Keith Cowing

Keith Cowing

Product guy. Entrepreneur.
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January 23, 2014

From The Bourne Identity:

[Jason Bourne designs a complicated plan to extract a copy of a bill from a hotel, he sends Marie in to capture intel and send him a signal]
[Marie returns a moment later]
Jason Bourne: What happened?
Marie: Nothing.
Jason Bourne: Did something go wrong?
Marie: I’ve got the records. This guy at the front desk was smiling at me, so I thought, all this trouble, maybe it’s easier to just ask for them.
Jason Bourne: You have the bill?
Marie: [pulling paper from pocket] He made me a photocopy.
Jason Bourne: [incredulous] You just asked for it?
Marie: I said I was Mr. Kane’s personal assistant.
Jason Bourne: [pause] Oh. Okay. Good thinking.

There were two options in this case. The first was wild, violent, and risky. The second was simple: just ask. It’s amazing how many people take the first option and completely miss the second. The higher your skill level, the more apt you are to miss the simple plan because you’re deeply tempted by challenges.

For the sake of simplicity, I’ll keep this post short. But the point is large – avoid complexity whenever you can. Don’t flex your muscles and solve difficult problems when you don’t have to. Brilliantly simple solutions provide the best results.

December 20, 2013

I talk to a lot of people who want to become product managers. What it takes to become a product manager depends on your background and the specific team you’re interested in joining. But there are some very clear patterns that show up consistently. From my experience, these are the key actions you need to take to set yourself up for success:

1. Build and ship something.

Show, don’t tell. Being a product manager is ultimately about results. You need to create something that didn’t exist before and then maniacally refine it. The process that you go through to take an idea, turn it into a plan, put something out into the world, get feedback, and make updates, is the essence of being a product manager. The only way to truly learn it is by doing it. I don’t care if the product you built was wildly complicated or wildly successful, I care that you learned from it and that you saw it through the entire lifecycle. I care about the process you used to analyze the results and make decisions. I care about the expertise you built in your field. Telling NFL coaches that you’re a great quarterback is a waste of time. Showing them game tape of you leading a team to victory will get you hired. So give me something that’s as close to game tape as you can get. Having plans for a product doesn’t cut it because a lot of product management happens post-launch, when you review data and make decisions. Getting experience in that means actually launching and iterating. The “product” can be as simple as an eBook you wrote and marketed or a blog you started, but it has to be something you’ve actually put out into the world. If you haven’t built anything yet – you are not ready to be a product manager. But there’s great news, it has never been cheaper or easier to build something. So get started. Never tell. Always show.

2. Polish your communication skills.

Communicating is just as important as shipping product. You need to communicate with your sales and marketing colleagues, with engineers, with your boss, with clients, with investors, etc. You should feel responsible for the entire package – how the product is defined, built, marketed, and sold. I suggest thinking about communication skills in 3 pieces. The first is written communication. The best way to refine your skills is by starting a blog. If you are looking for a job, the only reasons not to start a blog are if you cannot write succinctly, you have nothing meaningful to say, or marketing yourself is not a priority (hint: it should be). The second is in-person communication with small groups, which enables you to run effective meetings. Breaking down the 500 things in your head into meaningful information that you can quickly communicate is a skill that you build over time. Boosting your skills in this area will radically change people’s perceptions of you. The third is presenting in front of an audience. Your ability to influence a crowd can have larger effects on your career than your ability to manage technical details. If you are looking for a job as a PM, find every opportunity to practice these three modes of communication and put them on display to the outside world (through presentations on Slideshare, speeches on YouTube, blog posts, etc.). You’ll be surprised how many interesting people will notice.

3. Become an expert.

Great product managers are always experts in 3 things: their market, their product, and their users. If you want to build collaboration tools for small businesses then spend your time getting to know small businesses. Read about them, visit them, talk to them, study them. Your understanding of the ins and outs of their daily lives will make the difference between flat-lining charts and hockey stick growth. This is why it’s important to pick an industry that you fundamentally find exciting. Everybody talks about product market fit – you should also make sure you have product manager market fit. When I started my first company, Seamless Receipts, I overlooked the importance of this issue. My end users were brick-and-mortar retailers and while there were some brands I loved working with, I ultimately wasn’t inspired by brick-and-mortar retail. I love e-commerce and I don’t like shopping at malls. So I never had product manager market fit. Now I always make sure that products I work on serve markets that I’m truly passionate about.

4. Blend art and science.

Making data-driven decisions is critical. If you want a good lens into how to think about data-driven decisions, read this post: Saas Metrics 2.0. The specific metrics that are critical to your business are probably different. But the post helps you picture how imperative it is that you understand the key drivers behind your business model, how they’re trending, and how the updates you’re making are affecting them. That’s what sets you up to run a successful product over the long-term. You don’t need a technical background, but you need to be able to think in a highly analytical fashion. Then you have to take science, blend it with art, and use your gut when necessary. Data will tell you part of the story but you need to have your finger on the pulse of your users to make the tough calls. That’s why it’s important to spend a lot of time talking to customers.

5. Define your edge.

Product managers have to be effective in a variety of areas, including design, engineering, finance, marketing, and sales. It’s the combination of these functions that creates your holistic approach to the market. However, you don’t have to be the world’s best at everything. What you need is competence in all of those areas and deep expertise in one or two. Steve Jobs built Apple based on his world-class skills in design and marketing. Bill Gates built Microsoft based on his skills in software and strategy. Marc Benioff built based on his skills in sales. They all have general competence but world-class talents in one or two areas. Being a “general manager” can work. Yet true greatness comes from people who have sweet spots where they are simply unstoppable. So understand where you have that edge or where you stand a fighting chance to gain that edge – then go deep and go hard. Brand yourself that way and be consistent with it – that’s how you get people to remember you. That’s also how you build things that truly matter.

6. Show your entrepreneurial spirit.

Being an entrepreneur and being a product manager are very very similar. The best product managers, like entrepreneurs, contain this innate skill to “Make it Happen.” That means dealing with ambiguity and paving your own path. It means having the hustle and grit to get stuff done against all odds. Your boss (if you have one) should not need to baby you or show you the way. You should be defining the way and asking for support and help – but not answers. You should be out there making it happen. There are a number of ways to prove that you have this grit. Starting a company is one way. Playing competitive sports (D1 college teams) is another. Find a way to show that regardless of the blood, sweat, and tears required – you are the kind of person who pushes relentlessly and at the end of the day will “Make it Happen.”

Being a product manager (or an entrepreneur) is tough and frustrating. But damn is it gratifying. I wouldn’t spend my career doing anything else. So I encourage you to take these actions and build things that will have a true impact on the world. Feel free to ask me questions or add ideas in the comments.

October 29, 2013

From Inside Delta Force:
Eric Haney was a special ops warrior boarding an extraction plane. Once boarded, he had no action to take – so he was trained to sleep. The plane was shot and he awoke amidst a burst of flames with no parachute. He had to make a quick decision – so he lept out of the plane, went into a full skydiving arch, and quickly hit the runway below. The plane had never taken off. Later on his friend joked with him – “If you were at 30K feet with no parachute what the hell were you going to do?” Eric replied briefly: “One problem at a time Sergeant.”

His ability to act decisively saved his life. Eric was demonstrating his command of the most undervalued skill in business – focus. There was a problem that needed to be solved immediately and everything else could wait. This happens to be a cornerstone of special ops training, but it applies to personal and business contexts as well. Below are 4 specific ways that learning to focus will greatly improve your career.

Boost your charisma
Improving your focus directly increases your level of charisma. Think about a strong, charismatic leader you know. Did she check her phone during conversations? Did she write emails while pretending to listen, or nod and say “mm hmm” while her eyes drifted elsewhere? Or was she dialed-in and focused 100% on the conversation? The people who can do the latter exude a much stronger sense of charisma and become more effective leaders.

Solve the most important problems
You have 100 things you could spend your time doing today. Focus enables you to keep your eye on the 3 that will have the biggest impact on your goals – everything else is a distraction. Truly focusing your energy makes the difference between participating and dominating. Before his keynotes, Steve Jobs was famous for spending entire days rehearsing. He was ridiculously busy and had thousands of emails waiting for him. Yet he turned it all off and focused on the single most important thing in front of him…and he delivered.

Conquer the details
Conquering the details is what made the difference between Friendster and Facebook. Anybody can get the idea right, but a maniacal attention to detail paves the way to greatness. You cannot conquer the details unless you minimize distractions as much as humanly possible. First filter out the noise. Then focus on what’s important.

Close things out
Neuroscientists have proven that the human brain is incapable of multi-tasking. Your mind simply performs task-switching. Switching back and forth between tasks is akin to an athlete training without nutrition – lots of input, crappy output. Too many people live their lives like this. Tackling one problem at a time lets you close things out instead of piling them up in your head. It not only generates better outcomes, it lets you enjoy your life more.

My advice is simple: “One problem at a time Sergeant.”

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