What can small businesses learn from Product Management?

The Brainmates team eats its own dog food.

In a recent discussion with a couple of entrepreneurs about their product idea and plans for product delivery and market growth, I gave them a few tips on how to take their current ideation stage to product planning stage, based on Brainmates’ approach to product management. They seemed to find my advice helpful so I thought I would share it with a broader audience.

Being a boutique product management consulting and training company, Brainmates tries to apply product management practices to our own consulting and training business – yes, we eat our own dog food, as the proverbial adage goes. As for me, with my dual hat as Product Management Consultant, as well as General Manager for Brainmates, not only do I use our customer-centric product management methodology when consulting on client projects, but it’s also very applicable when managing our own business. Here’s some tips that are applicable to smaller businesses :

Talk to your customers

It’s never too early to start a dialogue with your target customers, to truly understand their needs. Develop a list of questions to ask your customers so that when the occasion arises to talk to them in person, whether it be online or face to face, you can make the most of the opportunity.

In our consulting practice, we engage in conversations with product people of different levels of seniority and experience, globally. We talk to the community of product people at our networking events such as Product Talks & Product Camp, through blogs, social media activity as well as one-on-one with existing and potential clients. .

Use all the communication means available to you to communicate with your target customer

If relevant, use social media to understand customer insights, not just about your own product but alternative offerings ,where your target market may look to find solutions that meet their need. Generate an ongoing two way dialogue with your target audience before, during and after product launch stage.

The social media platforms that Brainmates has found successful in building a dialogue with our audience have been Twitter, and Linkedin. We create original thought-leadership content that is of relevance and interest to our target audience of product people, and then we share it through online communication tools that are used most widely by our community. Our content is available in different media, including blog articles, slidedecks, audio and video content, and is delivered in various ways that our target audience consumes content. Some members of our audience may prefer it delivered instantly in small snippets via Twitter or updates on each of our team member’s Linkedin Profiles. They may choose to receive content feeds from Brainmates through their favourite RSS reader, or to digest lengthier news articles and information, along with unique offers, through our Linkedin Group. People can interact online with us live through our weekly ‘Global Product Talks’ Twitter Chats, where they can ask questions, share their opinions, and challenge us.

Create user (& buyer) personas

Articulate customer insights in the form of User/Buyer Personas for the purpose of defining and developing customer-centric products and services. Display the information and artefacts relating to your personas in the obvious place in your workplace where the key internal stakeholders are constantly reminded of them.

Brainmates has posters of our primary, secondary and tertiary personas, along with photos, and their profile details posted on our common pinboard and will refer to them amongst our team in our meetings relating to product planning, marketing and sales. By having the characteristics, behaviour and goals of our target market segments pre-defined in a comprehensive format, the user and buyer personas are an efficient tool for providing consistency throughout the entire product lifecycle.

Review your User (& Buyer) Personas

Throughout the whole product lifecycle to ensure your products, product positioning and marketing messages reflect the needs of your target customer. Update the persona details if more insights are revealed throughout the process.

Size the market potential

Even if you have a product idea and some people you initially talk to think is awesome, make sure the market potential is large enough & the target market is willing to pay for your product over competitive offerings for a period long enough to make it commercially viable to launch and support during its lifecycle.

Whenever a Brainmates team member has a spark for a new product idea, we carry out a simple exercise to test whether the idea has any potential before we pour resources into exploring it in greater depth. This initial investigation provides the foundations of a more extensive business case. An effective business case ensures that we launch profitable products in the right markets.

Create prototypes

As early as the ideation stage, start the creative problem solving juices going by coming up with as many wild and whacky low fidelity prototypes as possible. These serve as inspiration to push beyond the boundaries of producing a classic, predictable solution further down the track after gathering the market and product requirements. The prototype can be refined as you gather more information about your target market segments through the market research stage.

In a recent client project that involved defining and designing a new retail product, we ran two parallel tracks in the product planning process. While we developed the Value Proposition for each of the market segments, we also developed multiple iterations of the actual product packaging This enabled us to quickly elicit a response from the project team and test it out with the potential target audience.

Consider the overall product experience

Even at product planning stage of a new product, think about all the touch points and channels that your customers’ experience in relation to your product and brand. Can your business provide sustainable support to all the areas that the product touches in order to deliver customer value in as many different ways as possible?

In the case of the Brainmates business, we aim to reflect the approachable, personable but professional tone that we display in our consulting and training, throughout our interactions with our clients from the initial sale through project completion, in our marketing collateral and on our website.

Identify any product experience gaps

Once the product is launched, identify the gaps between customer expectation and the actual product, all the related services and touchpoints. Aim to close any known gaps and improve the overall product experience.

After each client project and training course that we deliver, we strive to collect feedback from our clients on all aspects of our deliverables and service so that we can continue to produce exceptional products and services.

Prioritise your tasks by considering how you will serve your target customer the best

Entrepreneurs, small business owners and product managers alike are juggling multiple activities and stakeholders. Use your time wisely by on focusing on day-to day-tactical activities that contribute to meeting the needs of the majority of your target customers as much as possible.

The Brainmates team holds quarterly and annual business strategy planning sessions where we agree on how we will grow the business. On a daily basis, we hold a 10 minute “standup” meeting and we review our team’s list of tasks that contribute to our larger goals and how each of us are tracking with f our activities. We use a simple collaborative project management tool, Pivotal Tracker which facilitates the project management of our day to day activities.

Hire staff with super communication skills, who are focused and are flexible

These are core attributes that all effective team-members must have in potentially chaotic work environments where resource is limited, process may not always be so clearly defined and there is a lot happening.

The Brainmates business highly values these three traits in all our consultants, as well as in our administrative staff and service providers. By working with a whole team of individuals with these traits (as well as the right expertise and experience for their respective roles), has been key to our success in operating a small business that supports much larger organisations.

Whether you are a product manager managing a product in a corporate environment, or an entrepreneur running startup or you are a business owner, strive to establish sustainable processes that enable you and your team to capture and transform customer insights into full product experiences that in turn increase customer satisfaction, loyalty and retention.

Product Managers, do you have any other tips to share with small business owners and entrepreneurs? We’d love to hear your thoughts below or contact me directly.