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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Obama and Product Management

"I first ran for Congress in 1999, and I got beat. I just got whooped...for me to run and lose that bad, I was thinking maybe this isn't what I was cut out to do. 
 But the thing that got me through that moment, and any other time that I've felt stuck, is to remind myself that it's about the work. Because if you're worrying about yourself - if you're thinking: 'Am I succeeding? Am I in the right position? Am I being appreciated?' - then you're going to end up feeling frustrated and stuck. But if you can keep it about the work, you'll always have a path. There's always something to be done."

Many a time, I have started and then given up when faced with a difficulty, or have been reduced to simply following someone else's instructions without really questioning or understanding why. And these are things I absolutely suck at - like swimming. 

In my line of work, this experience that Obama recounts is absolutely critical. Unless we're passionate about shipping the product we're building, unless we really believe that what we're building will make a difference to the customer, we will be sidelined by someone that does. More importantly, we're constantly receiving critical feedback from customers (and sometimes positive feedback as well), and we simply cannot let that bog us down. And unless we really care about making a difference, we will be bogged down and be cautious and fail to ship.

If you're in the business of shipping products, the first thing you need is the desire to make a difference to your customer. Talent and ability are secondary.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Plans are worthless

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.
- Dwight D Eisenhover

One of my friends used to tell me that I know exactly how my life will be twenty years from now, that I have it all planned out. And I used to say that, at any given point in time, I know how my life will be for the next twenty years, but also that what I know about the next twenty years is not always the same.

When you have a lot of variables to consider, which is the case in this fast paced era where the consumers have the attention span of a fly, you can almost never predict how the cards will be stacked even a few weeks into the future. 

I'm not even going to debate the need for planning despite things never going as per plan, and agree with Eisenhover when he says that planning is everything. But, the dilemma most people face is when things do start to go against plan, do you still continue to act according to plan hoping that that will bring back order to what you're doing? Or do you take a step back, re-assess the situation and make a new plan with everything that you now know?

It isn't an easy answer as plans are rarely held close to your chest. You invariably end up communicating them to your employees, your consumers, your friends. Then, it is a case of managing your credibility. If you step back and re-assess the situation and make a new plan every time things go off track, you are seen as incapable of seeing something through and getting it done. Whereas, if you stick to acting per plan despite the changes, you are seen as being too stubborn to accommodate new information and change your ways.

It's a delicate balance between the two and is one that successful companies tend to do fairly well. It is all the more important to get this right in the early stages of your company or your product as that is the time you are building your credibility in the eyes of the investors and the customers.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Grabbing Attention

Today, I watched the famous musical, Chicago, starring Renee Zellweger as Roxie. I'm not a big fan of musicals unless they are live performances, but I recommend Chicago and Nine.

[Spoiler Alert] Roxie is on death row for killing a man and the plot is about how she gets herself acquitted in court. A lot of it is done by creating a certain image of hers in the press that would make people like her and once the hearing is under way, this image will help swing the jury's verdict in her favour.

She gets so used to the publicity that once the verdict is out that she is innocent, the press photographers run out after the next big story leaving her in the court room and she runs after them yelling 'But why isn't anyone taking my pictures?' And when her lawyer, Richard Gere, congratulates her saying she's now free, she responds "You get your five thousand dollars out of this. What do I get? Nothing. I was counting on this publicity to launch my career as a dancer."

A lot of us are like Roxie, both as professionals and as individuals. Come to think of it, our companies and products are quite similar too. There is a craving for the spotlight, to be associated with the right brands and activities, to turn into something that gets picked - by an employer, by a customer, by an investor, by a significant other.

As Roxie finds out, and Kelly (Catherine Zeta Jones) before her, you can only be in the spotlight until the next big thing comes along. So, it is fruitless to base your core activities on what you think will grab the attention of the investor or the customer, because grabbing attention is only momentary. You need some substance to hold that attention before it fizzles out in search of the next flashy thing.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Threshold for compromise

The common advice you get from spiritual or religious leaders, and sometimes even from parents is that you need to have a high threshold for compromise. But no coach or mentor ever lets you entertain even a slight threshold for compromise.

If you're thinking of shipping your product, you had better listen to the coach or the mentor. Because the moment you start having a threshold for compromise, your product starts to suffer.

Airbnb and Orkut are two great examples (at either end) of this.

While Airbnb obsesses about culture and only allows those people to list their premises on the site who buy into the culture and are investing heavily in building the host community by organising several meetups, conventions and workshops the world over for disseminating best practices for the hosts. They realise that their brand is only as valuable as the service provided by the hosts listed on their site, who are not their employees. Airbnb has little threshold for compromise when it comes to the customer experience. And this is in line with the 'Belong Anywhere' branding. This is also advocated by Brian Chesky's famous 'Don't fuck up the culture' post.

Meanwhile, Orkut (a once popular social network), that many of you may not even remember, had a high threshold for compromise when it came to the user experience. They never fixed the spam profiles that eventually led to their downfall.

Now, Uber, which is in a similar position to Airbnb, even after the Delhi incident, don't seem to get the importance of this like Airbnb does.

They ought to listen to Peter Thiel's advice to Brian Chesky as well, but before they do that, they ought to build the kind of culture that is worth not fucking up. They have realised too late the need to have a low threshold for compromise, but fortunately, with time yet to fix it.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Time to get personal

You can stand out by doing something nobody else is doing, by doing what your user isn't expecting, or by doing something that fits so naturally into what your user needs at that moment. 

All of them get you the user's undivided attention, but the latter makes the user feel a sense of belonging, makes the user love what you have to offer and come back for more. 

Unfortunately, it is the toughest thing to do something that fits naturally into what the user wants at the moment. At least at first. 

All the data you collect is meaningless unless you are using it to model what the user wants at any given moment. But no user will give you data in the hope that you will some day reach this stage. In fact, the user has come to expect less than this from you because that is what she has been getting all this while. 

And now you can change that. Now you can delight.

While the start has to be in doing the unexpected, the interactions that come out of that ought to be used to build the level of trust a natural fit will bring with it. 

Otherwise, standing out doesn't serve the purpose. As you're always trying to stand out.

Once you have stood out and have been noticed, it's time to get personal.

An aside: I'm now trying to stand out through anagrams and little rhyming verses.

Photo Credit: The cover from Lee Child's latest thriller 'Personal'.