Learning from the Launch Festival

Learning from the Launch Festival

thiel
Two weeks ago I shook Peter Thiel’s hand, said hello to Chris Sacca, ran into some old friends and got about 25k steps per day going for beautiful runs and walks around the Marina area of San Francisco.  Those are only four of the fifty or so awesome things that happened in a three day span at the Launch Festival.

tony-hawk
Tony Hawk and Chris Sacca talking to Jason

I’ve come to the Launch Festival a few years in a row now, here’s why I enjoy it so much.

Watching Startups Pitch On Stage

Each day, there are a bunch of Startups that “launch” their companies on stage. As a Product Manager, you can learn a lot from watching tons of pitches. You will see common patterns, demo techniques and recognize the difference between a clear value prop and a rambling one.

Getting Demos and Talking Product

At every conference I like to walk around and get demos. I’ve been in those shoes, standing for 2-3 days in a row on booth duty talking to tons and tons of people. Try and help each person demoing to you. Give them honest feedback, tell stories about how you would use the product and tell them what you understood about the pitch and where you got confused. The best conferences have either the Founder or Product people at the demo pod.

Great People Watching

I like the contrast between early stage companies looking for their first round of funding and the incredibly successful fireside chat speakers. It’s interesting to listen to the fireside chat macro views then walk over to the demo pit trenches and think about how truly hard it is to get a Startup to go big.  And of course, there’s always a wonderful mix of eccentrics, startup t-shirts and tech fashion to observe.

crowd
The Demo Pit, a great place to talk with awesome Startups about life and products

It’s Like Working From Home But At A Conference

During Launch, I spend a lot of time half listening and half writing blog posts or working on wireframes. Being surrounded by tons of cool features, products, apps, designs and ideas is a good influence on my projects.  Sometimes being away from the office is more important than being there for creativity and productivity.

run
Out for a run near Fort Mason Center

A few themes from this year:

  • SMS as the UI
  • Exploring the world (Detour Audio Tours, Recommendation Apps, Curated Social Driven Travel)
  • Group messaging apps mostly targeted at college kids
  • Content Tools (Sharing, Webinars)
  • Food Delivery
  • Wearables
You can see some of the themes merge together in companies like Etch (wearables, messaging)….and a few themes talked about on stage but not well represented in the demo pit:
Checkout the full list of companies that launched at Launch Festival and I’ll see you there next year!
A Deep Learning Primer for Product Managers

A Deep Learning Primer for Product Managers

Most of my discussions lately with CTOs and Product Managers have ended with me emailing some links and info about Deep Learning. I’m a relative newbie to the space myself so hopefully this is a good primer.

For Product Managers and CTOs, having an understanding of what’s possible with Deep Learning and how the technology could impact your features and stack is quickly becoming very important.

A great summary of Deep Learning from Lee Gomes taken from this article:

The current excitement about AI stems, in great part, from groundbreaking advances involving what are known as “convolutional neural networks.” This machine learning technique promises dramatic improvements in things like computer vision, speech recognition, and natural language processing. You probably have heard of it by its more layperson-friendly name: “Deep Learning.”

Here are few more article I like:

Albert Wenger from USV talks about Machine Intelligence
Shivon Zilis from Bloomberg Beta created a Machine Intelligence Landscape

And, here’s a list of terms to explore:

Word Embeddings
Nodes and edges
Precision and recall
Deterministic
Frame semantics
Knowledge graph
Hypernym and Hyponym
Word sense disambiguation
Hearst Patterns
GPU computing
Dropout
Stochastic Pooling
Cognitive Computing

And, some good people to follow in the Deep Learning space:

Yann LeCun – Facebook’s Director of AI Research
Geoffrey Hinton – Distinguished Researcher at Google and Distinguished Professor at University of Toronto
Yoshua Bengio – Full Professor Department of Computer Science and Operations Research
and Canada Research Chair in Statistical Learning Algorithms
Elliot Turner – Founder AlchemyAPI
Derrick Harris – Senior Writer at GigaOm
Seth Grimes – Industry Analyst

And, some websites to explore:

Google Deep Learning Community
http://www.deeplearning.net
http://www.kdnuggets.com
http://www.r-bloggers.com
http://fivethirtyeight.com
http://www.datasciencecentral.com/profiles/blogs/50-blogs-worth-reading
http://www.semanticweb.com

And finally, some awesome AI videos:

Introducing Spot
Space Invaders

My Approach To Product Management

My Approach To Product Management

I added my answer to “What are the essential software tools for a product manager?” on Quora but wanted to go a bit further and summarize how the entire Product Management flow can work together with tools.

So often I talk with companies that are building and building but are super disconnected with their customers, the business objectives or the efforts of other teams. Or, they are growing and making progress but wish their Product Management was better.

Here’s my version of how Product Management can work. Of course, this is one of many different approaches.

Start with the Goals
When your company is cranking along it might feel lame to pause and talk about goals. Mumblings like “this is a waste of time”, “too many meetings”, “we already know what we’re trying to do”, “too much process”, “we don’t really do this”, etc may crop up. You need to push through this, having a clear goal to work with that everyone has agreed on is key to doing anything else well.

One stategy you can use is OKRs. Spend an hour watching this Rick Klau talk on OKRs on how Google does it and read this First Round Capital article about Swipely.

Example Objective: Increase Customer Engagement
Example Result: Increase user custom report sharing to 10 shares per user per month

Make sure your goals are somewhere you can add to or reference digitally. You are committing to building product to impact these goals, they need to be within arms reach.

Understand the Product
It’s important to be at a point with your product where you can understand what impact decisions will have on the product performance.

Heap Analytics
Heap is the best tool I’ve ever seen to understand user behavior. The install is a simple snippet. From there, you as the Product Manager have tons of control to investigate behavior.

feature_funnel1

SendGrid Reports
Whether you use SendGrid or another system to deliver your transactional email, don’t treat email as a secondary piece of your product, give it the credit it deserves. Spend time building a spreadsheet model that enables you to download data, add to your model and see how your transactional email is performing.

Google Analytics
I’ve never become an expert with GA or had anyone around me that was. I’ve found GA is great for understanding your audience and macro behaviors. Where does our traffic come from? What devices are being used? etc.

Internal Reports
Is there anything about your product that you need to understand it better? Ask for help from your Engineering team and work hard to uncover missing pieces of the puzzle.

Just like having clear goals set for the business, understanding how your product performs is a prerequisite to do anything else strategically.

Understand your Customers
You have heard “Get out of the building” a million times now.  What are sustainable things you can be doing to better understand the problems your customers have and how you can impact their lives?

Visit Customers
I used to procrastinate about visiting customers at their office but have since learned to love this part of Product Management.  Instead of organizing some type of user testing or formal feedback session with your customer, simply make it your goal to stop by and say hello.  “I’m in San Francisco next week and wanted to drop by and say hello.  Can you grab coffee at 10a on Tue or 4p on Wed?”  Another approach is to use conferences to talk with customers.  I have found having a conversion about work life, the customer’s products and their strategy is a great way to understand their world much better.

Use LinkedIn for Personas
Search LinkedIn for 2nd connections in the San Francisco Bay Area with keyword “Marketing”.  You’ll see people with titles like “Vice President Marketing” and “Marketing Strategy for Saas, eCommerce and Payments”.  Tweak the search and find profiles that are relevant to your product then print these out and tape them to the wall.  Cute persona names like “Mary Marketer” have never resonated with me.  I like talking about how real people would find value.

Help with Support
Try to plugin somehow with the support process.  You can be part of the team helping to answer tickets, you could attend the support team’s regular meeting, you could ask for access to their ticketing system so you can review tickets and look at trends, etc.  Understanding tone, terms customers are using and problems they are having using the product is context you need to make better decisions.

Have a Repository of Ideas
Good ideas and customer feedback pile up extremely fast. You need a system in place for storing and referencing these ideas.

Prodpad
In Prodpad, anyone can submit an idea via email and each idea has a business case, impact vs effort scale and user stories that the Product Manager can write. This is awesome because it gives everyone on the team a place to send ideas with low friction and empowers the Product Manager to add detail and prioritize.

Create the Gameplan
Let’s assume now that you have clear goals, understand how the product performs and a repository of ideas that could potentially impact those goals, it’s time to come up with the gameplan. Each team is different, sometimes it’s the sole ideas of the Product Manager and other times it’s a collaborative effort from the whole team. In either case, it’s your responsibility and critical that you get buy-in from the team. Talk about why certain features are prioritized and backup your thinking with evidence like user data, business KPIs and customer stories. The rest of the team is about to work very, very hard on building the product you’re asking them to build, they deserve a rock solid gameplan.

Google Design Sprint
Being able to pull off something like the GV Design Sprint with your team is varsity stuff. It requires a level of leadership, ability to collaborate and skills that most teams don’t have. I recommend watching that video for inspiration and understanding where your team’s strengths are to come up with your own version.

Roadmap
The Roadmap is a way to talk about the gameplan with anyone that’s not on your immediate team. It tells the story of how you are going to invest and why.

sample-roadmap

Because you have done the hard work of defining goals and understanding your product, you are not shooting from the hip now.

“We are rolling out a new report UI that will make it easier for users to share custom reports with their team. This will be measured by seeing an increase from 1.5 reports shared to 10 reports shared per user per month. This aligns with our business goal of improving customer engagement.”

Wireframe and Flowcharts
Now that the plan is understood, it’s time to dig in. Use simple wireframes and flowcharts to articulate your gameplan. For each flow, be able to talk about how it will impact one of your goals. Using tools like UI Stencils or Balsamiq Mockups makes this easy. Tape everything to a wall in your office to create an easy way to informally discuss the plan with the team.

2014-04-23 14.37.17

Get Feedback
Once you have wireframes or designs, use tools like InVision and Usabilityhub to get feedback from customers, the general public and internal stakeholders. This lends credibility to the entire design process and builds trust with your team.

Write User Stories
User stories define what will be built. If you have been collaborating with the team on what to build, writing user stories should be more busy work than innovation. This is the time to think through every single edge case and be very detail oriented. During development, questions are always going to come up. The more thorough you are writing user stories, the smoother things will go.

Daily Standup
Attend your team’s daily standup even if you have nothing to add. You need to be there to answer questions and support the development of the product you are asking the team to build.

QA
Even if you have a full-time QA on your team, I’d recommend being a key part of the testing effort. When I haven’t done this, I’ve felt disconnected from the team and hard work being put in to build the product I asked for. You need to be the expert of the product, the more time you spend on alpha and beta versions before going to production the better.

Communication
Updating the company about product development happens differently for every company. Do you need to be a part of your sales team’s weekly meeting to talk through what’s in progress and what’s on the roadmap so they can talk intelligently with customers? Do you need to demo new features at company meetings?

Screenflow
Creating screencasts to show off new features is powerful. I have used this technique to demo products in board meetings, company meetings and to customers. I’ve used Screenflow for Mac to author the screencast then uploaded to Vimeo to share.

Blog Post
For new features, write a blog post that talks about the value for your customer, how it solves their problems and include screenshots. Your marketing team may choose not to use the post, it may not get promoted, etc but it’s a great practice to be in.

Launching a Feature
The moment has arrived but the work is not done. Once a new feature launches, it’s important to understand early indications of how things are performing. Talk to your support team, any tickets related to the new feature? Test your analytics, is the data being recorded exactly as expected? If you are running any A/B tests, are they recording data correctly?

Numbers Review
I heard Steven Lurie describe a “Numbers Review” meeting in which the Product Manager presents performance data of a newly launched feature.

“Product teams have a bad habit of always looking forward. What’s the next shiny feature to build? When the Engineering team works hard to build something they should not be in the dark about how it’s performing.” – Steven Lurie

The beauty of the Numbers Review is that it connects many of the core concepts in this post together. In order to deliver a great Numbers Review meeting the Product Manager needs firm benchmarks on product performance prior to the new feature. They also need to reiterate the intended value of the feature and how it connects to company goals (OKRs).

Summary
These are two of my favorite images describing Product Management.

what_is_a_product_manager

mario1

My approach is just one of a million different ways to build amazing products.  I hope you found some useful tips.

Product Management is a wonderful blend of design, collaboration, empathy, strategy and engineering.  Now, go forth and make amazing things!

Learning about Startup Investing

Learning about Startup Investing

How are startups raising the seed funding they need to get to the next phase?  This is a very simple overview of a few vehicles that help startups raise capital and some new and interesting trends in the ecosystem.

Syndicates
An Angel or Fund can lead a Syndicate on AngelList. Investors that are backing the Syndicate have the option to invest in specific deals that are being syndicating. Syndication allows Investors to pool their resources and share risks.
Ex: FG Angels

Funds
Funds on AngelList are “index funds” or “fund of funds” that give Investors broad exposure to lots of deals within a specific vertical. An Investment committee votes on deals that have been syndicated.
Ex: AngelList Consumer Fund

Corporate Investment in Super Angels
Recently, Mailchimp invested $2M into Sig Mosley’s $30M super angel fund.  Thriving companies like Mailchimp see this type of investing as a way to diversify cash, help startups and get early access to the most innovative companies in their space.

Accelerators
Many startups choose to go through an Accelerator program. Typically an Accelerator program will take an equity stake in the startup and provide seed capital and a convertible note option, a loan that converts into equity at some point in time.
Ex: Techstars provides $118k for a 7-10% equity stake

Angel Investors
Individual Angels are a core part of the ecosystem. Startups will often bring on several Angel investments in combination with going into an Accelerator or using AngelList to assemble the seed capital they need.

Crowdfunding
Hardware and hard goods startups are using a combination of Angel investing to get the company running with a prototype built and Kickstarter to fund the first product release.  Ex: Ubooly

I recommend reading Venture Deals by Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson to get schooled on VC investing.

Learning about Startups

Learning about Startups

Occasionally people ask me “Where do you go to learn about cool startups?” Here are a few tips on how to get started and have fun learning more about the startup world.

Discover New Products
Product Hunt is a daily newsletter, mobile app and website of new products.  These can be anything from a new version of an existing product to a prototype to a new company. Almost every day I find value in scanning Product Hunt’s morning email.

AngelList is a platform for startups to showcase their company and post jobs. Investors use AngelList to participate in syndicates and research companies. Try browsing syndicates and investors to learn about the investments they are making, it’s a powerful way to learn about amazing companies and see trends.

Research Company Financings
Subscribe to Crunchbase or Dan Primack’s Term Sheet daily email for funding announcements. Dan goes deeper into deal analysis, PE and IPO news as well as personal stories which I find super interesting. From both of these emails you’ll be up-to-date on funding announcements and M&A in the startup world in a quick 5 min morning read.

Startups in your Network
This is another fun way to learn more about the startup world. Try looking into your extended network to see which of your friends, friends of friends and connections work at startups.

Facebook
Type “friends of my friends who are founders” into the search box. You’ll probably get a long list of people that work at startups. Click on the company name to learn more or follow.

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 10.03.22 AM

LinkedIn
Click on “Advanced” to the right of the search box and search for 2nd Connections, Company Size: 1-10, Keyword: Co-founder, Location: San Francisco. Like Facebook’s search, you’ll find a ton of people you are loosely connected with working at interesting startups.

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 10.04.32 AM

Attend an Event
Lastly, one of the most impactful and satisfying things you can do is get involved with your local startup community. Search meetup.com for an event and attend. Subscribe to the Startup Digest email for your city.  Connecting with your local startup community is inspiring, awesome for your personal network and helps all of the entrepreneurs trying to make a dent in the universe.-

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 10.06.15 AM

Of course, there are tons and tons of awesome resources out there for following startup news, learning about financing, finding a co-founder and more. Hopefully this gets you started.  Enjoy!

 

Unboxing: UI Stencils

Unboxing: UI Stencils

I finally ordered the UI Stencils Starter Pack for $75.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m a long-time Balsamiq Mockups fan and believe in it’s effectiveness.  I also like the tactile approach using pencils and paper.

In my first quick sketch, I found myself thinking through interactions as well as the UI.  What emails need to be sent?  How does this fit into the overall user onboarding flow?  How should referrals work?  How do we help the user be successful after signing up?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was easy to let these ideas flow because it took 10 seconds to sketch them.  If I was doing this on the computer I would have thought to document the other intractions, in Evernote perhaps.  I would hesitate about where the information ultimately belonged, switching between apps and losing focus.  This is the beauty of sketching, it lets your ideas flow and separates this creative step with the later steps of refinement and organization.

 

My Last Day At PivotDesk

My Last Day At PivotDesk

David and I have decided that it’s time I leave PivotDesk.  This has been the hardest choice of my professional life.

I wrote the team at PivotDesk a few days ago and stopped by the office to wish everyone well.   We have made commerical real estate more efficient and cost effective for everyone from entrepreneurs to small business owners to brokers and I’m extremely proud of that.

Hopefully this post helps others avoid a similar situation in their companies and gives some context on how this can happen to the best of teams.  As several mentors and incredible friends have told me, this is way more common than people realize.

Alright (sigh), now that’s out of the way so let’s talk about what the hell happened.

Over the past six months I gradually lost the confidence of my teammates.

Here’s how it happened.

Tunnel Vision
For the past three years I’ve woken up in the morning thinking about how to grow PivotDesk and fallen asleep almost every night thinking about what else I should have done that day.  At the park with my kids I was always reviewing my task list, on the weekends I’d crave time alone so I could think about what’s coming up, everything was about growth, scale, more.

I was so caught up in this type of thinking for so long that I had blinded myself to all of the other things that make a team truly work well together.  As all teams do, we’ve had a few disagreements over a variety of situations.  I handled these situations with little care, love or respect for my teammates.  I just wanted it over so we could go back to growth, scale, more.  Little did I realize, I was slowly eroding the support from my team that is needed to succeed together.  And worse, I was growing defensive and outwardly frustrated as my stress level rose.

Stuggling With Co-founder Balance
I began as VPE at PivotDesk and after our MVP and Engineering team took shape moved to VP of Product where I’ve been for the past two years.  I also have a second job as Co-founder.  This job has no job description or performance metrics, rather it’s a mix of a zillion different things from sales to ops to bizdev to customer support.  Finding the balance between these two roles has not been easy and is another reason I ultimately lost the team’s support.

Just a few examples:

  • Taking coffee meetings instead of attending daily standup.
  • Running the company meeting instead of focusing on a great product update during that company meeting.
  • Letting my week fill up with sales, finance, pr and exec team meetings and not leaving myself enough time for deep product focus.

As I asked others on my team for feedback once I realized things were going sideways I heard things like “No one really knows what you do anymore.”

Making the Hard Decision
Saying “hard decision” doesn’t even come close.  When David and I talked about the possibility of me leaving I started visibly shaking, my mouth turned dry and I started having trouble breathing.  As the words “If I’m getting in the way at all, we should seriously consider that I unhook from PivotDesk” came out of my mouth it was surreal.  All of the emotions started kicking in; the Imposter syndrome, anger, disbelief.  We decided to give it a week, talk to the people that have seen this the most, then regroup and make a decision.  For a week I let all of the “Co-founder projects” slip and focused only on product.  I felt like our team was in perfect harmony and kicking ass.  We released a major feature and were collaborating perfectly on the next feature.   Our OKRs were lining up to our analytics informing what we were building and planning on our roadmap.  Ironically, it was one of my favorite weeks of work ever in my career.

At the end of the week David and I spoke again, there was no change in the team’s support, it was time to unhook.  I was crushed.

When talking with a good friend and mentor of mine this week he said “You are not special!”  As I laughed and said, “Hey, thanks a lot.  Is that supposed to make me feel better.”  He said yes and went on to talk about seeing this happen in different ways over and over in fast growing startups.  The company changes so fast and sometimes people and teams simply aren’t the right fit for the phase of the business anymore.  This did make me feel better and he encouraged me to not assume 100% of the burden.

The Next Chapter
It’s incredible how much of one’s identity can get wrapped up in the company they are trying to build.  The constant pitching, the t-shirt wardrobe peppered with company logos and talking about the business at every holiday, lunch with friends or phone call with Mom really adds up.  It’s what you live and breathe as a startup founder and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

For me, one thing has always stayed constant over the past 20 years of my professional life whether working at a big company or startup, the love of building software.  From the first 10 years as a software engineer through today as a product guy, day-dreaming about cool ideas and turning them into reality is thrilling.  I still get nervous as a I watch customers, friends and teammates use the products I’ve help build.

I don’t know exactly how the next chapter reads, but I’m positive using PivotDesk to share office space will be a part of the mix.