Innovating in Mature Markets – 6 Product Lessons from Padman

BY Gurucharan Raghunathan and Lokesh Kannaiyan ON OCTOBER 8, 2018

We can and should learn product management lessons from a diverse range of environments. It’s absolutely worth looking to the likes of Google’s Sundar Pichai, but it’s also worth looking to less celebrated entrepreneurs, outside of the multinational mega-corporations, to learn about lean front-line product management.

It quickly becomes clear that certain product management principles truly are universal.

Let’s Start With Some Context

Arunachalam Muruganantham – colloquially known as “Padman” – pioneered a process for mass-producing affordable sanitary pads, designed for women living in rural communities. His product journey started with the discovery that his wife (and, by extension, many women in rural India) couldn’t afford commercially available sanitary products, and was having to resort to dangerously unhygienic homemade solutions. Horrified, he began working to create more affordable and safe products, ultimately reverse-engineering existing solutions and the processes that went into their creation.

Bearing in mind the social taboos around menstruation in India in the late 1990s, Arunachalam’s work and products were met with intense resistance. However, his belief in his product vision drove him to solve a real problem experienced by thousands of women.

Padman’s work has been literally life-changing, but it’s worth noting that his mindset and product development steps were as well-honed and effective as anything you’d see from the likes of Netflix, Amazon, or Google. His journey reminds us that good product management processes really are universal.

1. Find a Problem Statement – Identify the Real User Need

Arunachalam saw that his wife was using unhygienic sanitary napkins, without obvious concern for her long-term health. Through conversations and careful consideration, he tried to understand the reason behind her counter-intuitive behaviour:

  • Shyness and Taboo: Indian women (especially in rural communities) historically struggle to find a socially safe way to openly discuss their menstrual cycles, or to explore options for safer practices and products.
  • Affordability: Existing products are too expensive for a rural woman to seriously consider as a long-term solution.

Product Management Takeaway

Product managers should first identify the key user persona for the domain they’re operating in, and list out their real problems. These problems have to be described as concrete hypotheses to validate any nascent product idea. It’s recommended to have multiple rounds of brainstorming to get to know the root cause of the your users’ problems.

This is a critical step, as the real user need is the seed from which any effective product has to grow. We can also apply Laddering techniques (such as 5 Why analysis) to help crystallize the initial problem statement.

2. Understand Your Competitors Through Market Research

Once he’d decided to build a sanitary pad product for his wife, Arunachalam didn’t jump directly into the building process. He purchased samples of the premium pads already available, and did a thorough analysis to understand the raw materials, composition and packaging used. This gave him an understanding of how the incumbent product was designed.

Product Management Takeaway

Communication theorist and sociologist Everett M Rogers elegantly defined the audience adoption at various stages of a new product’s lifecycle in his book “Diffusion of Innovations”:

  • Innovators
  • Early Adopters
  • Early Majority
  • Late Majority
  • Laggards

In Arunachalam’s case, as he was entering at the late majority stage of the sanitary pad market, he spent a lot of time understanding the strengths and weaknesses of his competitors before deriving his unique selling point – cost effectiveness. So, a product manager should clearly identify their position in the product lifecycle and map out their market research strategies accordingly.

3. Develop Customer Empathy With MVPs

After he had prepared a sample sanitary pad, Arunachalam asked his wife to try using it. Through several trials, iterations, and additions to the product, she consistently found that the pad lacked the necessary absorption.

Finally, Arunachalam decided to try using the product himself, going about his daily routine with a simulated uterus made from a football bladder filled with goat’s blood, to understand the issue in his product that was causing problems for his intended users. He quickly realized that his product lacked a fundamental requirement – longer, more reliable liquid absorption – and so he went into a deeper study of the product components. Eventually, he worked out he needed to use cellulose cotton, instead of raw cotton, to address this challenge.

Product Management Takeaway

When you build your Minimum Viable Product (MVP), you need to ensure that you test it yourself (eat your own dogfood) before offering it to any beta customers. Product managers should use their own solutions to simulate and understand the customer experience, and gain deeper insights into the potential pain points of their users.

Without this level of essential testing, you should never approach your beta customer, as you’ll lack the Customer Empathy which is necessary even in the nascent stage of product development.

4. User Feedback is Essential

After sourcing and adopting the new cellulose material, Arunachalam took the product to a real user and asked for her feedback on a very simple scale – Rubbish / Good / Fantastic. And thankfully, his first customer reported that his product was ‘Good’.

Product Management Takeaway

After addressing the functional failures found in the MVP, product managers have to take the product to a real user and collect feedback. Clearly defined feedback is a key input to a product roadmap, in terms of outlining and prioritising future features and enhancements.

Product managers should continuously close the feedback loop by regularly interacting with their customers, using one-to-one interviews, surveys, user forums, idea portals, and so on. We should also consider gathering Net Promoter Score (NPS) feedback, which is approximately what Arunchalam did in his initial tests with real users.

However, we should carefully consider what we want to learn. NPS can be a useful metric for gauging whether your users are fans of your product, and it is reasonably easy to assess, but it is subjective, and framed from a particular perspective.

5. Identify Your Product Champions

After revamping his pad with cellulose material, Arunachalam was still worried about how to sell his product or ask women to try it. Fortunately, when his first user started talking to other rural women (i.e. potential customers), they were comfortable in listening to her, and not hesitant to try the pad.

This overcame the shyness and taboo that women felt when discussing menstruation with a man. He now had a product champion, a real user of his product, evangelizing the solution and its benefits.

Product Management Takeaway

Identifying product champions should be a very real concern for product managers. Your product champion will catalyse user adoption and market growth, fueling a community for evangelizing and refining your solution with real use cases. Your product champions will often evangelise the product better and faster than your marketing team!

The best advertising is done by satisfied customers.Philip Kotler

6. Sustainable Business Model and Developing Product Ecosystem

Arunachalam started seeing good customer traction across the country, and won global accolades for his patents. However, he didn’t stop at just selling low-cost sanitary pads, he started to contemplate a sustainable business model, fostering social entrepreneurship in line with his original product vision.

He developed a cost-effective and portable machine for manufacturing his pads – a key factor in enabling him to produce a good quality, low-cost solution for poor rural women. He started going to each village, gathering his target community, educating them on the importance of personal hygiene, and training them in the manufacturing process. Not only was he expanding his market and business model, he was also empowering his audience to solve their key problem for themselves, at the same time as mobilising local industries.

Product Management Takeaway

Product managers should be aware of existing business models that are relevant to their product portfolio. The product manager’s job doesn’t stop with merely building a product, it extends to understanding their product’s ecosystem, and finding opportunities to leverage that ecosystem to facilitate business scalability and robustness.

For example, Jeff Bezos’ drive to build Amazon Web Services was mobilised by a need to support his Amazon ecommerce business. Similar product stories can be seen between Alibaba and Alibaba Cloud, and Lyft & Envoy proxy (Lyft’s load balancer)

In Summary

Padman’s story teaches us not to restrict product management lessons to prominent/popular product managers as real learning pointers may resonate in the lives of uncommon and relatively unknown product leaders. As Don Norman says, people like Padman reiterate the fact that the real world is our laboratory for learning design methodology. In a nutshell, the art of product management not only lies in the conventional management books but also in every walk of life.

Product managers should understand their day-to-day customer pain points and should feel free to reverse engineer a process or product to understand the MVP. They should allow themselves to question obvious and traditional things. They should own the User Acceptance Testing by wearing the shoes of their customer before every release. They should identify the product champion in the customer feedback loop process as it decides the future of the product.

The boundary of product management isn’t restricted to a successful product release, it extends to the creation of a sustainable business model.

Gurucharan Raghunathan

About

Gurucharan Raghunathan

I am a product proprietor excited to drive solutions for the pain points of the global internet-business ecosystem. My life at my desk revolves around listening and story telling! - listening to customer problems, the concerns of the business, and the challenges of engineers and data scientists - Recognizing all the problem statements, understanding the details and articulating the solution in the distinct languages of the respective stakeholders.

Lokesh Kannaiyan

About

Lokesh Kannaiyan

Knowledge of working in Enterprise and Retail Security, Server, Storage, Networking, Enterprise Systems Management, Virtualization, Software as a Service (SaaS) and Cloud technologies. My interest areas are mainly around e-Commerce, mobile, Cloud, Security, SaaS, Big data, IoT & UI/UX design. I run a WhatsApp group of 250+ PM professionals in India.

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