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Product Management is spreading…technologists take note!

By Saeed Khan

Back in 2000, before the tech bubble burst, I saw an interview with Steve Jurvetson – now a Managing Director at venture firm Draper Fischer Jurvetson. Steve was talking about some of the successes he had had investing in technology companies – Hotmail, Kana, and a host of others.

He stated that because the wins (i.e. successful exits for portfolio companies) were so large, they outweighed all the losses (i.e. unsuccessful investments) and he would have loved to have invested in twice as many companies to increase his returns. i.e. from his perspective, it was simply a numbers game. Double the number of investments and you get double the number of wins.

Now I’m not criticizing his abilities and I certainly can’t criticize his success. But,  there is another way to increase the number of wins, without increasing the number of investments.

If we look at the failed companies and there were some spectacular failures —  it’s pretty clear that more than a few of them knew little, if anything about a little something called Product Management.

A Note to VCs
Bringing in experienced Product Management early in a startup’s lifecycle helps brings focus, reduces risk, accelerates time to revenue and increases odds for success.

Don’t believe me?  Look through your failed investments and identify the real reasons why they failed? Was it lack of technical strength and ability to build products, or was it lack of market focus and ability to build the right products for those markets?

Still don’t believe me? Then believe Intuit Chairman Bill Campbell.

The landscape is changing
Move forward 10 short years and it’s clear that the Product Management message is starting to be heard. Yes, there are still lots of great examples of failure – Microsoft Kin, Google Wavethe Segway – but there are also a LOT of differences we can witness compared to 10 years ago.

People are writing about Product Management

First, people are writing about Product Management everywhere, and in ways and volumes that didn’t exist 10 years ago.

Blogs – Product Managers cannot be described as introverts. And from the volume of blogs (well over 100 and still growing) that cover Product Management, we’re definitely spreading the word.

Analysts – I’m sure there are others, but I only know of one analyst focused on the topic of Product Management. He is in fact, the self-proclaimed BFF of Product Managers, and a very smart guy. I’m sure you know him, but if not, get to know Forrester Analyst Tom Grant.

Books -There are now some great books on the topic. There are many out there, but a few notable ones include:

People are teaching others about Product Management
5 years ago, if was almost impossible to find any events focused on Product Management or Product Marketing. But there were lots of conferences for developers, marketers, sales people etc. The PDMA was probably the biggest (and only?) association focusing on product leaders and product success.

Today we have ProductCamps on 4 continents, in dozens of cities. They are a community run activity, free to all attendees, and supported financially by a diverse group of enlightened sponsors who see the value of educating people on the subject.

Our own Prabhakar Gopalan attended ProductCamp Austin last weekend and posted his thoughts as well as videos of a couple of the presenters. Prabhakar sees ProductCamps as a type of “open source” alternative to expensive commercial conferences.

Paul Young, one of the founders of ProductCamp Austin, posted his perspective as well.  Paul’s advice is:

If you want to be a thought leader in product management today, you need to present in front of your peers at a ProductCamp.  It will be one of the most intense, but rewarding experiences of your career.

People are putting structure around Product Management
Pragmatic Marketing’s grid of Product Management tasks/responsibilities has been around a long time. They’ve modified it slightly over time, but virtually everyone in Product Management that I’ve met has seen that grid, if not taken one of their classes. For a long time, that was pretty much the only structure you could find on the topic.

But today, there are many examples of structure if you look around.

Many Product Management consulting and training companies – you can see a list of many of them here — have analogous grids showing how to decompose the PM role.

And what else is the Lean Startup model along with concepts like  Minimum Viable Product, Customer Development and Product-Market fit, if not attempts to embody Product Management concepts into a structure that people can follow? They’re not perfect, but they’re not bad either.

I even created my own grid (of sorts) to help define the Product Management process.

A few money men are seeing the light
Although many funders are still rather out of touch with the value of Product Management – many Web 2.0 investments attest to that – a few do seem to get it.

OpenView Venture Partners is one such firm. I worked for a startup funded by them so I know firsthand. But beyond that, they regularly espouse the value of Product Management to their portfolio companies. They write a lot about it on their blog, and I’m flattered as they even reference some articles that I’ve written. 🙂

Paul Graham’s YCombinator funds at the seed stage and takes a different approach to funding startups than many seed or angel investors,  but their goals are the same: enable founders to build successful products and companies.

But not everyone is hearing the message (yet)
There are still the naysayers out there. Some claim that Product Management is not needed in SaaS/Cloud software companies.

And there seems to be evidence to dispute the value of Product Managers. Facebook is  very successful by letting the developers call the shots.

And others, like Malhalo’s Jason Calcanis,  think that firing all their Product Managers, and following the Facebook model is their road to success.

Thankfully, voices from the Product Management community spoke clearly to refute this. You must read these posts from Tom Grant and Scott Sehlhorst.

Scott sums it up very eloquently:

Eliminating product managers does not eliminate product management.

So what’s next?
I honestly think we’ve hit an inflection point. It has never been easier to create a high-tech product. Unfortunately, as Jim Holland observed at the recent Consumer Electronics Show this just makes it easier to build bad products quickly.

There were some new and innovative products and technology categories worth mentioning and some of the same stuff we’ve heard about for several years… [and] there was a lot of crap. It’s a shame really. You know the products. Ones that were designed and developed because they COULD, not because they SHOULD.

Another example of how easy it is to create a technology product: a self-taught 14 year old can write an iPhone application that was downloaded 2,000,000 times in just 2 weeks.

Technology used to be a differentiator in a competitive market place. Not any more.  Winning companies will be those who can embed product leadership principles throughout their organization. It’s not just about being “innovative”, but about ensuring there is a repeatable, scalable and adaptable discipline of product management inside the organization.

Success is not a game of chance, or a numbers game like Steve Jurvetson described it in 2000. It’s about connecting the dots, seeing the patterns and identifying opportunities. It’s about having the focus to take the right risks and quickly react to new obstacles to deliver winning products to market. And it’s about ensuring you can do it again and again and again. That’s what good Product Management delivers, and that’s the future we should work towards.


Tweet this: @onpm Product Management is spreading…technologists take note! #prodmgmt #innovation #leadership


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