On the 4th birthday of ProductTank London in May, Thomas Schwaiger (@tschwaiger) invited three speakers to share with us their experiences of building and working in B2B (business to business) companies.
- James Gill (@JamesJGill), Founder and CEO of GoSquared
- Rif Kiamil (@rifkiamil), Founder and CEO of FOODit
- Clancy Childs (@cchilds), Chief Product and Marketing Officer at Tizaro
CEO of GoSquared
Justin Bieber* James Gill (@JamesJGill) took the stage first to tell us how his company has been able to maintain focus with a small team, and have just the right amount of process. (video)
[* His words, not ours]
They faced three challenges:
- Aligning a team to a fast-paced roadmap
- Being productive without many meetings
- Deciding what to build next
To meet these challenges, they use Google’s system of OKRs (objectives and key results) to set out where they want to be in a quarter’s time and define the measurable results that would demonstrate they’d succeeded.
As they found it difficult to estimate how long roadmap items will take to deliver, they now use David Heinemeier Hansson’s (founder and CTO of Basecamp) approach of budgeting using time as a currency. This sets a constraint on how developers go about creating something: the time available dictates whether the item will be minimal, highly polished, or somewhere in between.
They also achieve alignment by being “uncomfortably open” about their performance. This approach reduces uncertainty and confusion, and allows the whole team to understand how their work affects the important metrics on both the corporate and individual levels.
Regarding team productivity, James has heeded Founder and CEO of Buffer Joel Gascoigne’s advice about process in startups: too much slows it down to a halt, too little causes chaos. So they have distilled meetings down to a Monday morning planning session for the week, daily stand-ups and a Friday review of the week’s results down the pub. Did they do what they set out to on Monday, and if not, why not?
Too much process slows a startup to a halt, too little causes chaos
Deciding what to build next can also be tricky. A lack of ideas is rarely the problem: feature requests come not only from customers but from within your own team. It’s also very important to say no to most of them otherwise your product will lose the focus that makes it appealing to customers. It’s therefore important to have a process for keeping track of them.
- Use OKRs for alignment
- Budget using time as a currency
- Be uncomfortably open with metrics
- Have just enough process
- Say no
- Internal tools set company culture (e.g. Trello, Slack, Recurly, Github)
- Think about what success would look like from day one
What Are You Testing?
From the outset, he used experiments to uncover the best approach. For his MVP (minimum viable product), he briefed three competing teams: a team in Sweden building on Magento; a team in India building from scratch in Azure and C#; and a team in Australia (3WKS) building on cloud technologies from Google and Amazon.
From his experiment, Rif learned that
- Magento was complex and difficult to customise;
- the team in India needed detailed specifications, didn’t understand Lean and only worked in Waterfall;
- 3WKS were proactive and already done by the time he was in touch.
Not surprisingly, he chose to work with 3WKS as their values and culture reflected how he wanted FOODit to be.
Products don’t succeed or fail because of the programming language they’re written in. If you need to build fast so that you can test ideas quickly, pick a technology that lets you do that. However, if your goal is to build a scalable platform, you may need a different approach.
Products don’t succeed or fail because of the language they’re written in
His next challenge was figure out how to differentiate FOODit as a business – after all, people have been selling websites to restaurants since the beginning of the internet. So he used the Lean Canvas to establish that FOODit was going to help restaurants to grow their business.
Rif continued his iterative experimentation with the whole product concept. By tweaking what was included in the product offering, he was able to test whether the changes reduced the length of FOODit’s sales cycle, or increased orders, or reduced bad debts.
- Make everything an experiment, but be clear on what you want to learn
- Use Lean Canvas to help uncover your unique selling point
- Change one thing at a time to avoid mixing the test results
- Pick technologies and developers that reflect your values and culture
How to Screw Up B2B Product Management
I hear this third speaker at #producttank is quite shit. Let’s all leave before he gets up and bores us all.
— Clancy Childs (@cchilds) May 21, 2014
When Clancy used to be responsible for Google Analytics Premium, he used to talk to customers about how easy to use it was. His perspective changed somewhat when he later became a customer himself at Tizaro.
Tizaro is assuredly B2B – they sell parts and supplies to oil rigs and mining sites – but as they had an online store, they wanted to discourage custom from demanding and “whiny” consumers in favour of companies. However, Clancy soon began to realise that business customers are not as easy to deal with as he initially thought.
Businesses start out cool and collected, but once you sell them a product, they start to go psycho, calling in the middle of the night to demand why you sold them the product.
It is common advice to “put yourself in your customer’s shoes”, but you soon start to realise that customers have many different pairs of shoes. So you turn to personas and segment them, all of which only serves to multiply the number of things you have to remember when designing the product.
Personas do help communication, but you will never be your own customer in B2B. You have to leave your comfort zone and go out and talk to them – you have to be involved in the entire sales process to really understand them. This is why the sales and support teams are your friends – in B2B you need to be more involved with them, even than the development team.
You will never be your own customer in B2B
The sales team is the number one point of contact with the people who buy your products, and salespeople can cut to the heart of what really matters to customers. At Google Analytics, Clancy used to sit with the sales and support teams in the UK and listen in to customer conversations to understand their pain points. This gave him the perspective he needed to feed back to the development team based back in Mountain View.
No-one needs your product. Rather, they need a solution to a problem. Your sales team is meant to be selling that solution, so your job as product manager is to tell them why and how the product solves the customers’ problem. But customers don’t know they even have a problem in the first place, so sometimes you need to highlight the problem to them first before you can sell them the solution.
“Business organisation” is an oxymoron. An organisation chart rarely shows the dotted reporting lines that exist in reality between different people. So when a salesperson succeeds in gaining an introduction, the actual person experiencing the problem is elsewhere, as are the budget holder, decision maker and the procurement person with the power of veto on the purchase. The user is someone else again and often completely uninvolved until they suddenly find themselves confronted with the product. At which point he contacts your support team.
“Business organisation” is an oxymoron
Another challenge is the “squeaky wheel” problem, in which a customer is yelling for a feature request and the salesperson is on your case: “They’re going to leave us if we don’t do this!” But customising the product for individual clients leads to technical debt and lock-in. You have to resist this! Using APIs to push the customisation back into the client’s own responsibility is a good way to avoid this problem.
- You will never be your own customer in B2B
- You have to leave your comfort zone to truly understand your customers
- Customers want solutions to their problems, not products
- Sometimes you need to highlight the problem first
- Figure out all the people involved with a purchase
- Companies don’t change easily
- Resist greasing the squeaky wheel with one-off customisations
We’re immensely grateful to D·Labs for sponsoring the drinks at May’s ProductTank on B2B Product Management and Haroon Khan (@haroonharry) for the live tweeting on the night.
Do join us for our next ProductTank London at 6.30pm on Monday 23rd June (note change from usual Wednesday slot) on on roadmapping, prioritisation and portfolio management. Tickets are available now (join the waitlist if none are currently available).