Mind the Product: Surviving 2020 "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs May 05 2021 True Case Study, Product Discovery, Product launch, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 2910 Pushing a rock up a hill Product Management 11.64

Mind the Product: Surviving 2020

BY and ON

We know that people enjoy product case studies and like learning about what other teams have been through, but it can be hard to find people willing to share. This is because real life often looks very different from the polished think pieces and frameworks that you see in most articles. But the truth is, even when you know how things should operate in an ideal world, you often have to work through less-than-ideal situations. So in the spirit of sharing the marvellous messiness of product work, we thought we’d write a case study of our own experiences here at Mind the Product.

To begin, we’re going to ask you to cast your mind back to 2020 — you don’t need us to tell you how that went down. You were there. What we can tell you is the story of how Mind the Product handled it, and how we’ve transformed from essentially a conference business to a community founded on membership.

This post walks you through the decisions we made to keep our business afloat, how that impacted us (and you) and what we’ve learned throughout the past, very challenging, year.

January 2020: Nothing will ever be the same again

In January 2020, it was business as usual (remember that?). Mind the Product had four conferences on sale and as a team, we were discussing big plans for the year — hiring a bigger dev team, how we would celebrate our 10-year anniversary, we were even in the process of moving into our first official office premises in central London.

We were concerned — but not alarmed — as Covid-19 cases began to rise and spread outside China. We decided to cancel our Singapore 2020 conference and, instead, announced a free APAC Digital Event to ensure we still connected with our community in the region. We remained cautiously optimistic about the year ahead and our plans to grow our support for the product community.

March 2020: Bye-bye cashflow

On 13 March things began to unravel as Eventbrite (our chosen ticket platform) suddenly stopped advance payouts on all events. In an instant, our cashflow ground to a halt and our concern pretty quickly shifted to alarm.

No conferences, no in-person training workshops, and no in-person ProductTank meetups — everything we knew and had been building for the last 10 years was put in jeopardy almost overnight. It seemed certain that we would soon be out of business and so, to this day, we’re grateful for what came next.

The following week, the UK government announced its furlough scheme — a series of measures to assist businesses and employees through the COVID-19 crisis. To us, this was an absolute lifeline as it meant we could furlough 60% of the team and slash costs without jeopardising anyone’s livelihood.

The team of seven who remained working took pay cuts (core team 20%, founders 100%) and, while prepping for the free APAC digital event, began working on a survival plan.

April 2020: Reprioritising the backlog

Prior to Covid, we recognised that our business was largely subsidised by our conferences and that everything else that we did relied on big spikes of revenue. We knew we needed to become more sustainable and had discussed various options at length over the years. The idea that always came out on top was a membership programme offering the same premium feel as our conferences to our global audience.

In April, knowing the solution to our problems had to be digital, we dusted off this membership idea and moved it to the top of the backlog.

We already had deep-rooted connections, a team of product people, marketing pros and content experts, a library of content spanning 10 years and, most importantly, the trust and loyalty of our incredible worldwide community. Our plan was to combine these elements together to create Mind the Product Membership.

We’d brainstormed around the model and had done some lightweight validation but, in the midst of the crisis, we simply had to throw everything we knew on the wall.

Discovery

To say our discovery was quick might be an understatement, but we did do it! We knew we didn’t have time to do a well-planned discovery effort, or de-risk with small experiments to test our assumptions, so we asked ourselves, “what can we accomplish in three weeks?”. As we were building the underlying technology we tackled:

Tech

While we didn’t know exactly what the end solution would look like, we knew it would involve taking payment and likely providing different levels of access on our site. This gave us a place to start with the technology while we worked through the rest of our quick discovery timeline. We felt the fastest way to market would be to adapt off-the-shelf plugins and turnkey solutions to get us a working product, knowing that there would be trade-offs. We picked a set of solutions that would be enough for us to get started, and moved forward.

At Mind the Product, we’re big advocates of bringing developers into the discovery process, creating shared context among the team; but with time against us, we had to divide and conquer. In order not to lose that context and shared knowledge, product, marketing, content, and tech had daily check-ins to share what we had learned that day from each angle, and made sure that we were all in sync. We even kept our furloughed team members up-to-date with weekly updates, although these became more lighthearted and fun as the weeks went on!

Components

We felt strongly from the get-go that we wanted to maintain a free option (Insider), a tier for practising product managers looking to level up (Prioritised), and that we’d need a further tier for leaders (MTP Leader). With our tiers clear, we used ideation sessions to compile a list of what could be included in each one — types of content, events, discounts, newsletter access etc. They all had to offer value to our users, be deliverable for a scaled-back team, and be scalable in the long run.

In an ideal, Covid-free world, we’d have tested each of the individual components as paid offerings e.g. run a series of Ask Me Anything (AMA) sessions for a fee in order to validate the idea, the demand, and the cost. But, with so little time to play with, we knowingly cut corners (something we never recommend), going with what we believed was right. Our goal was to get as much information as possible so we could feel confident that we were heading in the right direction, knowing we could iterate along the way.

Value

Having built up our community over the past 10 years, we felt we had a good understanding of what the members of our community find valuable. To check and to better understand this we ran a series of user interviews with people in the product community and enlisted the help of people we knew who could provide an outside perspective. One of these people was Joe Leech. We knew Joe understood the Mind the Product brand and that he had experience in this kind of launch. While he loved what we were doing he took one look at our initial pricing and said we were charging way too little.

We had committed the basic error of copying the pricing of other simple subscription services without considering the value of what we were offering. So while we didn’t take his word for it we knew we had to do more work on pricing before launch.

Pricing

We ran a survey to determine how much to charge for membership, using our Prioritised newsletter audience to get the message out fast. Over 2,500 people engaged with the survey, enabling us to determine:

  • How people were interacting with Mind the Product at the time (and how often)
  • What they deemed valuable in our proposed offering (types of content, ways of networking, event formats, etc)
  • The price at which they’d consider a membership with Mind the Product (using the classic Van Westendorp’s Price Sensitivity Meter)
  • If they or their company would likely pay for a membership with Mind the Product
  • Whether they’d prefer a monthly or annual membership option

Tax challenges

We quickly discovered that local sales taxes on digital services like our membership subscription are ridiculously complex. So complex in fact that we can only imagine that a lot of other subscription services haven’t paid attention to this critical component.

Despite the urgency, we had to take time to assess the best way to tackle this, so that we didn’t end up in a quagmire of local tax jurisdictions, filings, and payments. This led us to add the final piece of our tech stack, integrating a product that takes on all the complexities of compliance with tax laws around the world. If you’re a member already, this is why you might notice that your membership receipts come from a company called Paddle.

Marketing and content

Launch plan preparation was an entire project in itself. For marketing to be ready to go with a comms plan, all the finer details needed to be locked down: what was included in each tier, what was each tier called, how would people access their membership, what would the payment flow look like, what content would be ready for launch, what questions would customer support likely face and how they should answer them. But, as our plans changed daily we had to work to a skeleton plan, preparing what we could and leaving gaps we knew we’d need to fill at the last minute.

Messaging was also a challenge. We were telling the community that some of what they’d had for free for the past 10 years, would now come at a cost. We did a lot of research in this area — how to effectively communicate going from free to paid — and spent a long time working through our messaging to ensure the reasons behind the change were clear. We released a post, Introducing Mind the Product Membership, in advance of launch. But, despite all this, we braced ourselves for some negative feedback and told ourselves to keep an open mind.

Alongside marketing content, we were developing new, premium content for members to consume from day one. We’d combed through our data and feedback to devise a content plan that would see our content elevated. We researched the effectiveness and demand for different content types — deep dives, case studies, interviews, the format, the contributors, the imagery, even the word count was taken into consideration. We also mapped out the frequency of new content, what days it should go live, and how much was enough without being too much.

May 2020: Going live

On 5 May 2020, we bit the bullet and launched Mind the Product Membership, knowing full well it was only the beginning. Since launch, we’ve continued to listen to feedback and experiment with the offering to try and make it an integral part of our members’ learning journeys. Along the way, we have had some wins!

Some things we’ve introduced have been well received, such as:

Self-paced training

We had experimented with self-paced, online training early in 2020 before we knew what was ahead of us. Once membership was launched and running, we dusted off the things we had learned from our first pass, reworked existing modules, added new modules, and introduced a self-paced training library for our members.

Panels, keynotes, and other event formats

In the beginning, we thought we would primarily focus on AMA (Ask Me Anything) sessions. In fact, we thought members would value this format the most. We tried out different options and have heard that our members appreciate the variety. This is a bonus for us because it means we have more ways to highlight different voices in the industry alongside the names everyone knows.

Focus weeks

Quickly we noticed that our deep-dive content on product topics was popular, so we decided to double down on this concept and devote more to the topics we felt mattered to our members. We delivered not only a long-form article on a given topic for members, but have also run entire weeks featuring members-only events supplemented by dedicated podcast episodes and guest-authored posts that were open to all. So far, we’ve run two Focus Weeks (Building Products Responsibly and Product Metrics) and both have received positive feedback. As a result, we plan to make them a standard part of our catalogue going forward.

Team memberships

Requests to buy bulk memberships for teams started to hit the inbox almost immediately and as we started selling to teams, we realised that our membership programme can be really beneficial in facilitating an internal community of practice at companies. With that in mind, we’ve been working to add resources specifically geared for teams who are using membership to create a learning community among their product people.

We also have had some experiments that didn’t pan out. Some were clear flops that we have realised didn’t really work for either our customers or us, while with others we still believe in the opportunity, but don’t think we’ve quite found the right solution yet.

A couple of examples:

Newsletter-only membership

We had over 35,000 people getting our weekly Prioritised newsletter, and not all of them became members. Feedback indicated that our newsletter was valuable to people, and we had a hypothesis that there might be enough people who’d be willing to pay a small amount to continue to get it, even if they didn’t want the rest of membership. Good idea in theory, but in practice we didn’t get a lot of traction and it caused confusion with these partial members.

The many faces of networking

We know that meeting other product people is an incredibly valuable thing that comes out of community and events, and we believe that connecting our members with each other is a good thing. But we haven’t yet found the best way to facilitate that in this remote world that we’re in. Virtual roundtables, members mingles, peer circles, guided discussion groups — the people who take part love them, but only a small group of members take advantage of these. Let’s just say, we’re still iterating on this one.

One year later: Did it work?

One year on, and we’re still here, so in short — yes it worked! Between our membership programme, continued success in product training, and our digital conferences we’ve saved the business and have recently been able to finally take the team off the last bits of furlough support.

We now have thousands of paying Mind the Product members all over the world — all contributing to an even more engaging product community — but we know there’s still plenty of work to do to continue and evolve our membership offer. What we know right now is that membership is now the core of our business and looks to set us on a much more stable future.

What did we learn?

It’s hard to summarise what we learned throughout the last year. At times it’s been a blur. We can, however, say that our learnings were many.

First, we cut a lot of corners to get here, and that’s okay. After all, we were a team of seven, with only one developer and we had to get to market fast to survive. It’s striking in hindsight that it took us about eight weeks to build and launch the core membership product — and another eight months to rebuild it properly. But in a sense that is what MVPs are for. We borrow from the future, and as long as we pay down the tech debt afterward that’s a worthwhile investment, especially when the alternative would have been going out of business.

Asking people to pay for a product that’s always been free is tough and this is another big area we’ve had to think deeply and learn about. Think about how you might consider purchasing a new product. You might question the price point, perhaps even disagree with it entirely, but it’s rare that you question why there’s a price at all. That’s sometimes the reaction when moving from free to paid. Tackling this meant really putting ourselves in our customers’ shoes and working hard to understand how best to tailor our messaging and respond to their needs and feedback.

Last (but certainly not least) our community and the strength of our team have been key. It took Mind the Product a decade to build the community we know and love and we’ve been blown away by the support the community has shown. We’ve appreciated your willingness to give these new ideas a go, your helpful feedback, and your genuine interest in what’s coming next. Our team members, too, have each given everything they’ve got. Those who were furloughed supported the team left behind every step of the way and those who stayed behind worked tirelessly to keep the ship afloat.

It’s been a journey. One that ultimately means we stay in business, but also that this community can continue to grow, learn and share our knowledge with each other for many more years to come.

Discover more

Explore more product case studies on Mind the Product and if you have your own story to tell, share your case study too.

You can also check out Mind the Product membership to see what the work above was all about — discover Prioritised membership today.