What types of product will every Product Manager encounter through their career? This question might seem impossible to answer, and it is to an extent. However, there are some traits pertaining to products that can appear across industries. The basis for Product Thinking, common methodologies and tools is the transferability of ideas and experiences from one situation to another. In the past decade or so, product experts have gathered enough information to determine what we talk about when we talk about Product Management. Now it is time to clarify what we mean when we talk about Product.
What is our criteria? Well, here we aim to be practical. It would not make sense to organize products by sector (on the Proddys, we ended up with 34 categories in total!). It would also make little sense to divide them by “complexity”: who can define whether something is more difficult or effortless? Our guiding principle is the usability behind the groupings. That is, whether you have to prioritize certain approaches or perspectives when dealing with each type. They are not mutually exclusive, obviously.
Let’s begin our Product safari.
Mass Consumer Apps
Tinder. Deliveroo. Airbnb. Uber. What do they have in common?
Their appeal is to everyone everywhere. Who does not need to order food or other items once in a while? Who is not seeking the cheapest, nicest holidays available? Who can get lost and in need for a quick ride in the city? All of these digital applications offer services that are universal in their reach.
B2C PMs are often the most visible face of the tech economy, which makes them the standard example for books, blogs and events. This has led to some mistaken assumptions. First, that the lessons extracted from these companies can be employed with success everywhere else. This means pricing, design, marketing… The second big mistake people make is to extrapolate this sector’s relationship with its customers (integrated in their daily lives) to the rest of tech applications.
But this vision of the B2C market is based on broad generalizations. B2C Product Managers are not necessarily better trained in marketing or less technical than B2B ones. Two specific traits include, rather:
- They understand the importance of UX design. Many failed digital did not “emerge before their time”, as it is often said. Rather, mass consumer market PMs have to understand that they are aiming to include the whole population. From a minimum common denominator (which need not be excessively simplistic!), they must build a platform that is both attractive and effective for users.
- Mass consumer PMs are concerned with personalization. Does this sound contradictory? Quite the opposite! When you are seeking a macro-market, you need to micro-target. Political marketing professionals know that, to get a mass constituency, you have to appeal to the particular issues which voters care about. Today’s successful companies amass unprecedented quantities of data about their users. You need to know how to employ them!
SaaS or B2B Solutions
A cliche resource in this article would be to say “B2B marketers are the opposite to B2C”. But this is not always the case. Some of the most popular SaaS solutions hold the same popularity as mass market applications. Think Slack or Trello, for instance. We rely on them during so much of our working ours, that they became almost like beloved colleagues.
B2B apps, including Software as a Service applications, are there to service the needs of other companies. That is, they are the Product Managers’ Products, in a way. Their market, while smaller, can bring larger profits (just think of Amazon Web Services!). This makes the area really competitive and, strangely, requires smarter marketing than what is usually attributed to ‘boring’ work apps.
Among the qualities linked to working with B2B products, we can find:
- A different approach to costs and pricing. You are not making a case for something that will make life more fun or will help you organize your tasks at an individual level. You are pitching to people who are very concerned about their budgets. B2B PMs must have even better business acumen than B2C ones. Contractors will always be wary and careful on what they are spending their money on: we are talking big bucks here, not the comparatively small amount required by a Netflix subscription.
- Industry stakeholders are vital. As a Product Manager, being aware of competitors and allies will help you a lot when drafting your strategies. Whether you are a new startup or an established digital services corporation, your relationship with partners will help you understand what is going in the business. Your customer intelligence techniques will have to be cutting-edge in order to understand why are users entering or leaving your platform. Jobs-To-Be-Done methodologies are a good example of the sort of approaches you will have to value. In short, your external stakeholder’s criteria is much more exquisite and dynamic than that of a B2C PM.
For many product managers, their first gig involves working on already-existing products that, due to their size, are divided between ‘features’. For instance, Google’s G Suite includes a diverse selection of functions that are taken care of by different PMs. Thus, many times these professionals are not really in charge of “a product from beginning to end”, as it is usually said. They are even farther from that common cliche of PMs being “CEOs of their product”.
However, the focus on features does not limit the scope of the PMs’ activities. Many times, a singular element within an entire product unexpectedly becomes the main USP. Think of how Google’s revolutionary “backlink” system began as an internal tool and later provided the bedrock for the growth of one of the world’s largest companies.
There are certain skills which are fundamental for these sort of PMs:
- Internal stakeholders: they are everything. Remember, you are part of a team working on a larger product. You have to get used to negotiating at every step: even if you achieve consensus within your feature team, you then have to fight for horizontally and vertically. You need to develop good relationships with everybody and learn from the sort of methods, like Sprints or Agile, which favor cooperation in a fast-moving environment.
- Do not underestimate your own role. You might see yourself as a small cog in a large machine. However, some so-called “functions” are some of the most important aspects of successful digital operations. Think of the “cart” system for online retailers; the news algorithms on Facebook; or the security systems within banking apps. All of them are parts of a larger whole, but they are fundamental for everyone’s success. Whether you belong to one of these vital teams or not, you should understand how your organization relies more heavily on some teams than others.
Transformation of Existing Products
Digital solutions are amazing. But there was a whole economy before they appeared on the scene, you know? Since the late 1990s, analog firms have been attempting to transition to the virtual world. Some were destroyed in the transition: think Blockbuster. Some actually became ten times larger: think Netflix.
Many Product Managers, particularly those of a certain experience, will face the challenge of updating or transforming these types of “traditional” products. We are talking newspapers, universities, postal services… Really any business that can be disrupted by the digital economy and faces two choices: to adapt better than its competitors, or perish.
Product Managers working on these types of products will require two key abilities:
- A good balance between risk-taking and planning. Chances are you will be dealing with respected organizations who have built a brand over the years, or even decades. While you will be expected to shake things around to find new directions, you should keep in mind that there is a legacy that you need to respect. It will not make any sense if your changes completely overhaul the way your company deals with customers. Your roadmaps should reflect this explicitly; this will also benefit your relationships with established stakeholders.
- In relation to this, when times get tough, have systems in place. Be aware of pitfalls and work to avoid them. Learn how to say “no”: it is not always as useful as you think! Be ready to know how and when to hire or dismiss people from your team. In short, you should work harder than other PMs on the “management” side of your job title. It will not suffice with being a technical master or sales wizard: you will need to throw substantial people skills in the mix.
This includes Amazon and beyond. We mean beyond because of all the other online retailers out there; but also because of the possibilities offered by market-oriented services. Your function here is to limit transaction costs as much as possible. You do not want to become another intermediary that makes things difficult for sellers and buyers to get to their stuff.
In many ways, these PMs follow the dictum “build it, and they will come”. Your most important asset are not people themselves, but their interactions. Remember that you will not necessarily need to become the shop for everything; a huge player has already taken over that space. Rather, the biggest opportunities to monetize this intermediary position lie in specialized markets. Think smart!
What sort of skills are better aligned with these kind of products?
- Business acumen is a must. This is one of the few cases in Product Management where former salespeople or marketers are at an advantage. More than tech knowledge, you need knowledge about how supply and demand work, currencies, reputation systems, etc. While most of us know the separate components which make certain marketplaces great, only a select few understand them well enough to make them work in combination.
- Psychology; more than customer knowledge. You need to go beyond to what is usually expected of Product Managers. We are not talking “stakeholders” anymore: your users are almost your colleagues. Their decision to employ one platform over another often looks mysterious. Is it the UI? Or the branding? The feeling of safety around the transaction which your payment system generates? In order to find out, you will need to transcend traditional techniques like focus groups.
Internet of Things (IoT), Physical and Machine Learning Products
Internet of Things (IoT) is very easy to understand but really difficult to commercially put it into practice. Basically, it means making everyday physical objects “smart”: not simply transforming them into data-generating appliances, but actually improving their functions through their connection to the wider network. The classic example is the fridge which orders your groceries on your behalf; based on an intensive data analysis of your previous shopping.
If you add Machine Learning into the mix, there is actually endless potential behind this idea. For instance, the B2C bias in much digital work forgets the major improvements behind installing smart machines in factories. This way, companies managing data can understand with almost perfect exactitude how long and why certain machines can conduct a certain task. But our most ambitious thinkers are already seeking to apply these insights into fields as diverse as crime prevention or infrastructure building.
Only PMs with these traits will be able to thrive with these products:
- Non-virtual experience is a must. Whether you transitioned from consultancy, architecture or project management, IoT makes PMs that “get their hands dirty” really vital. They need to be aware of the different dynamics affecting digital and physical products: development, release, commercialization, feedback… These steps have nothing to do with each other across spheres. The challenge is to make them work together, complement each other and avoid the pitfalls of siloed development.
- Ethics, as weird as it sounds, are really important. But not necessarily from a moral point of view. As the terrain for digitalization expands, through homes, classrooms or hospitals; more and more complex issues will emerge. Privacy is already proving to be a sort of Achilles’ Heel for certain companies that cannot guarantee data safety. As we let even more “smart” applications into our lives, we will seek further guarantees that these services are simply extracting data needed to function. In short: precautionary ethics will be good business!
There are so many stereotypes associated with working at startups. The vanity of founders, the geekiness of developers, the absurd quantities of money… Most of them are only applicable to a minority. Startups are simply seeds, the beginning of what could be a really interesting addition to the tech business sphere. As such, they hold special rules for PMs dealing with startup products.
Unless you belong to a privileged few within the community, it is very likely that you will be dealing with limited resources. This will mean more hours and more work; so pick your colleagues wisely! The most important thing is to make that journey from your Product Vision to an actual service that can be marketed and provide a solution to a certain market.
PMs who thrive at dealing with startup products tend to have these skills:
- They are full-spectrum professionals. The small size of these operations means that you will always be short of hands. You should never get used to doing a particular thing; chances are, you will switch tasks in a couple of days. While it is a challenging learning curve for most professionals, once you have worked at a startup you will be ready to face any challenge. A priceless benefit is that you will constantly learn more and more skills and ways to limit your costs.
- Public speaking and advocacy sills are a must. Startups are fighting for their space in the wider tech community. They cannot rely on a larger brand to promote their solutions. They must build their name by themselves. This means that startup PMs will be required to attend events, write articles and have an active social media presence where they will display their work. Whether your goal is to go big or to be bought by a bigger player, you will need a sparkling public image.
A Product Manager for Every Product Type
As you can see, each type of product requires a different type of product manager. This list of seven is not meant to be exhaustive, but it should offer you a wide perspective to consider these issues before embarking on your next adventure. After all, are you ready to deal with physical products? Do you have the economic knowledge that is necessary to build and manage marketplaces?
If you think that other categories make sense, let us know!