What Caltrain Could Learn from Staples

One morning I looked out of my window and watched as a woman just missed the train. Experienced riders know that when they hear the "caution, the doors are about to close" announcement, it's already too late. The doors are closing, and unless you want to dive onto the train before they shut, you're out of luck. (And I wouldn't try the stick-your-arm-in-and-the-doors-will-reopen trick.)

This would-be rider looked like a new passenger, not one of the "regulars" who get on the train in Gilroy. And as we rolled away from the station I wondered, will she be back?

When a for-profit business sees that its customer base is in decline, its costs are up and its revenues are down, it faces a "code red" moment of decision:

  • Can we reverse these trends? At what cost?
  • Do we "double down" (I hate that phrase) and work to turn things around? Or do we determine that these trends cannot be reversed, and exit the business?

Notice that nowhere in this line of thinking does the business say, "hey! I have a right to exist!" or "but look at all the good I do!"

When a non-profit organization faces these same challenges of declining customers, growing costs and sliding revenues, the moment of decision often revolves around raising prices, cutting services, and asking for more subsidies.

I won't get into the discussion of whether organizations that provide a public good (like transit agencies) should be fully funded, fully self-supporting, or something in between. That's a discussion best left for others.

First You Commit, Then You Make it Work

My main point is that transit agencies, in this case CalTrain, need to think about the problem from their customer's point of view. Why do people ride the train? You could probably come up with a set of reasons.

  • It's cheaper than driving.
  • It's my only transportation option.
  • It's good for the environment.
  • It's less stressful than driving.

In most cases, few of these answers are valid justifications.

  • Given my commute, gas has to be priced above $4 per gallon before the gas-vs.-train ticket option tips in favor of the train ticket (lately, that's been the case).
  • Most people have transportation options, especially a car.
  • Riding the train is probably better for the environment that driving a car.
  • Riding the train is definitely less stressful than driving.

But it's also true that

  • Riding the train takes longer than driving… in my case it's about two hours each direction, when you include getting from the train station to/from work. Driving time can be anywhere from one to two+ hours depending on traffic conditions.
  • Riding the train means you have to work around the train schedule. You have certain windows of opportunity to catch the train. If (like many people) your day has undefined starting and (especially) ending points, you have to work to incorporate a fixed train schedule into your day.

My point is that the decision to ride the train, especially on a regular basis, is a lot less rationally based than you might think. Sure, if you happen to live and work near a CalTrain station you can just fall into the habit. But for everyone else, riding the train means making a commitment to it. You have to think about your work schedule, how you're going to get to/from the train station, arrange to purchase tickets and so on.

What Were Once Vices are Now Habits

Department of Obscure References

So when that woman missed the train, you have to wonder: how committed is she now that she was unable to take that first step? And what could CalTrain have done to make it easier for her to follow through on that idea of riding the train?

I remember when I figured out why the old book and record clubs were willing to sell you 10 books or CD's for a penny. It wasn't about marginal cost vs. marginal price. It was about the requirement that you buy a certain amount of product over a certain number of months. And that was about establishing a habit of purchasing. These companies knew that once they got you into the habit of at least considering a book or CD purchase each month, they were more likely to get you to buy.

Hitting the "Easy" Button

So here are some free tips for CalTrain, ones that would focus on encouraging the budding commitment of passengers to ride the train, and that would reinforce the decision for more established passengers.

Simplify Ticketing

Today you have three ticket options:

  1. Buy a ticket at one of the CalTrain vending machines.
  2. Buy an "8-ride" pass and use your Clipper card (a reloadable debit card) as your ticket.
  3. Buy a monthly pass and use your Clipper card as your ticket.

The first option is challenging because only a few stations have working ticket counters, and some of the ticket vending machines don't work. One of the two machines in Gilroy has been "temporarily unavailable" since at least 2007. Also, the vending machines sometimes will bill your card twice for a ticket, or fail to authorize your card for no clear reason. There's nothing like the pressure of trying to buy a ticket while the queue behind you builds and you're mentally counting down the seconds until the train is ready to leave.

Oh, and buying a ticket on the train? What do you think this is, 1990?

CalTrain has begun moving to a reloadable debit card, the "Clipper Card" as an alternative to ticketing machines. This is a good move, but is way behind the curve when it comes to simple, mobile payments. If you have less than $1.75 on the card, it gets screwed up (and the conductors think you're freeloading). If you try to use it to travel between other zones than the ones you specified when you charged it, the card is inoperable. You can load funds onto it automatically, but you have to wait up to three days for the funds to transfer and clear.

Imagine how much easier it would be if you just loaded a specific dollar amount onto your Clipper Card, and then had it deduct the right amount depending on the length of your train ride. And if you want to offer discounts for multi-ride sales, just offer a flat percentage discount.

Maybe the architecture of the Clipper Card makes it hard to deliver a more flexible payment experience. But here in the heart of Silicon Valley, many CalTrain riders carry smartphones, and there are any number of mobile payment companies—startup's and established companies. So why not partner with someone to offer a smartphone-based payment option?

Convert Unticketed Passengers to Paying Customers

As I mentioned earlier, you can't just walk onto CalTrain and buy a ticket. CalTrain is a "proof of payment" system, meaning you have to be able to prove you've purchased a ticket or face the possibility of a large fine.

In all the time I've been riding CalTrain, I can't recall an interaction with an unticketed passenger that was the result of someone trying to get a free ride. Inevitably, the offending person had a problem getting a proper ticket, got frustrated/confused, and boarded the train anyway. Then there's a discussion (sometimes tearful) between the train conductor and the passenger. The conductor has to play the "heavy" (a role they don't enjoy) and threaten to write a ticket, but they don't have an incentive to do this as they're busy checking everyone else's tickets and making sure the train runs on time.

A much better solution would be to have a way of selling a ticket to the ticketless passenger. CalTrain could make the ticket very expensive as a disincentive to relying on this method for buying tickets. Companies like Square offer very simple card-reader capabilities that work with a smartphone to process payments.

Partner with Large Employers

Remember the "80-20 Rule"? How about partnering with large employers, like Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Lockheed and so on? Give these companies some incentive to encourage ridership among their employees—special shuttles, discounts, etc. Getting a few of these companies lined up gets you to a large portion of the potential ridership.

Make it Hip

Department of Obscure References

How about giving people a reason to feel good about riding the train? Some of the riders who bring their bikes are making a statement about avoiding oil consumption and the like. How about letting people know how much CO2 emissions they've avoided by riding the train?

Focus on Your Customers, and the Funding Will Follow

Maybe agencies like CalTrain focus on making sure they can serve all constituents equally. For instance, perhaps the idea of paying via smartphone was rejected because not everyone has a smartphone. I'm in favor of making sure that everyone has access to public transportation. But implementing programs that require everyone to be served equally doesn't work. Or it works too well—everyone is served equally poorly. It makes much more sense to provide a great experience to those riders that are choosing to ride, and let their ridership subsidize those that are riding the train out of necessity.

If you're a non-profit or other ortganization dependent on goverment funds as well as paying customers to survice, how do you want to succeed? Do you want to convince the public and your funders that y ou deserve to exist? Or do you want to make people feel like they can't live without you, that it's easy to say "yes"?

Road Show Road Kill

I'm doing some consulting these days, and one of my assignments is to help a small managed service provider transition into selling cloud-based services. It's fun work, as it puts me at the intersection of sales and product.

As part of this work, I attended a "road show" put on by one of the (very large) companies whose products/services we currently sell. The focus was on their "cloud" service offerings, and the audience was schmo's like me looking to figure out how to sell these kinds of services… without drowning in a sea of collateral and sales documents available on the company's web site.

I'm well-acquainted with the "road show," at least from the presenter's side. You barnstorm through a bunch of cities, pitching your particular product/service to the audience of customers or salespeople that have been assembled and coerced into staying by the free food and the prize given out at the end of the event. The days are long, the travel numbing, the presentations become increasingly difficult to do with enthusiasm. On the other hand, you're bonding with co-workers and drinks are on the house.

This was one of my first opportunities to experience a road show from the audience side. The free food was fine, a little light on the fruit and vegetable side. The give-away at the end (a video game console) was also fine, though it didn't hold my interest. And some of the presentations were really well done: focused on the needs of the audience, simple but still informative, and delivered with enthusiasm and humor.

But the presentation that stood out, of course, was the one that seemed to break every rule of presenting—in seemingly sequential order.

  • The presenter started with an apology, having to do with not having the usual technical support person available to handle the really tough questions. She may as well have started by saying, "you're not going to get much out of this, but it's not my fault".
    • Don't EVER start with an apology. You immediately take yourself out of the "driver's seat" and undermine your own credibility. Better to wait until you actually have something to apologize for.
  • The presenter's slides had WAY too much information on them. And apparently much of the information wasn't that important, because the presenter made no attempt to communicate it.
    • I've harped about presentations elsewhere, but here's the main point: do you want people listening to you? Or reading your slides? And by the way, are you saying anything interesting that's not already covered on those slides?
  • The presenter said, in so many words, that "Version 1" of the product sucked.
    • NEVER bad-mouth your own product. I've seen presenters do this, thinking it's their way of bonding with the audience. All it does is make the audience wonder, "What kind of a loser would want to work for a company that put out such awful products?"
  • The presenter went on to say (again, I'm paraphrasing), "Eventually, we'll be best in class." So, am I supposed to check back when you actually have something worth selling? It turns out that what she meant to say was that the cloud-based product would eventually offer the same features as the locally-hosted product. But that's not what I heard.
    • It's OK to have a better product later. But don't imply that your product is bad right now.
  • The presenter talked about the product's "agility" and in the next breath discussed six-month (!) release cycles. I'll admit this is more of a nit, as "agile" has special meaning to those in the product development world. And it's true that this product's release cycles are much faster than the locally hosted version's cycles. But most people looking to do "Agile" product development are planning for weekly release cycles, not half-yearly ones.
    • Be careful with your language. You don't want to claim you're something (e.g., "Agile") when the evidence isn't there to support it.
  • The presentation (slides and spoken words) was filled with company-specific jargon and acronyms. Your TLA's are your own. I no more want to adopt them than I want to order a "Venti" sized coffee.
    • Circle every acronym and piece of jargon on your slides and ask yourself, "Do I really need the audience to use this term or know what it means?"

If you don't want this to be you, pay attention to your presentation: its message, focus, and delivery. Or you could make sure I'm not invited to your show.

What's Your Passion?

There seems to be a question that's in vogue on the interviewing trail these days: "What are you passionate about?"  It's a good question, especially for startup hires.  You're going to work your tail off, so having the proper motivation is critical... and "I'm in it for the money" isn't going to cut it.

The preferred answer seems to be "I'm passionate about..." and then fill in the particular application or service the hiring company is built around.  I think this is misguided.  A better answer would be "I'm passionate about building a great business."

Why? Because most startup's don't succeed at whatever they started out doing.  Sometimes, what you thought was a product is really more of a feature (see this post from Mark Cuban for example). Often times, you're iterating toward the product or service that's going to resonate with the market.  So what happens when the thing you've identified as "your passion" isn't accepted in the market? Some would argue in favor of staying the course, figuring that the market will eventually understand the value of what you have to offer.  Maybe.  But more often than not, these are the people who believe in the phrase, "we didn't lose, we were just behind when time ran out."

The successful entrepreneurs are the ones that set aside their own feelings and read the market acceptance information for what it is.  They adapt their product vision to address the opportunities as presented by the market.  Are they passionate? Absolutely.  Are they obstinate? Not so much.

Great Presentation Advice

I saw this post on Forbes about presentations that I thought was great. The posting describes a simple test by Vinod Khosla:  show someone your slide for five seconds, then ask them to describe its content.  I had the good fortune to learn this from Yuri Shtivelman, when he and I worked at Nortel Networks.  Yuri would have me step through my slide presentation, spending a few seconds on each slide.  For each slide he would ask, "what's the message?".  Then we would write down each message, look at them in sequence, and determine whether they told the story we were trying to tell.  It was an approach that worked quite well, especially during strategic planning season.

What are the take-away's here?

  • You have to create presentations for the right side of your audience's (collective) brain--the side that processes images and ideas vs. words and arguments.  That's because people don't read your slide, they absorb it.
  • As the Forbes post describes, when you put up a slide people focus on it... and stop listening to you.  If you don't believe me, try putting a picture of a puppy in your presentation, in some random spot, and watch what happens.
  • The presentation is for your audience, not you.  If you need cues to remember your key points, write them out on index cards.
  • Tailor the slide material to the preferences of you audience.  Your CFO will want to see numbers in a table more than a chart.  Your CTO will want to see a diagram.
  • As always, less is more.  Guy Kawasaki's 10/20/30 rule is still the best!


How Not to be the Towel Boy

I was never an equipment manager for sports teams in high school or college.  I figured that if I couldn’t play on the team, I didn’t want to participate except as a fan.

I had a moment of clarity on a recent morning, thinking about my ability to lead as a product manager.  For whatever reason, I had—within an hour of the day’s start—a “triple low” of frustration.

-          In one project, I was told by Engineering that they wanted to go ahead and code a page that would allow for processing of a user’s status before sending them to the appropriate landing page.  I went to Marketing to get their input on what the page should say.  What I got was something else: what about tracking cookies? What about new users? Returning users? Um, OK.  I guess I’ll march over to Engineering and get some answers.

-          Shortly after this experience, I was on the phone with a customer.  We didn’t have an estimate for fixing a problem they were having, but it appeared that we were very close.  I bravely suggested it would be in the sooner rather than later time frame.  As soon as I left the call, I learned that the engineer who was supposed to work on the fix was involved in another high-priority project; he might not be able to start the fix for two weeks!  Talk about bad timing.  Why was this just coming up now?  We’d just finished wrangling with IT to get a test environment set up.  We thought that was the only obstacle to moving forward; now this?

-          Sigh. Then I went over to the Deployment Engineer working on another issue.  Could I get from him a list of customers on the most recent version of MS Outlook?  It seemed like a simple request.  I explained that I wanted to be ready to triage the problem, and needed the information to know how we might proceed.  What I got in response was a lecture on the need to get Engineering to focus on solving the problem and so on.

All in all, it wasn’t a very satisfying start to the day.

I have often (when not being concerned about dating myself) referred to the cartoon at the end of Rocky and Bullwinkle, where the last member of the parade is the guy sweeping up after the elephants go by.  Sometimes as a Product Manager you feel like you’re that guy.  Or, to get back to the metaphor in the title of this post, you feel like you’re the one handing out the towels, when you thought you were going to be calling the plays.

I thought about why this experience had just happened, and why it wasn’t the first time it had happened.  It came down to a few reasons:

  • The desire to move quickly.  A fast pace is a way of life in startup companies, and in technology companies generally.  Someone wants it and they want it now.  One side effect of that pace is a kind of ADD, where you develop the skill/habit of making decisions and taking action in 30-second chunks.  The unfortunate side effect of this kind of pace is that it’s easy to respond or act without questioning the premises behind the request to do so.
  • The desire to add value.  This is especially true if you’re experience TNGS—The New Guy (or Gal) Syndrome.  You want to show people that you can move quickly, get results, and so on.  So it’s easy to want to say “yes” rather than “why does your request make sense?”
  • Letting accomplishment get in the way of leadership.  It’s easy to focus on accomplishment (see TNGS above).  You want to show results.  But in doing so, what gets lost is leadership—and this is very likely what you were hired to provide.  What’s the right thing to do here? And not just from one perspective (Engineering, Support, etc.), but taking into account the whole of the business?  As I used to say at another company, one with a CEO named Ken, What Would Ken Do?

Getting Back in the Saddle

I got a cup of tea, sat in my cube and thought about the problem from a business owner’s point of view.  I ignored the emails piling up, as everyone weighed in on what they thought needed to be done next.  I stopped shuttling around between groups, hearing their requests or asking their opinions.  I went back to the fundamental question:  what do I need to know, to know what to do next?

  • I went to Marketing and asked them for a requirements statement; the “ask” as we like to call it.  What was the flow they wanted? What did the web pages need to say, exactly?  How did they want to handle new vs. existing users?  Once I had this, I went to Engineering and reviewed the requirements with them.  After one or two rounds of clarification, everyone knew what to expect and we could move on.
  • I reviewed the competing product priorities that were causing a delay in solving the customer’s problem.  What were the projects? What money was on the table? How real was the estimated impact? How could we solve the customer’s problem without coding a solution? How could that be implemented? How could Engineering make sure I didn’t have to make this kind of trade-off again?  Once I had the information I needed, I laid it out for the Support and Account teams:  here’s what we’re doing, here’s how we’ll handle it, here’s what our next steps are. 

The lesson in all of this is to take that step back and ask, “do I know why I would be doing this?”  If you do, great; charge ahead!  If you don’t, go get a cup of tea.

Product Managers on the Road, Twitter Edition

So I just spent most of the last week in Florida. We were installing our wireless lighting controls system in a couple of warehouses. My job was to figure out how our product was working, and to train our lighting partners (one of my many hats). Since I'm one of the only people in America without a smartphone, and since I spent most of my waking hours in warehouses, I wasn't able to share the details of my trip in real time. So here, in 140-character bites, is a report on my trip.


Really off my travel game. Forgot my neck pillow, laptop charger, and a book to read.

Gate checked my bag (for free!); good thing since my overhead storage was given to the flight attendants.

New AA boarding order: First Class, Premiere Exec, Premiere, Priority Pay, then schlums like me.

Muhammed Ali signed glove: $2500. Jordan signed jersey: $2000 Guess Ali really is the greatest.

In-flight prices up ($6 for beer, $7 for cocktails); more options (chips etc.) to eat, all over-priced. Thanks, I'll stick with my deli san painted on the wing tips.  How long until there's a Google ad there?

DFW Terminal D: wow, very nice! Back at Terminal A: yeah, not so much.

Could have taken earlier flight to Orlando, except Oh Yeah, I checked my bag. Now get to wait.

Like the Samsung lounge. TV, comfy chairs, dark wall treatments. It's like the Admiral's Club, but free and no booze.

"Welcome to Orlando, where the current temperature is… 30 degrees" Whaa?


Love the FL bilingualism. Constant stream of Spanish from the taxi driver, interspersed with "OK, 10-4".

Change of plans--going to Miami. And me without my Don Johnson linen jacket or Gucci loafers.


Travel tip: Florida is a whole lot of flat.

Cuban espresso at the Miami warehouse. Yumminess! And free too.

Knicks-Celtics.. awesome! Celtics' lack of defense made it exciting. Dear Spike Lee: Amare's shot didn't count. Better luck next time!

Boxes of Nortel gear in the warehouse. Guess all the assets haven't been divided yet.

Had to move pallets of wire and cable around so we could get the lift up to the lights. I have a promising career as a material handler.


It's 2AM and I'm working in an empty warehouse. Who said high-tech wasn't exciting?!

3:30 AM, checking into the hotel. If this takes any longer I'm going to sleep on the couch.

6:30 AM. Saw a guy dressed like a lawn jockey. Except he was real. And the hotel gardener.

Boots over pants or tights—definitely the style these days.

Brian is now a more experienced traveler than I am. He correctly predicted that my flight to SFO would be delayed 3 hours.

Nothing like ending the week with a three hour flight delay. Good thing the Christmas party was postponed.

One good thing about the CA storm—snow in Tahoe!

Dear people sampling the $40 bottles of rum: did you notice I'm flying domestically, and can't enter duty free to buy a bottle?

Tonight's dinner menu: bag of trail mix and a $7 mini-bottle of chardonnay. In a plastic cup. Yeah, you know why I fly!

Home sweet home! Off to bed, wake me in a day or two.

Product Managers on the Road—Handicam Edition

Monday, August 2nd

I'm on my way to Denver, to observe the installation of our wireless lighting control product. We're going to be retrofitting the lights in a warehouse—this should be exciting, in a lighting geek kind of way. I'm flying out of San Jose, and have remembered that Southwest is flying from Terminal B; off to a good start! I've got time for a decaf cappuccino at my new favorite SJC hangout, Espressamente Illy, while I catch up with my boss on last week's progress and this week's objectives.

The flight is fine, save for the middle seat, but I've got no complaints. Flying through all the clouds, I can tell that the forecast for thunderstorms is going to be accurate. Now I'm at baggage claim, and… yeah. Guess I won't be using the handle of my overnight bag anymore.

PM Road 003

Next up: renting a car. Fun Fact: if you use a debit card, they take a $200 cash deposit; ouch! I get a little concerned when the guy checking the car for dings says "oh good, no hail damage". Hail damage?! Am I going to have to wait out a hailstorm on my way to Fort Collins so my poor debit card doesn't get killed? Sheesh. I blunder my way to US 25 and head north to Fort Collins to see John and Tam. As I like to say, it's been "more than a few" years since I last visited. After a hail-free drive, I arrive at John and Tam's house right off of Mulberry Street; I keep looking for the ghost of Dr. Seuss. Dinner, wine, catching up with the family, and discussing why John still has a reel-to-reel tape deck ensue, then it's back to Denver for me.

Tuesday, August 3rd

Install day! The every-cheerful Megan delivers my Starbucks coffee and breakfast, then it's off to the warehouse. My co-worker Tony greets me by telling me about the warehouse shooting that took place this morning in Connecticut; good to know! We meet up with our installation partners, sign in at the lobby/security area, and walk through the door where we see…

Dunder-Mifflin. I swear it's so similar, I start looking for Steve Carell in the corner office. This company sells wiring and electrical supplies, so the "bullpen" setup looks just like the TV show. There's even a white-board with sayings on it like "if it's not told, it's not sold!" and "customer service is our technology". Failing to find Mr. Carell, we proceed through to the warehouse. The first thing I notice is this enormous fan, circulating the air. That's a good thing, given the humidity level. Our installation partner informs me, "that's a big-ass fan". "No kidding!" I say to myself. As it turns out, it is a Big Ass Fan.

Easylite Install 007

We work through Day One of our installation, with good success. I'm learning all kinds of things about how electrical contractors like to work, how our product works, where it needs to be improved, and so on. After a while, I remember that this was the company we were ordering cables from, in my last job building a wireless broadband network. So that's what a spool of cable looks like! The day ends with a quick guide on how to use the scissor-lift, in case Tony and I need to inspect our wireless adapters tomorrow.

Easylite Install 020

Wednesday, August 4th

Moving day. We've got the Australian team on the line (0-dark-30 in Melbourne, as they say) to work out a few issues. Tony and I are verifying that all the wireless controls are working properly. Everything is looking good, and it's off to the airport for me.

Now I realize a warehouse district is not going to have the same level of amenities as other parts of the city. And it's true that there are no crossing guards on this street. But really, do we need to be told that trains have the right-of-way? F=ma—it's a rule I've always lived by!

PM Road 001

Dear Southwest Airlines:

thanks so much for calling to tell me that my flight was delayed by two hours. However, I sure could have used that voice message about flight delays before I actually ARRIVED AT THE AIRPORT.

PS, I found it ironic that, having broken my luggage strap on the way out, I now have to sign a waiver before you'll check it for the trip home.

PPS, good thing, because once I picked up my bag in San Jose I could see that the strap was completely gone.

But hey, I enjoyed the peanuts!

Job Search, By the Numbers


opportunities pursued


first-round interviews/recruiter screens


second-round interviews


third-round interviews


fantastic job


of dog-walking sessions to get some exercise


of phone calls, email messages, and face-to-face meetings


of weeds pulled during job search breaks


friends, relatives, acquaintances and total strangers who helped me along the way

Thanks to Everyone Who Helped Along the Way!

Seek and Ye Shall Find, But Don't Look Too Hard

If you're in Marketing, you've probably heard of Seth Godin, kind of the next Guy Kawasaki.  I've been reading his blog posts (they're frequent, short, and to-the-point) of late and wanted to share this one:  Seth Godin's Blog.  Seth makes an excellent point about the value of diversification, in this case when it comes to envisioning your career. 

I was speaking to a high-school class once, and we got onto the topic of college choice, and how that affected your career options.  My point to the class was that your choice of college is not one of those all-or-nothing, irreversible bets; there are many paths to the same goal.  And (as Seth points out) there are many good outcomes on the way to what you thought was your goal.

To illustrate the point, I told the class about reviewing the "Class Book" for a milestone Stanford reunion.  Everyone had submitted information about what they were doing now, how their careers, lives, marriages, families, etc. had gone and the like.  What I found in looking at profiles of people I remembered is that roughly half the people ended up doing exactly what they said they would do when they were at Stanford.  I remember one friend who was determined to be the Chief of Staff (or whatever the head person is called) at a big hospital in New York City.

The other half was the group that caught my attention.  The stories varied in their details, but the arc was the same. "I got my dream job at x, then something life-changing happened, or I figured out that I actually hated what I was doing, and now I'm doing something completely different and loving it."

The point, as I told the high-school class, is that there a million things that can go wrong with your "plan", and the best advice is to prepare to be surprised, be open to new ideas and experiences, and be willing to recognize an opportunity when it materializes.

Good advice for all of us!

Hunting for Easter Eggs

If you participated in Easter egg hunts as a kid, you no doubt remember the experience.  You ran from spot to spot in the back yard or at the park, looking for (artificially) colored eggs, especially the plastic ones--because they were the ones filled with candy.  Little-kid screaming, parental helping, kids with baskets running every which way... it was a period of delightful chaos.

Looking for Easter eggs is great as a kid, but it's not so fun in the business world.  If you want me to launch your product, and provide the kind of Marketing support needed to make it successful, I need to know certain bits of information:

  • What is it?
  • What does it do?
  • How does it do it?
  • Why does it do it; i.e., what's the value?
  • Who is a prospective buyer of it?

and so on.  Actually, I need to know what the salesperson needs to know; I wrote about this in a post some time back.

The problem that often arises is that Product Managers write documents that don't address these kinds of questions.  Product Managers generate a lot of documents: a Product Requirements Document, maybe a set of use cases, sometimes test cases, and so on.  So when Marketing Guy drops by to say, "I need answers to these questions" the Product Manager's reflex is to hand Marketing Guy some or all of those documents.  "It's all in there" is the last thing Marketing Guy hears before the Product Manager rushes off to a bug review.

So now Marketing Guy has two problems.

  1. He has to search through a stack of documents to find answers to his questions.
  2. Having completed step (1), he still has no answers, and has to go back to the Product Manager again.

What compounds the problem is that some Product Managers may not have stopped to think about the answers to Marketing Guy's questions.  So the answers are not there, no matter how many pages of documentation exist.  This is like searching for that plastic egg, only to find that there's no candy inside.  So how to move forward?

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Our Product Management group at iPass was working on a product that amounted to a cloud-hosted version of an enterprise firewall.  As we approached the time for market launch preparations, the Product Marketing team was getting increasingly frustrated.  The Product Manager thought that the answers to the launch team's questions were in previous documentation, and kept referring the Product Marketing team to that documentation--which was voluminous.  (It didn't help that different documents described different products, since the product concept seemed to be constantly evolving, but that's another tale).  Although I was in Channel Marketing at that time, I volunteered to help, since I had previously run Product Management... I could feel everyone's pain.

My first step was to meet with the Product Manager and offer my help.  Fortunately, he saw that I could help him out and readily agreed to work with me.  We "story-boarded" the product concept for a while, to develop the overall message.  There were some pieces of the product puzzle that were well-defined, and others that were missing or overly vague.

Next I wrote up a document I called "Questions for Understanding"--the point being that answering the questions would amount to providing the market launch people with the answers they needed... without all the non-essential information to wade through.  I had thought (perhaps hoped) that the Product Manager now understood enough of my method to go off and answer the questions... problem solved!

Of course, it wasn't so simple.  The Product Manager (like all Product Managers) was crazy-busy, and (like nearly all Product Managers) lived what I call an "interrupt-driven" life that left little opportunity for the kind of reflection and thoughtfulness that was needed to answer my series of questions.  And, as I said before, different people had different ideas about what the product was, so that confusion came through in the answers.

We Need to Talk

OK.  Since this wouldn't be as simple as answering some questions, I took the document and met with the Product Manager a number of times.  We took each question in turn and discussed it until I felt that we had a clear, unambiguous answer.  If I sensed confusion or lack of clarity about some aspect of the product, we noted it and took the action to get some resolution.  Within a week we were able to circulate a draft "this is what it is" document.  After reviewing and finalizing that draft, Product Marketing had what it needed.

Rinse and Repeat

We institutionalized this method by creating something we called a "Product Launch Form".  More important than the form itself were the rules that went with it:

  • No referring to other documents in your answer.
  • You're only allowed to use simple, declarative sentences... no subordinate clauses allowed!
  • "I don't know" is OK to use as a placeholder (better to deliver most of the information than wait for all of it to be ready).  But "I don't know" has to be resolved.
The most important rule was this: the form was to be filled out in the same kind of "interview" style I had used.  This was done in part out of necessity--we had to be one of the Product Manager's "interrupts" in order to get some time--and in part to allow for a give-and-take that would short-cut the time needed for arriving at clear answers.

So the next time you're holding a metaphorical basket of questions and your Product Manager tell you, "it's all in the documentation", hand them one of those plastic Easter eggs--and make sure the candy's gone.