Contracting in the product space
What are some of the pros and cons of contracting as a product manager?
My motivation for contracting was that I really wanted to go out there and measure myself against my peers. I was very keen to learn from peers across industries. It was a way of getting to grips with different technologies, different ways of working, in a faster way than you can if you’re permanent and I learned a lot from that. I had quite a lot of pivotal moments in my career and I think, for me, that was really what I enjoyed about it.
In terms of cons, personally I really longed to be a lot more strategically involved with the products and be able to influence more long-term plans. Contract doesn’t really lend itself to that. You’re in there to do a job and then you tend to move on. For me, those were the two things that were key.
What lessons have you learnt at larger businesses that have been valuable and applicable to a start-up environment?
Firstly, just get stuck in! Don’t wait for anyone to tell you what to do, or how to do it, and be brave in your decisions. You’re there to learn together because every company will have its own flavour of processes and methodologies.
Second, from a product management perspective, be prepared to carve out your own role. You are going to have some very passionate, dedicated and talented co-founders and senior members, who are keen on how to do product. It’s important that you can wrestle that off of them, and be mindful of their nervousness around that. I think those are the two things to keep in mind, going into a smaller company.
What advice would you give to a product person in a traditional business going through a digital transformation?
I think the way I viewed it in the past was to think of myself as an entrepreneur. You are there to sell a way of working and give a proposition to a business that might be averse to that way of working, which might be dubious about what value it’s going to give them.
So, it’s really important that you can understand what challenges the person you are talking to is having at the moment, how you can take people with you, and therefore what are the larger benefits it’s going to give the company. That could be everything from better customer insight, to operational efficiencies. Be really mindful that everyone is quite averse to change, so you have to be quite sympathetic and empathetic in that situation.
What’s your process when prioritising?
When prioritising, I consider what type of change it is, what impact the change will have on the end-user, and also what would happen if we don’t achieve that change. That could be a legal requirement, an operational change, or maybe just a straight-up digital change. How many people are affected? Also, quite importantly, who are they affecting?
For me, product management is about growing metrics. You want to get the most 'bang for your buck', but if it doesn’t stack up, are there other ways of delivering the same output? Personally it’s about who and how many users will this change effect, and also how does that then align with your business objectives and strategy for the organisation.
If you have an overall KPI, how do you decide what to measure so that you influence it?
When I look at KPIs, it’s important to understand what my role is, in relation to each KPI. What can I actually change? In a traditional e-commerce background or e-commerce environment, I probably can’t change the physical product I’m selling, nor the price.
Something I do have control over is the digital experience the customer is having. You can take quite a traditional funnel view on your data, see where it’s leaking, and if you’re looking at e-commerce an obvious place is in your checkout funnel. So, what’s your conversion rate looking like there? Often you can see what the areas of opportunity are and therefore you can adjust your plan of attack based on that.
How should the insights from your customers affect your product?
It can be used to highlight very specific problems that users are having, so you can use it in a diagnostic way if they are having problems checking out, having problems in specific browsers, or whatever it might be. I think it’s very important to have that dialogue, but for me more important is where my product strategy should go.
It should be used to try to understand the problems behind what the user is actually saying. Users are very keen on giving you quite specific solutions often, and I think that works well. But more often than not, you go down the road of Ford’s well quoted “faster horse”, so it’s more about actually trying to understand what the problems are behind what your users are saying. For me, it’s not about taking everything literally.
What advice would you give to a product person looking to go into contracting?
Think about what problems you want to solve when you wake up in the morning. If you choose to go into contracting, be prepared to stay focused on what you’re trying to achieve, both for the company you’re working with and also for yourself.
Often they are short term, so you’re there to perform quite specific tasks. I think it’s key to stay focused on that and deliver those things.