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startup

Hibernating an Idea

If you’re a type-A person, you believe that you can do anything.  If you’re innovative and entrepreneurial, and are crazy enough to believe you have the idea and drive to change the world in the form of a company, you might even qualify as insane.  However, there comes a time where you need to shut down an idea, even if you think it is still good, because you can’t make the time or energy to see it through.  That time for me is now.

Earlier this year I wrote a little about a project that I had started on the side, which I called Leaf.  Leaf is a project I’ve had in my mind for several years, and continued to change it and develop it, even banging out a little code, until my wife finally said “if this idea is eating you up, you need to get serious about it or kill it.”  So I did – after thinking about it for a long time, I eventually hooked up with Kevin Koym and his team at TechRanch Austin, a local tech incubator.

TechRanch was running an 8-week crash course at the time called “Employee to Entrepreneur (now called Venture Forth).”  The premise of the class was how do you go from idea to implementation and make the move from being an employee to running your own business.  Each of the dozen or so people in the class had different ideas and were at different stages of development.  The class was eye opening: I was doing it wrong.  We all gravitate towards our comfort zone, and in my case I was trying to scratch an itch myself and write my own code, not following my own advice and being the President of my product (or company, for that matter).  Most startups don’t make it past the idea phase, let alone get funded, and I was falling into that trap.  After the idea phase, most companies fail to focus enough – the second trap I fell into.  I can’t lavish enough praise on the TechRanch team, they know what they are doing and if you’re in the Central Texas area I encourage you to become a rancher – they have lots of free and low-cost options for you to engage with their community.

I invested a good deal of time and money in hatching an alpha version of my idea as an experiment to see if it had legs.  To get out of my own way I even hired an (excellent) prototyper in Ninth Yard to build it for me so I could focus on the product management.  Damon (my developer) would tell you that he probably thought I was crazy because most entrepreneurs don’t come to the first meeting sporting wireframes and database maps.  I did.

We had an intense period of time where we had the idea under development, going through revisions and ultimately unveiling it at ProductCamp Austin.  That created some controversy, but ended up for the best.  The idea had some traction and a couple hundred people got online and tried it out.  I ended up learning a ton and have a list a mile long of what needs to change, both in the product and the positioning.  Unfortunately, that list is as far as those ideas will probably go.

Effective immediately, I’m mothballing Leaf .  I’ve found that with two kids and a new role, I have a time deficit.   Leaf might be something someday…or not, odds are against it.  It’s easy to be envious of the 20-year old zillionaires that had “obvious” ideas and got there first.  However, I’m not envious (OK, maybe a little), because I learned a ton in my failure.  “The Idea” is necessary but not sufficient for success.  That is one of those sayings that seems obvious from the outside but when you’re holding the idea that you think will change The World it rings hollow.  Execution, talent, and quick traction are equally if not more important than your idea – because rarely will your idea end up as you originally envisioned it.

If you tried out Leaf during its brief lifetime, thanks!  Hopefully some day it will return, more tightly focused and helping you do something you need.   Until then, it is in hibernation.

The Big Company Survival Kit for Startup PM’s

There is so much territory to cover on this topic that this is probably the beginning of another series.  This post focuses on differences and expectation setting between small and big companies, and lessons learned making the leap between the two.

I’ve always considered myself a startup kind of guy, and for the past two years I ran Product Management at a small company called NetStreams.  However, two months ago an opportunity came up that I had to consider, and ultimately took, to help Dell build out their SaaS business.  Over these two months I’ve formed some new opinions about how Product Management is different at a small company vs. a large company.  Now that I’ve bounced between small and large (NetSolve to Cisco to NetStreams to Dell), the contrasts are stark and important – especially if you are considering changing jobs.

Scope

Scope is very different between small and large companies – but not how you might think.  My assumption was that coming into a large company, that roles would be very well defined and delineated, and that the scope of your role would be set.  The reality is far from that – I’ve found that there are plenty of opportunity to define what Product Management means.  This may differ depending on the part of the business you are in (legacy/sustaining vs. new/conquest).

In the startup world, very few people know what Product Management is or does.  So there is a lot more education that you need to take on.  Explaining to the Development team for the Nth time about what Product Management does can wear you down.  Butting heads with Executives who believe that their experiences trump the data you’re bringing back from the Market can wear you down.  The excitement from seeing the decisions you make and the products you bring to Market gives you a boost.  The energy/excitement level is much more boom/bust in a startup.  Big companies want a steady hand on the wheel.

Business Opportunity

Who do we want to be (when we grow up)?  In a small company you are constantly asking and answering this question.  Often times, the answer changes and evolves over time.  In a good Market you’re faced with the question of “It’s not what do we need to do to succeed, it’s which of these excellent opportunities are the best?”

In the large company, you are already grown up.  Now your job is to sustain, and not screw up the business.  Even minor risks look much bigger.  Do we want to push the envelope on a product?  Maybe not if it means we’ll end up on the front page of the NY Times for something bad.  “The unknown” takes a much bigger place in planning and you devote a lot of effort to reducing the unknown variables.  The good news is that you have a big team and lots of people to help.  The bad news is that decision making can be infuriatingly slow and involve dozens of people with competing priorities.

Politics

When you’re at a startup, you’re all in the same “rowboat in the ocean.”  Everyone must contribute for survival, and it is pretty easy to see who is dead weight.  This fosters tight teams and passionate arguments over everything, but there is always a family feel (or at least there was for me), meaning that everyone is doing what they genuinely believe is best to make the company succeed.  There’s just no room for ulterior motives.

Lots of people talk about the politics inside big companies, and some of that is true.  However, at least in my experiences it isn’t as bad as most people portray.  So much of this has to do with how you carry yourself: are you “above the fray,” and not interesting in having political conversations?  If yes, you can avoid much of the mess.  If you enjoy that kind of thing (why?), those conversations and people will seek you out.

Note that not proactively involving yourself in politics does not mean being politically unaware.  You always need to know your manager’s motivation and your manager’s manager’s motivation, and what drives the team around you, so you can pull those levers at the right time.

Context is very important in a larger company.  For example, big company have lots of semi-overlapping products and projects that are competing for scarce resources.  Is the person you’re talking to someone who owns a competing initiative?  That may not be a bad thing, maybe you can find common ground between your projects and collaborate on requirements – but always keep your market justification for your product at the ready so you can pull it up when called upon.

Someone recently described large companies to me as “tribal.”  If you’re in a company of 50,000 people, all searching for justification for their own jobs and their own products, thought patterns can change to “What’s best for me, What’s best for my group, What’s best for the company.”  In that order; it’s survival.

Communications

Small companies meet face to face and in the hallways.  Decisions are made informally and sometimes with little deliberation.  If you’re not careful that can cause lots of flapping in the wind downstream, as individual contributors catch up with the “strategy of the week.”  That problem is compounded because many executives in startups are in their first executive position and were great individual contributors or team leads but possibly poor department heads.  Communication filters down through the organization as fast as Word of Mouth can take it.

Another aspect of startups is that most communication is verbal – there aren’t memos, Project Managers doing daily status updates, etc.  If you miss a meeting, you need to seek out someone from that meeting and get a face to face update.

In the large company world, PowerPoint rules.  I recently had to give a presentation to an Executive and I was shocked at the amount of time that my manager and I spent wordsmithing.  The reason is that at a larger company, there are so many people vyying for your time that you get overbooked for meetings, and can’t make all of them.  So you ask people to send you the deck, and PowerPoint becomes a defacto memo.  If you’re used to all of your slides coming with your voiceover, forget it.  Your slides must stand on their own, and deliver your message clearly, concisely, and quickly.  The good news is that it’s good practice to hone your message down to the key points, a skill I obviously need help with as evidenced by the length of my posts.

Another big difference in the big company is that you’re on a campus.  There are multiple buildings and you’re working with people in different areas, cities, timezones and countries.  Meeting face to face just isn’t practical every time.  The result is conference calls.  Lots and lots of conference calls.  It’s a culture shock at first and you need to amp up your active listening skills to make them work.

Execution and Overlap

Small companies don’t have overlap because they can’t afford to.  On the other hand, execution lags because you don’t have the resources to properly develop, QA, document, market, or sell.  That problem is compounded because most startups (not all) don’t wish to set a target market, believing that they really can be all things to all people and are deathly afraid of turning down any business.

Big companies are execution oriented.  They have formal measurement processes and you are judged every six months or every year on your performance.  Measurement is a good thing, but it also fosters a culture of justification – you need to show why you exist and what you’re doing to advance the business.

Normally it is a good thing to have lots of execution minded people running around picking up dropped balls.  The problem is that in a company with 50K employees, sometimes the right hand doesn’t know that the left hand exists, let alone what it is doing.  There have been multiple times at both Cisco and Dell that I’ve been in meetings doing introductions and have given the standard “this is who I am this is what I’m doing” and had people approach me after the meeting saying “wait a minute…I’m working on the exact same thing!  What’s your name again?”  Just finding the right people can be half the battle.

Resources

Big companies have lots of resources, but you have to fight to get access to them.  Big companies spend a lot of money on research, customer interviews, focus groups, product testing, etc.  Unlike a small company, there aren’t a lot of long shot bets in a large company.  You need to be able to illustrate ROI and time to payoff, or you’re dead in the water.  If you can, you’ll get access to what you need to make your product successful, and if it’s not…it’s on you.

You also have leverage resources when you’re at a larger company.  You can negotiate better deals, you have multiple companies that want to tap into your sales force and installed base, and you can use these to put together partner solutions that may be superior to other offerings in the Market.

Benefits

My wife and I recently had a baby girl.  I started at Dell on a Monday, and Addison (at right) came on Wednesday.  One lesson learned is not to start a new job and have a baby in the same week.  However, it enabled us to take advantage of the better benefits that a big company brings to the table.  To cover the family at the startup would be have been just short of $1000/month.  Now I pay less than a fifth of that.  For better coverage.  And 401k matching.

At the startup you get lots and lots of equity.  Will it ever be worth anything?  Part of that has to do with you and the work you put in, there is also luck and timing involved.  I’d advise anyone going to a startup to understand the time frame to a liquidity event very clearly before making the leap.  Are you willing to accept that standard of living for five+ years?  What if your family situation changes?  Something to consider…

Making it Work

Can someone with a small company, entreprenural heart be happy at a big company?  Ask me again in a year.

ProductCamp Wrap-Up

ProductCamp AustinProductCamp was this past Saturday, June 14th, and I’m happy to call it a complete success. In almost every way, it exceeded our goals for participation (130+ signed up, 80-90 showed up), sessions (over 20 presentations and roundtables), sponsors (11 great sponsors), volunteers, and feedback. Nearly everyone I talked to was extremely positive about the event, and was looking forward to the next PCA. The consensus of the group was that they would like to do ProductCamp twice yearly, so we’re going to do just that.

If you missed ProductCamp, first I’m sorry because you really missed out on a great day of teaching, learning, and networking. Second, we’ve capture many of the presentations and session notes on the ProductCamp page for you to review. Here are some highlights:

  • Charlie Ray won Best Overall Session for his presentation on “Navigating the Poltical Minefields of Product Management.” It was a really raucous and entertaining session, some choice quotes included:
    • “Product Management is the most visible position in the company. People see you hanging out with the CEO and glad handing the VP of Marketing, and they want you to fail!”
    • “You should be aware of which people are setting you up to fail so you can get them first. Always listen, and never give information, only take it.”
    • “The hardest thing I do in my job is fake sincerity and pretend like I’m interested in going to your meetings.”
  • John Milburn of Pragmatic Marketing and I hosted a standing-room only session on Startup Product Management, based on the webinar we did several weeks ago (based on the article we wrote for the Pragmatic Marketer). This fostered a really good discussion of the differences between PM in a BigCo and Startups. My favorite quote from the audience:
    • “Startups in the Valley are hipster-based. Startups in Austin are geek-based.” The commenter was making a point in reaction to John saying that if you asked VC’s they would say that the startups in Austin are less focused and driven than in the Valley.
  • Ben Phenix gave a User Experience session that people raved about on Twitter. Twitter was the surprise hit of the day to me – everyone was using it, and you could monitor the tweets as a backchannel discussion to gauge how the day was going. We set up a PCA twitter account that everyone could reply to.
  • Tal Boyd of Seilevel and Paul Sizemore went around a took lots of pictures, which are now on Flikr.
  • Graham Joyce of Pragmatic Marketing handed out their upcoming book entitled “Tuned In” (which I am almost done reading…topic of an upcoming post) during lunch to the person that had been in Product Management the longest (28 years, sorry Don), the shortest (1 week), and who traveled the furthest to get to PCA: Plano – we actually had several Dallas people make the trip, which was great.

I had lots of interest from PCA participants to help plan the next ProductCamp. If you’re interested in planning, please join the Google Group PCA-Planning. If you’re interested in participating in a future PCA and would like to be kept up-to-date, please join the general ProductCamp Austin Google Group.

My favorite memento was I had the PCA participants who lasted until the evening all sign one of the ProductCamp Austin sponsor boards that we had made. That will live in my office as a memory of a great day, and more great days to come.

Some final notes, in the post-PCA survey we sent out, we asked “Would you recommend ProductCamp to your peers?” 100% said yes (n=26). That says enough for me!

Thanks to everyone who made ProductCamp Austin a reality, and let’s get started on the next one!

Webinar – To Startup or Not to Startup

On Friday at 10-11AM Pacific, John Milburn of Pragmatic Marketing and I will host a webinar on Product Management in a startup. John is a true expert, and has been in the Product Management game for 20 years from companies as big as IBM, down to being the founder of a company in a startup. My experiences come from making the move from a Big Company (Cisco) two years ago, to a small startup, and building the Product Management and Marketing functions from the ground up. This should be an interesting and fun hour, so please join us for the discussion!

If you haven’t seen the original article that we wrote for the Pragmatic Marketer, go give it a read, we will expand on these themes and toss out some ideas about how to succeed in a startup.

Why ProductCamp Will Help Push Austin Over the Tipping Point

I have been asked a lot over the last two weeks about where the idea for ProductCamp Austin came from and why we are putting this event on. I wish I could say I came up with the idea – but that credit goes to EDIT: Luke Hohmann and Rick Mirinov at Enthiosys Brian Lawley from the 280 Group in California, who coordinated P-Camp Silicon Valley in March. But it goes deeper, because I believe Austin is at a tipping point, both for startups and for Product Management and Product Marketing.

GeekAustin got wind of ProductCamp and interviewed me about why Austin, why now, and why ProductCamp. Here is a sample:

Lynn Bender: Youre a local guy. Where did you get the idea to host a ProductCamp Austin. Have you previously attended one in another city? Have you attended a BarCamp?

Paul Young: Ive been in Austin for 10 years, and had several opportunities to move out to the Valley, but always turned them down because we love Austin. One aspect of the Bay Area that Ive always had a jealous eye towards is that their critical mass of technical and marketing people really lends itself to organization of great events.

Aside from the various BarCamps, the first ProductCamp (called P-Camp) was held in the Valley back in March. I looked at what they did and thought we need that in Austin. I sent out some feelers to people Ive met through my Product Management blog (Product Beautiful) and away we went.

Austin just feels right at this point in time: the economic downturn hasn’t hit us as hard as the rest of the U.S., our housing never got mega overinflated like everywhere else, Californians still move here in droves because it’s so cheap, and we have lots of creative, technical, and marketing talent doing really cool things.

I had the opportunity to attend a marketing roundtable hosted by Austin Ventures last week where they showed off a new job site (site name and link redacted) they are working on. The really interesting tidbit was that they mentioned that the #1 reason that talent hesitates to relo to Austin is fear that if their startup fails, that there won’t be enough going on in Austin to keep a vibrant market for their skills.

ProductCamp is another cog in that machine; the fact that in a few short weeks we have a bunch of great sponsors, some exciting sessions, and dozens of participants already signed up validates that there is both an audience and an appetite for knowledge exchange about Product Management in Austin.

East of the Sierra Nevada, you can make a very strong argument that Austin is the center of the tech world. You don’t have to look hard for new about Austin startups. The time to step up is now Product Managers – are you ready to shape the future of Product Management?

Grab Your Partner!

PartnerUpProblem: You have a great idea but need people with the right skills to help grow it into a real company. The McCombs Entrepreneurial Society has a post about PartnerUp, a new site that provides a solution (hat tip: VentureBeat) . Think of as LinkedIn meets Monster for startups. If you have an idea but need a business partner, adviser, or mentor, post and find people who are interested in the startup experience. If you want to try a startup, use it to find ideas that are at various stages of launch. They also provide ways to filter by compensation type: cash, equity, etc., and time commitment. Cool site.