Entrepreneurs can be considered the ultimate product managers, taking an idea from just a concept, and building out a product without the help of existing brand recognition and boundless resources. In many ways, product mangers within companies can learn a lot about how to develop a successful product by examining what successful entrepreneurs have done in building their own products/businesses. In practice, there are several things that overlap, such as, iterating the design, prioritizing features, measuring performance, etc.; however, a key missing element for product managers in established organizations versus entrepreneurial product mangers is actually talking to the customer.
Whenever an investor is looking at an entrepreneurial venture, they often evaluate the potential success by understanding how the founders have gone out and validated their idea with potential customers. They want to know that the idea has pivoted based on real information from real people. Of course too they want traction, but numbers can also be deceiving and they often invest in the team over the idea. In the end, seeking out what your customer needs, experiences, feels goes beyond all the market research one can conduct and can add qualitative validation that put the numbers in perspective.
A Second-Hand Account
If we look at how organizations evaluate the success metrics of a product owner, we’ll see a wide-range including number of products released, level of engagement across products, market penetration and post-launch sales. Whether these are the right metrics and how to measure them is a separate issue, but to meet these goals product managers employ all sorts of research and tools.
When it comes to hearing from the consumer, the sad truth is that it is often that they are consuming second-hand information. For example, customer service tells them that so-and-so is the issue, or a third-party vendor has conducted some research and say X is really what people will pay for. How many product managers have you known to actually call or step out of the building and talk to the customer? Why is this not the standard?
In the startup realm, you just won’t make it very far not stepping out of the building. Almost every entrepreneurial guide (or success story) tells you — you must talk to people, evolve your idea, get other people’s perspectives. When you consider that significant product development is often a year plus investment, it’s incredible to think that a small portion of that time is not taken to really speak to (and listen to) the very people to whom we plan to sell.
What About Traditional Research?
Traditional research certainly helps to provide information about consumer perspectives and it is not to say that these should not be done. However, let’s consider the power of the first-hand account. I’ve met several marketers who have watched focus groups and said things like ‘wow, I didn’t know that kind of perspective existed’ or ‘I had no idea that this was a problem’ or the list goes on. In the same way that user experience professionals insist on doing testing as the product evolves — you don’t know what you don’t know! Without speaking to people and constantly seeking their thoughts, how do we know we’re on the right path.
Also, let’s consider how often traditional research is done. It’s never cheap and waiting for traditional research to occur at various spread out times in the development cycle is really missing the opportunity to get some first-hand accounts. Doing so allows you to continually adjust your product roadmap and keep you in touch with your customer in ways that could even build more loyalty.
But It’s Unreasonable to Keep Talking to People!
Well, is it? Consider the entrepreneur who surrounds himself with early adopters and creates panels of early testers who feel involved in building the product. How can it be that such enthusiasts can be built from zero, but established brands can’t do the same. Making these panels accessible to real product managers who make the decision could be extremely worthwhile! The insights are there waiting to be harnessed as customers like to be involved (and those that don’t will opt out). More and more companies are building these bases, but often under-utilizing them with impersonalized surveys that show no results to the participants. This is setting up a takers-only relationship when a conversation and follow up on ideas could be much more mutually-beneficial.
So, what are you waiting for.. get out there and start talking to your customer. You may be amazed by what you find out and how happy they may be to speak with you!