Monday, September 10, 2012

Lace, Listening and Learning

Bobbin lace from the 1600's
My wife and I were in St Paul in early August attending the International Old Lacers' annual convention hosted by the Minnesota Lace Society.  Do some research if you want to learn more about bobbin lace, tatting, needle lace and wire lace.  It's a wonderful and fascinating hobby that makes a great change of pace from our always-connected, in the cloud lives.  The results are astonishing.  Interesting geek note: some of the first computer programs were written to run the early automated lace making machines in the late 1800's.

Bruce Bennet
Market Research Guru
While staffing our vending table, I was reminded (yet again) of the importance of listening, observing and soliciting feedback from your customers by the vendor at the next table.  Bruce Bennet, like me, is married to a lace maker.  Since lace makers can never have too many bobbins, Bruce started turning them for his wife's use.  He got proficient enough to start selling his creations - but with a twist: Bruce asks for feedback directly from his customers, especially with new designs, with each and every sale.  He wants to ensure his customers are happy and the bobbins are useful.  What better way than to ask them directly?  Brilliant.  And dead easy.

Bobbin lace underway.
A lace maker can't have
too many bobbins!
My own route to bobbin turning was slightly different - I learned to make lace myself.  While no expert, I know enough about it firsthand to know what makes a useful bobbin and what doesn't.  I don't sell any of the bobbins I make but I still want to make sure they are useful first and pretty second.  To keep myself learning, I spent a few minutes during classes wandering around and watching how people were making lace, how bobbins rested on the pillow, the type of tools they used and how they organized them in their work areas, etc.  I got some ideas for new designs and how to improve some other things I do.

Wood turners can get carried away with embellishments, fancy designs and exotic decorations.  The results can be visually stunning but if it doesn't work well, sit right on the lace pillow or doesn't feel right to the lace maker, then you've wasted your time making it and wasted the time and money of whoever bought it.

Remind you of any engineers or product managers you know?

How are you listening and learning?

Key Take-Aways:

  • You can't make a decent bobbin if you don't know how it's used.  The same applies to ALL products.
  • Never stop asking your customers for feedback.
  • Reminders can come at any time from any place - be watching for them.
Some of my creations

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Breaking into the product professions - Self as Product

 Karol M McCloskey

This is the fourth and final entry on getting into product marketing and product managment (herein after referred to as 'the product professions').

Part 1 is here
Part 2 is here
Part 3 is here
And here is the SlideShare link for my session at Silicon Valley Product Camp back in March.
DISCLAIMER: This NOT a guarantee of success nor is it an easy checklist leading to a quick job offer. Your results may vary and others (I hope) will chime in on their best practices and techniques. It is a general guideline of how to move yourself through the process with some metrics and check points along the way. It does not replace your inherent desire, skill or suitability for any particular product professional job.

For this installment, I've asked Karol McCloskey, @prdmkgblackbelt, to sit in and give her perspective on getting into the product prfessions.  Her bio is below.

Self as Product

Are you making a dent in the universe where you work? You’re not! So you’re thinking about making a change to product management or product marketing…great idea.

No one, except maybe Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, grows up wanting to be a product manager or product marketing manager. (See Tim’s great video on this topic.) It’s a fact that current product professionals got to our roles by different routes. Yet each path has a similarity. I discovered many found ourselves thinking like product people: extremely interested in the “new” thing, in breaking ground and thinking like an entrepreneur. We are passionate about solving problems. We all work hard and we’re just plain curious. If that’s you, read on for next steps.

I find it awesome that you will use product marketing and product management skills in order to get a job as a product professional. Market yourself as a product. Positioning is the key element. Uncover and communicate the unique values your background brings to your new career.

You will be asked by potential hiring managers why you want to change careers and you’ll need to think through those answers to be convincing (there’s real truth to a good elevator speech) and to write a product-oriented resume. If you blog, or have a web site, show evidence that you are making a change. “Evidence” includes conversing/tweeting with bloggers you follow, professional groups you’ve joined (local and global), volunteer activities (ProductCamps, B2BCamps) and certifications you have or are working on (Agile, NPDP, PMP). Demonstrate that you are executing a product plan.

OK – now that you’ve set the stage, what’s next?

The best advice shared with me is to look internally. Self-honesty is a must. Some of us are extroverted, others not so much. Important to know which one describes “you.”

Your action plan will depend on your strengths. Knowing what you do best and what you love will help you plan what you want to do. Do you have programming or development skills, can you work magic with a PowerPoint deck; are you able to communicate ideas and persuade others, can you think strategically and operate tactically?  Each of these skills is more or less useful in the many product roles today. Do what you love to do.

Next, look at the different roles in product creation (management, marketing, launch, ideation, etc.) and many different industries vis a vis your uniqueness.  Do you work best in teams, in large companies or start-ups? Review the industries you have experience in – define what you bring to the game of product management. Understand and articulate the skills which make you a good candidate for a product role.  Hint: This is a first pass, you’ll get to refine this many times.

Now that you’ve tallied up [again] your unique benefits/offerings, let’s move on to tactics. How do you get your first position in product?

Understand the market/learn to speak the language. Become focused and engaged with the product community. Join LinkedIn product or marketing focused groups. Become active in the conversations; ask to link-in with professionals in your targeted role, ask questions. If you Tweet, follow thought leaders (and converse with other like-minded product managers and marketers you admire (for example: @cagan @sehlhorst @SmartSoftMarket @diego_lomanto @crankypm @PMDude @aprildunford). Meet people. Have coffee, share insights, network.

Craft/communicate your unique selling proposition. Find a trusted guide and or mentor and work on positioning. Take marketing classes or watch video. Write your product-focused resume and get it critiqued. Practice your “pitch” – make sure you offer solutions to a hiring manager’s dilemmas. Remember YOU are the PRODUCT which offers BENEFITS to the BUYER (aka hiring mgr).

Demonstrate your skills. Volunteer for ProductCamp events. Join with product managers in professional organizations. Get known, be seen and be available. Keep working the plan and network towards your goal of launching Self as Product.

Pay-it-forward. Make time to chat with another “explorer” – give to get isn’t just a slogan, it’s a passion.
Would like to hear about your successes and ideas on how to promote Self as Product. Drop me a line!

Karol M McCloskey, NPDP
Product professional and explorer
Longtime techno-catalyst and marketer - passionate about product and innovation, I am happy exploring
product marketing best practices. It was the blend of seeing the innovation at Xerox Parc firsthand
while working with the PC that made me believe technology doesn’t have to be so hard to use. What’s
not to like about that? I welcome your feedback and support while I continue this journey.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Breaking Into Product Marketing or Product Management, Part 3

Part 1 Here - How others got in
Part 2 Here - Some core skills needed

This is Part 3 - Big Company or Small Company?

I will publish a few more parts shortly.

On Saturday, 24-March, 2012, I had the privilege of moderating a panel discussion at the Silicon Valley Product Camp on how to break into product marketing and product management.  Jennifer Doctor and Faisal Nisar were my co-panelists and I can <hand over my heart> say that it was a successful session.  The room was set for 60 and about 80 or more people crowded into the room or watched from the hallway.  It was supposed to end at noon and I finally shook hands with the last attendee at about 12:30.

Here are the slides I presented on SlidesShare. 

Here's some market research I did - oh if only it were true...

Before you think there is a magic path or simple, clearly defined way to get into the product professions, let me just state this disclaimer: ACTUAL RESULTS MAY VARY.  If it were that easy, then there wouldn't be so many discussions on how to get into the profession.  Some people fall into it, others diligently work their way into it. 

So on to the main topic this week: Is it easier to get into the product professions at big companies or small companies?

Well, that depends.

Big Companies

Big companies tend to have more entry-level or assistant-X positions available as they have more things to do or lower-level corners of the their product portfolios where the PM or PMM requirements aren't as stringent.  The pay rate for these roles is going to be lower than full-fledged positions so be aware before you leap.  Also, there are more opportunities to transfer into the role within a big company as there tend to be more 'adjacent' roles where you interact with PM or PMM regularly and can help out directly on relevant projects.  Jumping departments can be a matter of an internal recommendation and away you go. 

However, there are several caveats to transferring from another department in big companies.  First, will you be burning any bridges by moving?  Simply asking your boss for a transfer may be a career limiting move in and of itself.  Be clear on this one.  The seond concern is the danger of only being known for what you currently do - the dreaded pidgeonholing.  "Bob's a great guy but he's just a tech support wonk or <fill in the blank>."  You are so good at what you do that they can't imagine you in any other role.  If either of these situations is real, then you'll have to look outside your current company.

Small Companies

Small companies are great for creating PM and PMM opportunities just be being there.  Oftentimes you can just work your way into the slot simply by picking up an oar and rowing.  The smaller the company, the less likely core product activities get done and anyone who just does them because they need doing will be well suited to creating the role for themselves.  If you can stand the pace and volatility and have the extra time to do a proper job on product activities.

The downside is that you may not have enough time to do extra jobs or do them properly.  You might also get asked, "Do you really have the time to do this when we've hired you to do X?" Also a potentially career limiting move.

Both options are viable ways to work yourself into the professions - and they both have their drawbacks, too. 

Key Take-Aways:
  • There's always options to move your product career forward, some better than others.
  • Jen and Faisal are great folks to be with on a panel.
Next Up: Getting experience at the professions without having experience.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Why VC's Need Marketing

I heard about a marketing position at a venture capital firm and it got me thinking about why any venture capital firm would need marketing.  Doesn't everybody know who they are and why they would want to do business with them?  I put on my product marketing hat and took a look at some of the better known ones around and it became fairly apparent why they could use some marketing help.


By and large, most firms have very nice, clean websites with well-executed and dynamic photos of their partners and founders at many of their portfolio firms.  Great.  At least they don't scrimp on image. 

There's also clear and easy to find examples of their portfolio companies so you know who they are funding.  Fine.

They also list the sectors where they choose to invest.  If they don't invest in my sector, I know to move on.

But it falls off after that. 

I have a friend who's at the stage where he is seeking either angel funding or venture funding, so I started looking at these firms from his standpoint - I started thinking like a buyer to analyze these firms. 

  1. Why should he buy from any of the firms?
    Hmm.  Don't see anything on any of their web sites that tells me why he'd want to choose any of them over another.  They talk a lot about themselves and other features like amount of capital under management, etc. but little about why they are different.  Not much to differentiate there.
  2. How does he buy from any of them?
    Good question.  They all have a Contact page but very few go beyond that.  Does he ring them up and hope?  Is email a better way to start? 

    One says, "Please
    contact us if you think that we could be the right partner for you."  Do I use my Ouija Board or choose them based on the quality of their profile photos or amount of capital undermanagement or number of winners vs losers?  Maybe it's whether or not they answer the phone.  Any guesses?

    Here's another. "All business plan submissions must include a clear description of your operations and current progress."

    To be fair, Kleiner Perkins does a great job
    here.  They spell out exactly what they are looking for from people and how to structure it.  On the down side, they have a withering array of partners in numerous sectors so it's still not clear who my friend should approach nor exactly what the first step is.

    Fred Wilson blogged about Office Hours a while ago but I'll be jiggered if I can find where they are listed on the Union Square web site.  If I hadn't read his blog, I wouldn't know he was accessible and my friend could just ring him up.
  3. How does he engage with them to learn more and help his buying decision?
    As the general perception is you only have one shot with any particular VC, I see this as a key item to figure out.  Several VCs have blogs where you can read what they are thinking or find important and Fred Wilson is pretty diligent about responding to comments in his blog.  But he seems to be the exception.

    All the partners at one of the major firms blog regularly on their web site.  There's only one problem: they are one-way blogs.  There's no facility for comments or further dialog.  You might be able to have a conversation in the Twitterverse but that has its limitations.  Strange.
Based on my highly unscientific analysis, I CAN see why a VC firm would want to have marketing help.  They all could use help in making it easier for founders to engage with them, buy their investment services and get to know them.  It could increase deal flow, help both sides get to 'No' a whole lot faster and deepen the understanding of how this component of our economy really works.

Next Up: Results from my Silicon Valley Product Camp session on how to break into product marketing and product management.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Essential Skills

Wow!  Thanks to everyone who posted (or lurked) last week on how they got into product marketing or product management.  There were some great stories.

I especially liked TimthePM's blogs on his story and his own survey about getting into product management.

This week I'd like to discuss the essential skills for these careers.  Every job posting has a bunch of things listed for the skills desired.  This excerpt is quite indicative of what I've seen in job postings:

"...a deep understanding of both the technology space and the business context, a highly intelligent and strategic mindset, a creative marketing instinct, combined with “six-sigma” execution ability."

I'm not exactly sure how anyone measures these attributes, let alone discovers them in a job interview, but this is an ideal view of either role. 

Here is my short list of essential skills anyone in either product management or product marketing needs to have.

  1. The ability to Write
    If you can't put coherent thoughts into readable sentences, then this isn't a career space for you. 
  2. The ability to Present
    You have to be comfortable, effective and engaging presenting either in front of small groups - as in a sales setting - or to executives or to analysts or to large groups.  Period.
  3. The ability to Analyze
    This can be either quantitatively or qualitatively, but you have to be able look at all the data you have and make supportable conclusions from it all.  Whether it's where leads are falling out of your pipeline (and why) or hearing the third customer say the same thing (just using different words), you have to be able to figure out what it means and take action.
  4. The ability to Question
    Asking questions - and going beyond the obvious answer to the "So what?" or "Why would anyone care?" questions is another core skill.  This gets you beyond the popularity contests to the things that really matter to your buyers or market.
  5. The ability to Listen
    We were engineered with two ears and one mouth for a reason.  Both Product Marketing and Product Management disciplines need to be able to closely listen to what people are saying to hear the truth, what's really bothering them or what's truly important to them.
Those are my essential skills for Product Marketing and Product Management.  I believe they are applied differently or for different reasons in each discipline but they remain core to being successful.

That's my considered opinion.  I'd like to hear your views on the subject.

And please vote for my session at Silicon Valley Product Camp. Many Thanks!
Next Up: The paths into Product Marketing and Product Management

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

How did YOU get into Product Marketing?

I'm hosting a session at the Silicon Valley Product Camp on 24-March, entitled "How to Break Into Product Management and Product Marketing" and I'd like your input (and some voting help, too!).  Neither Product Marketing nor Product Management are degreed or certificated disciplines which begs the question: How do you become one? 

This became an obvious question to me during last year's Product Camp when I was approached by an attendee looking for advice on how to get a product management job.  I mentored him over a period of weeks, helping him update his resume to better reflect his PM skills and experience, how to work with recruiters, etc.  He eventually landed a PM gig a few months later and is happy in his new role.  This got me thinking about all the other attendees looking to get into the profession, my own circuitous path and those of some others I know.

My Own (Brief) Story

Not to bore anyone too much, but here's my own story.  For years I thought that I was a sales guy, though I hated cold calling and sucked at hard-core negotiation.  What I found, though, was I was good at channel sales - where you get people who don't work for you to work for you - and creating the marketing and sales materials my channel partners needed to be successful.  I knew that's what they needed because I often created my own materials when I was selling.

My last year carrying a quota was eventful.  They raised my quota 3 (!) times during the year and I was still 180% of the final number.  After the third quarter in a row coming home from Urgent Care with bronchitis, my wife said very clearly, "Don't get me wrong.  I love the money but I'd much rather have you around to spend it with me."  Quite fortuitously, the company shut down the channel role I had and moved me into a role they called Solutions Architect.  I wound up doing all sorts of Product Marketing stuff for a very technical team and discovered that was really my calling.  I've been doing it ever since.

Another Story

Another very effective product marketer whom I had the pleasure to work with had a different route to the profession.  When I first met her she was in the training group of a software company I joined.  She spent most of her time writing sales training materials, working closely with the PMM group and eventually creating new materials on her own.  She was an elementary school teacher by trade who moved into training when her job got cut.  She also found her calling in product marketing and is now doing well at a large media company in their interactive division.

Your Stories, Please

So now it's your turn.  Please tell me how you got into product marketing or product management and what skills or experience helped you make the jump.  I plan to use this as background information and advice for my session attendees. (If it gets enough votes. Hint, hint!)


Tuesday, January 3, 2012

I'm Bad at Marketing

Civil War-era Secret Code Quilt
I had the pleasure of chatting at length with a new-ish family friend a few weeks ago.  She co-owns the local fabric/quilting shop where we live and my wife teaches a bobbin lace making class there on Tuesdays.  She and her business partner bought it just over a year ago and have worked hard at making it a going concern. 

Never one to miss the opportunity to learn about a new business and how other folks do marketing, I started asking her about buyers, merchandizing and the like.  She told me about some recent experiences with a sliding discount sale where you got a deeper discount the later in the day.  One frequent customer (who only bought things on sale) came in when the discount hit 35% saying she couldn't stay away any longer.  She was also surprised to find that they had the most traffic and sales when the discount was at 25% and sales all but died after 35%.  They decided to skip the sliding discount scheme and stick with a flat 25% discount for future sales and not worry about their cheap - but vocal - one-off customers.

She also told me about how the people who don't want a thing to do with sewing, needles and fabric but still need to fix something won't buy or look at anything else no matter where the 'easy seam & hem repair' kits are located.  She tried having this display in the depths of the store to encourage them to look around but it didn't make any difference so they moved it near the door and cash stand for convenience.  They are also planning a series of how to do emergency clothing repair classes for those people who need to fix something but lack the skills, desire or equipment for serious sewing or quilting.

Another thing they've done is to have local artists display their fabric creations in a gallery area of the store.  They've sold one high-end quilt to a passerby and are developing a clientele who look forward to each new opening.

They also have a theme fabric each month where customers make a lap quilt, placemat, etc. incorporating that fabric, display the results in the store and have customers vote on them.  They now regularly have more than 20 people making items for the contest.

When I asked her about other marketing she had done all she could talk about were the ads and emails they run and how poor or untrackable the results were.  She shrugged and said, "I'm bad at marketing." Hmm.  She's spot on in analyzing buying patterns, is tuned into buyer personas and has adjusted her inventory, discounting and display strategies accordingly, she's targeted non-quilting people with the artist gallery and trying new things to attract and retain different personas.  Sounds pretty marketing-attuned to me.  I then asked what she thought marketing was.  Her answer surprised me.
"Marketing is all the things you say and do to get someone to buy."
In a way she is right but not by only thinking of marketing in the Kottler, interrupt, shouting billboards and obnoxious emails way of doing things.  She was completely unaware that the personas she described, analyzing the data, testing and adjusting new things is all marketing - and that she's very good at it. 

I suggested she and her business partner write down everything they know about different types of customers to see if there are any they aren't serving well, what types of things they respond to, where they go for information to solve problems, etc.  She now keeps a small notebook near each cash register where they jot down notes on how new customers heard about them, what other things customers may be looking for, what projects or events they have coming up, etc. so they can keep refining their marketing spend.  It's too early to see any results yet but she is a lot more confident in herself and their marketing acumen.

Key Take-Aways:
  • Marketing is more than the things you say and do to get someone to buy - it's all the stuff you know about what to say, who to say it to, when to say it and where to say it.
  • You may be developing personas and don't know it.  Step back and write down what you know about your customers or their buying patterns. Continually ask them questions.