Shaun Russell Rocks SaaS Product Management Like It’s 1999

Shaun Russell

Shaun Russell Goes Future to the Back

A few weeks ago  I received a mailing from, I think, the BPMA (Boston Product Management Association) whose main headline was a link to a video entitled Things Nobody Told Me About Being a Product Manager given by a nice looking fellow of the name Shaun Russell, who, judging by his accent, is of British extraction and is currently a PM at an online website called the Outfittery.

The website’s SaaS business model is based around consulting with an online stylist who periodically sends you clothing they’ve picked out for you best on your preferences and tastes. You try on what they send and only keep what you like. Everything you reject can be sent back to the company free of charge. It’s an intriguing model and the clothing looks quite stylish. I suggest you take a look. (The site is British based and all numbers are in pounds. I’m not sure the free shipping option applies to international sales.)

The crusty product manager
Real (Old) product managers know what this is!

The stream runs about 16 minutes and  when it was over, I felt like I’d been whisked back in time to 1986, the year I became product manager of WordStar 2000 and then WordStar (wherein lies a tale you can read about in my book, In Search of Stupidity: Over 20 Years of High-Tech Marketing Disasters). In the late 80s, I would have found Russell’s lecture leading edge and fascinating. By 1999, it had become industry orthodoxy. Today, it’s crustier than a five-inch floppy disk.

During the presentation, Russell tells us that:

  • A PM’s job is “intangible.” (IOW, you can’t explain to your wife and friends what you do.)
  • You float around a lot in space (actually, by that he means you spend a lot of time bouncing between developers, who tend to look down on PMs but like them better than they do sales people, sales people who don’t care what you do, and upper management, who know what you do because they hired you to do it, are sure you don’t do it as well as they did, and are confident that if you’re laid off the company will survive. Collectively, these people are sometimes known as “stakeholders”).
  • The job is uncertain. (This is quite true. If your product does poorly in the market, the stake holders will stab your job in
    Product stakeholders
    A PM meets with the product stakeholders

    the heart, where it will rapidly go “poof” in the harsh glare of financial failure.)

  • You are supposed to know “less” than all the other people you work with. (This is another way of saying, “Jack of all trades, master of none,” a syndrome traditionally associated with product managers.)
  • Your work is never done. (Well, it can be. If your product’s sales are poor, you’ll be fired. I said that already, didn’t I.)
  • Product managers have a lot responsibility but no authority. (I first heard this observation sometime in the mid-80s and believe a Tears for Fears song was playing in the background at the time. Somehow, the group’s name seemed apropos to what I was learning.)
  • PMs need a “superpower.” (This is a new observation and I spent a few minutes imagining what superpower I could have used most in my past stints as a PM. Super Begging, Super Pleading, and Supersonic Whining initially came to mind.)

Zog, neanderthal product manager
Zog, Neanderthal Wooly Mammoth Product Manager. When he’s eaten the last one, he’ll move on to the Giant Sloth Division

Russell’s insights were all true 30 years ago for on-premise products, but today should be as relevant to a SaaS PM as a Neanderthal’s advice on how to hunt down and properly roast a wooly mammoth. Shaun’s lecture should have discussed a very different set of PM to-dos and potential accomplishments. (It is the fault of the industry, and Shaun’s company, that it did not.)

Product Management Fake News

Before going further, let’s first dispel some of the usual myths surrounding product management in the software industry. These include:

As a PM, you’re the “CEO” of their product. This is wrong.  You’re not the CEO of anything. Product management as a functional group or task set, is typically added to a company after it’s been in the market for a period of time, usually between 12 to 18 months, and when headcount exceeds 20+.

A PM is a middle manager hired in to relieve upper management of the burdens and busywork of product management because upper management is tired of listing new features in spreadsheets, arguing with web designers about the color of page headings, and lying to prospective customers about the new features that will not be appearing in the timeframes indicated on the official roadmap. That last bit in particular is now your job, Pinocchio.

To hammer this point home, please remember that product managers cannot fire nor fire, and rarely have actual control of “their” product’s budgets. CEOs can and do.

I once got into a lively discussion with a PM who had risen through the ranks of a large software company to become head of one its business units. He had budget, and could hire and fire. Yet, he insisted he was a product manager. He didn’t stop until I asked him to give me a copy of his business card and pointed out his title said “President.” Who did he hire to help manage his division’s product lines?

Product managers. None of whom had budget and could hire/fire. That was his and the VPs of his group’s perogative.

Another popular shibboleth is that PMs lead a team. This is also almost never the case. Yes, in some companies, the various functional groups may meet periodically either virtually or in person to exchange information and build camaraderie. The PM in some cases may chair the group. But in no real sense does this team report to the PM. Developers continue to code according to project schedules or scrums set by development, sales targets are set by sales managers, and marketing programs are launched and administered by marcom. The PM is always encouraged to provide “input” into these projects and programs and if her advice is in accordance with what the leader of the functional group believes, will be accepted. If not, it will be ignored and there’s nothing the PM can do about it.

Rather the PM acts a team cheerleader, whose principal function is to begin each meeting with a chant that goes something like this:

One! Two! Three! Four!

Get that product out the door!

Five! Six! Seven! Eight!

Hope the market thinks it’s great!

1999 product manager
A 1999 product manager. Isn’t she adorable?

Referring back to PM superpowers, perhaps the most useful one a product manager could have had in the 80s, 90s, and noughts was the ability to wave super pom-poms while leaping over tall buildings in a single bound.

The “Agile Product Management“ movement has also been quite the thing for the last  few years, though I detect enthusiasm is waning. This is because Agile is a development methodology and PMs aren’t programmers. It’s true that Agile usage has become almost mandatory for SaaS and mobile companies (particularly if they’re venture funded. In the Softletter SaaS Report, 80% of VC-funded SaaS firms reported they used Agile).

SaaS Entrepreneur: The Definitive Guide to Succeeding in Your Cloud Application Business"
Russell Shaun hasn’t read this book but he should

But product managers do not give coders orders. They’re rarely competent to do so, and if they make the attempt, the development process  quickly breaks down as the programmers inevitably revolt against an unnatural regime.  I’ve read through several “agile product management” course offerings that attempt to meld product management into Agile and they all have different ideas on the topic and often directly contradict each other. (I provide a precise example of this in my book, SaaS Entrepreneur: The Definitive Guide to Succeeding in Your Cloud Application Business, the first chapter of which deals directly with how the job of PM in SaaS and mobile is transformed.)

Another recent wrinkle in product management is the concept of “leadership.” PMs, we are told, need to spark “movements” and “create” experiences. (These types of metaphysical  ponderings are not new to product management and recur in the industry regularly.) One interesting take on the idea can be seen in an online presentation by Josh McWilliams, VP of College Factual.  Click on this link to watch; it runs about 10 minutes. At one point, Josh discusses the idea of a PM  not leading a team but being a member of the team.  Well, yes. I warn you now in the interests of your career that while this all sounds wonderful, if you’re not perceived as an employee who is making a tangible contribution to a product’s success, you will find yourself dropping into that most dreaded class of hire, an “expendable.”

The above all leads naturally to the question— “If Shaun’s take on product management is obsolete, what should the contemporary SaaS PM be doing with his or her time?”

SaaS Entrepreneur’s first chapter takes this topic head on. I’m not going to dive into every detail, but the excerpt below focuses on the core issue:

As we’ve noted, from a business standpoint the most distinguishing facets of SaaS products include their ability to operate 24/7/52, capture all subscriber interaction with your system, and concentrate your subscribers into a natural community (and this will extend to your reseller channel, assuming you’ve built one).

These facts have a profound impact on product management.  As a SaaS or mobile PM, the things you can measure and analyze via your SaaS or mobile system include:

  • Interaction with your system and services to micro detail. What functions do subscribers use? Which ones don’t they use or have abandoned? What new function do they most want?
  • Massive amounts of geo location and demographic data.
  • Quick feedback from your “community of customers” about service needs and requirements.
  • Amalgams of network effect data that you can monetize, use as marketing collateral, and sometimes even leverage to create new business lines.

We’re only scratching the surface. In today’s online software industry, the value of the information being gathered by SaaS and mobile applications is beginning in many cases to exceed that of application or subscription sales.

And you, as the PM, are naturally positioned in the nexus of it all. You are the best person to dashboard and analyze the data flowing through your system. Cross-indexing system usage against community feature requests. Tying the two together to create a data- and reputation-driven view of your company that can scale up to encompass every subscriber, then  zoom in on a single customer interaction.

Of course, to accomplish any of this, your SaaS system needs to integrate analytics and community. In the latest edition of Softletter’s SaaS Report, 58% of SaaS companies reported they’d baked in analytics. That number should be 99%. But only 31% have integrated community. We think that’s a serious mistake for most companies.

Shaun Russell Returns from 1986

But let’s assume you’ve implemented both. What has changed?

  • Your PM job is now tangible. When someone asks what you do, you’ll be able to answer that you provide precise usage, acceptance, and customer engagement information and reports for the product to which you’ve been assigned. Your information enables your team to compare results against suppositions and speculation, assisting them to plan for the future driven by hard facts and measurable results. You are constantly monitoring system data and customer interaction, learning more so you can provide the team and the company with more information and insight, thus driving responsibility and accountability to every level of the company. (Amazon has become famous for this approach.)
  • You float around less. You’ll be spending more time analyzing your metrics and talking to your community (customers) via the system. When the stakeholders complain about the direction of your product, you can provide them information that buttress or refutes their beliefs. When they insist on doing something stupid, a breadcrumb of how the foul up occurred will exist. This may not lead to your being loved, but you will be respected.
  • The job will still be uncertain. Remember, you’re the not the CEO and product managers were created to be scapegoats. But at least you’ll have learned valuable lessons you can take to your next job if, despite your best informed advice, you’re ignored and the Java hits the fan.
  • You know more about how your product is doing than all the other people you work with. And in today’s world, the old cliché that knowledge is power has never been truer.
  • Your work will still never be done. But work never is. You’ll rest when you’re dead.
  • You have authority because as the most knowledgeable person in the room, every group will have to listen to what you say. They may not like what you’re telling them, but it’s hard to argue with facts. It’s not impossible by any means, but results are even more difficult to dispute.
  • You probably won’t need a superpower. But perhaps it will be time for a new persona. You’re status in the company

  Mr. Spock, the ultimate product manager 

 Product manager? You want to be this guy

will change from Pom-Pom Person to that of the guy on the right. And he’s always been cool. Even if he’s from the 60s.

Before concluding, I want to dispose of one particular bit of shade that was thrown my way by people such The Cranky Product Manager and Tom Grant of Forester when I first began to discuss the concept of PM as Data God in June of 2009. From SaaS Entrepreneur:

 “And what about market development? Our hypothetical SaaS vendor has already attracted a particular kind of company—say, medium-sized eschaton brokerage firms in the continental United States. But is that the ultimate market that you, the SaaS vendor, want to reach? By following the direct feedback of current customers, you may be missing the features that are important for the next market you want to enter, where neither streamlined imanetization or improved reporting may be the cost of entry.”

Excerpted from Tom Grant’s blog site, the Heretech, 06/19/2009. Grant is an analyst at Forrester Research.

This misses the point. Are you worried that your customers aren’t as smart as you? That they’re missing the big picture and that you’re missing opportunities because you’re focusing on the most communicative and knowledgeable users of your system?

No problem. Nothing about the community manager model prevents you from adding whatever features you want. Moving into new markets. Innovating as you see fit. It is your product. And if you have integrated analytics into your system, you should be able to measure the activities of the ‘silent majority’ in your subscriber base. But in a properly architected SaaS product, you’ll be measured on the acceptance and usage of new capabilities very precisely. Your community’s complaints about your failure to add functions they request will become palpable. And remember that as it grows, your community should also be thought of as active marketing place that is ‘trading’ in the future of a single commodity—your company. And markets are the most active predictors of the future ever developed. But if you feel the road to success ignores the input and desires of your customers, you can now precisely measure its impact on your business. And be accountable for your decisions.

By the way, I’m not speaking about the role of product manager from a theoretical viewpoint. As I said, I’ve been a product manager and am currently providing that function for my startup, We’re in a quiet period right now, but I will be discussing my experiences in this regard in Softletter in greater detail. I conceived of the initial concept for the product and wrote the first spec. Do I one day plan to hire a product manager? I certainly do. Will they have hiring/firing authority? No. that’s the role of an upper manager.

A time machine for product managers
This machine will help you get your DOS on

BTW, if Shaun’s description of how product management works has you nodding to yourself “Why yes. That’s how it’s done at my company,” I suggest you invest in a time machine such as the one pictured to the left. The model shown is optimized for trips back to the 80s, where good PM jobs for products such 123, Symphony, Javelin, WordStar 2000, Harvard Graphics, WordPerfect, Turbo Pascal, MultiMate and hundreds of others await you. If this doesn’t appeal, I suggest urging your company to invest in the types of analytic and community technology that will help your software firm survive. I’d also recommend learning how to whip up pivot tables at a moment’s notice and download a free copy of the desktop version of Microstrategy, which is an excellent tool to learn how to carry out more detailed data analyses.

There you have it. If someone will please find Shaun a good analytics system and integrated community for Outfitters, as well as buy him a copy of SaaS Entrepreneur, I know his next presentation will take place in the 21st century.  And I’m sure it will be a good one.

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