Category Archives: Culture

The secret to Apple’s success?

If there’s one company that is the envy of the high-tech community these days, it’s Apple.  Steve Jobs is hailed as a genius CEO and lauded for a string of hit products. Apple’s market capitalization is over $200 BILLION dollars currently, easily ranking it in the top 10 companies in the world by market cap, and just shy of Microsoft for biggest technology company.

Everyone wants to understand the secrets of Apple’s success and hopefully emulate them. The reasons given by people for Apple’s success are many. The following are a few of the arguments made:

1. Vertical integration – Apple owns most of, if not the entire, technology stack for its key products,  and thus gives it advantages over other less vertically integrated products.

NOTE: “Vertical integration” used to be called “being proprietary” and was given as the reason for Apple’s relative lack of success against Microsoft in the OS/PC battles of the 80s and 9os. But phenomenal success has a way of changing people’s minds.

2. Making markets vs.  addressing markets – Some claim that Apple doesn’t ask people what they need but gives them products they decide they want.

Does anyone NEED an iPhone or iPad? Not really, but a lot of people seem to want them.

3. The Cool Factor – Let’s face it, Apple does make “cool” products. Attention to design and detail – fit and finish as they say – really distinguishes Apple’s products from competitors.

4. Entering markets after they’ve developed — Contrary to #2 above, some people claim that Apple doesn’t make markets but enters existing markets once they’re growing and takes  advantage of latent demand.

The iPod was not the first digital music player and the iPhone was not the first smart phone, and the iPad is not the first portable computing device. In the case of the iPad, products like the Kindle and Netbooks actually paved the way for the market to accept  small computing devices, and Apple’s iPad is riding that wave.

5. Differentiated business models – whether it was iPod+iTunes or the iPhone+App Store, Apple innovates not just on technology, but on the business model. This makes it difficult for competitors to play catch up, let alone overtake Apple once it establishes itself in a dominant position.

6. People care about the experience not technology — Apple has always been about the user experience, but for a long time, the majority of the market didn’t care about that.

The majority of desktop computer users cared about “techs and specs”.  Now the tables have turned, and the majority don’t care about the specs, they care about the experience. The iPod, with it’s “1000 songs in your pocket” motto and iTunes which radically simplified purchasing music latched onto the experience wave, and Apple has been riding it ever since.

7. Simple product offerings – Apple has a very clear and simple set of products. It’s easy to understand the differences between their products, product families and the various configurations. This makes it easy to buy an Apple product if you want to.

A lot of companies complicate things unnecessarily. How many iPhone models are there? How many Blackberry models are there? How many Nokia smart phone models are there? See the difference between Apple, RIM and Nokia?

The same is true for the iMAc, the iPod and the iPad. Granted, there are actually a number of iPod models (Nano, Shuffle, Touch etc.) but they are very distinct amongst themselves. This can’t be said for digital music players from other companies.

I’m sure there are other reasons for Apple’s success, but it’s interesting to see how much debate is happening today on this topic. What it says to me is that there is no single reason for their success. And keep in mind that Apple has had failures as well.  Notice Apple doesn’t talk much about Apple TV. And remember the G4 Cube? The 20th Anniversary Mac?  Even the ultracool MacBook Air has had far from stellar success.

So, what do you think are the reasons for Apple’s incredible success over the last 10 years?

Saeed

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The Bad of Product Management

Here’s part 2 of the results from my survey. Part 1 — the Good — was published last week.  Following the same format as Part 1, I’ve categorized the open ended answers into specific categories and the picked some of the most representative responses for each of those categories.

The question asked in this case was:

What are the top 3 things you *DON’T* like about your role? (The BAD)

NOTE: Please list things that you actually do in your job or are enabled to do.

NOTE: It was actually harder putting these responses into appropriate categories than it was for the Good. Sometimes responses straddled 2 or 3 categories that I had used. In the end, I did my best to be consistent about the categorizations.

And with that, here are the results:

Tactical Responsibilities

By far the most common thing disliked was having to do what can best be described as very tactical tasks. I don’t think this is unique to Product Management, but there was a really long list of these types of answers in the survey responses.

  • Writing detailed specifications
  • Bug triage
  • Product demos
  • Sales support
  • Writing collateral
  • Handling support escalations
  • Writing white papers
  • RFP responses
  • Mundane research
  • Creating data for customer demos

The general sense I had when reading these and other similar responses is that a lot of time is spent doing these things and that time could be better spent in more valuable tasks.

I’m surprised no one mentioned being responsible for the dreaded “Platform Availability Matrix”! 🙂

Lack of Authority

The next most common category was related to authority (0r more commonly the lack of it) for Product Managers. This is not news but it is not a good sign if this is still the case in many companies.

  • Little influence on R&D operationally
  • No ultimate decision making authority
  • Competing priorities when leaders/groups want to hedge their bets to avoid making final decisions
  • Realize very little of the planned funding for roadmap projects
  • Executive desire to control – effectively defeating a PMs authority/influence
  • Limited opportunity to affect business strategy
  • Micromanagement of products by upper level management
  • Too often the PM is charged with applying a thin veneer of the latest hot biz idea over current development efforts even when the idea conflicts with the product vision, core belief or functionality
  • Execs deciding strategy with no information or input

People Issues

This is a bit of a catch-all for things related to team work, interaction with other groups, organizational structure  etc.

  • Org structure that inhibits team participation by team members
  • Babysitting R&D (and/or sales)
  • Bad leadership, really bad
  • Responsiveness of the people I’m depending on
  • PM leadership directly converted from Engineering but pretend to be visionary PM
  • Having to manage under performing direct reports
  • Not having a mentor or someone to learn from
  • Mediating between conflicting departments re: product issues
  • Lack of strategic guidance from the executive team
  • Doing other people’s jobs to get the product out

The comment on mediating between conflicting departments is interesting. I don’t know how much mediating that person does or what kinds of conflicts occur, but I found that comment somewhat strange.

The fact that you’re being called to mediate shows those teams respect you enough to have you help them address these issues. At least that’s what I’ve seen in my experience. Not all PMs are called in for those situations, and if you are one, understand why.

Culture

Responses that sounded like they are part of the company culture ended up here. Culture plays a critical role in successful companies and it’s important that Sr. Management understands this and sets the right examples.

  • Ongoing dealings with unrealistic expectations internally
  • Working with teams who don’t care that much about the product
  • People more dedicated to processes and polices than actual outcomes
  • Organization tends to respect product managers who are into technical minutia, not strategic vision
  • Back and forth executive decisions
  • Working with R&D that is unable to make a design freeze
  • A slow inclination to change
  • Good ideas always take too long to reach the market
  • Everything is hurry up and wait

Politics

Where would product management be if it didn’t involve politics? Politics is not always a bad thing, but unfortunately, it’s human nature to take care of number 1 first, and then worry about what’s best for others.  Here are some of the responses:

  • Wresting with other teams to get things done
  • GMs so busy with politics and budgets that they forget about customers and users
  • Juggling the slate to accommodate politics or last minute requests
  • Politics of who owns design

Project Management

An oldie but a good. There were a number of respondents who simply wrote “Project Management” as one of their dislikes in the job.

OK everyone, repeat after me — A Project Manager is NOT a Product Manager. Again. Again. One final time. OK, problem solved?

Lack of Resources

  • Inability to allocate resources to my project
  • Not having enough resources
  • Lack of evangelism resource. To get product to market effectively, you need to help drive feature adoption

Lack of Direction/Definition

  • Lack of broader understanding of expections of Product Management
  • No being challenged enough by Management
  • Lack of definition of the role
  • I have so many different hats/roles to play

Lack of Customer Contact

This came up several times. If you are a PM and your company won’t let you talk to customers, the company doesn’t understand Product Management. You should try to help them understand, but if that fails, seriously consider changing employers. It’s not worth figuratively banging your head against a wall every day.

  • Not being able to talk to customers indirectly or directly
  • Not allowed to visit customers
  • Can only talk to customers when a sales rep is present

Other responses

There were quite a few responses that covered various themes such as workload, job pace, constraints, compensation etc.

  • Sometimes a dumping ground
  • Can be quite exhausting at times
  • A struggle to keep the respect of other departments
  • Working without enough data
  • PM is never really appreciated – [this person should read this post.]
  • All the blame, none of the glory – [and this person as well!]
  • Volume of email
  • Can’t get it all done – [prioritize! 🙂]
  • Not enough time for family and hobbies
  • Communication overload when every problem a stakeholder can’t figure out gets sent to your desk as you seem to know everyone
  • Lack of documentation for all the “gotchas” of our product. No simple way to communicate them to those who need to know
  • No documentation on the history of our products – what was added/changed in what release – [it should be in the release notes or ‘What’s new’ document 🙂 ]

The final set of results — what people want to change — will be published in the near future.

What are your thoughts on these responses? Do they mirror your environment? Any advice you want to give to the people who wrote these comments?

Saeed

The Good of Product Management

Way back in February, I ask you to fill out a survey indicating the good, bad and ugly about your jobs. Well, a lot of you did just that, and I thank you for that.

Unfortunately, it’s taken me about 2 months to get around to analyzing the results and reporting them back to you.

Note to self — when you ask people to fill out a survey, don’t be surprised when a lot of people do, and your survey design means it will be quite time consuming to analyze the results.

OK. Now that I have that over with, I’ll get back to business. Here’s what I did with the responses.

There were 3 main questions asking what you liked, disliked and would change in your jobs. For each question, there was room for up to 3 responses.

Given they were free form answers,  I looked at each and tried to classify them in some logical category to identify patterns.

The first key question was:

What are the top 3 things you *like best* about your role? (The Good)
NOTE: Please list things that you actually do in your job or are enabled to do.

And here are the results. For each category, I’ve listed some of the actual responses from the respondents to give you a flavour of what people said.

Responsibilities

Not surprisingly, this was the most common category for responses. People in these jobs like it for the work they do.

  • Managing work that has a beginning, middle, and end with opportunities to sell excitement, problem solve, then celebrate success.
  • It’s a good balance of being social with being analytical
  • Working across all internal groups to educate and take a product to market
  • integrate viewpoints/biases of functional contributors
  • Building multidisciplinary teams without official authority
  • Bringing together and involving myself in every part of the company with the aim of getting everyone on board

Product

The next most common category was related to products and product development.

  • Building new products/solutions from the ground up
  • Work with the development team to assure the vision is turned into a viable product
  • Writing requirements for new features
  • Creating a product that solves customer problems
  • Releasing new product and seeing how it impacts our customers, users, partners.

Strategy

This category was quite common with many people indicating or implying they like the strategic nature of their work.

  • Ability to impact and participate in the corporate strategy
  • Creating vision
  • Guiding the direction of the product
  • Learning the business and strategizing for future
  • Big picture of the product
  • Seeing how it all fits together

Customers

Again, not surprisingly, a lot of responses related to customers

  • Really understand and translate customer needs
  • Customer visits
  • Lots of interaction with our customers
  • Interacting with clients and potential customers
  • Bonding with customers

Cross-team communication

  • Being communication channel between customers/sales and tech dev team
  • Variety of being the linchpin between all functions
  • Interacting with a variety of people internally & externally
  • Getting sales and customers excited about our stuff

Impact and Influence

  • Making things happen
  • My analysis and opinions are respected by senior executives
  • Being known throughout the company as an expert on the aspects of our product I am responsible
  • Can make an impact to the company

Market

  • Identifying market needs/problems
  • Researching unmet market needs
  • Create solutions to meet market/client needs
  • The market and technology are interesting and ever-changing

Creativity and Problem Solving

  • Solving conceptual challenges
  • Creativity required for marketing efforts
  • The opportunity to be creative and innovative
  • The Aha moments when I bring clarity to complex issues
  • Solving technical challenges

Other comments

Some of the other comments that did not fit into common categories include:

  • Crisis management – [NOTE: Someone likes this?]
  • Seriously work on business model & pricing forecasts
  • Getting into the details of use cases
  • Working with UX team on website design
  • Data mining to understand business patterns
  • Responsible for keeping current on web technology
  • Pricing
  • Learning something new on how NOT to do something, every day
  • Mentoring my reports
  • Constantly learning more about the web and analytics
  • Competitive analysis

So there you have it. A summary of what people like about Product Management. Nothing too surprising here. At least I hope not.

It will get more interesting in the near future, when I report on what people DON’T like and what they want to CHANGE in their roles.

As usual, if you have any comments or thoughts on the topic, please leave a comment.

Saeed

Crowdsourcing ideas for Canada’s future

Yesterday, I posted Canada’s Innovation Gap (part 3) where I discussed some ideas for solving the lack of innovation that exists in Canada.

This weekend, the Liberal Party of Canada is hosting a conference in Montreal focusing on Canada’s future.  The conference is called Canada at 150: Rising to the Challenge. It’s a non-partisan conference bringing people from different industries,  political views and areas of Canada together to discuss 5 key challenges related to the nation. Those challenges are:

  • Jobs Today and Tomorrow: the Productive Society of 2017
  • Real life issues for Canadian families: How do we care?
  • Energy, Environment, economy: Growth and Responsibility in 2017
  • The Creative and Competitive economy
  • A strong presence in the world of 2017: Commerce, values, and relationships

What’s great about this is the relatively open process they’ve used to get the participation from all parts of the country. Clearly with an agenda like this, the topic of innovation was discussed.

The following panel discussion, along with Q&A is well worth watching. Some really frank and honest comments are made.

(click on the image or click here to go to the video. NOTE: The first minute or so is in French and then it moves into an English discussion. )

A great comment from the early part of the discussion came from panelist Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto.  He gives his definition of innovation and invention.

Innovation does not equal invention.  Invention is producer driven. Someone says, I want to have some kind of gadget. And they dream it up in their lab or basement or garage. And it may not be of interest to anyone else. That’s invention.

Innovation is driven from the user or the consumer side…it’s about improving the experience of the end user or consumer.

Note the point that innovation is driven from the user or consumer perspective. It doesn’t mean they drive the innovation, but that their needs must be central to the innovation process.

Later on, when answering a question about the role of taxpayers and the government in helping spur innovation, Martin says quite bluntly:

I made the distinction earlier about invention and innovation. The problem for Canada and it’s been this way for a long time is we don’t have an innovation policy in Canada. Unless you call benign neglect a policy. We have an invention policy and in fact all of our money goes for invention and that’s the gross error.

I love this statement as it’s so straight forward and unapologetic. We need more people like Martin to speak out this way.

I strongly recommend listening to the full discussion. They discuss value of design in new product development, the reasons for lack of commercial success for Canadian “invention”, the sad state of the VC industry in Canada and much more. It’s very honest and in many places quite astute, and I feel, long overdue.

Saeed

Canada’s Innovation Gap (part 3)

Innovation GapNOTE: This is a bit of a long post, but it is also long overdue. In it, I present some needed steps to address the innovation issue in Canada. So, bear with me on the length and I really would like to hear your thoughts on the topic.

Back in the fall, I wrote part 1 and part 2 of this series.

Part 1 talked about the overall problem that was described in an article in the Globe and Mail on the same topic.

In part 2, I wrote about the Conference Board of Canada’s annual study entitled How Canada Performs,  A Report Card on Canada, and in particular Canada’s consistently miserable ranking on Innovation.

The final numbers for the 2009 Report Card are finally(!) out, and yet again, Canada scores a D on Innovation.

(click to enlarge)

Here’s a video from 2008 describing the issues identified in the report. Nothing has changed from 2008 to 2009 so the comments are still valid.

According the video above, The biggest problem Canada faces regarding innovation is:

our failure to turn good ideas into products and services that can be sold on the world markets.

Did Edison actually invent the lightbulb?

Here’s a story to illustrate this point. I’m sure you’ve heard of Thomas Edison. Who hasn’t?

But have you heard of James Woodward or Thomas Evans? Probably not.

Woodward and Evans, two Canadians living in Toronto in the 1870s created the first electric lamp with a shaped rod of carbon held between electrodes in a glass bulb. The gas in the bulb was nitrogen. They patented this invention in Canada in 1874.

They tried to raise capital to form a company to further research and develop the product, but were met with ridicule. Who could possibly use such a thing?

In 1876 Woodward received a US patent for the invention. In 1879 Edison bought out the patent completely and used it in his own pursuit of electric light.

It’s important to note that Edison was working simultaneously on his own electric light as was British inventor Sir Joseph Swan. In 1880, Swan and Edison teamed up to create the first commercially viable bulb.

So did Edison “invent” the lightbulb? Clearly no. But he was the first to bring a viable bulb to market and make it available to the masses. And that’s why he’s remembered for the lightbulb, and Woodward and Evans are not.

Groundhog Day all over again?

This story, unfortunately, has been repeated many times over since the 1880s. There are many similar examples of Canadian innovations and technology that only gained broad success AFTER being bought by foreign companies or AFTER the inventors went to the US or overseas to more receptive markets. Whether in software, hardware, biotech, or other areas, the story repeats itself into the present.

Finding solutions

So what can be done to start changing this truly sad state of affairs? Here are few suggestions. They are not comprehensive, nor fully fleshed out, but to me these are important steps that must be taken.

  1. Fully utilize the skills and abilities of the Canadian workforce
  2. Fix the financing issues for entrepreneurs
  3. Match technologists with experienced Product Management and Marketing  resources early on
  4. Create a national culture that celebrates innovation
  5. Resource industries can no longer be the primary focus of Canada’s international trade strategy

I’d certainly love to hear what you have to say. Whether you live in Canada or not, it doesn’t matter. No country is immune to this problem, though certainly some countries have far more focus on it than others.

1. Fully utilize the skills and abilities of the Canadian workforce

This is a message for employers. Canada has an educated, driven and skilled workforce capable of making great contributions in the workplace — if given the opportunity.

A recent article in the Globe and Mail entitled, Returning Canadians Chilled by Workforce, looks at the experiences of people with overseas experience coming back to Canada. The following quote from the article talks about Roy Pereira’s experience after returning to Canada from Silicon Valley.

Instead of his experience translating into a valuable asset for Canadian companies, he discovered it was much more difficult than he expected to find a job that allowed him to use his skills and knowledge.

I totally agree and experienced the same thing. When I was looking to move back to Canada from California,  most interviewers focused on the Canada/US exchange rate and salary differences in the two locations. They didn’t care about my skill set, my contacts, my experience etc.

This narrow minded thinking impacts everyone, new immigrants as well as returning expatriates. There needs to be a cultural change made by employers. We are competing in a global economy and international experience and contacts are invaluable in that regard.

People are truly the most important assets knowledge-based companies have, and employers and managers MUST learn how to use those skills to their advantage instead of trying to force fit people into narrow definitions that do little, if anything, to truly benefit from the skills people have available.

2. Fix the financing issues for entrepreneurs

This topic could fill several blog posts alone, so I’m going to focus on one very specific point.

Canada’s venture capital community is a mess. Don’t believe me, then read the articles in this series entitled The Future of Venture Capital in Canada.

When I say, fix the financing issues, the reality is that there needs to be a better, more symbiotic model that can help both the entrepreneurs and the financiers become successful.

Most tech companies in Canada don’t need millions of dollars in series A and B financing. What they need most is targeted assistance very early on. As Rick Segal says:

… we have to learn how to fail faster.When it comes to software, you can build, test, rework, and test again for under $100,000. We need a structure in place that allows that kind of money to be thrown at something to see if it works, and if it doesn’t, kill it and try something different.

He’s basically talking about dollar amounts that are traditionally supplied by Angel funds. A healthy and efficient Angel funding network would do wonders to help small entrepreneurs get over that initial hump and get some market validation.

Or perhaps something more like YCombinator is needed in Canada.  Either way, small amounts of well targeted early stage funding will have a huge impact on moving small companies forward to the next stage in their evolution. There is a lot of room for improvement in this area.

3. Match technologists with experienced Product Management and Marketing  resources early on

OK, this may sound completely self-serving but it isn’t. It’s absolutely true and absolutely critical.  And it goes to the heart of what the Conference Board of Canada identified as the biggest weakness we face in innovation. i.e. taking good ideas and turning them into successful products.

The early stage funding model as described above is about being lean.  Given that, there is little margin for unnecessary mistakes. So, while it may be good to fail fast, failing fast for the wrong reasons is stupid. And even worse is working on something that is bound to fail and not knowing it for far too long.

This is where focused Product Management will add significant value for early stage companies, because success is not simply about the technology or the product that is built. It’s about being lean and efficient, ruthlessly efficient in all the steps needed to bring the product to market and make it successful.

Everything from identifying the right market problems to solve, finding valuable market segments, positioning products against competition, defining pricing models and launching products are critical to success. In short Product Management will help the technologists focus on the right problems and the optimal outcomes. These are not skills that are widely available in Canada, let alone in the high tech industry in general. But they do exist and need to be utilized.

Look back to my post on Bill Campbell of Intuit and you can see that Silicon Valley has the same issues.

Only with the combination of technical skills, necessary funding AND market knowledge can success rates for entrepreneurs improve.

4. Create a national culture that celebrates innovation

Canada has many examples of innovators in it’s history. The telephone, electron microscope, the zipper(!), insulin and newsprint were all invented by Canadians. But, with the exception of Bell’s telephone, very little of this history is taught to Canadians in school. We have a society that is frightfully ignorant of it’s own history and accomplishments.

Not only do we need to teach our children and students about Canada’s history of innovation, but we also need to change the culture to celebrate and focus on innovation today.

How can we do this? Use the Participation model, but apply it to Innovation!

Participaction, started in the early 1970s, was (and still is) a national initiative to get Canadians to be more physically active. It included TV, Radio and print advertising. It included corporate sponsored runs and other activities. There were Participation challenges in various cities across Canada.  It got the country moving again and is credited with creating a bit of a fitness craze in the 1980s in Canada.

We need an analogous program to get Canadians aware of our history of innovation, and both the value and potential that it can bring to this country. Like Participaction, the program must be multi-faceted and continuous over a period of many years. Education, events and initiatives to bring people with ideas, money and market savvy together would help accelerate the efforts of entrepreneurs across the country.

A coordinated Participaction-like program could help reshape the innovation landscape in Canada over the next 10 years.

5. Resource industries can no longer be the primary focus of Canada’s international trade strategy

I’ve left this one to last because it may be the most contentious and least likely to happen in the short term.

Canada is a resource rich country. There’s no denying that. But for far too long resources like oil, gas, lumber, coal, potash, nickel, gold have dominated both the economy and the political mind. But we need to change that. Resources will play a prominent role in the Canadian economy for decades to come, but software, green-tech, biotech, life sciences and other knowledge based industries must grow in size and economic influence in Canada.

Our political leaders are far too focused on short term economic incentives and promoting low value jobs in the resource sector. They do this because it is easy to do and has short term political benefits. It also supports the current power structures in this country, as they have significant interests in resource industries.

The resource sector can’t be ignored, but focusing on it cannot be done to the detriment of high-tech, biotech and other industries where Canada can make significant gains.

Alberta was “king of the world” 2 years ago, sitting atop hundreds of BILLIONS, if not TRILLIONS of dollars of oil in the tar sands. Today, with the world economy depressed and both the demand for and price of crude oil well below peak levels, things don’t look so bright there. Yes, demand for oil will pick up, but other factors including alternative fuels and ecological awareness of the impact of excavating the tar sands are working against Alberta.

Why not learn a lesson from this and invest in a more diversified economy while there is still time? We need policies that look to the next decade and the next generation, not simply to the next budget or the next election campaign.

Canada needs a diversified, technologically efficient economy that can utilize the intelligence, knowledge and drive of it’s population.  There is little debate on that point.

The key questions are how best and how soon it can be done.  I’ve outlined a few suggestions here. I’d love to hear from the rest of you on this topic, whether you live in Canada or elsewhere, because I’m sure Canada is not unique in this regard.

Saeed

P.S. Here’s a great Canada focused blog that covers this topic as well as many others related to the future prosperity of Canada. It is both thoughtful and insightful. I highly recommend it.

http://dontleavecanadabehind.wordpress.com/

WWANPD (What would a normal person do?)

I was walking with my friend Michael last week in the Oakland hills, and he came out with the most hilarious question: What would a normal person do?

Product managers often gripe:

  • My boss says I should be more strategic, yet I am assigned only tactical projects
  • We say we want to be market driven, but I’m not allowed to call a customer without the sales person on the line
  • We ask “why did we lose this account”, but no product managers are allowed to interview the buyer
  • They say I’m essential to the company, but I never get a raise, and I never get promoted

Ask yourself: In this situation, what would a normal person do?

Or meme it: WWANPD?

– Alan

The Origins of Product Management (part 2)

NOTE: Part 1 can be found here.

The high technology industry, and in particular, the software industry is much younger than the Consumer Packaged Goods industry. And the role of brand or product management in high-tech and software is even younger still.

Certainly one of the earliest software companies to apply “brand management” principles to software products was Intuit. Intuit was founded in 1981 by Scott Cook, who was a former P&G “brand man” himself.

In developing Quicken, Intuit’s first product, Cook wanted to create finance software that home users who were NOT financial experts could use.  Cook knew he had to differentiate himself in the market. There were already a number of home finance/checkbook balancing software products available, but most of them were difficult to use for the average person.

Cook wanted someone like his wife, an intelligent woman but not necessarily a finance or computer expert, to be able to easily perform the calculations she needed. To do this, Intuit went so far as to emulate the look and layout of the traditional physical checkbook, within the limitations of the monochrome 80×25 character text screens of the time.

This type of innovation, and focus on customer needs, led Scott and his team to create one of the most successful and enduring consumer software packages of all time.

The book Inside Intuit, gives some great insights into the early days of the software company and describes many of the challenges they faced, but also many of the innovations they made. One unique innovation, at the time, was their “Follow me home” program.

In the 1980s, ease of use was not something you would associate with personal computers, particularly those running DOS or Windows. The technology was still relatively new and a lot of software vendors were simply focused on getting software out the door, let alone focusing on usability. But Intuit was not one of those companies.

They realized that the only way they could truly understand how their customers used their software, was to observe those customers in their actual usage environment. i.e. the home. So Intuit created the “Follow me home” program where they would get permission from Intuit customers to send a company representative to the customer’s home and watch the customer install and use the product on their home PC.

Note task 3.1 (field studies) in McElroy’s memo.

These field studies, called ethnography in the social sciences, are only now becoming common in technology companies. Intuit gleaned many insights from the Follow me Home  program which led them to continue to enhance their product and create what can only be described as an incredibly loyal customer base.

In fact, Intuit’s customer base was so loyal that when Microsoft tried to lure them away by offering free copies of its rival Money product, very few customers took that offer.

Today, aside from their successful products, Intuit is well known in the software industry for a very strong Product Management discipline. I’ve previously blogged about Bill Campbell’s (Intuit’s Chairman of the Board) views on Product Management. Certainly, Intuit had a pivotal role in the development of technology product management but others helped shape the profession as well. I’ll get into one other very influential person in part 3.

Saeed

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