The Real Customer

I enjoyed reading Steve Johnson’s post on who the real customer is over on his Product Marketing blog. I’m not sure if Steve has a Telco background or not, but his comment regarding the person who uses your device being your customer, is spot on for this industry. The  manufacturers who maintain direct contact with their end users tend to be the most successful. There are some who attempt to make their living catering to operator (distributor) wishes like LG and ZTE, but none ever seem to really garner significant mindshare.

Let’s review those that do.


I think we all know this story already. They are the poster child for making operators look like “dumb pipes”. Having completely flanked operators with their retail stores, music and app business, and line of personal devices, they’ve been able over the years to develop strong ties with their consumers. Globally, they’ve never been market share leaders, but those they served were passionate users. Their message rarely has been distorted by middle-men. What is the result? Operators bending over backwards to access that user base, breaking their internal rules and giving up revenue streams.


For years has been the de-facto choice for business users, offering services that other manufacturers either avoided or refused to compete on. So while they are struggling now, they built their success around “Crackberry” addicts. Operators couldn’t help but stock their products for fear of user revolts at their enterprise accounts. Even in the midst of their current troubles, the press and consumers still follow them without fail.


Obviously this story has not finished, but they do seem to be gaining traction at a rapid pace. Whether they continue to do that is still up for debate, however, their recent success is built once again on having a dedicated user base dependent on services that were not developed on the operator level. A “semi-open”approach  versus the walled gardens that operators are famous for have served them well recently.


I hesitate to put them here due to their recent issues with delivering a compelling smartphone. However, they still command close to 40% of the global market. And in markets with less operator control, Nokia is still the standard. Their broad portfolio, targeted to multiple income levels and consumer segments, still has them as a force to be recognized. While not obvious in the US, there are still Nokia fanatics in plenty of other countries.

Manufacturer success is never guaranteed, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason to believe that devotion to end-users will be any less successful in the future. It’s sad to think how many operators consider themselves the most important person in the value chain. Obviously they have their own roadmaps to manage, but more often than not, it appears as though they forget who they actually while frustrating their manufacturing partners in the process.

Product Managers Need Skills

While short, the Accidental PM’s post on 3 Skills That Most Product Managers Are Missing is spot on the mark. Two of these areas hit home, so I consider this a must read for new Product Managers.

The first was communication. I completely agree with the author that this is far more than just giving a speech here or there about your product. Communication for a PM is about dialogue and informing. While the post covers the former, I’d like to add a little to the latter. A PM must understand who his or her stakeholders are at all times.  They should be the hub that connect all groups, but more importantly, should proactively inform the right key stakeholders with relevant information. I can’t emphasize the importance of this, especially in preventing issues from popping up late in the development process.

Secondly, make friends whenever possible. As a long-term expat, I’ve let some relationships wither on the vine because of distance or time zone issues. Some of these relationships could have been extremely valuable had I continued to develop them. Instead, I let myself take “control” of things under the impression that no one was there to help. As such, I almost burnt myself out. Had I just reached out, I probably could have saved myself a lot of stress. So my advices is to take the time, even if it’s a little inconvenient, to keep your contacts fresh. You never know when you’ll need them.

Great Engineers Versus Product Managers

Who is the new Product Manager?

I’m enjoying the question “If my startup has great engineers and designers, why do I need product managers?” over at Quora. I’ve added my own response, but would encourage anyone reading this with knowledge of the field to also add their thoughts.

My answer basically hinges on one key question:

Should great engineers and designers focus on their functional areas or spend time with responsibilities that might detract from their core value-add?

I’ve heard variations of the original Quora question over the years. It’s a valid question that is by no means cut and dry. Many times,  it comes from people who don’t fully understand the product management function. They view the PM as the expected visionary for the product roadmap, but miss out on the other roles they play. Therefore, if their engineer or designer has a stronger, more coherent vision of a product or service, it becomes difficult to see the value of a product manager.

Don’t get me wrong here, most product managers will want to be considered the product visionary!  However, I fear many managers find PMs with backgrounds that can’t match-up to their engineer’s “greatness” and so dismiss the idea of hiring one. The problem now is that no one is minding the other responsibilities: meeting with customers, supporting the market launch, working with suppliers, and generally being the point-of-contact for anyone with a question. It’s good for  development to be involved with these areas, but it has to be tempered with the good sense to keep your team focused on delivering product.

For those who aren’t familiar with the many hats product managers can take on, take a look at Pragmatic Marketing Framework. While no product manager could possibly handle all these roles, it demonstrates areas where they might be helpful. I would suggest anyone who is debating “product manager or not” take a quick look at this and ask themselves two things:

  1. If needed, do they have anyone covering these roles?
  2. Does anyone in my development team have the cycles to cover them?

If the answer to either of those questions is no, hiring a product manager to help might be worth looking into. Defining the role quickly will be extremely important, especially if there is resistance by an established development team who feels they are losing “control” rather than gaining extra “support” for their mission. Depending on the need, product management can report into development or marketing. As there can be some natural conflict between these two areas, settle this quickly. Putting a product manager into a role that has a nebulous reporting structure and has unclear responsibilities will invite criticism regarding product manager role’s effectiveness. I can’t over-emphasize the need to think this through clearly before bringing anyone in.

Since all parties have the same end-game, the relationship needs to be positioned as one of complements. The introduction of a product manager shouldn’t be a power grab, ESPECIALLY if a talented development team exists already. There are far too many industries who need the deep insight that R&D possesses, wrestling with them only hurts everyone in the long-term. Product managers can be very valuable employees, so spend the time properly defining and communicating the role. As you find the candidate who fills those needs, the return should be immediately obvious.

Note: Regarding the Pragmatic Marketing Framework, I only use them as a reference. I have not attended any of their seminars, so I have no opinion on effectiveness. Their use here is only for ease of reference.  Other product management training approaches exist, but I feel theirs is the easiest to absorb.