A new challenge
October 24th 2019 marked the day where I traded my B2B and corporate hat for startup life with ping pong tables, a passion driven organization and a growth growth growth mindset at the skyrocketing scaleup that is Tibber.
With a career previously spent at large and medium enterprises (Ericsson, Net Insight), it was my own start-and-fail adventure which was Myntino that really opened up my eyes to what small companies have to offer in terms of professional growth as a product manager. Coincidentally, I though that my own startup journey would have prepared me well for a life at a fully funded startup with an exploding customer base and investors who seems more focused on actual growth than short term dividends.
And boy … was I wrong.
The first product manager
When product managers get hired into startups it is generally not a startup anymore, it is either already a scaleup, or it is in that wonderful gray zone between startup and scaleup. This is an extremely fun, but also a turbulent, time to come in as, most likely, the reason for you being there is desire to get more structured in order to be able to scale efficiently. Still, the company is small enough for a feeling of personal commitment and drive from everyone at the company.
I’ve literally never been in an organization before where the sense of purpose was so strong, and where everyone is striving after a common goal.
B2B and B2C
Another central move for me personally was moving from traditional B2B companies to B2C. As a product manager, this was actually one of the things I’ve setup as a goal for myself, to move closer to consumers and be able to act in a much more data driven fashion. At Tibber, most of our customer interaction is digital, both through the app itself where customers can chat with us directly but also through web and email (and in some rare cases… phone). This provides a great way for us to talk to our customers with full traceability, and whereas before I could travel for 3 days to have a 3 hour meeting with a customer and came home with 2 pages in a notepad, I can now talk to 30 customers a day with a full transcript of what we discussed. This is extremely beneficial, both to get an understanding for what issues customers are experiencing now, to actually learn the ins and outs of the product and of course to go revisit old discussions.
Data driven is really awesome
So my first reflections on the subject? Yes, there are absolutely much more possibility to make data driven decisions, both from a marketing standpoint in terms of what messaging, channels, copy, images actually work, but also in the app itself. We’ve got the possibility to follow the full user base or cohorts of it. Churn numbers in different cohorts, referrals, etc. For us specifically we are growing very much organically through word of mouth, making it absolutely key to make our users happy enough to tell their friends.
We’re also tagging, mapping and analyzing customer interaction in order to better understand what functions to build next, or if things aren’t intuitive enough for example.
But data doesn’t create killer features
But here’s the thing. Asking people what they want is going to get you exactly those answers. There is certainly some truth to the famous Henry Ford saying “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” (even though arguably he may not actually have said it).
As I alluded to earlier, we do look at relatively large sets of customer interactions, score it and map it to features (at Tibber we use productboard, but similar functionality exists in many different PM tools). This is great as it also helps us communicate back to customers and ask for follow-up questions later on, or involve them in beta-testing for example.
To properly understand the context, I believe a quick intro to Tibber is in order.
We source 100% green energy from local producers and resell this to our customers at wholesale prices. To align our interests and our customers (spend less energy and money), we do not charge a margin on top of the energy price, something traditionally all energy companies do.
This is actually really good and helps us focus on helping our customers instead of of that classical good for us or good for them tradeoff you can often get stuck in. More specifically, by integrating and orchestrating a large number of smart home devices, such as smart heating systems (heating is typically somewhere around 70-80% of a households energy usage), optimized charging for electric cars etc, we help our customers not only use less energy, but also use the energy they need when there’s less demand in the market and consequently lower prices.
Think of it like an honest and transparent energy company combined with an energy focused (and IMHO a much better version) of HomeKit.
But back to the customers and what they want.
So what do our customers ask for? For the most part, it’s more of what we do today in terms of supporting more device integrations, perhaps a new heating system or a new car brand. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to get data on which integrations customers ask for, and it certainly helps in prioritizing them, but these are most likely not killer features. The flip side of the coin is that we do get a fair amount of quantitative data in terms of figuring out in which areas people are asking for new functions, but also a few isolated gems. Functions that while in its raw form are not one of those killer features, they could certainly evolve to become one.
All in all, data is great, and every PM should definitely get their hands on it. Just be extremely careful to not blindly follow it, all that will get you is well … that faster horse.
Getting stuff done
The other part of my early experience is in how to actually get stuff done in an organization. While I’ve always been a proponent for asking and involving as opposed to exercising chain of command, as a product manager, getting stuff done is your livelihood, your charter and in essence your reason for being.
At an SME or larger enterprise, there is likely already a clear setup in terms of decisions, budgets, ways of interaction within and outside of the the company (if not, get out). At a smaller company, this is likely not in place, which is both good and sometimes challenging.
So as the first product manager in, what’s this like? The answer is as always, it depends. What is certain however, is that if the priority of the founders had been structured ways of working and decision making rather than move fast and break things, you would likely not have had a company to join in the first place. Now however, that structure is starting to become necessary in order to coordinate across different groups (e.g. marketing, product, development, finance, …). In other words, product management.
So how do you get there?
Diving head first and start imposing Agile methodologies and financially anchored product decisions is likely neither going to improve velocity or make you any friends. In addition, it is precisely that personal sense of ownership and commitment that the company has, the DNA of the company if you will, that has made it successful. Ergo sum, whatever you do – don’t screw it up.
There’s a certainly a fine line between structure and death-by-process. The key obviously being building structure that helps, without creating structure that kills morale and feature velocity.
Moving from a large corporate enterprise to a startup or scale up is fun. It’s super fun in fact. But it’s also challenging. You need to find ways of introducing structure without breaking innovation and drive.
Similarly, moving from B2B to B2C has its own set of quirks. For me, digging into tons of data has been really rewarding and useful, especially coupled with talking to customers and really understanding their pain points.
What is also true, is that I have a much more profound understanding and respect for the skillset that is from startup to scaleup.
With all that said, I’ll leave it at that for now, and come back with an update as we continue our growth journey.