In Waze We Trust – a PM’s Perspective.

Since moving to the suburbs of New York a year and a half ago, we drive everywhere.  Going to Boston to visit the in-laws?  We drive.  Going to Baltimore to see my family?  We drive.  Going to run errands on the weekend?  We drive.  Going to visit friends in Brooklyn?  We drive…

You get the idea.

Since we spend so much time in the car, and we have a three-month-old son who only sleeps when the car is in motion, avoiding traffic is absolutely critical.  So, when we drive, we always use Waze.  I love the app.  If you haven’t heard of it, or you haven’t tried it – you should.  It’s amazing.  It’s saved me from sitting in traffic so many times, I can’t even count.

However, there are some things that could be better about the app.  So, allow me to get up on my product manager soapbox for a minute.

The biggest problem with Waze is that you simply have to “trust Waze.”

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The Turing Test of Marketing

Happy New Year and welcome to one of my favorite times of year – prediction season.  What marvelous innovations will 2017 bring?

This is exactly the question I was asking myself over the holidays.  The answer came to me as I was cleaning out the garage and came across a giant stack of “to recycle” marketing solicitations we received in 2016.

I quickly thumbed through the pile.  Credit cards, home goods, clothing, technology, you name it, it was all there.  Pretty much every store, bank, airline, etc. sends us something whether it’s a catalog, an application, or a solicitation.

All the sudden a realization hit me: this is all terrible marketing.  Every direct mail marketing piece in the pile was just really lousy marketing.

As I started to read some of the letters more careful, the marketing tactics started to segregate into three buckets: (more…)

It’s Never Been a More Terrible Idea to Follow the Herd

“Best business practices.”  The first time I herd this phrase was Sophomore year of college.  I was in business class and we were seated in the round having a discussion about business strategy.  I don’t remember the exact case, but it was about a new company entering a crowded market.  The question was: how should this new entrant compete against the established players?

One of my classmates, who thought he was clever, stood up and said, “Why doesn’t the new business just copy what the other businesses in that market are already doing?”

The class giggled a little bit, because copying

other businesses was obviously not the right answer to the case.  However, the teacher surprised us.  He said, “We call that, best business practices.” – and went on to explain how copying other businesses is something that happens all the time and how it can be a good strategy (or part of a strategy).

To be fair to our professor, by his frame of reference, he was right.  He had spent his entire career working in more traditional industries that experienced a very slow rate of change.  Copying your competitors, in some established industries, was a sustainable strategy in the pre-internet disruption era.

However today – we live in a completely different world.  For the most part, copying your competitors has never been a worse idea.

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Business Books

I spend a good chunk of my free time reading business books.  Whether it’s the classics like Christensen, MgGrath or Moore, or newer business books by the likes of Youngme Moon or Cal Newport – I love learning about different types of businesses and hearing about stories of failure and success.

One of the principal reasons I read these books is to try to glean some lessons that I can apply to my job.

I’m usually in luck – authors of these books almost always believe their lessons can be applied broadly across businesses.  I suppose that’s the reason they think people will buy their books.

However, after spending hundreds of hours reading dozens of books, the most important lesson I think I’ve learned is that the correct thing to do with your business is more based on the life stage of the business than anything else (and there are a lot of different life stages).  Chances are, nine out of 10 times the lessons described in a typical business book are inappropriate to the life stage of your specific company.

An analogy.

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A Letter to my Son About Prejudice

Like many others, the recent US presidential election and the subsequent increase in hate crimes have been very troubling to me.  As a new father, there are so many things I want to explain to my son.  I want to put all of this in context, explain why people sometimes do things that are wrong, and ensure that he grows up to be a kind and compassionate person.

At just two months old, he’s still too young to understand, but I’ll record my thoughts here with the hope that someday he will read through these posts and know who his father is a little more clearly.

———-

With the election of Donald Trump and his ties to the “alt right” white national party, racism and antisemitism has resurged in our country in a way that I have never seen before in my life.

With this unfortunate turn of events, we must remember what racism and antisemitism is.

Popularly, we call it hate, we call it prejudice – and it is all of those things.  But it’s likely that those descriptors don’t resonate with some of the perpetrators of racism and anti-semitism.

There are, of course, some people who are truly disturbed or evil, but I would guess that many racists and anti-semites don’t see themselves as hateful at all.  Rather, in a way, they are simply misusing statistics.

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Business Plan Financial Models: A Mathematical Proof

Over the past 10 years I’ve worked on a lot of business plans.  First as a student, then as a product manager and as a coach to young entrepreneurs.

In every business plan that I’ve worked on or reviewed, there has been one common theme: the financial model was completed last and got the least amount of attention.

This past weekend I was re-reading some portions of McGrath’s Product Strategy in High Technology Companies and he reminds us that treating the financial model as an afterthought is, of course, not the right way to do it.

McGrath describes the financial portion of a business plan in an interesting way – he sees it as a mathematical proof that the business described in the plan will generate positive return over time.

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The Way the World Changes

Among many other things, this election cycle has called attention to a very old gender dynamic in the United States.  Whether it was commentary on the way the candidates were dressed, their physical posture during each of the debates, or the discussion of a very disturbing leaked audio tape.  The way that men treat women is now at an appropriately elevated level of national attention.

And this attention has had an impact far beyond the election.

Recently, Harvard University announced that they had cancelled their men’s soccer season after the team published a lewd report on the attractiveness of several members of the women’s team.  The women who were featured in the report wrote an inspiring joint response to the report, and as if the implication wasn’t already clear, the women titled their response “Stronger Together”.

All of this has really made me think very critically about the topic of gender relations.  It’s also made me think very carefully about my own behavior.  Since high school I’ve identified with being a feminist (that is – believing that men and women should have equal rights) but have I really lived up to that ideal?

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Nothing Left to Prove

Whether it’s writing a business plan, conceptualizing new product, pitching a major prospect, or troubleshooting a piece of technology, at many points in my career I’ve found myself doing something for the first time.  Often times it’s also something that’s totally new for the company, like launching a new line of business.

I love being in this position.  It’s exhilarating.  Doing new things helps me learn and grow the fastest and also helps maximize my impact on the company.  It’s really where I always strive to be.  And whenever I’m in these types of positions I always feel the same thing:

A burning passion to prove myself.

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Warren Buffet’s Prioritization Strategy

Part of working at any high growth technology company is juggling a lot of competing priorities.  To be clear, having a lot of opportunities is a good thing – it means the business is growing and the company is thriving.  However, if you’re not careful, trying to do too many things at once can leave you spread too thin and not really doing anything well.

Add a 1-month old child to the mix – and you can probably guess why I’m thinking about prioritization this week.

I wrote about Essentialism a few months back, but I still felt like I was missing a practical tool for forcing prioritization.

I was chatting with my friend and colleague Justin Pines about this very topic last week and he recommended I read James Clear’s post about Warren Buffett’s “2 list” strategy for prioritization.

The post is fairly short and simple.  It describes an encounter between Warren Buffet and one of his employees, Mike Flint.  Buffet asks Flint to write down his top 25 priorities on a piece of paper.  Simple enough to start.  Given a few minutes, I’m sure we could all write down a list of 25 priorities.

Then Buffet asks Flint to review the list of 25 and circle only his top 5 most critical priorities.

This leaves flint with two lists of priorities: his “top 5 list” and then a list that contains priorities numbered 6-25.

Initially Flint declares that he will get right to work on his top 5 priorities, while at the same time trying to accomplish some of the things from his other list as well.  From here I’ll quote directly from James Clear’s original post (it’s Flint talking to start):

“Well, the top 5 are my primary focus, but the other 20 come in a close second. They are still important so I’ll work on those intermittently as I see fit. They are not as urgent, but I still plan to give them a dedicated effort.”

To which Buffett replied, “No. You’ve got it wrong, Mike. Everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5.”

“Avoid-At-All-Cost list”

When those words hit me, a little something in me changed.

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Selling Tech to Businesses

I’ve been very lucky over the past three weeks to have some time off from work to bond with my new son Jack (thanks to AppNexus’ generous paternity leave policy).  Although not sleeping very much, he’s really doing great (and thanks to everyone who gave me baby advice following last week’s post!)

I’ve also taken some time this week to re-read one of my favorite business books – Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Solution.

While reading through the book, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to successfully sell technology to business customers.  It’s really one of the holy grails of the tech industry – creating a product that customers want so badly they knock down your door to buy it. Ideally that technology comes in the form of a product that you can also sell profitably, at high scale, and with low variable cost.

So how do you pull this off?  What’s the magic formula that allows tech companies to succeed?

According to Christensen, the secret is really two things. (more…)