Meet Alex Cowan, entrepreneur (5x), intrapreneur (1x), author, and instructor at General Assembly. He’s also the author of ‘Starting a Tech Business’. When he’s not teaching at GA, he’s often found advising companies and posting instructional materials for innovators and instructions on alexandercowan.com.
I’m always pushing myself to be the best possible product person I can be, and these days I tend to earn a lot through my work as an instructor. My classes are on the interdisciplinary topics of product design and venture creation, so I get to work with business people wanting to understand the technical side and engineers wanting to learn the business side.
Often times, students from the business side are thinking of learning to code and students from the engineering side are thinking of going to get an MBA. While both might be advisable in certain situations, I’ve found that there are a few simple foundation skills that drive the interdisciplinary cooperation at the heart of so many successful projects:
Crossfit enthusiast Joe Wilkinson ran into one issue while training members at his local gym: painful bruising around the collarbone from barbell reps. Enter his creative solution: WilkWear, a padded collarbone compression shirt made to protect your collarbone and reduce bruising.
After 10 weeks in GA’s Product Management course, Joe was able to gather a strategy and plan to research, create and launch WilkWear. To support Joe’s campaign and learn more about the product, check out WilkWear’s Kickstarter here, and forward this link to your network.
GA Hong Kong Product Management graduate, Chris Place, already had his product in place. He just needed help taking it to the next level.
Meet JUMP, “The first charging solution that fits your lifestyle.”
Chris began working on JUMP with his team at Native Union as a product designer. He came to GA to help realize the potential of the product by realizing his potential as a product manager. We recently caught up with Chris to learn more about JUMP and how his time at GA was able to empower him to take on more responsibility within the project.
1. What were you doing before you came to GA?
During my six years at JP Morgan, I served in a number of roles in the Asset Management and Investment Bank lines of business, from Server-Side Java Developer, Production Support Analyst, to Technical Business Analyst.
Congratulations to MakerBot, a Brooklyn-based company, recently acquired by Stratasys for over $400 million. MakerBot is an innovation company that has led the desktop 3D printing revolution and built a community around the technology since 2009.
Watch a video below from the General Assembly archives where co-founder, Bre Pettis talks about how he started MakerBot.
Name: Hunter Walk (@hunterwalk)
Occupation: Former Director of Product Management at Google (previously Director at Linden Lab, New Product Development at Mattel)
1. In 140 characters or less, what is Product Management?
Building. Communicating. Helping. Simplifying. Collaborating. (Sometimes) Crying. Leading.
2. Lets step away from digital for a second. Pretend the product you are producing is a watch. What are the types of questions a product manager would ask? What would some of your responsibilities be?
The goals of Product Management are the same whether you’re shipping websites or watches — it’s helping a team build a product that’s loved by the community.
On day one, I’d ask:
- What watches are we making today and who’s purchasing them?
- Who is the customer for this new watch and what are their needs (telling time, fashion, accuracy, reliability/durability, etc.)
- Is there a cross-functional team already working on this product? If not, let’s develop one.
Some of the product manager’s responsibilities would include:
- Ensuring everyone working on the project understands who the customer is, and what the product objectives are
- Making sure the team is properly resourced to achieve its goals. Does every work item have a clear owner?
- Managing a design and approval process that drives collaboration and cross-functional input, but doesn’t bog down into census-driven groupthink
The lean startup methodology is not a skillset you can learn all at once. Like yoga, it’s a practice you must develop and apply over time in order to get any value from it.
In a nutshell, lean offers a validated way to learn about your startup. It answers key questions like: Is there a market for your business? How can you gather key information about the features and functionality of a business concept?
Lean will help you practice identifying your market and developing product-market fit. It’s a process can be applied to any product concept — here’s how you get started.
Step 1: Choose and validate an idea.
One word lean practitioners rely on heavily is “validate,” and GA’s learning experiences are designed to help people understand what it means to validate an idea or product.
In one of our workshops, instructors provided the class with an app idea and walked them through the process of determining whether or not it would succeed. The app was called Cut the Line, and the concept was a mobile app that helps you skip the line at restaurants and other popular attractions. The idea drew inspiration from Disney World’s FastPass and applied it to all of New York City. Imagine being able to skip any line anywhere … for a price.
“Yes, that would be awesome,” was the response we got from most people when asked whether they liked the idea.
Step 2: Define the assumptions.
Before committing to the business idea as we had originally conceived of it and investing precious resources to build the “perfect” product, we challenged the class to identify whether there was a market for Cut the Line, and if so, the bare minimum feature set — or the minimum viable product (MVP) — people would actually pay for. Our class mapped out the idea’s riskiest business assumptions to reveal the bare minimum facets of the business (consumer behavior, pain) that must truly exist for this business to work.
- Assumption #1: Patrons would pay to skip lines.
- Assumption #2: Restaurants would accept payment for allowing some customers to skip the line.
- Assumption #3: There is a large enough market for this product to build a sustainable business.
Step 3: Validate your assumptions.
After mapping the riskiest assumptions, we took to the streets to meet real, live potential customers and observe their behavior. Our learning exercises started with offering strangers money for their spot in line in efforts to define if we could pay to create a spot online. We experimented with a range of price points; if they refused a small sum, we countered with a higher offer.
Step 4: Analyze lessons learned.
Our experiments highlighted one key fact about consumer behavior: While you can gain some valuable qualitative information about your customer through conversation, people are generally terrible judges of hypothetical behavior. The only reliable way to test whether someone will pay for something is to actually charge them for a product.
- #1 Lesson Learned: Patrons felt paying to skip the line was unfair to the others in the line. Many patrons refused the offer to pay us to Cut the Line. When we asked why, we got an interesting array of responses that included: Parents with children said that waiting in the line was a part of the “sight seeing experience.” Tourists enjoyed waiting in line because the longer the line, the better the restaurant. It was how they judged if a restaurant was good. One surprising exception: A man on a date paid to skip the line.
- #2 Lesson Learned: Restaurants did not want to let some clients to skip the line. Restaurants did not want to seem unfair giving certain customers special treatment. They were afraid that any additional revenue generated by the FastPass would be offset by losing the business of irritated potential customers.
- #3 Lesson Learned: Our target market significantly narrowed as we spoke with potential customers. The class expected the average patron waiting in a long line would be willing to pay to skip to the front. And with the refusal of venues to allow some patrons to skip the line, we were left wondering, was there an opportunity for this product at all?
Step 5: Identify flaws in the experiment and consider next steps.
There are some natural limitations to any experiment. Some potential issues that may have influenced our learning and warrant further exploration:
- We looked very “unofficial,” approaching patrons at restaurants in line wearing street clothes.
- Our small data-set was geographically limited to Times Square.
- Our pool of potential customers was predominantly limited to restaurants, so a person’s level of hunger may have forced a different behavior.
- Lastly, a digital solution such as a mobile app would have increased anonymity; in the in-person setting, we expect some would-be customers felt peer pressure to not cut the line.
Had our class extended beyond three days, our next step would have been to explore those learnings further and to address some of those limitations.
Step 6: Decide whether or not to proceed with the idea.
After three nights of validated learning inquiry into Cut the Line, we didn’t feel confident that there’s a market for the product; at least not with the implementation that we had envisioned. Our student who did make a sale had a brilliant customer development hack: He put in his name to get a table for dinner at the Hard Rock Hotel, waited 30 minutes until his buzzer would be called next, and then sold his spot in the line to a patron who had only been waiting five minutes (a gentleman on a date).
There are a number of other factors to consider as well, but social factors like “perceived fairness” and peer pressure are clear barriers to successfully monetizing the business idea. The biggest lessons we hope our students took away, though, is that just because people say, “Oh yes, I would pay for your product,” doesn’t actually mean they will or that there’s even a market for it. Uncovering insights and understanding the nuances of a potential customer’s behavior is key to learning whether there’s a market for your business idea.