Getting Products out from under the MIDDLE of the Bell Curve and Exceeding Expectations (SVPMA)

Given the key role Product Managers play in creating the environment for their teams… what must they do to avoid the bell curve of mediocre products that unfortunately are the norm? I shared my perspective as the guest speaker at the SVPMA (Sept 3, 2014) based on my own experiences and other authors/speakers that I trust.

Presenting @ SVPMA

I discussed specific ways to set clear goals and establish the right metrics. Dipping into my eBay days, I shared a little known story of the importance of asking for forgiveness rather than permission in driving innovation that resulted in the launch of the eBay iPhone app.

Some other takeaways from this talk include:

  • How to focus on the right, few, customer adoption metrics (e.g. AAARR). More is often not better and can distract from the main goal
  • How defining your product’s purpose often improves working relationships with designers and engineers so you aren’t left arguing about the “what” or the “how
  • How to avoid getting in the executive micromanagement web especially if they are distracted by the “flavor of the month” or “pet feature” ideas
  • How to drive stealth projects or go through quick business case or product prototyping within a big company.

I was pleased to host the event at Comcast Silicon Valley where I work.

A full review of the talk posted on the SVPMA website.

Running an Innovation Center at a Fortune 500 Company

I recently spoke on how to run an innovation center within a large company at both the Lean Startup conference in SF and the Strategic Planning Innovation Summit in NYC. As part of the leadership team running the Comcast Silicon Valley Innovation Center, I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t especially within a BIG company.

How can you apply Lean Startup principles at your company? I have 6 pieces of advice:

  1. Ask for forgiveness, not permission
    The eBay mobile app almost didn’t get built as the mobile team was restructured away shortly before Apple announced the App Store in 2008. By “hiding” a small team of people building MVP (Alan Lewis, Ken Sun, Karlyn Neal) enough momentum was established that the Exec team went along.
  2. Build credibility thru projects–then scale
    The Comcast Silicon Valley Innovation Center was built out of an earlier acquisition made a couple years earlier in Plaxo. By running projects under the Plaxo brand and then Comcast Labs, credibility in the approach was established with the executive team. Over time its scaled to include higher profile projects, such as SEEiT.
  3. Don’t just swing for homeruns
    We take a VC mindset for “funding” concepts at the center. Ideas can come from anywhere (often Hack Days) and get evaluated using a Lean Canvas. Receiving “Seed” funding means we might assign a few engineers for a month or so. If they prove their hypothesis they might get “Series A” funding where they could build an MVP. Meanwhile we’re always looking for an “exit” which could be an “acquisition” from another internal business unit–so a solid “double” in baseball helps offset the “strikeouts” that might occur.
  4. Adapt Lean Canvas for your company
    I adapted Ash Maurya’s Lean Canvas to better fit within the enterprise. Cost included the number of FTEs / time and Revenue includes indirect improvements to retention/acquisition. Finally a new cell was added for “Strategic Fit” which evaluates how well the concept fits within the corporate strategy and who on the Exec team will sponsor it.
  5. Watch out for corporate antibodies
    Organizations are just like the body and will attack what they see as “foreign objects” (different ways of doing things). You need to be aware of who’s toes you might be stepping on and building allies at the exec level is important. It’s also helpful to understand resource allocation is often a “zero-sum-game” so don’t scale your resources too fast or they become a target for others looking for funding.
  6. Use vanity metrics (but don’t believe them)
    As you analyze using rate-based metrics that ruthlessly look at acquisition, activity, and retention is the only way to go. However its important that you present your product fairly alongside others at the company. Shining a bright light on all things wrong with your project may not give you the time you need to pivot and get it where you want it to go. So occasionally, its useful to share “vanity metrics” alongside the equivalents of other products at your company. 😉

Here’s some of my favorite tweets about my talk:

Photo taken by @RedHatInnovate

Photo taken by @RedHatInnovate

As with the rest of this blog, the above are my personal views and not that my employer. 

A fun new way to pick a flick, together

Today I’m demoing at the NCTA Cable Show  in Washington DC  a slick new “app” we built to help groups of people pick a movie to watch at home, called Movie Night. Tony Werner, Comcast’s CTO, invites me and my team to demo on stage.

If you’re like me, you’ve been on the couch trying to pitch to your spouse or friends movie ideas only to either end up settling for a movie you’re not thrilled about or just give up altogether. So a few of our best engineers and designers were also interested in this problem and over the last 6 weeks put together a collaborative experience that gets everyone in the room involved–and having fun while doing it.

Movie Night Screen

This is just one of a number of innovative products we’re incubating using Lean Startup methods in Silicon Valley as part of Comcast Labs. If you’d like to join us, let me know… we’re looking for more product, design, and engineering talent.

Photo of demo on stage 6/12/13 (by Josh Kennedy):

On Stage Demoing Movie Night

Play by your own rules

Listen to your users more than the press. Don’t get sucked into the gravity hole between you and your competition. Ruthlessly run your own path, not someone else’s. – Josh Williams

An excerpt from an insightful piece by Gowalla’s co-founder on how he let the competition and the press shape his startup’s priorities. A must read for anyone building a product.

I see it also as a classic case of letting “vanity metrics” drive decisions rather than focusing harder on rate-based metrics that might lead to the kind of breakthrus he alluded to in his piece (e.g. Instagram).

1000 channels but what should you watch?

This week my team here at Comcast Silicon Valley put out a new iOS app aimed at solving the age-old problem of finding something on TV but in a fresh new way. 

What’s On by Comcast Labs shows XFINITY TV customers, in a visual way, what’s on right now sorted by a proprietary algorithm that puts what we think will be most popular programs for a given time slot and then tune/record directly from the app. 

The app enables you to personalize the experience with your favorite shows, channels, and even what shows you and your friend’s like on Facebook. For your favorite shows we’ll push an alert the day a new episode will air so you won’t miss it. 

By default the app will bias toward HD versions of shows but you can also filter to see just what movies are on (or starting soon), kids shows, sports, or just what “new” episodes are airing. 

Since we’re big fans of the Lean Startup methodology, here’s some of the hypotheses we’re looking to validate that customers want to:

  • Browse Live TV listings in a visual way sorted by popularity
  • Receive push alerts for new episodes of their favorite shows.
  • Connect their social graph to see what shows their friends “Like”

We’ve got lots more ideas of things we want to try but also will be listening to you and watching the metrics closely to see where we should focus. In positioning it as “by Comcast Labs” we hope to learn a lot from this app and there’s a strong possibility any successful features could make there way into other XFINITY offerings.

Let me or the team ( know what you think!

What was missing in the 1st iPhone? (5 years later)

This week Apple will share their latest innovations at WWDC. However, I think its time we reflect back on what Steve Job’s announced 5 1/2 years ago at Macworld 2007: the 1st iPhone (worth another watch).

Steve Jobs pitched it under the backdrop other historic Apple products:

  • Macintosh (1984) – which changed the computer industry
  • iPod (2001) – which changed the music industry
of which it definitely became the third industry changing product for the company.

But remember what was missing?

  • It didn’t have the App Store – Native third-party apps weren’t available until 18 months after the announcement in mid-2008.
  • It wasn’t affordable – It cost a steep $599 and was cut in price by $200 two months after launch.
  • It wasn’t mass adopted – Despite the lines, only 1.2M were sold in the first full qtr of availability (vs. the 35M last qtr ending Mar 2012)
  • It didn’t have push email or MS Exchange support – the most important feature on other “smartphones”… missing.
  • It didn’t have GPS – It triangulated “good enough” location using wi-fi and cell towers, but no chip til the 3G.

Yet, we already look upon the Apple iPhone as one of the most successful consumer products ever. It shows how in Lean Startup language, Apple’s MVP did everything they needed to learn about the market and the space.

Apple focused on what it could do better and in a unique way. That’s good advice we each should take when building our new products.

My First Lean Startup – In Brief

At last night’s Lean Startup meetup (video), Eric Ries inspired us to share stories of how we’re applying various techniques, so here goes… 

In January, I had the the idea to build a new app which would enable us to make more meaningful birthday wishes to our friends in the form of something called a  BirthdayGram. However I was determined to avoid investing millions of dollars into an idea only to find out later, it wasn’t needed or desired by customers. Having recently read The Lean Startup, I was inspired by the Intuit “intrepreneur” story and thought it fit well my situation operating with the larger Comcast. So I convinced my team and my boss that we should give Lean Startup a try and we were on our way.

Over the course of next few months we applied the Lean Startup principles and shaped our nacent product. We started running experiments almost immediately as we aimed to validate our most core hypotheses. We also were determined to only build what was necessary to gain learning and deferred issues of scaling / marketing to later as we didn’t need very many users to measure success.

Part of our concept is combining videos from multiple friends into one montage to be shared on the recipient’s Facebook Timeline on their birthday. However building a complex automated video editing solution would be quite resource intensive. Since we only expected a manageable number of users at the beginning we decided to have a small team in India manually edit the videos by hand (turned out to only cost about $0.20 / video). 

We also focused solely on iOS to start even though we knew we’d like to offer a webcam and Android experience eventually. While we’d track interest in those other two platforms we could easily understand what we were “missing out” in terms of virility without them. 

In launching our MVP in April the lessons learned went on overdrive. We were able to measure all our metrics in realtime using Mixpanel and see what aspects of our viral engine of growth were working (lots of people invited) and which were not (invite conversion sucked). We also saw how meaningful it was for recipients to receive a BirthdayGram which inspires us to persevere.  

Assuming there’s interest I’m could expand with details on the following topics:

  1. Defining Hypotheses and Running Experiments – How focus enabled us to find creative ways to gather customer feedback and only build what was necessary. 
  2. Optimizing a Viral Engine of Growth – How we used AARRR funnel metrics to understand whether we were improving our core engine even with just hundreds of users. 
  3. Using the Five Why’s – Examples of how running a service for real and having problems taught us way more than if we had waited longer to launch. 

Time will tell if this all turns out to be a good idea. But either way, I’m learning how to be a better entrepreneur. 🙂