5 Minutes with Tony Mitchell, General Manager Product Strategy & Development (AUSTAR)

Tony Mitchell is the General Manager, Product Strategy & Development at AUSTAR, a leading subscription television provider in Australia, offering primarily digital satellite services to customers in regional and rural areas. Tony is responsible for ensuring that AUSTAR delivers an innovative and compelling range of products and services to regional Australians.

Brainmates talked with Tony to learn how he has fostered and uses innovation within his product management responsibilities. He also shares some insight into how innovation played a part in the development and ongoing product management of MyStar, AUSTAR’s Personal Video Recorder (PVR). MyStar launched in November 2007 with MyStar HD following in November 2009.

Why is innovation important in product management?

Innovation is essential in product management as it is in many parts of the organisation. Without innovation, it becomes impossible to maintain margin growth. Through innovation, product managers can find new ways of satisfying customer needs and wants and can ensure that we remain competitive.

You can’t keep doing the same thing. Without innovation there are few options to keep going in the long term. The only avenues possible are the difficult ways of the ‘me-too’ organisations that simply copy leaders or offer weaker products and up working on razor thin margins – if any. The challenge for these organisations is that their products will simply become commodities and there’s always going to be someone out there that can do it cheaper than you.

A good goal for any product is to have customers say “How did I ever live without this before?” How will MyStar achieve this goal?

Anyone who has used MyStar will recognise the value it provides. Features such as recording two shows at once, pausing live-TV, recording entire series and the ability to manage all TV viewing with an intuitive electronic programming guide give the user control over their television experience.

MyStar solves many problems that users express about watching TV. People hate missing an episode of their favourite show and they dislike having to choose between two programs that happen to be on at the same time or having to negotiate with a family member who wants to watch something else when your favourite show is on. MyStar solves these problems. Our MyStar HD box now gives the viewer superior picture and sound with thirteen HD channels.

It’s essential that we educate our subscribers as to what the features of MyStar are and what the benefits to the viewer are. Once they get used to it and start exploring the features and enjoying a better television experience we’re confident that they will regard it as miles ahead of the old way.

In addition to the new functionality, how else have you innovated with MyStar?

In developing MyStar we used a different approach than with previous products. We focused on the processes required to get from ideation through to design and development, production and deployment.

At each stage we made sure we had involvement from key stakeholders throughout the business such as sales, marketing, service and support teams. We also brought in experts to help in critical areas – for example, we outsourced integration to an external vendor that had global experience in this responsibility.

We investigated and scoped different approaches for sales and distribution, such as having a direct sales method, e.g. outright box purchase but have focused on our proven model of providing a subscription service with ongoing support.

PVR technology has been around for a while with services such as TiVo and other PVRs available in Australia. How has MyStar enhanced the PVR?

We’ve designed our MyStar box such that the functionality within it can be switched on or off remotely. This allows us to embed the box into a wide footprint of customer homes and let them choose the time that they upgrade to it. This will be immediate rather than customers having to wait for us to send out or install a new box. We can even give them special tasters of the functionality.

MyStar also integrates the entire TV viewing experience into the same user interface, and one which has been rigorously designed to give the viewer an intuitive and easy way to control their viewing. We integrate our significant subscription TV content with broadcast content from free-to-air services at a regional level.

Unlike standalone boxes like TiVo, AUSTAR provides professional installation, ongoing support and education. We have an ongoing relationship with our customers.

There are often barriers to innovation in product management. How do you overcome these and how do you foster innovation within AUSTAR?

Most barriers in product management tend to revolve around either processes or politics. There are often entrenched ways of doing things that can stifle innovative thinking. There’s also a natural tendency in many organisations for there to be a degree of inertia where the need to validate or justify decisions often leads to delays or roadblocks. Another challenge can be an organisational culture where people are punished for making mistakes. This can really prevent people from making suggestions or thinking differently and only serves to harm the organisation.

AUSTAR was born out of innovation. We had to be – we launched in 1995 and have invested significant time, resource and money into providing a better television experience for regional Australians. We were the first completely digital broadcaster.

Having an innovative culture has been key to our success. We have an open and supportive culture with significant executive support. We allow and encourage employees to be innovative and creative – to challenge ideas, preconceptions and processes. We’ve experimented with formal programs that invite ideas from our people but we’ve found this hasn’t always been perfect as you get a huge number of ideas and have to filter through these to find the good ones. Instead, we think it’s better to create an environment where people are encouraged to think of new ideas and shop them around with their colleagues to get feedback. If it’s got potential we’ll help to champion that idea and take it through a process of review and validation. We’ve had many great ideas come from our people.