

This was a problem because the other product was more strategically important to the company's long-term success. The first product was in a crowded marketplace with well-funded competitors and downward price pressure. It was approved by management as a short-term cash generator.

The other was unique, and more of a strategic differentiator for the company. This product could make or break the company, and it really needed more resources and attention -- but no one had told the product team (or the development or sales teams) that. Fortunately, a (belated but) unequivocal message from the C-suite set things back on course.

What is a strategic goal?

Product goals are all about solving market problems -- like improving gas mileage to reduce fuel expenses. But is solving that market problem n line with your company's strategic goals? Does it solve your company's business problems?

Wikipedia says, "a strategic military goal is used in strategic planning to define the desired end-state of a war or a campaign." In business, a strategic goal is what you want to happen as a result of meeting product goals. Revenue growth is likely to be on the list, but being more specific will provide critical guidance to the product team.


  • Grow revenue 25% in the next 12 months -- This will focus the team on features that will drive sales opportunities in the product's core market where the sales and marketing teams are equipped to execute right away.
  • Increase renewals to 80% by year end -- This will focus the team on the largest causes of churn and on fulfilling customer requests.
  • Achieve #1 market share in the next 3 years -- This will focus the team on providing more value for less cost than the competition and makes sense if you can afford thinner margins for a while, hoping to reap the benefits later.
  • Generate profitable revenue over 5 years -- This will limit investment to critical items intended to maintain revenue. It makes sense for a mature product in a stable market while you invest resources elsewhere.
  • Gain 5 referenceable customers prior to launch -- This is a frequent unspoken goal for a new product. It should be an explicit part of any beta program.
  • Increase revenue in the education market to $15 million over 18 months -- This will focus the team on understanding and meeting the needs of a market that management thinks may be a source of growth in the future. It's useful in preventing the team from focusing on optimizing things in a mature market with less potential.
  • Generate 10 "strategic" meetings this year -- This will focus the team on attention-grabbing capabilities that will interest potential investors or acquirers. It's what executives usually mean when they say they want to "generate buzz."
  • Position us to generate $100 million over the next 3-5 years -- This will move the focus away from short-term money makers toward providing a unique value proposition in a large under-served market. It's what executives mean when they say they want "disruptive," "transformative," "or "paradigm-shifting" innovation.

Choose 2-4 goals

These are very different (and sometimes incompatible) goals. Have an explicit conversation with your executive team on which of 2-4 of these (or others like them) apply to your product. This will make your job as a product person much easier by providing criteria for setting priorities. Specific goals are great argument-enders.

Product managers and other product people have a huge influence on the entire organization. Make sure you agree with your executive team on where you are driving your team, and you can be sure you are using your powers for the good of the company. (It might also help keep you off the psychiatrist’s couch.)

Trouble setting strategic goals?

If your organization’s progress toward its strategic goals is slowed by any of these roadmap roadblocks, feel free to set up a time to chat with me during my free office hours. 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.


Product Management 101

Introduction to Product Management


My friend and fellow product person, Shobhit Chugh, has created a Boston-area meetup called Startup Product Talks. The charter reads:

"Startup Product welcomes everyone passionate about product excellence, regardless of title, industry, or stage of growth, to come together to share, learn and talk about what it really takes to produce products that people love and how to build sustainable businesses and revenue streams based on product excellence."

Having admired Cindy Solomon's work with Global Product Talk and Startup Product Talks in San Francisco, Shobhit worked with Cindy to provide something similar to Boston-area product people. He'd seen a talk I did at ProductCamp Boston and asked me if I would be the first speaker for his new group.

He felt there was a need in the vibrant startup scene of Boston and Cambridge for information on how good product management works and what it can accomplish. It turns out he was right. As of this writing, the group has 129 members and our first event brought in 20.

BTW, I want to give a shout-out to Venture Cafe in Kendall Square, who donated the space for this event, and to Andrew Singleton in particular. He expertly facilitated set up and got me a beer after the session when it really hit the spot. Thanks, Andrew!

Anyway, the session was a hit and here are the slides. They are my own point of view on what product management is about, how it works in the real world, what I look for when hiring, and how to land that first gig. Speak up in the comments, product people, and let me know what I've overlooked.


Use Your Product Powers for Good

I'll never forget the day another product person called what I did "magic." I had just started as head of product for a new company. They had one successful product and they needed to get serious about branching out. Predictably, though, the executives each had strong and contradictory opinions about where the company should focus.

The first thing I did was to sit down with the CEO and ask what our strategic goals were as a company -- not our product goals (that was my job) -- but our company goals. Like any good CEO, he ticked off four SMART goals in a couple of minutes.

I spent my first month shuttling back and forth between stakeholders and talking through how each of their ideas did or did not help with our strategic goals. I then had a 90-minute meeting with the executive team where we picked our key initiatives for the year with very little argument.

That's when one of the other product people turned to me and said, "That was magic." He had been there for two years and had never seen that group of strong personalities come to agreement so easily.

Of course, it wasn't magic at all. It was what I call "product powers." These are the hidden capabilities of product people to do the nigh impossible.

Product People

Product people are often the most important people in an organization. Others play indispensable roles: A CEO should articulate a vision for the company, salespeople bring in the revenue, developers create what the company sells, finance people keep the lights on so everyone else can do their jobs. But in many organizations, the ones who take the CEO's vision and orchestrate the rest of the team to make it real are the product people.

Who Are Product People?

Product people may have titles like "product manager," "product marketing manager," or in some places "program manager." Where product people have more sway over exactly what is developed, the head of the team is now frequently called simply "VP of Product" or even "Chief Product Officer."

Many organizations have no one with "product" in their title, but this coordinating, collaborating, and directing role is played by someone in engineering, or in business development, or with a title like "corporate strategy."

Sometimes, when no one else takes the reins, marketing managers, development managers, project managers, or business analysts are drafted into this role.

What Do Product People Do?

Whatever the title, product people are the ones who make sure the right things get done in an organization. Often, they have few or no direct reports, but their job is to articulate a roadmap for the whole company to follow toward the company's strategic vision. Product people have more influence per head than any other role besides the CEO. With this power comes responsibility.

This responsibility is often to grow revenue, as in Ian Lunn's excellent definition of a product manager. But other business goals might include adoption, engagement, satisfaction, renewal rate, a new channel, or a new market.

Getting agreement on the goals that fit the company's strategic vision is the first and most important job of a product person.

Aren't Product People About Building Things?

Yeah, that's my favorite part, too. I like nothing better than sitting with my team and designing the killer featureset that I know will solve problems and delight my customer.

But many product people, unfortunately, set out to build things without strategic goals. They end up building only what customers ask for, me-too features to match the competition, or the next version for the same market, instead of branching out into new ones.

I'm not blaming product people for this. It's an enormous challenge to say "no" or "not this year" to powerful customers, executives, salespeople, investors, and partners.

Product Powers

But there is a secret power that lies dormant in many product people: the power to inspire those stakeholders with a practical path toward a common vision for the future. Used for the good of the organization, this power inspires others to do the right thing in their own jobs.

I am inspired to rededicate this blog (formerly known as User>Driven) to helping product people everywhere unleash their hidden powers - and to use them for the good of the company, its customers, partners, investors, and employees. Subscribe via RSS or email if you'd like to tag along.

Have you experienced product powers at work? Share your stories in the comments below.


Why I Hate Cable

Recently, BusinessInsider asked its readers, "Why do you hate cable?" Here is my answer.

Imagine that a bunch of your friends are talking about a book they'd all read. You haven't read it so they try to avoid spoiling it for you, but clearly they enjoyed it and enjoy talking about it, so you decide you want to read the book too.

You go to your local bookstore to buy the book but you discover the publisher has this weird business model where you can't buy just that book. You have to subscribe - for the next two years - to every book they make, and pay them hundreds of dollars a month for them all.

Remember the book of the month club? It's like that only they send you hundreds of books every month, so many there is no way you could read them all. And you don't want to read them all because they include children's books, text books for courses you're not taking, foreign language books - tons of stuff you have zero interest in.

Then you discover that the one book you wanted is actually not included in the basic subscription. The basic subscription - all these hundreds of books you won't read - only gets you the right to pay them more for the one book you do want.

In frustration, you stomp out of the bookstore, go home and google for another way to get this book. It must be easier than this, right? Thank god, you find it's possible to buy just this one book from iTunes. But wait, it turns out you can't buy it from them for a year after it's published.

That's right, the only way to avoid paying 10-20x what a book should cost every month for two years just to get in on that conversation about it with your friends, is to wait until they've moved on to the sequel.

You can't even ask one of your friends to lend you the book because, they say, they are afraid of getting sued by the publisher.

That's why I hate cable. How about you?