Focus on two priorities

Most product managers, marketers, and developers have an infinite queue of things to be done. The challenge for many (including me) is to stay focused on the things that really matter. You can easily get distracted by the “noise” and miss the ideas that are vital.

Use a simple model for prioritizing.

Will the thing you’re doing (a feature, a meeting, a sales call, anything) increase the number of customers or increase product profit? Or both?

Obviously, features and activities that increase customer share and product profits are the goal. Things that do neither—that is, don’t increase the number of customers and don’t increase profits—should be rejected, shouldn’t they? Some items may not increase customer count but will decrease churn so those items count too.

Once you’ve rejected the low-value distractions, you’re likely to find you still have more items than resources. Use the quick prioritization technique to filter your ideas even further.

Prioritization is a key skill for product managers. Make it part of your product playbook.

Speaking in September at Business of Software 2016

Just registered to attend Business of Software as a speaker in September. Was delighted with this response in the registration confirmation:

“On the day, please bring this ticket to the event entrance on a digital device of your choosing or print a paper version and we can all have a laugh at how old fashioned that is.”


If you’re attending, be sure to look me up.

What are you NOT? Defining your competitive position

When considering how to communicate your value proposition, many firms try to reveal how they’re better (slightly better) than the competitor—sometimes in really subtle but irrelevant ways.

“We use 257-bit encryption—that is a whole bit better than our competitor.”

“Better” only makes sense when it’s a lot better. A LOT better. Like, 2048-bit encryption. Or, “we use FIPS 140-2 Level 4 Protection.”


Instead of trying to show how you’re better, show how you are the exact opposite from your competitor. They are that, we are NOT that.

McDonald’s is standard and consistent; we are not. Every hamburger we make is a custom work of art, designed and delivered specifically to your requirements.

McDonald’s offers an extended menu of choices; we don’t. We offer great hamburgers, fries, cokes and beer. Go elsewhere if you want a salad, fancy coffee, or a chicken sandwich.

McDonald’s is the preferred choice for family eating; we’re not. We don’t have high-chairs or sippy-cups. Or happy meals. Oh, and while we’re at it, please just leave your kids at home, okay? We’re the choice of adults who love great hamburgers with loads of fries.

Don’t be better.

Be A LOT better.

Or be completely DIFFERENT.


Moneyball marketing

Let’s apply the concepts of Moneyball to marketing.

Perhaps the book that most influenced me recently was Moneyball, by Michael Lewis, first published in 2004. As I read it, I couldn’t help but find parallels between the folklore of baseball and that of marketing.

In short, the baseball establishment put great faith in traditional beliefs: for example, the ability to steal bases is considered a critical skill. Yet the numbers tell a completely different story. Looking at the data, stolen bases rarely benefit the team in terms of winning games.

Traditional scouts looked for the five “tools” of baseball: the ability to run, throw, field, hit, and hit with power. Yet despite excelling in these skills, the book’s protagonist, Billy Beane, general manager of MLB’s Oakland A’s, failed as a big club player.

The book is essentially “blue ocean strategy meets baseball.” In Blue Ocean Strategy, the authors explore companies like Cirque du Soleil to explain the difference between folklore and facts. Cirque du Soleil found success by rejecting the “must have” features of the circus business—particularly expensive animals and famous clowns with their big-time costs—to create a new kind of circus based on what customers really valued.

Given the heavily publicized salaries of players for teams like the Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees, baseball insiders and fans assume that the biggest talents deserve to get the biggest salaries. With massive amounts of carefully interpreted statistical data, Beane found that wins could be had by more affordable methods, such as hitters with high on-base percentage and pitchers who get lots of ground outs.

Many today rely on similar marketing folklore: the value of trade shows and events; the need for programs to generate sales leads; the value of advertising.

I love going to trade shows personally but I hate them as a lead source. In fact, for most companies, trade shows are worthless as source of leads and awareness. Yet most amateur marketers and sales people insist that trade shows are critical events.

And for your company, trade shows may in fact be valuable… but only if you can prove it.

Let’s put trade shows through the moneyball machine: Can you show causation between trade show activity and revenue? Did you get any leads that weren’t already in your database? How many new customers did you gain?

And how many customers could your sales people have visited face-to-face for a fraction of the cost of a trade show? How many names exist in your sales database? Have your sales people contacted them? I’m told only one lead in three is ever contacted by a sales person. Seems like they should take care of the leads we already gave them before giving them more.

But this isn’t a rant on sales people. It’s a rant against traditional views of marketing promotions. How do you measure success for your programs? Can you justify the time and resources?

There’s only so much time and money available. Don’t waste them on programs that are ineffective.

Can you leapfrog the competition?

Have you heard this one?

“We’re really behind but, with our new plan, we’re going to leapfrog the competition.”  

Really? How?

If your product is deficient in capabilities that your competitors have already delivered, you expend the majority of your development resource just catching up. After all, there are must-have features in every product—the ones you need just to be considered viable. But to jump ahead, you need to address these basic competitive features and also allocate resources to do work beyond the basics.

To “leapfrog the competition,” you need to out-spend them.

But more than that, you need to out-learn them.

To jump ahead, your team needs to learn what your competitors have already experienced.

One way to out-learn the competitor is to narrow your focus. Instead of matching them feature for feature, focus on a specific persona in a narrow market and build only those features the market segment requires. Learn everything there is to know about this persona and you can win against any competitor offering a generic product. But focusing on a smaller market is a tough sell internally; executives and sales people have tremendous difficulty staying focused on a niche.

Honestly, I can’t think of a technology company who has had success with a leapfrog strategy—unless they made the leap through acquisition. With an acquisition, you acquire the knowledge—at a premium. Your product team didn’t learn; you bought the learning.

At every stage of the product life cycle, you’re balancing resources against demand. In the startup phase, you’re striving to meet 100% of the needs of your clients. Focus is the best way to stay ahead of the competition.

Powerful techniques for product launch

So many product managers focus on the BUILD aspects of product but forget about empowering the launch and its promotion. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about launch techniques.

It’s helpful to understand that product release is the end of development; product launch is the beginning of promotion. Developers work forward to a release date; everyone else works backward from a launch date. That’s why many product teams have a product manager working with development to prepare the company for release while a product marketing manager works with sales and marketing to prepare the company for launch.

A technique I like is to approach launch the same way you approach building and releasing a product. When working with development, we have a set of requirements, we collaborate on the design of the solution, and then we accept completion of the features based on seeing them in a demo.

Shouldn’t we use the same approach in managing a launch?

The launch team defines a series of tasks and assigns responsibilities. At the periodic launch meetings, the launch manager (that is, the product manager, the product marketing, or whoever is in charge) confirms completion of the task with a demo. Suppose we have decided to put out a press release with the launch and have assigned someone to write it. At one of the meetings leading up to a launch, we learn that the press release is complete. The launch manager reviews it, accepts it, and declares it ready for the market. Just like a feature in development.

And who is this “launch manager?” Sometimes the product manager runs each launch but nowadays we often see a product marketing manager or a dedicated launch manager taking the lead.

Launch is a critical step in your product playbook. When thinking about the product life cycle, don’t forget to look beyond product development to product delivery—all the things necessary to get the product into the hands of your customers and prospects.

Want to know more? See my blog posts on Executing a Soft Launch and how Amazon launched the Echo using this technique.

Two kinds of sales people. Which do you need?

There are two types of sales people: order-takers and rainmakers. Which do you need?

I often hear developers complain “our sales people are just order-takers”—but isn’t that what they should be? If you’ve created a complete product that solves a problem for a specific market segment, selling is immensely easier.

What makes it hard—and why you need “real” sales people—is when you’ve created a set of technologies that doesn’t solve a market problem. Meaning, the sales people need to push the client to buy with promises of future features rather than simply explaining the product and taking orders.

These sales people are deal makers and rainmakers. They look for clients with money who need problems solved, and they bring those problems back to the product team for resolution. They sell what you don’t have and require the product team to fill in the missing pieces.

Rainmakers are, in effect, a primary marketing program. Since you didn’t start with a persona or market segment, you rely on these sales people to sell to their personal contacts—people they’ve sold to before. And since you didn’t solve a problem for that segment, you have an incomplete solution for everyone.

The ideal scenario is to sell what you have to people who need it. That requires product management and development to target an ideal persona and create a product that sells itself.

Using Gilligan’s Island for positioning

In the sixth season of Mad Men, the episode called “A Man with a Plan” introduced a new concept—at least it was new to me: What character from Gilligan’s Island is your product?

The ad men’s challenge was positioning margarine against butter: do we position our margarine as premium, low-cost, middle of the road, or something else?

Now, I can easily see using characters from TV show for buyer personas (although I’d probably be inclined to use Star Trek instead of Gilligan). Thurston Howell III & “Lovey” want to be seen as elite, so they would choose the premium brand regardless of cost. Ginger loves status and fame so she’d be inclined to buy a product recommended by famous people.

But can you apply this TV character approach to a product or brand? And what other TV shows would make a good short-hand for personas and positioning?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments.

Amazon Echo and the Soft Launch

amazon echoA good example of a soft launch is Amazon’s introduction of Echo in 2014. It was first available by invitation only to top-tier of Amazon’s Prime customers—a group inclined to be both supportive and enthusiastic. Once supply increased, all Prime members were allowed to order Echo and then in 2016 the product was available to any Amazon customer.

And in a nice bit of synergy, those who order Echo will surely want to subscribe to Amazon Prime, if only for access to the Prime music catalog.

Similarly, the Echo Dot is a baby brother to the Echo without the big speaker. And it’s only available for order via Amazon’s Echo. Echo Dot is available in limited quantities and exclusively for Prime members through Alexa Voice Shopping. Currently there’s a one month waiting list. To order one, you just ask: “Alexa, order an Echo Dot.”

Again, the audience most likely to adopt is your existing satisfied customers. Roll it to a broader audience when capacity increases. And don’t just think about supply in context of hardware, also think about capacity of people. Sales people, support, marketing, and product management all have capacity issues that are stressed when a product is launched. Make sure you’re optimizing your resources with a soft launch.

Executing a soft launch


Meghan was hired a few weeks before an initial product launch. She couldn’t find many of the core product pieces so she was forced to start from scratch. She jumped right in to understand personas and problems so she could define the product positioning. And she planned a “soft launch.”

In her last company, the sales force was desperate for something new to promote to their customers and they put pressure on product management to rush a product to market. For that matter, the executives were anxious to have some revenues to offset all the development costs. Clearly a BIG SPLASH was the way to go.

But alas, the big launch was a failure.

It’s a typical story for many product leaders. In between meetings, Meghan developed a presentation and demo and then trained the sales force—at least the ones who attended—on the product. Every sales person made plans to show the new product to their top customers and needed the product manager to go along to support each sale. Overnight, Meghan’s calendar was filled with more client visits than she could handle and the sales guys complained she was not supporting them. And on the first few client calls she could fit into her schedule, she realized the messaging wasn’t quite right, a few new sales enablement tools were needed, and she discovered a few critical features that were missing.

The “big launch” approach often fails because you haven’t perfected the go-to-market materials. And really, how could you? You’ve been spending the majority of your time in development trying to get a product into the market.

It’s helpful to understand that product release is the end of development; product launch is the beginning of promotion. Developers work forward to a release date; everyone else works backward from a launch date. That’s why many product teams have a product manager working with development to prepare the company for release while a product marketing manager works with sales and marketing to prepare the company for launch.

And not every release is launched.

Your firm may do frequent or continuous deployment but it’s unlikely you’ll do product launches more than a few times each year. Most companies are only resourced to do one or two major product launches annually.

Instead of a BIG SPLASH and a roll-out to the entire sales force, begin with a soft launch or a product preview. Roll the product out to one small geography or a subset of your sales people. Make the new product available to a small group, only two or three sales people. Then the product manager (or product marketing manager) moves his or her focus from development to delivery, taking on the role of field engineer. And uses the time to perfect the go-to-market tools.

You can’t support a hundred sales people but you can support a few. Go on sales calls, observe what works and what doesn’t, take notes on what the sales team and the clients are saying about the product and the problems it solves. Go for a meal after each call and chat with the sales people about what they’re seeing.

To quote my friend Saeed Khan, “you should nail it before you scale it.” Get it right, working with a small sales team, and when you’ve nailed it, you can roll it out to the entire sales team with sales tools and messaging that have been perfected.


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