Category Archives: Startups

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

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Questions for Product Managers

It started with an interview on Red Canary, talking to Product Management leaders in Toronto, including Alan Armstrong, Stephen Pollack, Lee Garrison and Roy Pereira.

Interestingly enough, I know all of these people personally. I have worked with  Lee & Alan, worked for Stephen, and know Roy through very close common contacts.

In the interview, they each answered the following six questions:

  1. Tell us about the best product you’ve ever encountered? Why do you like it?
  2. How do you know a great product manager when you meet one?
  3. What’s your favorite interview question?
  4. When is the best time for a start-up to hire a product manager?
  5. What has been the defining moment in your career?
  6. Mistakes. What was your biggest?

Steve Johnson took up the challenge and posted his answers to those questions on his blog, and most recently Scott Sehlhorst did the same.

I thought it was time to join the discussion myself.  So here are my answers to those same six questions.

Tell us about the best product you’ve ever encountered? Why do you like it?

I’m a big fan of any product that “just works” or surprises/delights me in some way. I don’t have a “best” product, but here are a few that I really like and use regularly.

  • The Blackberry – It does what it promises,efficiently and in a very compact form factor. It’s not perfect, but it’s really good, and it can take a beating like no other device I’ve seen. I’ve dropped my Blackberry many times and it is no worse for wear. To quote an old advertising phrase — “it takes a licking and keeps on ticking”.
  • Dyson vacuum cleaner — I’ve blogged about Dyson previously, but after 3 years, the thing still sucks more than any other vacuum and leaves it’s competition in the dust. Sorry couldn’t resist. 🙂 What really amazes me about it is that their customer service is also really great. A small part broke on the bottom of the machine. I called the toll-free number clearly visible on the cleaner itself. The person on the phone quickly confirmed which part was broken and they shipped me a replacement free of charge a couple of days later. The cleaner was clearly designed for this kind of diagnosis and service. Awesome.
  • The Honda Civic — We’re a Honda family so I don’t have experience with other brands of cars, but then why would I need to? I love the Civic because it just works. I’m terrible when it comes to maintenance and oil changes etc. but even with minimal attention it gets me where I need to go.  It’s both totally reliable and easily affordable. That’s what I want in a car.

How do you know a great product manager when you meet one?

If a product manager adheres to all of these rules, then they must be great! 🙂  Certainly product managers need to be smart, analytic, understand technology and markets, and be great communicators and leaders.

But if there is one thing that I think really defines a great product manager, it’s the ability to “connect the dots” in seemingly unrelated or conflicting contexts.  Perhaps another way to say this is product managers need a strong mixture of creativity, curiosity and intuition.

Steve Johnson answered this question with the line:

A great product manager sees patterns.

Scott wrote:

Great product managers are polymaths, with several areas of deep expertise and skill.

While written differently, these are similar answers and tie in well with the ability to connect dots.

A lot of times product managers need to find solutions to problems that are highly constrained — usually WRT budgets, resources or time. Finding solutions that satisfy business, technical and market requirements, and being able to sell those solutions to executives or other doubting Thomases are hallmarks of a great product manager.

What’s your favorite interview question?

The one I like to ask potential product managers is:

What one word best describes Product Management?

I’ve asked that question on the blog. Here are the results.

It’s always interesting to observe interviewees struggle with the question as it usually catches them off guard. And of course, once they come with an answer, the obvious follow up question is “Why?”

When is the best time for a start-up to hire a product manager?

This is a great question and core to how our industry understands and values Product Management.  I’m clearly biased here, but I have to agree with Stephen Pollack’s response:

Thirty days before you start the company.

This answer also lines up perfectly with what Bill Campbell of Intuit said about Product Management.

Too many people don’t actually realize the full scope of the Product Management role. It’s not just about product requirements, even at the very earliest stages of a company. I’ve seen too many founders of companies create offerings (I won’t call them products), that didn’t completely address market problems, that weren’t differentiated from competitors, or  that didn’t target specific market segments and problem domains.

And what happened then? They brought in “a product manager” to help address the issues. Sorry, way too late. Why spend another year and potentially millions of dollars to fix problems that you could have addressed right at the start?

What has been the defining moment in your career?

I’d say it was leading the Product Management efforts of the flagship product of a public company in Silicon Valley. The release was described by the CTO as “the biggest, most ambitious release in company history.”

That effort consumed my focus  for almost 2 years, and I learned so much during that period. I’ve shared some of it publicly.

I ran a large beta program during that release and used that experience to write this article on betas.

I gained a greater understanding of how to optimize cross-team communication.

I also gained some insights into leadership, particularly when dealing with people across departments, geographies and areas of focus.

Mistakes. What was your biggest?

I’ve certainly made my share.  My biggest was probably not understanding (for far too long) the impact personal motivations and politics played in Product Management. I’ve written that for product managers,  “Every activity is part of a sale.

Virtually everything we do in Product Management relates to influencing others to support our goals. In most companies, Engineering won’t simply do what the PM asks.  Darn. 🙂  And certainly in larger organizations, with significant constraints, misaligned objectives and even compensation conflicts, people will focus on what is of benefit to them. They will optimize locally (i.e. what’s best for them or their team).

A lot of what Product Management is about to get teams to optimize globally (i.e. what’s best for the product or the business), sometimes at the cost of local optimization. This is where selling becomes important. The sale is in getting other teams to agree to do what you need, and to get that, you have to understand their motivations, drivers, goals and objectives. Once I understood that, life became much easier for me as a product manager.

Saeed

P.S. I’d love to see the Cranky PM’s answers to these questions.

6 Engineers, a CEO and a PM

In light of the recent posts on Bill Campbell (1, 2) and some of the comments debating when to hire a PM, I was pleased to read the following in Entrepreneur magazine, about the early days of a company called RingRevenue and why VC’s decided to invest in them.

“Part of our secret sauce is that we know how to cost-effectively acquire and manage large groups of phone numbers,” Spievak says. “We build platforms that allow affiliate networks to bring on higher-margin products like financial services, and track the calls that result from those ads. It’s a win for advertisers, affiliates and affiliate networks.”

The company was also running lean, which is always appealing to investors. “Here’s what I liked,” Suster says. “They were six engineers and a product manager and a CEO, and nothing else.”

The last line speaks volumes: a CEO *and* a Product Manager. Who knows what will happen in the future, but at least, they’ve started out the right way!

Saeed

Bill Campbell says, It all starts with great products!

Here’s a bit more from the Bill Campbell interview. I posted the first excerpt in “Bill Campbell says hire Product Management first!“.

Michael Moe is the interviewer. This exchange takes place about 4:20 into the video.billcampbell

Click the image above to open a window and view the full interview.

Michael Moe

So, what are the key metrics that you track when you’re working with a company. How do those metrics change as the company goes from being a startup, to an emerging company and as it gets larger? How rigourous are you with early stage companies?

Bill responds:

The rigour that goes into the first product is the most important thing. Everybody talks about great companies. Great companies start with great products.  You can’t make chicken salad out of you know what.

This is a truism if there ever was one. How many great startups can you think of that had mediocre products?  People may not know the company well, if at all, but they hear about a product and the product (good or bad) defines the company.

Bill continues:

I’m a big believer that you really track the progress of the product. I go back and talk about Mike Homer and a Product Marketing* like person. What are we doing to make sure we have something that we can ship and release? Get it out into the market place.

Tracking that one single thing — what can we do? who is it for? how do we guide it? Getting great product into the market place would the single most important thing.

That would be the number one metric that I’d judge and boy you’d go a long time in your company before you stopped doing that.

* Bill Campbell equates Product Marketing and Product Management earlier in the interview. See Bill Campbell says hire Product Management first! for details.

While not technically a “metric”, Bill again focuses on making sure the thing that is being built is being built for the right people. Making sure an identified target audience (and set of valued usage scenarios) are front and center during this early phase.

This answer also support’s Bill’s earlier statement that Product Management skills are key at the very earliest stages and should be hired in right at the start IF those skills are not strong amongst the founders.

One final note

What’s most interesting about this answer from Campbell is that he doesn’t say great companies start with great people. That’s what a lot of people would say, but it’s not true. Great people can build great products which lead to great companies, but there are many well known examples of companies started by experience or knowledgeable people (e.g. Cuil and Cassat) that have failed to live up to expectations.  Once a company builds a great product (or service) that people use, that drives company growth, and ideally makes the company a leader in it’s market segment, can a great company emerge.

Saeed

Canada’s Innovation Gap (part 2)

In part 1, I discussed the findings described in an article entitled Canada’s Innovation Gap, which was published in the Globe and Mail earlier this year.

In short, it indicated that Canadian businesses are not investing in research and development at the levels they should be (relative to businesses in other countries), and the heavy reliance of the Canadian economy on the resource and manufacturing sectors (both beaten down heavily in the recent economic downturn) put Canada at risk of falling behind other nations in economic growth, standard of living etc.

It’s a sobering article, and if you live in Canada, you should read it, because unless there are clear changes in how we conduct business in Canada, we’re headed for some hard times ahead.

I had mentioned that in this post I would look at some of the solutions proposed by the article’s author Konrad Yakabuski. But in researching the topic more, I came across some other research from the Conference Board of Canada (an independent think tank) that provided additional context on the innovation problem in Canada.

I’ve reproduced some of the Conference Board’s research below, but as always, go to the source and get the full details there.

***Warning to readers who worry about Canada’s future. The information presented below is rather ugly.

The Conference Board of Canada publishes an annual report entitled, How Canada Performs – A report card on Canada. It measures and compares Canada to a number of other industrialized countries in 6 areas of measurement. These are: Economy, Innovation, Environment, Education and Skills, Health and Society.

The scorecard below shows the 2008 numbers and some of the 2009 data. The final 2009 data will be released soon. The grading is similar to how many schools grade students. A is the best, followed by B, C and D. I didn’t see any Fs in the scores, so D can be considered the worst mark.

As you can see, Canada does fairly well in the first 4 categories, but rates a D in Innovation.

The following scorecard shows how Canada rates against a number of other industrialized nations in innovation. Canada occupies the lowest category, along with Austria, Australia, Italy and Norway. A surprise for me was seeing Ireland with an A score. I don’t know much about the Irish economy, but I have never pictured them as a more innovative country than say Germany, Japan or even Sweden and Finland.

2008-Innovation-Countries

And finally the Conference board provides a breakout of the various categories that make up the Innovation score. The table below — you’ll have to click on it to see it clearly — makes it patently clear that Canada’s innovation problems are widespread.

2008-Innovation-Indicators-Breakout

Click the image above to view in detail

Cs and Ds across the board for Canada. What’s most surprising is that Canada only got a C for scientific articles and a D for the manufacturing category. Even with good educational institutions, it seems we’re not publishing enough new research. And for a country that has traditionally had a large manufacturing sector, most of it is clearly pretty low tech; processing for natural resources, and of course, the auto manufacturing plants in Southern Ontario.

So, what can be done? One thing to keep in mind is that what the Conference Board, and the original article by Konrad Yakabuski talk about is innovation by large corporations and universities,  Hi-tech manufacturing is not something done by startups. Fundamental research is not done by entrepreneurs. The objective here is not to simply raise Canada’s grades on national report cards.

The objective must be to create, grow and instill a business environment and culture that enables entrepreneurs, small, medium and large companies to develop and go to market with new products and services on an international scale. Our captains of industry and successive governments have enjoyed direct proximity to the world’s most affluent nation for decades, but have focused on short term profits without long term investment and growth in mind.

In Part 3, (I promise) I’ll look at some of the ways to help address the innovation problem.

Saeed

BTW, if you want to see what other Canadians think of this problem, read the comments on this article in MacLean’s magazine. The article itself is not too interesting, but most of the reader comments are spot on.

Related Article:

Canada’s Innovation Gap (part 1)

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Bill Campbell says, hire Product Management First!

Back in early July, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Forrester’s Tom Grant for his weekly podcast on the Heretech site.

About half way through the podcast, Tom asked me:

You recently wrote about Product Management in technology startups. Where do you see is the point when a very distinct Product Management role pops out in the natural growth of a startup?

A summary of my response (and Tom did let me speak for quite a while uninterrupted!):

I think any venture-funded startup should have someone with a core focus of Product Management. If someone is giving you $5,000,000 to build something, to me it makes no sense to say, “OK, we’re giving you this money and you don’t need to have a person who can find the right fit of the technology in the market and bring that together in an efficient way.

Because I’ve seen too many cases where a CTO and a CEO are leading a company, and the CTO really is technical, and the CEO is very business focused, and yet they fail because they don’t understand how to bring those two worlds together and how to bring products to market in a scalable, efficient way.

After the podcast was published, I got a couple of emails wondering if what I was saying was simply self-serving, given that I work in technology Product Management myself.

I didn’t feel there was anything self serving, because I wasn’t telling people they should hire me :-), but rather they should hire experienced Product Management right from the start. Given what I know today I would agree with that whether I was in Product Management or not.

In fact, I wonder why VCs don’t actually stipulate that part of the funding they provide be used to pay for experienced Product Management services (whether full-time/part-time/contract) to help ensure the what is being built aligns with market needs, delivers real value and continues that way?

A lot of young companies make the mistake of building something fast and seeing what sticks, instead of understanding what is of value and then heading in that direction.

Well, later that month, July 28th to be exact, at the AlwaysOn Summit at Stanford University, Bill Campbell, former CEO of Intuit gave his view on this topic during an interview with Michael Moe.

billcampbell

Click the image above to open a window and view the full interview.
Play close attention starting around 2:45 into the interview.

Michael Moe:

So, I think many people in the audience know that before you got into business in Silicon Valley, you were in the coaching business. So let’s just say you have a first round draft pick; after the founder and CEO, who would be the first draft pick? Would it be head of sales, a CTO, human resources, finance? And why?

Bill responds:

The more I think about it, and it depends on who the founders are by the way, and when I say who, it depends on what functions they represent. Generally in Silicon Valley they would represent technology.  A guiding thing for me would be somebody like Mike Homer, probably the best Product Marketing guy, somebody that understands how to apply technology in the market.

You know, as strange as that sounds, you need someone who can work with brilliant engineers and try to take this creation, this technology creation and turn it into a product, and make sure it is for somebody, that somebody can use it; some kind of service or some kind of product.

And so, I know that sounds like a strange answer, Product Marketing, some people call it Product Management, but somebody who can really understand the dynamics of what goes on in a marketplace, apply technology to that marketplace, see how the technology can work, and continue to advise brilliant scientists so they can adapt their products to make sure customers are happy.

Alrighty now. Glad to hear my views on the subject match those of someone like Bill Campbell. Or vice versa. 🙂

So I wonder, are the VC’s listening to people like Bill when he says the first hire for startups should be someone who understands the dynamics of the marketplace and how to apply technology to it?

This person is not likely to be a technologist or strictly a business minded person.   Find experienced Product Management who can bring the two worlds together to create products (and not just “technical creations”)  and give your startup a greater chance of success!

Saeed

Also see: Bill Campbell says, It all starts with great products!

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Canada’s Innovation Gap (part 1)

While this post is targeted at the innovation, funding and technology issues in Canada, it may apply to other geographies as well, particularly if you don’t live/work in technology hot spot such as Silicon Valley or Boston or Banglalore etc. This is a topic that is very dear to me, given that I currently live and work in Canada, but spent 6 years earlier this decade living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area.

A couple of weeks ago, there was an great article in The Globe and Mail newspaper (one of Canada’s leading daily papers) entitled Canada’s innovation gap. The article, by Konrad Yakabuski, outlined what I think is both an accurate and troubling picture of the state of R&D and innovation in Canada. Here are some highlights from the article.

  • Innovation in Canada is in deep trouble. Productivity is stagnating; the manufacturing sector in imploding, and the government policy makers seem asleep at the wheel.
  • Once the flagship of Canadian high tech, Nortel is being dismantled and it’s best assets are being sold to foreign companies.
  • While Blackberry maker Research in Motion is a true global leader, and often cited as an example of what is possible in Canada, there are few if any other Canadian companies that can be held in the same light.
  • Canada’s economy is heavily resource based, and those companies spend very little of their revenues on R&D, even though they made enormous profits before the recession due to high commodity prices.
  • While Canada was moderately successful at moving from a provider of raw resources to foreign countries to a more modern economy, the last 10 years have reversed that process.
  • Historically, the  small group of elites that got rich on these resources controlled the political levers to ensure nothing changed. [Note: I personally think this still applies although not as much as it once was]
  • Innovation is the only sure way for Canada to be more productive.

I could go on. It’s a great article, and it should be a wake up call to every politician and business leader with any sense of commitment to the future and well-being of this country.

Change is a process

Change is needed on a lot of fronts. While many politicians are quick to highlight that the Canadian economy has faired better than other industrialized economies in the current economic crisis, it doesn’t change the fact that there has been a huge disruption in the Canadian economy, widespread layoffs, plant closures and bankruptcies.

Keep in mind that billions were spent to help manufacturing companies, particularly automakers with vociferous unions, but little if any was spent or allocated to help technology companies or create environments to make investment in high-tech much easier. A quote from the article:

“Canada is not being productive because it’s not being innovative,” said Robert Brown, chief executive officer of Montreal-based CAE Inc., the world leader in aircraft flight simulators and training. “A lot of innovation occurs at the interface with the customer. But when you look at the make-up of Canada’s economy, with so much dependence on resources, there is less contact between [our biggest] companies and end users.”

I think this is a polite way of saying that there are a lot of companies that are more than happy to cut down trees or dig minerals  or pump oil out of the ground and then ship it off to some other country to be processed and have value added to it.

Aside from being innovative, Canada needs to look to add significant value to whatever industries it has. We have great R&D minds in this country, but there are problems in productizing the research and funding and scaling businesses.

My personal experience

I moved to California back in 2000 to seek better opportunity – i.e. professional and financial gain — than I could find here in Canada. One of my best friends from high school — a brilliant guy who did his undergrad at Harvard and his Ph.D at Princeton, is now a research professor at another Ivy League school, even though he really wanted to come back and live and work in Canada. He told me back in the early 90s that the opportunities just weren’t here for him. He’s a great example of the brain drain this country faces on a regular basis.

I moved back to Canada a few years ago for personal reasons and I have to say it wasn’t easy coming back. Aside from the nicer weather in California, I knew that my career opportunities would be more limited than they were there.

And trust me, there is a huge difference in the technology industry here in Toronto and that of Boston or San Francisco. Everything from the amount and quality of investment funding, to the networks of people with connections into technology giants to the breadth of skill sets of individuals, and even to the aspirations of company founders are very different.

We’ve got brilliant people

I’m not slagging anyone here. There are very bright, dedicated and passionate people here. I’m proud to know a number of them. But when it comes to goals, too often a Canadian VC or company founder sees a $50 million exit as a big win, whereas in the US, that’s on the low end of their success scale.

And that exit often means jobs moving to the US or offshore. In many cases the key people in the acquired company (the bright, dedicated and passionate ones) move down to the US to work “at corporate”, and the brain drain continues.

I don’t want to paint a completely bleak picture of the situation here. As I said earlier, there are very bright, talented and passionate people here. In fact, after I moved down to Silicon Valley in 2000, one thing I realized was that the people down there are not smarter than the people here.

But the level of investment financing, the personal networks of skilled people, the institutions like Stanford and Berkeley all provide a critical mass of infrastructure that enable risk taking and innovation on a scale we don’t really have in Canada. The infrastructure and culture there pull bright people from other parts of the country and other parts of the world.

The issue is not the people here in Canada, it never has been. It’s all the other business levers that innovators need to “nail and scale” their businesses to be world leaders. I personally think the co-founders of RIM (Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie) should be viewed as national heroes, on the same scale as Wayne Gretzky or Gordie Howe (famous hockey players for those of you who didn’t grow up on hockey!).

I’m sure Mike and Jim had numerous incredibly lucrative offers to sell their company over the years. But they didn’t. They held on, grew the company, fought off lawsuits, challenged rivals and continued to innovate and create a global leader based in Waterloo Ontario. And just recently RIM was named the fastest growing company in the world by Fortune magazine.

So what can be done to close the innovation gap? Konrad offers some solutions in his article. I’ll get more into that in part 2.  But in the mean time, I’d like to hear what you think, particularly if you are here in Canada, or are Canadian and are living/working outside of Canada.

Saeed

Related Article:

Canada’s Innovation Gap (part 2)

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