Tag Archives: Product planning

My Theory on Escalators

I have a theory about escalators and those who use them. If you’ve ever been on, or near, and escalator with me you’ve probably heard this theory. And if you’ve been near one with me more than once you’ve probably heard the theory more than once.

I like to think that the inventor of the escalator had the best of intentions when he or she went about it. They imagined a world where people could get where they were going faster and was able to be more efficient. Same goes for those moving sidewalks in airports.

But then the end users got at the product, and the entire concept was flipped sideways.

Now escalators are used, at best, to be mini-vacations during the day. At worst they’re just another modern invention that is allowing us to be lazy and slowly putting us in an early grave.

Rather than continuing to walk once on the magical moving stairways, most pedestrians come to a grinding halt. Often travelling up slower than if they had just taken the stairs in the first place. And don’t get me started about taking the escalator down. That’s basically like admitting that gravity isn’t enough assistance for you.

Although this little origin story is likely completely fictitious, I seem to have learned a couple lessons from it, regardless.

First, while you may design, build, create or otherwise will into existence something, you will never really know how people will use it until it’s out in the world. I also learned this from Snap It. Apparently if you give a drunken person a button at about waist height, it is very tempting to try and kick it.

To those reading, please don’t kick my button. It really pushes my buttons.

The second lesson is that if you can create something that allows people to be as lazy as possible, then you likely have a winner on your hands.

Missing the Most Important “Why”

Simon Sinek’s golden circle and starting with “why” has been a popular framework for a few years now. I enjoy the TED Talk and have try to apply it as much as I can, in a broad sense. Though recent discussions, however, I’ve come to start thinking that while it is a very inspiring talk, and I’m sure his blog gets many more hits than mine, Mr. Sinek may be falling into the trap of reverse-engineering.

It’s easy to cherry-pick great leaders and success stories and point out that they spoke about “why” and not “what” or “how”. His evidence is very hard to refute. All I’m saying is that it’s easy to start at the end and know that those stories are worth telling. The true test is, however, how accurate this theory can be at predicting success.

I would suggest that it’s lacking.

Starting with why is great and all, but when push comes to shove if no one can relate to your why, then it’s worthless. In other words, if you let your freak-flag-fly and no one is saluting, how could you truly be a great leader or a great company? You won’t have anyone selling or buying.

Nope, the first why isn’t why you do things, but rather why those who believe in you (customers, subordinates, on-looking well-wishers) are attracted to you in the first place. That is the single most important message you can broadcast.

Not only this, but a company or leader who is aware of what draws customers / followers in is one of the best predictors of success that I can think of. I’m all about self-awareness and understanding motivations of others, but you have to be prepared for what you find out.

You may have one idea as to why people choose your business over the competitions and hearing something else can be tough. Especially when you own the business. That’s the one think that Mad Men really go right in my eyes; the scenes where clients were told something that is true, but they can’t get past their emotions and egos to use the knowledge to their advantage.

If you can embrace why your loyal fans have chosen you, however, you have the power to keep them and grow. So rather than starting with the “why” from within, it’s likely better to understand the “why” according to others.

Driving Offline Action

This is actually something that I’ve written about before and I’m still on board with what I said, more or less. My thoughts are now just a little more refined, especially since I’ve been having conversations / reading about this idea in different contexts pretty consistently the past little while.

I have said, and will continue to say, that start-ups that aim to rely on the “find a user-base and then advertise to them” revenue model have a very steep uphill battle ahead of them. I’m not saying that it doesn’t work for some companies, but being successful at it is definitely the exception, and not the norm.

By virtue of that, the business idea development process of “Here’s a cool app, we’ll get a lot of people using it then sell advertising,” should be dying much quicker than it is. It’s likely better to rethink your idea or come up with something better than chase that unicorn. To reiterate, I’m not saying that there isn’t success out there, but to paraphrase from He’s Just Not That Into You (great chick flick, def in my top 5) it’s a crime when people cling on to the hope of being like the exception and not the rule.

To put it a little less 17-year-old-girl, the premise of Blue Ocean Strategy is basically that instead of trying to enter the shark-infested “red oceans” where there is huge competition, go where there is no competition. A “blue ocean” if you will. Side note: I know that’s a huge simplification of what is actually going on in that book, but this isn’t an essay about why Blue Ocean Strategy is awesome. I would suggest picking up a copy.

Where I truly think that the opportunity lays with all the online connection tools that we have is the intersection between where social technology influences or even facilitates our future decision and actions. No longer will it be able documenting what we have done online, but meaningful interaction will be taken based on information that we didn’t have before.

It’s important not to confuse this with the internet as an advertising medium. I know that technically the marketing that we see on an every day basis has the opportunity to influence us, but that’s not what I’m referring to. I’m talking about meaningful, online interaction resulting in real-world outcomes that would not have happened otherwise.

When thinking of an example of what I mean, I am honestly hard-pressed to think of a better one than online dating.

Before the internet, dating was fairly limited to your immediate network and lucky timing. Either you met someone through someone else or you happened to be at the right place at the right time to meet someone.

With online dating those barriers are broken. You don’t need to know anyone in order to participate and since profiles are 24/7, you are literally actively dating in your sleep. And every other time of the day for that matter.

Not only that, but the level of online dating is growing in sophistication. If you can believe the ads you see, they have systems running that help match you to more comparable people. That sounds way more efficient than starting the relationship with, “You like this bar? I also like this bar!” or based on what shared interests your aunt thinks you have.

The genius of online dating is that it didn’t just take something existing in the offline world and move it to the internet. Rather, it uses the technology to expand and enhance the experience. That’s what companies should be aiming for when developing their products.

I don’t know what the specific applications are, but this is something that is always top of mind for me. I just hope that I can come up with a great idea before the next guy!

Price Industries

Next on my list is Price Industries. I’ve been fortunate enough to had the opportunity to go on a tour of their facilities, and they are quite amazing. But I’ll take a step back before I get ahead of myself.

Price is a worldwide supplier of HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) units. Basically those metal boxes you see on the top of buildings that have fans in them.

Not only is being a world leader impressive enough, but the values that Price practices are almost exactly like any company that I would want to grow. This, of course, is no accident and takes years of careful action. While it may not always be easy, Price is an example of when the correct values are instilled properly into a company great things can happen.

First, Price’s is commitment to innovation is commendable. By investing in projects that may not see any direct cash inflows for many years, if ever, Price does what many companies refuse to do. Not focusing on quarterly profits, but rather the long-term future of the company is, in my mind, the best way to ensure the success.

Being a privately owned company, it is easier to make these decisions. Public companies can often fall victim of focusing on short term gains, rather than worrying about what’z going to be happening 10 years down the line.

What I appreciate most about Price is the fact that they started a Manitoba company and have stayed a Manitoba company. By operating here they bring skilled labour jobs, which is a great thing for our province! While it would likely make more financial sense to move operations to the US (or even next door to Saskatchewan for that matter) by staying here they can keep Manitobans employed with meaningful work.

I’m so sure that it would be less expensive to operate elsewhere thanks to the payroll tax. A company the size of Price has to deal with the Manitoba government taxing them for employing Manitobans. If that isn’t the most backwards thing I’ve ever heard, I don’t know what is.

So thank you to Price for staying in Manitoba and leading by example. in my mind they are exactly what every company should aim to be in their respective industries.

Scalable Skills

Being a business grad can be a tricky thing. Regardless of the program that you went through, the exact technical skills required for any job were not something that you likely learned in school. I’m sure it’s like this for all people starting jobs, but I like to write what I know.

What’s more is it seems like there’s a very strong bias to those who have done the exact thing that a company is hiring for when filling roles. Regardless of how well you did anything in the past, if you can somehow make your experience sound like it fits in the box that they are lumping things in, you’re the type of person that they want!

While I’m not saying that a level of proficiency related to the position being hired for is important, I do think that there is something to be said about a person who doesn’t have direct experience, but has a related skill set. That way you have someone who has obviously learned a similar job and your company gets the opportunity to train them. You’re not hiring some other company’s bad habits.

All of this, in my mind, is yet another reason that a side business is a great idea for any new grad. While you likely won’t get the exact experience that is needed for a job you’re applying for, there is a high likelihood that you will have done something related. The key is being able to communicate that your skills are scalable.

Talking about my experience (again, writing what I know), I’ve been intimately involved in the development, evolution and re-development of a product. In financial management, marketing, sales, project management, service delivery, customer interfacing, researching and now hiring. There’s likely more.

Would any of those experiences be to the same extent as if I was working in one of those functions at a larger company? Likely not. Are they still valuable and show that I’m not only able to learn what is needed, but identify what that need is? Yep.

I’m here to tell you, anyone can do this.

Even if you don’t want to start a business for yourself, there is always some crossover in your job or volunteer work. Just because you had a certain title doesn’t mean you weren’t exposed to other skill sets, so make sure that you really think about what they were and how it felt to perform those tasks. They may end up coming in handy in the future.

Coaching vs Consulting

I don’t know why, but for some reason it seems to me that lately the line between a consultant and a coach has been blurred. I don’t know if it’s because one seems more promotable than the other, if those in a coaching / consulting role fancy themselves as both or people don’t hold the same definitions as I do, but I think it’s a difference worth talking about.

It’s an important distinction, because when hiring one or the other an individual or business should know what it is getting. Also, if you are either a coach or a consultant, by promoting yourself incorrectly it may lead to a number of waste-of-time inquirers, or worse, frustrating engagements that can fall apart and even damage your reputation.

It’s also easy to realize why there may be some confusion. From a contractor standpoint, they are both usually engaged to work on a specific project and there is an agreed upon desired outcome. Typically what they are working on would not be considered the “day-to-day” business of the firm. The word “change” would come to mind.

While there are some general similarities, the specific differences are what make the distinction between the two very important.

Consultants are typically hired to help a business make a decision or implement some sort of specified change. That is to say the provide recommendations based on their expertise and even go as far as to manage the change. How I would summarize it as they take the information available to them, make a decision and then work with the company to make it a reality.

The information and communications typically come from them, with the company listening to the expertise of the consultant and effecting operations as necessary. The change comes from the outside.

Coaching is a different process. Rather than having expertise in a specific field, coaches provide a different framework in which the companies or individuals within the company grow and change. Rather than hiring someone to come in and give an answer, when companies hire coaches they should expect to work with them in order to create success from within.

If that doesn’t seem to make sense, think of a coach in high level sports. It is up to the players to have the level of skills necessary to compete at that level. The coach’s job is to organize the team and structure the type of play in order to achieve the best results possible with the available players.

There’s never a time where the coach jumps in the game because they are able to play better than the athlete in question. Such is the same with coaching; they don’t necessarily have necessary skills in order to complete the specific tasks of those they are working with. They do, however, understand what is needed in order to work together with them to maximize performance. In other words, coaches listen.

So next time someone throws around the title “Coach” as it relates to a business function, challenge them and see if they’re actually just a consultant in disguise.

Product Planning

Confession time: The beginning of the company was pretty hasty. I wrote about our sorted history a little while ago, but to give you the cheat sheet for the purposes of this article, we basically took our first booking before we have a product and threw something together in about a week or so. Turns out it worked then and since, because we’ve not done over 100 events and don’t have a complaint yet.

Now it’s time for growth and we have to backtrack a bit. What I’m learning is a little planning goes a long way when it comes to product development. Not that what we had made isn’t perfectly fine for what we are using it for, but if we had thought through our growth process before hand we would likely be a bit further ahead from where we are now.

Since I truly hope to be a part of this process again, there are a few things that I have taken away from this experience that I will be sure to consider:

Determine the first iteration’s limitations.

As I said, the first version of the program is more than fine for what we’re using for it now, but it definitely has some limitations as soon as we want to do anything else. We probably would have known this when first building it, but honestly didn’t see the forest for the trees. We know what we wanted and didn’t think about what we may want in the future, which leads us to…

Have an improvement / growth plan.

Especially in the world of technology, as soon as your product is released the countdown has started to when it becomes obsolete. Knowing this, it is important to start working on the next version as soon as you can, and even better if you can plan a few versions ahead.

A common statement from Apple worshipers that the company already has the next 2 – 10 years worth of products in the pipeline. It wouldn’t surprise me if it’s true. Not only that, but companies like that can very purposefully phase update releases in order to maximize consumer engagement and purchase cycles.

For us, there are some things that need to happen before the company can really enter a strong growth phase, so that’s what we’re doing.

Know when to abandon.

This is a little more out there, because I don’t think we’re at this place yet. Saying that, the cycle be 5, 10, 100 or 1000 years, but eventually every product will reach the end of it’s life. Being able to predict and plan for this can mean continuing to capitalize on the market you hold before it’s too late, or be able to make the appropriate plans to ensure that the business continues beyond the flagship project.

Product Planning from Breaking Bad

I doubt that I’m alone in my love of the show Breaking Bad. While I am sad that the final episode is done, I do think there are some great product planning lessons that can learned from the show’s creator Vince Gilligan. Thought I was going to be talking about meth, didn’t you?

It’s no accident that BB is a very popular, award-winning show. Not that I claim to know too much about the entertainment business, but the research and planning that goes into what eventually gets produced, I think it stands to reason that the business world can stand to learn a few things. Specifically how it relates to product planning.

Start Customers Slow

The character of Walter White at the beginning of the series compared to the end of the series is not recognizable. He may as well be a different person. The reason viewers kept watching and even sympathizing with him even when it was clear he was completely evil is that we were started off slow. He was a geeky guy doing something bad for a good reason at the beginning, and then the baby steps that were taken to what he eventually became could be swallowed more easily.

A company that is great at doing this is Apple. Any one of their products can serve as a gateway to a number of others. When a customer buys one of their iPods, they are not just an iPod consumer. They will potentially buy another product and another, until they are so invested in the Apple Ecosystem that they can’t break away.

Listen to Your Customers

The original plan for Jesse was to have him killed off at some point in the first season. Then the writers strike happened and while this was going on the producers of Breaking Bad spoke to viewers. What they found out is that people loved Jesse’s character, so the decision was made to keep him around. Imagine how different the show would have been without Jesse.

Companies which truly want feedback about their products and services stand to connect better with customers and potential customers in the long run. Rather than trying to guess what people want, ask them and they will tell.

Innovate, Within Constraints

The idea of the anti-hero has been around since Greek mythology or before, but has taken on a new life in recent years. Shows like the Sopranos and Mad Men are always mentioned in the same breath as BB as examples of this. While Breaking Bad pushed the boundaries, they never went so far off the rails that people couldn’t wrap their mind around the concept.

The same can be said for putting out a new product. Most consumers can only handle a certain leap forward in order to consider making the purchase. If there is absolutely no reference point in their minds, no matter how amazing the product there is a good chance of failure.

Plan for the End

One of the things I respect most about Breaking Bad was the decision that was made to end the series when it was arguably at the height of its popularity. That is counter to most other TV shows out there. Rather than drain every last drop of profit from the show,the story arch was completed in a satisfying way and it will go down in history as one of the greatest shows.

Similarly products don’t last forever. Without reasonable improvement or complete overhauls, anything that can be developed will one day be obsolete. Keeping this in mind ensures that there is adequate preparation and future planning that goes into the process.

Miley Marketing

That’s right, I’m writing a post about Miley’s performance at the VMAs. Everyone else on the internet is, why not me?

The disclaimer is that I honestly haven’t watched the performance from front to back, but I believe that I have seen enough news clips and memes to get the general picture.

To get it out there, I don’t think that anyone would disagree that what was done was pretty trashy and not the sort of thing that teen girls should be seeing. First off, the fact that a woman who is/was a role model to girls would perform that Robin Thicke song (which I hate and is the absolute wrong message that any little girl or boy should be hearing) is a tell-tale sign of what sort of statement is going to be made here.

Putting aside the actual content of the performance, though, it is hard to argue that it wasn’t effective. Here we are three days later and it’s still being talked about on news sites, social media and over water coolers. In the age where things are old news in roughly an hour, that is quite the feat.

Not only this, but the story has transcended channels, showing up not just as entertainment news, but a leading story. It was on the home page of CNN.com, for goodness’ sake. The same space that is used to announce Presidents, report tragedies and inform the world had Miley twerking on it.

As they say, though, sometimes the ends justify the means and this was a marketing success. We’re the ones that stay interested, so the entertainment world is going to keep giving us what we (apparently) want. No press is bad press and it would be hard to argue that with that performance Miley reached out to a new fan base, beyond teenage girls.

I fully realize that this is a small contribution to the problem. I’m just calling it as I see it, though, and from a purely marketing standpoint it’s hard to say that there wasn’t a level of success. Her having to deal with the fallout of being in what is basically an internationally broadcast strip show is a completely different matter.

So again, you may be like me and don’t personally agree with the style of performance or what this supposed “role model” is doing, but damn sure we’re all going to be watching to see what she does next.

What Stops Us From Dreaming Big?

I have been bending peoples’ ears off about Elon Musk for quite some time now. If you don’t know who he is, we obviously haven’t spoken in a while, so give me a call! He’s his credentials:

  • Co-founded Paypal – no explanation necessary.
  • Founder and CEO Tesla Motors – currently the only viable all-electric car company, which is turning a profit, has paid back all government loans and is being hired by other car manufacturers (i.e. the competition) to help them.
  • Founder and CEO Space X – the first private corporation that has been contracted by NASA to resupply the ISS, which it has done successfully twice with rockets of it’s own design.
  • Chairman of Solar City – large solar system provider based out of the US, which was founded based on Musk’s plan.
  • Oh yeah, he’s only 42.

As much as I would love to someday write his biography, that wasn’t the point of this post. The reason I put all of his accomplishments up is because he is obviously someone who isn’t afraid to dream big. So, what’s stopping the rest of us?

Not to cop-out, but I think there is no one answer. Virtually every part of our upbringing is geared toward teaching us to be “practical” and to occupy our minds worrying about small issues. Both of which thoughts, I’m assuming, would rarely if ever enter Musk’s brain.

Then this learning stays with those people who become business owners. Worry about squeezing every ounce of profit from every dollar spent. Trying to determine what the marketplace “wants” before investing in creating it. Taking the same tired strategies of our competition and trying to make it a little bit more efficient, so it works for us.

I can almost guarantee that people like Musk don’t give a crap about any of that.

What would the market have said about any of those companies before they were launched? Did people in the mid-90s trust online payments? Was NASA comfortable with hiring an outside firm to provide vital services? Do people want solar technology to be their primary source of energy? No, no and no. That hasn’t stopped any of these companies from being successful.

It’s not a huge surprise, but apparently Musk is not stopping there. In a recent interview he spoke about an idea he has for a “hyperloop” which will allow people to travel from LA to San Francisco in 30 minutes. He also described it as “a cross between a Concorde, a rail gun, and an air hockey table.” I have no clue what that means, but I can’t wait to see it!

So don’t get caught in the day-to-day nit-picking worries that too many business owners focus on. One of the common traits of successful companies, across all sectors, is that when they were young the owners focused on growth, rather than cutting costs. It’s better to dream big and go for a bigger pie than worry about how your small pie is currently sliced. Now I want pie.

So keep (or start) dreaming big! Who the hell wants to aim for an average life? In the end we all die, so if you fail it doesn’t really matter. How’s that for finding the silver lining?