4 Product Management Skills Books Don’t Teach & 1 Vanilla Ice Does

A few days ago, I posted a few of the resources I used as I grew into the product marketing manager / product manager role. With this post, I’m focusing on the things that you won’t read in those books but will likely learn on the job. Being a product marketing manager or product manager is always glorified on podcasts, blogs and in books. However, the path to success is often an exercise in your tolerance for being wrong and your willingness to listen.

Stop, Collaborate, and Listen

Are functions dependent on engineering asking you about the roadmap frequently? If so, it’s possible you’ve made the product roadmap a blackhole. Good product managers clearly and frequently communicate about the product roadmap. Great product managers go one step further and build shared understanding about the trade-offs that have to be made on an ongoing basis.

It’s important to remember that you are the gatekeeper to a finite resource within the company, one that several of your teammates need to achieve their goals or execute on their strategies. Approaching this responsibility with the humility it deserves will go a long way to ensure everyone is on the same page. Ask yourself, if someone has a better thought, would you know?

Product managers will often comment that they “own the product vision”, I couldn’t disagree more. The PM is responsible for executing it and building the vision with everyone in mind. The entire team should be proud of the product the company releases to the market. I’ve always been a fan of healthy internal debate. But while debate is good, buy-in is better.

You Can’t Be a Perfectionist

Scope creep is real. If everything you do must always be 100% complete and perfect before you release it, product management isn’t right for you. Customers will always provide the biggest insight into improving your product. The longer you wait to release it, the longer you have to wait for feedback. In businesses where cash flow and runway are key, this can prove disastrous.

Instead, put a process in place early. Keeping to a two week sprint cycle might seem rudimentary but the habit will ensure that you are keeping accountability and progressing toward a better product on an ongoing basis.

Even when we are working on longer term projects with revenue impacts we’re committed to releasing something that will give us a positive outcome in the near-term. Not only is this important for business reasons, it allows us to always collect customer feedback to improve our product. Additionally, the engineering team gets a chance to impact the business regularly with new features. Never underestimate the importance of this, engineers LOVE knowing they are building products that have an impact on the top line.

Shiny Objects Almost Always Fade

There’s a time in every company where the path to explosive growth seems hidden or the initial push has slowed. At LAUNCH this year, Jason M. Lemkin warned SaaS companies that it is tempting to enter a new segment with your product when you hit the wall.

We aren’t SaaS at Choose, but I do believe every company eventually faces the decision to improve the core business or enter a new segment. It’s likely you have plenty of room to continue to improve the core even if it isn’t exciting. Focus on your mission and take a deep dive into what your customers want. Scott Belsky of Greylock Ventures uses a phrase I love, “mission centric, medium agnostic.”

As much as we wanted to be a “purely digital” platform for energy choice, some consumers needed the comfort of a voice on the telephone. Our mission is energy choice for all because we believe it saves customers money and allows them to pick the source of their energy, should we care if they do this online or on the phone?

As it turns out, a great shopping platform combined with industry leading selection is an avenue to success once we gave customers a choice in the way they transacted. Focus on your customers, not what other companies in different industries are doing with the “latest tech”.

Execution is a Sprint, Vision is a Marathon

We have a strict rule at Choose, once a sprint starts, it doesn’t get changed. However, that doesn’t apply to the day before the sprint or the quarterly roadmap.

Your goal as a PM should always be to execute on the highest value features, this changes frequently, especially in startups. However, being adaptive doesn’t come without its traps. It is easy to be coerced into creating throw-away work.

Recently, we had to make the decision on which core piece of our product we wanted to improve first. We subscribe to the Bill Gurley theory that conversion is the most important metric, and with this in mind decided to improve the checkout process for our customers. This was a massive undertaking, so we broke it into actionable pieces.

First, we focused on changing the validation scripts and content. The sprint, easy fixes that would have immediate impacts. Due to the nature of our business, each checkout has idiosyncrasies that dictate they all have slightly differing code leading us to the marathon. We improved the code base to allow us to be more performant and flexible with improvements. The result: we’ve reduced the time to add new features in checkout by about 66%, and improved conversion by ~20% after customers enter checkout.

You’re Going to Be Wrong

Know this, building the right product is hard. If you’re doing it right, and moving fast you will be wrong a lot. It’s what you learn and how fast you adapt that determines how successful you’ll ultimately be.

After we had launched our B2B product at Choose Energy, I was damn sure we needed to build two things: 1) an input for our customers to enter their monthly electricity spend to get a better price and 2) a way for our partners who weren’t on API’s to upload prices more quickly. I pushed for these almost every chance I got. Neither worked and I’d wasted our engineers’ time. I was certain that customers valued price above all else and this was our way to give them the most savings. As it turned out, they valued their time more.

Instead, our customers enjoyed the simplicity of just selecting home, small business, or large business and seeing prices immediately after. Our partners didn’t put out more tailored rates because the new upload features weren’t a vast improvement on our old process nor did they increase acquisition.

Don’t be afraid to admit mistakes, the sooner you admit them, the faster you can correct them and build something your customers love. Even more, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. 80% certainty is almost always good enough, driving out all uncertainty tends to waste a lot of time and speed matters.

There you have it, a few skills I’ve learned on the job in product and the experiences that go along with them. You might have noticed there are two skills noticeably absent from the list. HUSTLE & CURIOSITY. Simply because I believe you need those skills to excel no matter the job, and they’re hard to teach. I hope this list leaves you with a few skills you can apply to your day-to-day basis and as always, if you have more to add, I’d love to hear it.

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