Product Managers – Learn from Elon Musk: write down your product strategy in prose

desk and writing implements

Last week, Elon Musk posted his second ‘Master Plan’ for Tesla. In it, he lays out the strategy for Tesla for the next decade or so, in a clear, concise and highly readable way. He doesn’t use slides. He doesn’t use visuals or charts or graphs. Just words.

As a Product Manager, when was the last time you put your product vision and strategy into words? Into just words?

I’ve seen lots of product visions presented with powerpoint slides. Decks containing reams of slides with graphs and charts and bullet points. I’ve seen prototypes and visual concepts of futuristic products. But rarely do I see a product vision boiled down into its basic elements and presented in the form of written prose.

Don’t get me wrong: powerpoint and visual concepts are fantastic tools for communicating certain types of things. But the written word, in particular well-written prose, has an efficiency, elegance and clarity that you can’t replace with 80 slides.

If you don’t already, get into the habit of capturing your overall product vision and strategy in prose. Why? Because the ability to write it down in a clear and concise way is the ultimate test of the clarity of your vision.

It doesn’t have to be complicated. Let’s take a look at Elon’s post, and what we can learn from it:

  • The post is highly readable: it doesn’t use technical language, buzz words or jargon and it adopts a very informal style. A strategy brief doesn’t have to be complicated or written like an academic paper, nor does it have to be filled with management buzz words.
  • It is very clear and concise: you know exactly where he’s going and why.
  • The vision is sufficiently high-level: you can see the long-term end goal he’s going after (the vision), and the big building blocks he will assemble, in what order, to get there (the strategy).
  • It’s relatively short: about 1500 words. A strategy brief doesn’t have to be a novel! In fact, the shorter, the better.
  • He breaks down extremely broad and complex macro-economic and environmental topics (global warming, sustainable energy production, etc) into very simple terms.
  • At the end there’s a 4 bullet-point summary containing just 47 words that sums up the entire thing. A decade-long plan summed up in under 50 words. This is the ultimate test of your vision and strategy: can you describe it clearly in under 50 words?

At Amazon, Jeff Bezos famously introduced a rule forcing his executives to present product and strategy proposals in written prose, in what he called narratives.

A quote from the book The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon:

“PowerPoint is a very imprecise communication mechanism. It is fantastically easy to hide between bullet points. You are never forced to express your thoughts completely.”

Give it a try: take 30 minutes and put your product strategy onto paper. If you like I’ll even read it for you and provide feedback! Send me an email or find me on Twitter.

Amazon Kindle and the Perfect Product Vision

In the recent fantastic piece on The Verge covering interviews with the top brass behind the Amazon Kindle, the ultimate product vision behind the Kindle series of eReaders is articulated beautifully. From the article:

For Amazon, paper is more than a material for making prototypes. It’s the inspiration for the Kindle of the future: a weightless object that lasts more or less forever and is readable in any light. “Paper is the gold standard,” Green says. “We’re striving to hit that. And we’re taking legitimate steps year over year to get there.”

The beauty of this is its simplicity. Amazon are striving to create electronic paper. “Paper is the gold standard. We’re striving to hit that.”

There is nothing here about the joy of reading, or empowering people through instant delivery of information, or making money. The beauty of this is that all of those things flow naturally from the core premise: to make better, electronic paper.

This is what the Kindle team says about itself. It’s clear, it’s inspiring – and it’s impossible to misunderstand.

Compare that with this:

“Reach the largest daily audience in the world by connecting everyone to their world via our information sharing and distribution platform products and be one of the top revenue generating Internet companies in the world.”

That mouthful appeared on a slide at Twitter’s first analyst day. Inspiring? Do you even understand what the hell its trying to say? It could mean anything and everything – and that’s the problem.

Imagine your first day on the job at Amazon in the Kindle division. You ask, “So what is our mission? What are we trying to do?” In answer, someone might hand you a piece of paper, and tell you: “We want to make that.”

A good product vision is inspiring and motivating; an irresistible imagined future that pulls you towards it like gravity. But a good vision is also impossible to misunderstand. Everybody should share the same view, and be pulled in the same direction.

Mobile strategy in a rapidly evolving industry

Benedict Evans, the well-known mobile industry analyst, has posited that we actually have no idea what it will mean in five years to “install an app on my smartphone”.

The market and the technology that powers it is changing and evolving so fast that there is no way to know how the industry will look in five years time. Will a smartphone still be a rectangular device with a screen that you carry in your pocket? Will it have already been absorbed into an invisible network of embedded, connected, wearable devices? What will be the form factors that define ‘mobile’ in five year’s time? How would you develop experiences for them?

For everyone in the business of creating and distributing mobile experiences, the dependency you have to the mobile ecosystems is the single largest pertinent factor in your strategic profile. How does not having a clear view not the future impact your strategic planning? What will your business model be in five years? What will your business be at all in five years?

It is an interesting lesson in strategy definition to be able to separate the WHAT from the HOW.

The HOW is a constant evolution of the environment you’re operating in. The WHAT is much more constant, and can absorb even large changes in the environment.

The WHY… it could last perhaps forever.

The Product Definition

The Complete Product Owner series - Act I: The Product

The Complete Product Owner
Act I: The Product

This post is part of the “Complete Product Owner” series.

A product owner is the owner of a product: so it makes sense to start our exploration of the product owner role with defining the actual product. What is it? What does it do? What value does it add? Who is it for? These are some of the questions that you’ll need to be able to answer. It seems obvious, but it is surprising how many product people I meet who cannot answer some of these questions convincingly.

The best product owners know their product inside out, but they can do more than simply recite a list of features… they can answer the core questions of: what are you building, how you are building it, and why. You are the product expert.

The Consumer Value Proposition

A very useful tool for expressing your product is a consumer value proposition (CVP). A value proposition is a statement that addresses the key questions: what does the product do, who is it for and, most importantly, how it adds value for a consumer.

As an example, consider the following two pairs of women’s shoes:

Shoe 1
Tom’s Catino Ballet Flats
Shoe 1
Giuseppe Zanotti boots


While being obviously very different shoes for (presumably) very different occasions, the specific value propositions set them apart even more.

The Tom’s ballet flats cost a fairly standard $79, are designed to be comfortable and made from sustainable resources; but unique to Tom’s shoes is their “One for One” program: for each pair of shoes sold, Tom’s gives a pair of shoes to a child in need around the world. The unique value proposition here is that when you buy Tom’s shoes you can also help needy children in third world countries.

The Giuseppe Zanotti boots have a very different value proposition. At around $1,400 they set a very different expectation in terms of price. Here the value that the consumer purchases is prestige, glamour and exclusivity. The core function of a shoe (comfort and protection of the feet) takes a total backstage in this proposition to make way for luxury and glamour.

Note that the CVP is more than just a simple list of features. The Tom’s proposition describes the what (shoes, comfortable), and describes differentiation (how they are different from other shoes) by creating a resonating focus on the aspect of giving shoes to needy children. The best CVPs are not only factual, but emotional as well.

The Consumer Value Proposition is a very useful tool and will help you explicate the core value of what you are producing.

What do you stand for?

A good question to ask in any product team is: “what do we stand for?” When a consumer hears about our product or company, what do we want them to think about?

Tom’s shoes stand for helping children in need. At Nokia we stand for connecting people, and empowering people to live adventure everyday. One level deeper, at Nokia Maps, we stand for putting you and your neighbourhood on the map, allowing you to be a local, anywhere.

Understanding what you stand for as a product team helps align the vision for the product and sets a common direction within the team. The most productive teams have the knowledge and context to make good decisions at all levels of the team, and when everyone has the same beliefs about what you stand for as a team, everyone can make better informed decisions that continue in the best direction for the product and the team.

Why?

Closely related to what you stand for is the why. That is, why you are building this product in the first place: what are the core beliefs that you have that lead you to invest in building this product? What is it that you believe in that makes you do this?

When “Tall” Tim Pethick started the phenomenal fruit juice brand “Nudie” in Sydney in 2003, he believed that bottled fruit juices should be produced with 100% fruit: no preservatives, no additives, no concentrates. This desire for pure, fruit-only juice enjoyment and the story behind it became a core part of the Nudie brand image.

Simon Sinek gave a fantastic TED-talk on the topic of why, which is highly recommended viewing.

Who is it for? Market Segmentation

As important as what is who. In order to create a product that solves the needs of your users/customers in the best way, you need to understand who your users are. This starts with understanding your market segment.

Segmentation is all about understanding your target market; or in other words, about breaking down the world of people into smaller sub-sets that define more specifically what kind of people are your actual potential users. My wife doesn’t play video games and isn’t in the market for a new PlayStation, for example. She is not the target market.

The Nintendo Wii is the most successful game console of the current generation, and the third most successful console of all time (in terms of units shipped, having shipped over 95 million units as of March 2012). At the heart of the innovative business model that enabled the success of the Wii is the segmentation strategy: Nintendo chose to focus on a very different demographic than other consoles: instead of focussing on the traditional (and extremely competitive) “hardcore gamer” market, Nintendo targeted the Wii towards a broader demographic of “casual” gamers. This allowed them to decrease the focus on cutting-edge performance and graphics required to compete in the “hardcore gamers” segment and allowed them to produce a more family-friendly and cost-effective device that has been decisive in their success.

Once you understand your specific market segment, you can target your designs and services directly for these people. In a later post we’ll look at building user profiles to represent your target market to help in this process.

The Elevator Pitch: sell your product in 30-60 seconds

We’ve all heard the expression “Elevator Pitch”, but here’s a short bit of revision: the idea is to imagine you find yourself in the elevator with your CEO, and she asks you: “What are you working on?” In the time it takes for an elevator ride you now have to pitch your product.

The point is that you have only 30 seconds to make someone understand what you do and be interested or excited about it. It’s a nice exercise because it forces you to focus on what is important to engage someone with your story. In nearly all cases reciting a laundry-list of features will not cut it: you’ll need to tell a story that highlights what value you bring to users.

My tip is to really practice your elevator pitch. Even if you never end up with your CEO in an elevator, you’ll have forced yourself to consider what is important.

For a nice example of an elevator pitch, check out Evernote CEO Phil Libin, present his 50 second elevator pitch for Evernote.

The spur-of-the-moment demo

As we used to say in the boy scouts, “Always be prepared”. You should always be ready with your elevator pitch, and likewise you should always be ready to give a demo of your product. Have a couple of different demo scripts ready to pull out at a moment’s notice. I have three that I use for Nokia Maps based on how much time I have to demo: 5 minutes, 10 minutes or 15 minutes.

You never know when you’ll be called on to demo the product spontaneously, and every demo counts: so being prepared will ensure you give a great demo, always.

Summary

Know your product, as you know yourself. Never forget that you’re the expert in your product.

One important thing to remember is that knowing and communicating are two very different things. It doesn’t matter how well you know your product if you are not able to communicate it to your team, your customers or your partners.

In the next post in the Complete Product Owner series we’ll look at the competitive landscape.

Resources


The Complete Product Owner series - Act I: The Product

The Complete Product Owner
Act I: The Product

This post is part of the “Complete Product Owner” series.