Airtel’s Opportunistic innovation

In the past I have written about incremental product innovations that wow you! On my visit to India, I came across such an innovation via the local telecom provider Bharti Airtel. Since the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2004, getting a SIM card for your mobile phone in India requires paperwork that includes your photo, copies of your passport etc. It is doable, but just the thought of paperwork had stopped me from getting a SIM card. Instead, I ended up using my sister’s extra cell phone while I was in India. The only problem with this is that I have to give it back to her before I leave, thereby leaving me with no phone before I arrive home or after I leave home on my return trip. This has been bit of a hassle.

So this time, I am at the Kochi International Airport and wanted to make a phone call letting my parents know that my flight was on time. So I ask someone where I could find a public phone (that vintage one). They point me to an Airtel desk. I walk over and tell the gentleman manning the desk that I need to make a phone call. He had a better offer for me. He asked me if I had a mobile phone on me and I did – but one without a SIM card. He offered to sell me a SIM card for 100 Indian Rupees ($2 USD) and did all the paperwork necessary in less than 5 minutes including using a digital camera to take my photo and copy of my passport. I was just WOWed, because here was a simple innovation that solved a real customer need. And I was not alone, this chap was busy with other travellers either buying new SIM cards or reloading their old prepaid SIM cards with more money. Airtel was gaining customers one at a time, but at a place where there was no competition.

Bottomline, you do not have to come up with game changing innovations like the iphone or the ipad, there are a lot of customers problems that can be solved via simple yet profitable innovations. In fact, I would argue that there are more incremental innovations that are equally effective than game changing ones! Agreed?

What is your personal portfolio? Think like a graphics designer ….

I get asked all the time on how folks can transition into a product management career from say engineering, QA, sales etc. Here is my short answer – think like a graphics designer. If you have interviewed graphics designers, they always come in with a portfolio that shows the work they have done – wireframes, fully rendered designs, flash animations and different variations of it. Such portfolios gives the hiring manager or recruiter a true sense of the creative skills of the graphics designer. The discussion then quickly turns into what they want to do going forward, cultural fit etc.

If you are in engineering, QA or sales and want to move into product management, try doing what product managers do on your own time. Can you do a competitive analysis of your industry – this should not be difficult – after all you know who your competitors are. Search online to find anything and everything about them – their products, their business model, their customer support channels, what people are saying about their products, their marketing channels etc. Can you then put together a presentation on the competitive landscape?

Use every opportunity to get close to your customers. Participate in some customer calls with the help of your software product manager so that you can listen in to what customers are saying. How about writing a requirements document for a product feature that you think will enhance the product. Ignore for the time being whether there is a market for the feature, just write the document anyways.

Not only will this help you put together a software product management portfolio, but it will also give you a taste of what product management is all about. Product management is not for everyone, so why not taste it before you transition into it and then realize it is not your cup of tea.

If you want to be even more creative, then pick an industry that is not where you work. If you work in the semi-conductor industry, then pick the eCommerce industry. After all, I am sure you have bought something on Amazon or eBay or other like sites. Given that all of these are public companies, you will also have access to a ton of financial information.

Create a portfolio of what you have done and then make a case in your current company for a product position. Always do this in your current company – your current employer usually is more approachable for career transitions especially if you have demonstrated success in your current job. No one wants to lose a good employee.

So next time, you are thinking of sending me an email asking how you should transition, think about graphics designers first! I am always happy to get your emails and to help, but it is not as difficult as you may think!

Agree? Thoughts, comments?

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Product Management vs. Project Management vs. Product Marketing

One of the common confusions that exist in the software industry are the roles of product management vs. project management vs. product marketing. There are different definitions depending on the vertical, company etc. Here is a set of slides that I have put together on the three roles.

Would love to hear what you think. Please share your thoughts via comments.

3 sources for competitive analysis

As software product managers, understanding your competition needs to be a very important ingredient of our work DNA. We must gather as much information as possible on our competition so that we know what they are upto both strategically and tactically. It will also help us understand what moves we can make so that the competitor can be forced to make a reactive move on their part – a move that could be favorable to us and unfavorable to them.

There are so many ways in which you can gather intel on your competitors. Here are 3 sources that I have used very successfully.

1) Competitor’s website: Sounds obvious, but as a software product manager, have you read through all the content that is on your competitor’s website? For example, do you know:

  1. The terms and conditions that they offer their customers on a product sale. For example, if you are in the eCommerce space, do you know what your competitor’s return policy is? What exactly is included in your competitor’s offering of 30-day free trial? Does the customer need to input a credit card to sign up for the free trial?
  2. How much money does your competitor (a publicly traded company) have in the bank? What is their cash flow situation? If the cash situation is dire for your competitor, can you hasten their exit via a move that will force them to spend more money (for example a discounted pricing promotion?)
  3. Who is on their management team and their board? What expertise and connections do they bring to the table? For example, if their CEO or an investor has prior employment relationship with or Google, what does that mean to the business and in turn any possible impact on you? Do their investors have prior experience in your industry that may open doors for your competitors for potential sales?
  4. What jobs is your competitor hiring for? This will help you understand where your competitor wants to go because hiring reflects plans for growth. Or has a key employee left the company? If yes, what could this mean? Hiring to replace a key employee is always a setback to any business – there is never a case where a replacement can be done without missing a heartbeat.
  5. How is your competitor getting the word of their products into the market? Where are they advertising? What promotions are they running? Does the customer have a referral program? How does the referral program work?

2) Your “human” network: No matter how much easier competitive analysis has become because of the internet, it is still not a substitute to the stuff you can find via the good old way of tapping into your “human” network. You may be able to gather information from people in your network via face to face meetings because they can share it off the record without having to put it in an email or other digital media. Here are some specific networks you need to look into:

  1. Former employees: Do former employees of your competitors belong in your LinkedIn network? If yes, what can you find out about your competitors through them? (However, I want you to caution on legal ramifications here as well. Never ever put your contact or yourself at legal risk by asking for confidential information such as documents etc. Even if this is offered to you, refuse – a lawsuit from your competitor will be far more damaging than not having a piece of competitive intel. Getting the name of the internal champion your competitor has at a prospective customer account is one thing, but holding a piece of confidential document from your competitor is a completely different thing – you should never get into a legal situation where you can go out of business because of breach of confidentiality.)
  2. Venture capitalists: If you are a VC funded company or if you have friends in the VC community, can they help you get competitive intelligence? For example, is your competitor looking for another round of funding and approaching VCs? Believe me, the VC community is a big boy’s network and a closely knit one too – tapping into this judiciously can help you gather competitive intel.
  3. Your new customers: If you won an account against your competition, what can this new customer tell you about the competitors who lost out? What tricks did the competitor bring to the table to win the account? Did they offer any creative or discounted pricing? What did this new customer learn from the references the competitor may have provided during the sales process? Can you get the information on these references so that you can talk to them?
  4. Supply chain: Does anyone know people in your competitor’s supply chain – for example, system integrators in the case of an enterprise implementation. How do they view your competitor? How do they like (or dislike) working with them? Unless there is an exclusivity with your competitor, these folks are always looking for more business including yours and would be willing to share more information on industry and competitive trends with you, depending on the strength of your relationship with them.

3) Competitor’s digital network: What are people saying about you and your competitors on the Internet whether it is in forums, product reviews or social networks. The fastest way to keep on top of this is to set up a google alert on each of your competitors both by company name and the product(s) name. Have google alerts deliver a daily digest into your inbox so that keeping an eye on your competition becomes part of your DNA. Granted that google alerts will pick up a lot of duplicates when it comes to things like press releases, but I would rather get duplicate information than none at all. Plus it only takes a few seconds to check the google alert emails that it is not a big chore.

What do you think? Do you have other sources you have successfully used to gather competitive intel? Please share via comments.

3 C’s – Market Capital, Customer Experience, Your Career

Here are the slides from my recent product management seminars at Bangalore and Hyderabad, India.

The three takeaways (what I called three “C”s) were the following:

  1. Market Capital: If you as a software product manager want to build credibility within your organization, gain as much market capital or customer capital as possible. Market capital is measured by the time you spend outside your office building talking to prospects/customers who will actually buy your product.
  2. Customer Experience: Think about the overall customer experience, not just product usability or product experience. Even products with good usability can fail if they have bad customer experience. Think about all the friction points that may prevent the customer from buying from you and then remove these to create a great customer experience.
  3. Your Career: No matter what you do, always think about your product management career (it is a marathon not a sprint). You are the only one who is worrying about the only product you have full control over – “You” – your boss is not, your employer is not. So treat every job as the stepping stone to the next one. If you are planning to transition into product management, always do it in your current company – hiring managers in other companies will not take the risk of hiring someone who has never done product management. Your current company will be more open to providing growth opportunities to existing employees. Take the initiative and you win….

Your thoughts, comments?

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Christmas Gifts for Software Product Managers for less than $100

It is that part of the year where everyone is thinking of gifts. If you are a software product manager and you are looking to improve your software product management skills by spending $100 on yourselves, here are three books I recommend for you (I have no association with any of these authors)

  1. Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love by Marty Cagan – $25.76
  2. Customer Visits: Building a Better Market Focus by Edward McQuarrie – $39.35
  3. Product Strategy for High Technology Companies by Michael E. McGrath – $32.76 (I am still reading this and so far I have found it to be an excellent book)

What do you think? Would you substitute any of the above with any other excellent books you have read? What else would you add to this list?