When a startup should hire a product manager

As as a product manager in Toronto who often acts as a strategic advisor to startups I often have conversations about when a startup should hire a product manager.  I have noticed a common inflection point at which I think startups need to make a strategic HR decision to hire a product manager.

I want to take a step back for a moment and talk about what a product manager does in an organization.  A PM is often described as the CEO of the product.  This is fairly accurate because the product is the central point of the business to which everyone is connected.  Similarly, the product manager is the person responsible to strategically manage the product, acting as the connection point between the product and every part of the business internally and externally.  Even if a company is built in silos, the product manager has to take the product and cut through all departments to ensure it’s success.

When a startup is just getting off the ground with a founder or two and perhaps a few additional team members, everyone is having a massive impact on the product.  These are the developers, designers and marketing people making version 1.0 in a totally flat and cross-functional organization.  It’s super easy to be collaborative and people are really excited and passionately taking ownership over the product.  I’ve been there a few times and I know how sensational it is.

If the team does a good job and creates something interesting, after three, six or nine months there will be some initial movement. This could take the form of investment capital or maybe some decent early adoption, perhaps some media buzz.  Inevitably people start to get pulled into their areas of specialty.  The founders are having more meetings with investors, the developers are squashing more and more bugs as early adopters start breaking things, marketing people are writing more copy, designers are making more landing pages, etc.  And all of a sudden the product, which is the whole reason for all this effort starts to get less attention.

What generally happens next is a resource decision to add people to the existing areas of specialty.  Another designer over here, a junior developer over there, and on the surface this makes sense.  It’s math right, like more cores in a processor… But I humbly disagree. What I suggest is making the next hire a product manager.  Why? because someone needs to be focused full time on the product.  This isn’t about taking ownership away from everyone else, rather allowing the whole team to do their respective jobs they specialize in while ensuring that the product is getting the strategic attention it needs.

A good product manager makes sure that all team members have their input on the product and understand the “why” and the “what”.  They should also be able to relieve bottle necks in different areas of operations to help everyone put their respective fires out until the business is doing well enough to hire more people.

If you’re a startup founder and you’re feeling the pain of growth then congratulations,  you’re off to a good start.  I hope this blog post gives you something to think about and helps guide you to the right resourcing decision for your team.

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How to increase conversion rates

If you are like myself and most people today, you go to Google to find the answers to every question. Well, when I started learning how to increase conversion rates on websites that I work on I found a ton of blog posts and articles that all pretty much said the same thing.

how to increase conversion rates

And now after years of actually working on it I’m here to offer my version. But I have to warn you now, there is no formula that you can plug in to any site to make it work. The only way to increase conversion rates is to intensely understand your markets needs and effectively communicate solutions while offering a clear path to the answer.

You can test all the landing page designs you want, use captivating images and videos, make the call-to-action button bigger etc etc. But if you are not saying the right thing it’s all for not, or another way to say it is “it don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing”.

  1. Talk to your market. If you think you know your market, think again. Really, I don’t care how smart you are, as interesting as your opinion might be, it’s irrelevant. I’m not saying you aren’t 100% correct but you just don’t know until you’ve spoken to hundreds of representatives of your target market segment. Ask them what their problems are and just keep on digging.
  2. Measure the intensity of the problems you discover. You don’t want to offer solutions to something that doesn’t feel like it’s a hair-on-fire issue. For example, if someone’s hair is on fire and you offer them a bucket of water, they are going to take it. And if you are brazen enough to ask for cash in exchange you will get it and quickly.  Use the chart at the top of the post as a way to measure the depth of pain being experienced as a result of these problems.
  3. Group the problems together. After digging for long enough you will inevitably create a long list of real problems but you will also find that many of them seem to be similar. Now you group them into categories and start thinking about features that will solve the whole group. The best example of this is “bumper-to-bumper warrantee”. There are many real painful issues solved by that one feature but when you are communicating it you don’t want to get specific. You want your features to sell your product like “bumper-to-bumper” sells new car leases. And sell them it does.

Once you have complete these steps you are ready to market your new product. For a stellar example of this check out this feature page for Evernote Business.  Each feature title is not specific, rather they effectively describe a set of features that solve a set of problems.  When the right person views them they automatically start to salivate.  I know because I’m one of them.

This form of communication is called marketecture which is a combination of market and architecture.  The link takes you to a wikipedia page offering a more detailed definition but if you want to learn how to make them like a champ I suggest attending a Pragmatic Marketing training session.

I sincerely hope this helps you understand how to increase conversions on your website and sorry for not offering a how-to on ux design.  I do believe in the power of good web design when it comes to conversions… It’s just not the place to start.

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What is SEO

What is SEO? and why is it important to my business?

what is seo

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization and to put it simply it is the process of making improvements on and off your website to gain better search engine results.  This will lead to more visitors finding your website and for the right reasons.

Let me take a step back and explain what a search engine is.  Have you ever wondered how Google works?  Search engines are simply trying to find and understand all the information on the entire internet and then deliver search results based on relevance and authority according to what a user is looking for.

They do this by using very smart, and very proprietary algorythms that determine how your content is written and implemented in code and how other sites on the internet are linking to you.  This is incredibly complex and even still within a fraction of a second they will serve you results you are looking for.

Relevance: search engines are actually quite good at ranking results by relevance.  Let’s take the keyword phrase “Dog Crates”.  Search engines will be able to tell that a site that sell dog crates is of high relevance.  They will also know that a site that sells animal carriers is also of interest, and what more impressive is that they know that website promoting pet food or dog toys are also may be of interest but are of less relevance.

Authority: Search engines also compare you to other sites by analyzing how other sites think of you.  This is done mainly by links that are pointing to you by other site.  You can think of links as a vote of trust on the internet.  The bigger and more relevant the site that is linking to you the more authority the search engine attribute to your site and will rank you in kind.

But don’t get too caught in putting too much energy into getting links.  It’s not a popularity contest and search engines are smart enough to understand when it’s being used as a tactic rather than links being based on actual content.

Now this is crucially important: There are folks that try to replace quality and relevant content on their site with SEO tricks.  No single, or set of SEO tricks will ever help get your website infront of the eyeballs of the right people as well as quality content that is relevant to your target market.

I hope this helped answer the question, “What is SEO” and will be writing more specific tactics in later post so please stay tuned.

If you have any questions on this or other internet marketing topics please put them in the comments below.

 

 

 

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What is Online Marketing

If you are wondering what online marketing is and how you can get started then I am writing this blog post for you.

Online Marketing

Online marketing is a blanket term that includes many tactics like SEO, social media, blogs etc.  It can be very confusing and overwhelming when starting out so try to think of it simply as relationship marketing.  Online marketing is about how to use these tools to build awareness and offer customer service and sales.  All these different tactics are different vehicles to be more human with your marketing in ways you can’t do with paper ads.

It’s important to offer that personal touch because they are more likely to do business with you if they feel like they get to know you. it creates a more well rounded approach to business. If you consider that it take an average of 7 touch points to make a sale, this personal touch with a human face helps that.

You might be thinking that getting too personal would be bad for your brand and that is very valid for certain businesses. For those brands you want to think of this as the place to focus on what you do for local charity organizations or way that your company performs community outreach etc.

Whatever you end up doing, plan to start with creating content. Content is the king of online marketing, whether you are a small business or an enterprise.   Blog posts, articles, ebooks, videos, podcasts, anything that can be seen as thought leadership in your industry. It’s the absolute best thing you can do to kick off your online marketing engine. Because it’s the gas that drives the engine and the best part is, it never burns up.  The more you create the farther you will go.  This all doubles for search engine optimization which is usually a vital segment of most online marketing strategies.

So, say your a small business and your starting to get a little overwhelmed with all these online marketing tactics that you have in front of you.  One thing you can do is just start watching and observing what other organizations are doing.   You should also just start playing around with the different social networks and start to get a sense as to how other brands are using them.  You have to consider what you can mindfully manage and enjoy doing because if you like facebook but get annoyed with Twitter than with out a doubt just start with facebook. You may find that one or two social networks is all you can handle for now and that is a great start.

One of the best reasons to use online marketing is that you have proof of how successful it is.  With a magazine ad you have no way of tracking who saw what and which specific sales came from it.  With online marketing you can track someone from the point of entry onto a webpage or twitter account all the way to their purchase.  That is the reason why everyone is moving more of their marketing to online strategies because every interaction with every person who engages it is tracked and you can then test, measure and compare tactics to then focus on what works best.

I will be writing more posts that will break these specific tactics down but please let me know what questions you need answered in the comments below.

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How to Choose a Logo

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a graphic design expert but as a product manager I spend tons of time figuring out which web graphics will cause the desired result and which won’t.  This blog post is meant to help start  you off in the right direction when you are trying to choose a logo.

I have had to make decisions on a number of logo designs and like most customer facing design decisions I always start with the “why”.

Why are you putting a logo on the site? You might think this question is silly and overly obvious.  But it’s a good exercise to make sure you can answer this question with something more than just “because we need a logo”.

Does this logo need to do something different than other logos? What is the desired result of this logo? If you can’t answer these questions then you’re not ready to make a decision on logo design.

For example: www.schooltree.org is a new social network for school communities that I’m currently the business director of.  So why do we need a logo on the site?

Answer: to get people to remember they were on www.Schooltree.org as opposed to another site.

Our strategy is to promote the name as simply as possible.   I don’t think we should use an image as part of the logo.  As an example of websites that simply use the company name: facebook, google, linkedin, keek (I worked on this one too), path, digg, lifehacker, paypal, craigslist, ebay, wikipedia and on and on and on.

The common denominator with all of these websites is that they are simply trying to get people on them and to stay on them as often and for as long as possible. That is how they make money. Using imagery in a logo is common for websites that promote a product that is something separate from the actual website like a car or a band, etc.

When trying to cary your brand from one location to another imagery ties the product to the online display so people know they are on the right webpage in case they might have gone to a different webpage with the same name but for another product.

The purpose of our logo is to get people to remember the name ‘Schooltree.org’ and to come back to that url as much as possible. That is what we are selling.

If you want get a deeper understanding of how to design a logo here is a great book I can suggest.

Now for the engaging part of my post… If you can give me a reason to use imagery for the www.schooltree.org logo and send me a design that makes me change my mind we’ll use it and give full credit.

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How Do You Go Viral?

How do you go viral? Or perhaps a better question is why do some things go viral and others don’t?

In this blog post I try to answer the question, how do you go viral?

Here are a couple points I learned recently from taking a course call Networked Life on coursera.  I’ll also draw from my experience building viral marketing campaigns and launching a couple social networks.

The ability of a virus to spread depends on the average degree of connections between nodes, or people in a population.  If you have a population where the average amount of connections per person is 1 then the virus won’t spread very far as it will just keep halting after reaching the second person.

If you have an average degree of 2 between people in the population then right away the viral reach of a contagion is much strong, much more than 2 times actually.  Then it doesn’t take much more to reach the tipping point at 3 or 4 which is a threshold where the contagion of the viral spread is complete in reaching the entire population.

Another element of the tipping point is the strength of the virus, or in a youtube video’s case, how entertaining the video is.  Meaning, if the video is really good and people like it will take a lower average degree of connections in the population to spread as would a weaker video.  Much like a bad flu that hangs around for a long time.  If you are in a more rural area with a weak flu it will die out quickly but if the virus is much stronger and makes someone sick longer there is a greater chance for that person to encounter more people while still being contagious.

On the flip side, if someone is living in a densely populated slum in India where people are basically living on top of one another, even a weak flu will make it’s way around a large percentage of the population due to the incredibly high degree of connections everyone shares.

So what the heck does all this mean?  Basically, if you want your content marketing strategy to go viral make sure you focus on these three points.

  1. Make the content awesome so that people keep on enjoying it and sharing it with their connections.   You can’t skimp on the investment here.  If it sucks, it won’t go anywhere.
  2. Make sure you’re spreading it in the networks where your target market has the highest average degree of connections.  A great example would be if you are trying to reach mommy bloggers.  You’re going to want to make twitter your priority over facebook because they are all there and they love to share good stuff.
  3. Focus on getting as many influencers sharing your viral content because they will boost the average degree of connections by having more connections than the average person.  Additionally, they can actually make your content stronger by adding their approval to it.  It’s like when a virus strain mutates into something more powerful and harder to kill.

Please share your thoughts on creating viral reach in the comment section below.  I’m always happy to learn something from my readers.  :)

 

 

 

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What is Gamification?

In this blog post I will try to answer the question, what is gamification? This is a very important question for any one who needs to motivate people to take action or to simply make a product or service more enjoyable.

Ever wondered what it is about Angry Birds that has generated over 1 billion downloads? Is there anything you can learn from that game to apply to your product to make more people like it, you bet there is. It’s called gamification.

So what is gamification? and how do I apply it to solve real world problems?

There isn’t one universal definition but in general it’s the use of game elements and game design techniques in non-game contexts.

For example, Samsung Nation is an example of a company using game elements to get more traffic and more interaction with their products.  They motivate users to write reviews, watch videos, find out more, register products they have already bought, etc. They use simple elements they took from games like leader boards, badges, points etc. They ultimately want you to buy more products and are using game elements to reach that goal.

Another great example is the Nike Plus app. It uses the accelerometer on your phone to make your experience of running more game like. It tracks your data, compares you to other runners, has goals and challenges and if you achieve those goals you earn medals and trophies. They also built in ways to connect with friends to get encouragement. So the game structure around the task of running somehow make the experience of running feel more rewarding by using their app.

A competing app also meant to get people running is Zombies Run.  But here the  app is telling you that you are being chased by a group of zombies that want to kill you and eat your brains.  So it is simply making your run more fun, which is different from Nike Plus which is using challenges and rewards.

There are even products like Keas which is a service that helps people in companies engage in activities that makes them healthier, using regular game elements.  Such as:

  • Points
  • Quests
  • Avatars
  • Social graph
  • Levels
  • Progression
  • Resource Collection

But games are not just a jumble of elements stuck together in a half hazard way, rather they use game design that is systematic, thoughtful and artistic.  All of course, for the purpose of being fun.  This involves technology, algorithms, engineering while approaching problems using concepts that relate to all games while applying them to novel situations.

Some gamification examples focus on the elements and some focus more on the game design but all require a non-game context.  Meaning, what the user is doing is game like but the purpose has a validity and intention independent of the experience of the game-like elements.

I hope this shed some light on gamification and please let me know of other good examples you have experienced in the comments below.

 

 

 

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Agile, what does that have to do with software development?

Agile, what does that have to do with software development? Here’s my elevator pitch on answering that question.

Just in case ‘Agile’ is a new term for you, I’m referring to a process for planning, creating and implementing software.  In case you’re picturing a group of very limber developers that can leap from their work stations to the fridge, where their Red Bulls are located, in a single bound… no, not at all. So, Agile, what does that have to do with software development? Especially when you’re a web developer sitting on your computer pounding Red Bulls all day and night?

Agile is a new approach to developing software that challenges the traditional “Waterfall” methodology. So if you are venturing to launch an internet startup, or any new business concept for that matter, pay heed.

Something I learned recently at a Product Owner workshop in Toronto with the WFS team, is that Agile is not really a methodology.  It’s a process of learning.  And though it has been created in the world of software development, it’s foundations can really be applied to any business. Another term closely tied to Agile is Lean.  They share the same foundations and I really do suggest reading The Lean Startup by Eric Reis.

A really simple way of comparing Agile to Waterfall’s traditional style of software development kind of looks like this:

Waterfall = plan plan plan plan plan | make make make make make | test test test test.

Vs.

Agile = plan make test | plan make test | plan make test | plan make test,…

The reason why Agile has become so popular is the ‘Plan Make Test’ approach is a much shorter loop in which you are able to learn vital information from concurrent testing rather than making the whole product from top to bottom only to test it at the end of the process.

Waterfall generates far more wasted resources and often times causes business failure.  Generally even in good scenarios you have to go back and redo a lot of code to replace or change features that were not a product/market fit.

Here is a great video that shows how this process works: 

Now when someone comes up to you and says, “Agile, what does that have to do with software development?”, you’ve got a great video to show them.

This is a huge topic and I have offered a very shallow explanation of what Agile is.  A great book I recently read is Agile Software Requirements: Lean Requirements Practices For the Teams, Programs and the Enterprise by Dean Leffingwell.

I do plan on writing much more on the subject so please do check back or subscribe to my blog in the footer of this page of the page.

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How To Hire And Keep Web Developers

In this blog post I write about some key lessons I’ve learned regarding how to hire and keep web developers.

 

If you are in the same position I am, you spend a lot of time hiring and keeping web developers.  If you have done this for any length of time you know just how hard it is.   I don’t think there is a tougher industry to be recruiting and leading in today.

The demand for web developers is extremely high and it just keeps growing.  I’ve tried every strategy I can think of to find talent and I’ve come up with some realizations that I’d like to share with you.

Before I move forward, I have to suggest that you read ‘Good To Great’ by Jim Collins. Pay particular attention to chapter 3 where he writes about putting the right people on the bus.

Don’t hire the smartest people you can find.  Yeah, that’s right, I said it.  The success of your business will not depend on the collective IQ if your team.  Where’s the proof?   Think about 95% of startups that fail even though they are filled to the brim with ridiculously over paid geniuses.  Of course your team members need to be smart (enough).   But, as long as the are in the  intellectual ball park you should focus your hiring decisions on personality, attitude and motivations.

Take more time than you want to.  It takes more money and more time to build something when you have to keep re-hiring in the build process.  I personally don’t make an offer unless I’ve had at least 4 calculated interactions with a candidate.  The last meeting I have is social.  I take them out for dinner, and if they are married I invite their spouse.  Some people are surprised by this but I don’t want someone whose spouse doesn’t support them working for me.  I got this idea from Dave Ramsey’s latest book ‘Entreleadership’

Test all of your candidates… all of them!  After my first interview I have them do a hand-written test of the programming languages in which they will be developing.  In addition to that, after a follow-up hour long interview I have everyone perform a whole day of coding.  We give everyone the same task so we can compare all our candidates on the same base line.   When I tell recruiters this they generally cringe but since I’m not in the business of making recruiters lives easier, I don’t really care.  Which brings me to my next point.

Be cautious with recruiting firms.  The allure of recruiters is strong and I do use them but in limited doses.  Before signing with any recruitment company I ask them for blind resumes of candidates that I will have the chance to meet if I sign with them.  Their concern is for their business, which is getting people hired.  They are not concerned about the success of your business.

Do not pay top dollar.  Sorry guys, if you want to be part of my team you’re going to have to show me that it’s not just about the money.  I do strongly advocate paying people fairly according to their market value.   Still, if you think you can win the best people by buying them you’re going to end up with turn-over.   Nothing costs more than re-hiring.  A great way to measure someone’s market value is by using Payscale.com.  Remember, if they are only in it for the money they will leave the minute someone offers them more.  Someone will always offer them more.

Treat people the way you want to be treated.  OK, this is a huge topic and it needs to be part of every interaction you have with everyone in your life.  Thus, if you want a motivated team that is loyal to the company and its mission, DO NOT say or do things that you would not like directed at yourself.  For a great podcast on this topic listen to this Entreleadership podcast titled ‘The Golden Rule In Business’.

Well I hope these tactics help you figure out how to hire and keep web developers.  The right team members make all the difference.  If you have other suggestions or insights from your own experiences please leave them in the comments below.

Happy hunting!

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How To Create A WOW Experience

 

In this post I hope to shed some light on how to create a wow experience for your customers.

Many companies and business leaders talk about the concept of WOW but few, unfortunately, actually take the time to teach their customers or their staff what it means.  It really is more than just a word that sounds good and when you break it down a little you start to see how vital it really is.
One company that strives to master WOW is Zappos.  They define WOW as the following…
 

“WOW is such a short, simple word, but it really encompasses a lot of things. To WOW, you must differentiate yourself, which means doing something a little unconventional and innovative. You must do something that’s above and beyond what’s expected. And whatever you do must have an emotional impact on the receiver. We are not an average company, our service is not average, and we don’t want our people to be average. We expect every employee to deliver WOW.

Whether internally with co-workers or externally with our customers and partners, delivering WOW results in word of mouth. Our philosophy at Zappos is to WOW with service and experience, not with anything that relates directly to monetary compensation (for example, we don’t offer blanket discounts or promotions to customers).

We seek to WOW our customers, our co-workers, our vendors, our partners, and in the long run, our investors.”

 
Zappos have really hit the nail on the head with this description and I especially love how they talk about creating an internal culture of WOW.  For them, it’s not just about their customers, but they include vendors and co-workers.  Wouldn’t you love to work at a company that teaches your team members how to create WOW experiences for each other?… (now take 30 seconds to day dream about that… yeah that’s nice…)
 
So, I think this company is saying that the essence of WOW is that gap between expectation and experience.  Here is a simple process you can use to make sure that whatever you are creating strives to exceed expectations.
 
Make something you would use yourself.  
Take a look at Mint.com.  When you use this website you get the ense that the people making this amazing personal finance tool use it themselves and love it.   Their numerous accolades speak for themselves.
 
Solve a problem in an unexpected way.
The first example that comes to my mind is a great book by the guys at ’37signals’ entitled Rework.  These guys produced a business leadership book that deals with chapters a completely novel way.  That alone made me want to read it and I’m glad I did because I gained valuable ideas that I have implemented at my own workplace.
 
Excede expectations.
I would say that the master of this trait is Apple.  There is a reason that I’m writing this post on an expensive Macbook Pro and that I make all my calls from an iPhone.  I appreciate that Apple puts the time into the finishing touches like no other tech company I have seen.  It also explains why they have been setting all the trends since 2005.
 
So if you’re asking yourself, “how do I do this?” Try answering the following three  questions :

  1. What does a user expect when they encounter my product?
  2. What does failing to meet the users expectations look like?
  3. What does exceeding the users expectations look like?

For a great podcast on this subject check out MichaelHyatt.com

Well I hope this post helps shed some light on the concept of WOW, making it more that just a new trendy word in the business leadership world.  Now keep in mind, it’s probably not possible to make everything a WOW experience, but it should certainly be the norm within the main value offerings of any business.

Please let me know about any WOW experiences you have encountered in the comments below!

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