Kickstarting Potato Salad

In case you missed it (although the tech press have had little else to report on today, it seems), some guy launched a kickstarter project with the ambitious goal of raising $10 to make a potato salad. (Link)

The project description:

“I’m making potato salad. Basically I’m just making potato salad. I haven’t decided what kind yet.”

On one hand, it’s absurd. It’s something like the tech equivalent of lighting your cigar with a burning $100 bill. It’s opulent, conspicuous consumption. Frivolous and wasteful, it seems to embody at least partly the recent backlash against the Silicon Valley tech industry, and the accusations that money is being invested generally into products and services aimed at making life cushy for the privileged and entitled elite, while more fundamental problems concerning the welfare of everyone are ignored.

On the other hand, why not? If people want to shell out their own hard-earned cash for something so frivolous, and have a bit of fun with it, why not let them? Although gratuitously wasteful, it’s not really doing any harm to the world as we know it. And maybe it might make a couple of people chuckle when they receive their $3 portion of potato salad.

Microsoft: Services Everywhere (not Windows Everywhere)

I came across two interesting pieces of Microsoft news today.

Firstly, Microsoft have bought the company behind a Visual Studio plugin called UnityVS which enables developers using the cross platform game engine, Unity, to write and debug their Unity programs directly within Visual Studio. Unity has support for all the major mobile operating systems, and then some – and Microsoft is slashing the existing $99 price tag and giving it away to developers for free. (Link)

In other words, Microsoft are investing in, and giving away for free, tools to make it easier to port games to a variety of platforms. Instead of reinforcing the old paradigm of “Windows everywhere”, they are literally helping to strengthen competitor platforms like iOS and Android.

The second piece of news was a rumour concerning a possible upcoming wearable device. (Link) Other than the first gasp-moment that it might not have a screen at all, the real news here was the rumour that the device might be compatible with Android and iOS mobile devices. This, compared with the wearable strategies of Android, iOS and Tizen (Samsung) devices, is a revolution. All the competitors mentioned here enforce a strict our-platform-only policy when it comes to their wearable offerings: the Tizen-powered Gear devices only pair with Samsung Galaxy devices, Android Wear only works with recent Android and the rumoured iWatch will of course only work with iOS devices. And here’s Microsoft with a device that could work with anything.

What does it mean? Perhaps it is a recognition of the inevitability of an Android/Apple-dominated smartphone market for the foreseeable future. Maybe it’s a strategy to increase sales: after all, Visual Studio still costs, and it also needs Windows to run; and the sales forecasts of any wearable device that only works with Windows Phone devices could not have been good (a tiny fraction of a tiny fraction). Either way, it’s a far-cry from the Microsoft of the 90’s and 2000’s and “Windows everywhere”, and it’s certainly some more clear signs of the company’s increasing play to become services-first.

Amazon Dash is another great example of un-bundling the smartphone

The newly launched Amazon Dash device (link) is a single-purpose hardware device that allows users to scan the items in their fridge or pantry that they’re running low on, and an order is automatically sent to Amazon’s fresh grocery service.

I find it very interesting because it is representative of how you can now build hardware so cheaply that the advantages of the unique form-factor versus a smartphone app outweigh the marginal cost of purchasing the hardware.

Sure you could do everything Dash does with a smartphone app… but having dedicated hardware makes it easy, and it is cheap (enough).

As the cost of embedded processing, sensors and (in some cases) glass continues to collapse, I predict we’ll see even more smartphone un-bundling into discreet, single-purpose connected hardware devices.

What the Whatsapp deal can teach all Product Managers

There are lots of lessons behind the curtains of the $19 BN Whatsapp acquisition by Facebook. There’s lessons about the scale and value of social, about the continually evolving mobile platform. There’s of course the rags-to-riches story of the founders going from food stamps to being billionaires in just a few short years, and a casual reminder that investment bankers are greedy.

But a few layers deeper there’s another lesson. It’s simple:

Whatsapp was not the first mobile messaging app.

When talking with Product Managers at lots of different companies I often hear sentences like these:

  • That’s not ‘new’ enough.
  • No, there’s already an app that does that.
  • If we could just find a completely new idea…

The problem is:

“There are no new ideas under the sun.”

Whatsapp was not the first mobile messaging app, and Facebook was not the first social network.

So what is the lesson? You don’t need to be first to win.

In fact, often not being first is an advantage. Look at Facebook – Mark Zuckerberg was able to learn from the failings of all the social networks that came before him. He learnt the importance of scaling from the failed Friendster, whose incredible pains scaling under rapid growth ultimately killed it. He learnt about network interactions from MySpace, which was still the biggest social network in 2006.

Another particularly good example: look at the category of To-Do List apps. There are literally hundreds in the app stores, and more pop up every month. Some are more successful than others, but the most successful ones, such as Wunderlist (currently #44 on the iOS store, and #29 grossing app), have only been around a relatively short amount of time. There were countless To-Do list apps before Wunderlist, and there’ll be countless more. What makes Wunderlist successful?

The value in a new product or service is seldom that it finds a completely unmet need. The value is often solving a known need in a new and innovative way.

When looking at product opportunities, the question is not if there is another product that solves the problem you intend to solve. The question is: can we be different? Can we be better?

A Very Simple Model for expressing a Customer Value Proposition

There are many frameworks available to help product teams develop and express a customer value proposition. One of my favourites is this Value Proposition Canvas, which was based on the canvas from the creators of the Business Model Canvas.

Expressing the proposition on this canvas is a great way of forcing you to think through the whole proposition, from beginning to end, and it is particularly useful for helping you identify problem-solution fit – that is, identify and articulate which needs or problems your product is addressing, and how.

While this model has worked very well for me, I would like to share a different, (even!) simpler model. It’s a well-known idea that any product or business should be able to be expressed within a single sentence. This model is all about getting to one sentence.

It’s as simple as answering three questions about your product:

  1. What it IS
  2. What it DOES
  3. HOW it does it

Step 1: Answer the three questions

What it IS

This describes the broad product category. What IS this thing you’re building? An app? What kind of app? Is it a service? What type?
Examples:

  • A messaging app
  • A maps app
  • A customer relationship management service

What it DOES

What does this product actually DO?
Or to put it another way – what are the benefits that this product provides to the customer? What needs does it solve?
Examples:

  • Send a text, image or video message to anyone you want, instantly, for free.
  • Find new and trending places to try that match your tastes in your neighbourhood.

HOW it does it

How does this product deliver the benefits you’ve described in the section above? What particular features or experiences are key to how your product will do this?
Examples:

  • Extremely simple interaction model with delightful user experience.
  • The fastest, most robust messaging cloud service.
  • Recommendations based on the activity/history of your friends.

Step Two: Prioritise

Do you have multiple answers under some or all of the questions above? If so, prioritise them. What is more important? What is critical? What is core to the whole product, and what is secondary?

Which items, if removed, would result in the product not being viable any more? These are your core propositions.

Step Three: Circle the differentiators

Which items you’ve circled are the ones that differentiate your product from others on the market? Which ones make your product truly different from the competition?

Step Four: Your proposition in one sentence

Now, try making a single sentence out of your answers in the three columns, focussing on a) what is top 1-2 in terms of priority, and b) what is differentiating.
(Hint: you don’t need to use every column!)

The formula for the sentence is as follows:
This product is a x (what it IS) that y (what it DOES) by z (HOW it does it).

Example: This product is a messaging app that allows you to send a text, image or video message to anyone you want, instantly, for free.

If you find that you cannot get everything you want into one sentence, or if your sentence is more than two lines long, start cutting. Keep cutting until you reach one sentence. What is really core? What is truly differentiating?

Why does this model work?

This model works by forcing you to prioritise. What is really important? What is really core? What is really differentiating?

It is also helpful because it helps visualise where your product’s differentiation lies. Some products differentiate on the benefits, or problems solved, and others differentiate on the solution to those needs. Knowing which is crucial when formulating your value proposition.

Try it, and see. I am interested to hear your feedback and if this model works for you.

The unbundling of Facebook and the evolution of mobile

Last week Facebook announced the new Paper app – an app that turns your Facebook news feed into your own personal newspaper. At the same time they announced Facebook Creative Labs and promised further small, single-purpose apps.

This is all part of a growing trend from Facebook to un-bundle their core mobile product/service into smaller, focussed single-purpose apps that solve specific problems. The first move here was Facebook Messenger, which was designed to compete head-on with the growing number of successful messaging apps that are growing incredibly in the marketplace (Whatsapp, Line, WeChat, Snapchat, etc).

When the giants of the desktop web era (Facebook, LinkedIn, Yahoo, and so on) moved to mobile, to begin with their service architectures stayed more or less intact. On the web, a single product has a single URL, a single brand and a single interface and structure. Facebook on the web is an entire product service that exists behind the facebook.com URL.

It turns out on mobile, however, that there are different dynamics driving user behaviour and expectations. On mobile, how users interact with apps, and how they choose to create and consume content, is very different than it was on desktop.

The structure of apps and the multi-tasking abilities of modern smartphones makes changing apps really easy. It is nearly always easier and quicker to press the ‘home’ button on your smartphone and open another app than it is to navigate the menu structure within the app you’re already in to access a different function.

This dynamic is driving the un-bundling of Facebook’s offer. Others are following. Yahoo already has offered a variety of mobile products since Marissa Mayer joined as CEO. Others, such as LinkedIn, will surely follow. (LinkedIn experimented with an email application, which they have since pulled. I predict they will release a news reader, similar to Paper, some time soon).

On mobile, users prioritise simplicity and speed over flexibility and broad functionality. Apps have a single use-case or purpose, as opposed to web products, or pre-mobile software in general, which cater for maximal different use-cases and functionality.

This is all a further acknowledgement that the paradigms that drove software and user behaviour in the pre-mobile world don’t fit completely to mobile, and the platforms are still evolving and changing.

Benedict Evans has posited that we really don’t know what it even will mean in 5 years to say “I installed an app on my smartphone”. So very little is settled – which means big opportunities – and also big risk – for mobile players.

Location-Based Services in 2014

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of location-based services lately. The first thing that occurs to me: nobody talks about location-based services anymore. There are just ‘services’.

It occurs to me that Location, in and of itself, is not an ‘experience’, per se. It is an enabler of experiences. Allow me to explain.

There are two critical aspects that make up a location-based service:

  1. The ability to accurately detect the real-world location of the user (or, more specifically, the user’s device) and communicate this back to a service in real-time.
  2. The ability to accurately place this, and other, locations of interest on a map.

Take a classic “location-based service” such as Foursquare, where users ‘check-in’ to venues, stores or other locations with the app on their smartphone when they visit the store physically. The location of the user is the enabler that allows the check-in to take place, and the rendering of a map of the area is the enabler that allows the check-in to be viewed and consumed later.

Location itself isn’t the point or motivator for the experience. It’s just what makes the experience possible.

Hence the term “location-based service” has fallen a bit out of favour. Location is no longer an exciting differentiator among mobile experiences, and the location is very rarely the real point of the ‘service’. The point is always something else: find out how good a hotel is (TripAdvisor), review a restaurant (Yelp), find a new place for lunch (Foursquare), find deals nearby (Groupon, iBeacon), etc.

So the thing to remember about Location: it’s not an experience. Location is an enabler of experiences.

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.

Why you should love your computer and your phone

My father, in his younger years, was an interstate trucker. As was common in those days, he owned his own truck, instead of leasing one or driving one that belongs to a company. His truck, the trailer, the tarps and ropes and chains, were all the tools of his trade.

During the week he was always away, somewhere on the Pacific Highway, a roughy 1000 km stretch of coastal highway between Brisbane and Sydney. On the weekends at home, he would care for his tools.

He would start by washing the week’s worth of road grime, dirt and bugs from the truck. He would carefully unroll his tens of meters of tarps and inspect them for holes and scuffs. He would untangle the chains and oil the ratchets, fill the water tanks, check the tyres…

The point is, he loved his tools. His tools were a part of who he was, and he knew he would only be as effective as his tools were.

I don’t have a truck, and I don’t work with chains or ropes or tarps. The physical tools of my trade are my computing devices and my software. But I still love my tools as my father loved his.

You mean you love your MacBook? You really love Illustrator? Keynote? Outlook?

Yeah, I do.

(Ok, so I don’t love Outlook. It’s hard to love Outlook. But you get the point…)

To be truly productive, I think you must love your tools. You spend your whole life with them in your hands. They shape your words, they communicate your ideas, they turn your dreams into reality. How could you not love that?

How horrible it must be to spend your whole day working with tools you dislike, or even tools you hate. How can that be anything but negative for your productivity? For mental health? Your well-being?

There is nothing worse than poor quality tools. But, like spanners or wrenches or cordless drills, the tools of the information profession have a variety of quality levels, and as the saying goes, you really do get what you pay for.

A professional mechanic isn’t using the 30€ set of wrenches from the supermarket.

Invest in the tools of your profession. Buy the right tool for the right job, and pay for the right level of quality.

And love your tools.

Special note for employers: your employees will only be as productive as the tools you give them. Sure, the 500€ Dell PC might seem like a bargain now. But the question is: what price do you put on the productivity of your staff?

Are you in love with making software, or making products?

Software is a solution to a problem. Or rather, it is a part of a solution to a problem.

A product is more than just the software, and it’s more than the solution. A complete product encompasses an entire product business: a consumer value proposition, a profit model, resources, processes and tools. Marketing and channels. Suppliers and customers.

If a tree falls in the forest and no-one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

If a product is designed, built and released, but no-body can find it and no-body uses it, does it exist at all?

Building products is a responsibility. Not just to create a great experience (great software, great hardware, great whatever), but to get that experience to your customers. Maybe also to their customers.

And most of all, to generate value for your business.

If you put on the hat of Product Manager, you’d better be ready to think bigger than just your software, because a product is much, much more.

So what are you in love with?

(If you’re not in love with either, then a career in software product management is maybe not for you.) 

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