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ProductCamp Austin Winter 2009

I’m proud to announce that we are bringing ProductCamp back to Austin for an encore!  The first ProductCamp Austin had amazing participation from the Austin and Central Texas area, with over 130 people signing up and about 90 participate back in June.  ProductCamp Austin Winter will have more people, more sessions, and be better in every way – if are are in Product Management, Marketing, or Product Development and can get to Austin on Jan 24th, this is the event you want to participate in – and it is free.

What is ProductCamp?

ProductCamp is an unconference.  An unconference takes the old, stogy idea of a conference and turns it on its side.  Instead of corporations paying for boring keynote speakers talking and waving their hands, you have the participants in the conference leading all discussion sessions.  ProductCamp is a meritocracy, or perhaps a participatocracy – anyone can lead a session on any topic relevant to product management or marketing.

At the first ProductCamp, we had sessions ranging from career advancement for product managers, to intellectual property discussions, to working with Agile development organizations, to working effectively with Sales and Executives, to user interface design.  ProductCamp attracts a broad and diverse crowd of smart people who “get it,” so the networking is really good and the discussions are rich and rewarding.

Describe the ProductCamp Experience…

It’s Saturday January 24, 2009 and you wake up way to early for a weekend and head down to the UT campus.  You park and walk up to the College of Communications and follow the signs to ProductCamp.  As you ride the elevator up to the 4th floor, there are three other people with you looking confused.  “Are you here for ProductCamp?” “Yeah, this should be interesting…”

You exit the elevator and see a registration table with people milling around it.  As you make your way to the front, you recognize a few familiar faces from other companies.  You give your name to the PCA volunteer at the table and he hands you a badge and a goodie bag with a PCA shirt in your size.  You make a beeline to the coffee.

As you get your coffee, you notice that ProductCamp has attracted all types – managers, developers and engineers, academics, startup junkies, and everything in between – and these people are talking to one another.  Someone is rambling about their startup, and other person is educating a small group about Twitter: “ProductCamp has its own Twitter ID, here’s how you follow it…”

After chatting for a few more minutes, a PCA volunteer calls everyone into one of the rooms.  The studios at UT are huge, with 40 foot ceilings and have seen much use and abuse over the years.  As you walk in, a volunteer hands you three post-it notes and you wonder “why just three?”  The room has a projector showing a “Welcome to ProductCamp” slide.  Someone gets up and introduces themself as a ProductCamp planner and thanks the sponsor for breakfast.  Next, someone gets up and gives a short minute intro on the open grid scheduling process.  You listen as you’re told to put vote with your sticky notes under the three sessions you’d most like to attend, which are listed on the back wall.

You head to the back wall and read the session names, offered by people just like you.  You recognize a friend-of-a-friend’s name who is giving a session about “Connecting with Customers.”  That sounds good – you use one post-it note.  You see another session about “Agile Product Management.”  Your engineering team is moving to Agile so that might be a good session to attend, and use your second note.  As you step back to consider your third note, you see a dozen other people doing the same thing, and people feel geniuely torn about what to vote for – there are so many good sessions to choose from!  Finally, you put your last sticky on a session called “Career Building in Product Management and Marketing.”

You walk back to your seat and see the PCA volunteers start to rapidly count the votes.  Someone gets up and explains that they are determing which sessions are most in-demand so that they don’t overlap on the schedule.  While the volunteers assemble the schedule, a ProductCamp planner gets up to talk about what ProductCamp is and why everyone is here.  He says things like “ProductCamp is for starting conversations, not finishing them – it’s OK if these discussions spill out onto email, blogs, forums, twitter, or facebook.” “Learn from each other’s collective experiences, but challenge each other – speak up if you hear something that you agree or disagree with.”  You think “wow, this is definitely not a normal conference.”

The planners announce that the schedule has been set, and the crowd huddles around the posted schedule to see which sessoins they are going to attend.  You notice that your favorite sessions are at 10-11, 1-2, and 2-3, and you fill your schedule with other sessions you think sound interesting, including a roundtable discussion.  You refill your coffee and head to the first session in Studio 4E…

As you walk in, you see 20 other people looking at each other and wondering how this is going to work.  The session leader is welcoming everyone and making introductions, and you see her slide projected with the session title “Roundtable: Working with Sales.”  The session leader gives a quick facilitation of 1-2 slides and kicks off the discussion by talking about a recent scenario where she introduced a new product to Sales and was immediately met with hostility from the Sales team.  The questions fly quickly “was the pricing right?” “how is your relationship with them normally?” “How did you explain the value of the product?” “Does that product solve a customer problem?” “Did you just repackage one of your existing solutions?” “Is sales compensated correctly on your product?”  The Q&A continues and the facilitator guides the discussion into new areas: how to be effective with your sales leadership, how to get sales buy-in for new product launches, how to end-of-life a product with sales, and so on.  Through the discussion you furiously type notes out on your laptop as you try to capture some of the great ideas that the team is generating.

The hour-long session feels like it is over as soon as it begins.  You wish it could continue, but you only have a few minutes to get to your next session.  You quickly introduce yourself to the facilitator and a few other people you were impressed with and exchange business cards.  You notice that they have their Twitter ID’s on their badges and quickly follow them on Twitter.

You go through two more sessions before lunch and meet several impressive people.  You think “I need to keep these people on file because they might be good if I’m hiring or looking for a job.”  You grab a plate of catered lunch and sit down with some of your new friends and talk about the sessions they attended so you can get the scoop on what you missed.

After lunch, you hit 4 more sessions.  By the end of the day, you are spent, physically and mentally.  As everyone filters out, people are already talking about the next ProductCamp and what sessions they plan to offer, and you think that maybe this isn’t so hard, and you’ll offer a session next time, too!  A group breaks off to do an official ProductCamp happy hour, and you join in few a few drinks.  The week after ProductCamp, you email some of your new connections to grab lunch – it’s great to keep the network fresh.

I hope that this gives you a taste of what to expect at ProductCamp.  After running one, I was very excited to lead another, and have high hopes for ProductCamp Austin Winter 2009.  I look forward to meeting you at ProductCamp!

Go Register for ProductCamp!

Apple’s App Store: The Rise of Transitionware?

The iPhone 3G product launch has had the kind of hype (and reality) that businesses dream about. To date, there are well over 1M phones sold and over 10M downloads from the iTunes app store. Apple’s newest creation opens the door to new revenue streams, but also strikes a new balance of power between the application developer, the channel, and the user. Some of Apple’s curious design choices may also be carving out a new pricing strategy: apps that start free, then later move to a paid model – “Transitionware.”

If you have iTunes and an iPhone or iPod Touch, you can access the app store. There are thousands of applications across many different categories like productivity, games, and finance. Apple segments the offers into “Paid,” and “Free.” Paid apps can range from $0.99 to $999, set by the developer, and Apple takes a cut of the revenue. Every app has a 1-5 star rating, voted on by the users, and an open commenting system. Anyone can review or rate any application, even if they haven’t purchased the app they are reviewing.

During the first month of the app store, there was a proliferation of simple free apps: flashlight (turns your iPhone screen white for use in the dark), to do lists, lightsaber, etc. The reviewers tended to cut (some) slack to the free applications. For example, some reviews of the free game iGolf:

Good Game
(5/5 stars) by: Rubayath

Great game, it reminds me of my gf’s Wii, and hte best thing is, it’s FREE.

It’s Decent
(4/5 stars) by: The ace of hats

Amusing game for free. Increainly [sic] unrealistic. My high score is 520 yards. Hold on tight to the phone.

Paid apps got no such treatment. Some samples from the game iFish:

This is worse than just bad
(1/5 stars) by S.S.S. Truck Driver

This is worse than just bad. It seems to be unplayable. Dose [sic] nothing at all that I can see. And no instructions at all…Dont [sic] get it even if it were free.

This should be free
(1/5 stars) by chr1s60

Extremely boring and pointless. The game is too difficult and the graphics and display are plain and boring. The sound is ok, but aside form that there is nothing even slightly positive about this game.

If you review more of the comments, you’ll find many from people posting opinions about the applications who haven’t even tried them! It’s no surprise that people like free better than they like to pay. The average rating for the across the top 25 free apps is 3.96, for paid it is 3.70. If you are a business, how can you take advantage of the goodwill of reviewers who like free, and still turn a profit?

Avatron has a different strategy for their Air Sharing application. For the first two weeks, they are offering their app for free, before the price transitions to the normal $6.99. The result has been amazing – highly rated reviews, and they are the #1 listed app under their category in the app store.

Lots of companies have used try-before-you-buy strategies in the past, usually in the form of demoware or low-cost student licensing. Jott recently transitioned out of beta (“free”) and into production (“paid”). The difference is that Air Sharing is a fully functional app, and users who got in during the free period will retain their functionality.

In the app store, buyers are making impulse purchases based largely on the advice of other iTunes users. Because of Apple’s walled garden, the first place that most users see an app is in iTunes. If the app is rated low, it’s done before it begins, so the ratings of the first few reviewers count more than ratings of later reviewers. The average rating on the Internet is 4 out of 5, so anything less than 4 is a death sentence.

Avatron’s strategy is brilliant because it captures lots of positive feedback from users who are happy to get a “deal” on a free app and reward them with a 4 or 5 star rating (currently 4.5 stars). It builds hype because those users feel like they are part of the in-crowd who got in on a special deal early, and the ticking clock drives media coverage (“get in now before it’s too late!”) that you need for a launch.

The coolest part about this method is that it taps into OPT – Other People’s Time. One of the key takeaways from David Meerman Scott’s writing is that you are what you publish. Good advice, but I’ll take it a step further and say “You are what others publish about you.” You can never have as much street cred online as reviewers of your product have. Reviews have become so ubiquitous, it’s startling to go buy a product and not see reviews – you get suspicious. BazaarVoice has built a company around it.

I predict that many more companies will adopt the “transitionware” approach to launching software in iTunes. The power of the crowd demands our respect!

How Technical Should a Product Manager Be?

Recently, the CrankyPM was in top form with her post about the 6 Types of Software Engineers. That kicked up an interesting response from a developer, who attempted to classify the 4 Types of Product Managers. The response post re-raised the age old Product Management qualification question: “How Technical Should a Product Manager Be?”

There are two big philosophical battles for Product Manager qualifications: level of technical competence, and level of domain expertise. Arguments for more technical include:

  • Less likely to be B.S.’d by development
  • More easily builds rapport with development
  • Understands what is possible

Arguments for less technical include:

  • Won’t be tempted to get “in the weeds.
  • More outside-in than inside-out focused
  • Doesn’t filter requests to development based on own biases of what is possible

I actually started my career as a developer. To the point of the article linked above, I wasn’t a “guru,” but I sought to get out of development because I didn’t want to always be implementing someone else’s vision. I am thankful for that experience today because I do feel like it enables me to speak with developers more on their terms and relate to the challenges that they face. I’m not just a PHB saying “here’s the date – make it happen!” It helps, and as a PM having a good relationship with your team is important. However, it also leads to one of the biggest myths of Product Management…

“Being Technical Enables me to Know When Development is the Schedule.” It doesn’t matter how good your relationship with development is, you don’t know if they are padding the schedule (or rather, how much). Most development teams have no idea of how long a feature will take to build. Even if they did know exactly, unless you are in the code and are familiar with everyone’s workload and skills you’re not going to know.

There are at least two ways around this problem: Evidence based scheduling, which looks at past performance against projected schedules as an indicator of how much to trust a developer’s estimate, and Agile, where you can lock in dates and flex scope instead (which just shifts your problem from dates to scope).

The other knock against being too technical is that you will filter requirements into development based on your own biases of what is possible. A Product Manager should not know or care about how a solution is implemented, only the time and cost to fulfill the requirement. If the requirement is “The lawn shall be cut to 2.5 inches above ground level every 2 weeks” do we care if the solution is a lawn mower vs. a billy goat vs. 75 developers with scissors? No!

It is the job of development to tell us how much something costs, and our job to go into the equation assuming anything is possible. “Man on Mars?” Sure – 100 Trillion dollars and 35 years! “100 MPG car?” 15 Billion dollars and 7 years. “Invisibility cloak?” OK, some things aren’t currently possible (yet). But put in the requirement, because developers get off on a challenge!

Another way to get accurate info from Development is trust. If you have a good relationship with the Alpha Dog developer, they will tell you how confident they are in an estimate or how much they are padding. But beware – I’ve seen junior PM’s turn around a give this info to management thinking that it will get them recognition. Worst. Decision. Ever. The VP hears that the schedule is padded 3 weeks, trims the timeline by the same, and your bridge with Development gets burned down. Poke and prod for details, but keep it “in the family.”

A final note on the “technical” product manager: every minute you spend talking to a developer is a minute you are not spending listening to a customer or potential.

How technical do you think a PM needs to be?

How to Be Strategic

Roman Helmet“You should be more strategic.” “Product Management needs to focus on the strategic.” “I’d love to be more strategic, if only I wasn’t stuck doing all of these tactical things!”

Do any of the above sound familiar to you? Being asked to be more strategic, or wishing to become more strategic has been around as long as someone called themselves a Product Manager, but what does it really mean? How can you become more strategic when everyone is vying for your time – all the time?

Strategic is a term that has lost meaning since it became part of the Executive lexicon. Everyone wants to “be strategic,” because in the information economy we associate the most value with the people who come up with the best thoughts. Being tactical is, amazingly, viewed as a negative. You can hear the connotation drip from people’s mouths when they say it: “Oh, he’s a good candidate, but I think he’s too tactical.” Everyone wants to be the chef, no one the waiter…as if the food will cook itself and walk out to our customer’s tables.

Wikipedia defines strategy as:

“…a long term plan of action designed to achieve a particular goal, most often “winning.” Strategy is differentiated from tactics or immediate actions with resources at hand by its nature of being extensively premeditated, and often practically rehearsed. Strategies are used to make the problem easier to understand and solve.”

You can boil that down to strategy is about having the best plan. Whenever I hear people talk about not being strategic enough (or I catch myself doing it), three thoughts immediately pop into my head:

  1. Being strategic is not binary; you don’t wake up one day and say “today I am strategic!” It is a journey and a destination.
  2. If your goal for being strategic is to be well regarded, to be a leader, and to “win,” remember that people follow leaders that inspire not only by their words but by their actions. Even great strategic thinkers have to get into the tactical muck and implement their grand plans.
  3. You can control how strategic you are by your own actions. If being strategic is about having the best plan, and by extension the best/smartest/most agile thoughts, you can train your brain to be a step ahead of your competition and your peers. Here are some thoughts on how.

I’ve been fortunate to work with some really bright thinkers so far in my career and picked up a few tips on how to be a more agile thinker. Everyone has their own processing style, for instance I like to digest and think on a topic for awhile before coming up with a plan of action, but you might be a snap thinker who can do all of this on the fly – if so you’re ahead of me! Note that some of these questions overlap in scope.

Ways to be a Strategic Thinker

  • If we take the current action, what will be the downstream results to X, Y, Z? How will they likely react? How will we counter-react? You can’t get through a strategy discussion without a chess analogy, so here you go. These questions help you anticipate the moves of your competition, channel, etc, and decide beforehand how you want to react, so you’re not caught flat footed.
  • Who and what else are connected to this decision? How will this affect them? I like this question because it forces you to think through the implications of your decisions early. It’s easy to sit back and say “let’s change our distribution model” or “let’s move to SaaS!,” but being able to accurately predict and describe the challenges of plan of action will help guide you to the best choice.
  • Ask the Five Why’s; This sounds like a something out of a kung fu movie, but the Five Why’s are real. Five Why’s is a B-school/consulting method that says if you ask “why” at least 5 times you can get to the root of the problem. It’s all about digging deeper. Observe:

“I hate your company.”


“Because I have to wait for tech support for 3 hours to get someone on the phone!”


“Because your product didn’t work right when I plugged it in!”


“Because when I went to training they didn’t tell me I needed to hold the reset button while I plugged it in to load the factory settings!”


“Because your training is a joke, it’s all sales and no technical!”


“I only went because I couldn’t get a sales guy to call me back!”

In this example what appeared to be a product problem may actually be a sales, training, and support problem..

  • What external influences will affect me in the future? If your competition introduced a product tomorrow with the same features as yours at half the price, how would you react?
  • What internal influences will affect me in the future? If your company downsized and you lost half of your development staff, how would you react? What if you faced mega sales and had to quickly scale up?
  • Where is “good enough” okay, and where do we really need to invest to provide an out-of-this world experience? You can’t do everything perfect all of the time.
  • If I had unlimited funds, what one product development would move the revenue/profit/customer satisfaction needle more than all others? Which needle is more important to move?
  • If I had only one development dollar, where would I put it and why? This is closely related to the question above it.
  • Why are we winning today? Why are we losing? You need to understand your current stance if you want to build a solid future plan.
  • What do we do better than everyone else? Do you understand your core competency?
  • What problem do we need to solve for the customer? If you don’t know this…find out fast because it’s probably different than your assumption.
  • What barriers exist to prevent us from winning? Is it better to smash through those barriers, or route around them? Sometimes the only road to winning is to go through a competitor. But it’s 3-5x more difficult/expensive to gain a new customer than to recruit business from existing customers. Is there a way to win business without a head on confrontation?
  • What can we do that’s never been done before? I love this question because it’s challenging. It doesn’t just apply to engineering either, you can apply it to Marketing and Sales as well.

What other ways do you use to be a better strategic thinker?