Essential articles about product management

Lots of people write lots of articles about product management and startup strategy, but most just rehash content that originated elsewhere or are about winning the lottery.

Here’s some that I go back to often:

Startup Metrics for Pirates by Dave McClure of 500 Startups is a classic because it quantifies successful product design (Another, medium format; a longer format.

The One Cost Engineers and Product Managers Don’t Consider, derived from a talk by Kris Gale, VP Engineering at Yammer. Probably the most level-headed argument for saying “no” more often, where most people simply assume it must be true because Steve Jobs said so.

How Design Thinking Transformed Airbnb from a Failing Startup to a Billion Dollar Business, derived from a talk by Joe Gebbia. Most people are familiar with the “do things that don’t scale” myth of AirBnB, but the “Let people be pirates” part is arguably more valuable.

We don’t sell saddles here by Stewart Butterfield, founder of Slack.

The Law of Shitty Clickthroughs by Andrew Chen articulates why first-mover advantage applies to marketing, not product. Read alongside Marc Andreessen’s statements on product-market fit and this breakdown of how product-market fit is distributed across competitors.

And read all of Paul Graham’s essays. Some aren’t great, but most are worth it.

Getting things done isn’t enough

People who Get Things Done but are not Smart will do stupid things, seemingly without thinking about them, and somebody else will have to come clean up their mess later. This makes them net liabilities to the company because not only do they fail to contribute, but they soak up good people’s time. They are the kind of people who decide to refactor your core algorithms to use the Visitor Pattern, which they just read about the night before, and completely misunderstood, and instead of simple loops adding up items in an array you’ve got an AdderVistior class (yes, it’s spelled wrong) and a VisitationArrangingOfficer singleton and none of your code works any more.

Valuable temperance to the incessant Cult of Move Fast and Break Things, courtesy of Joel Spolsky.

The startup ecosystem is structured along the lines evolutionary biology: it fosters random mutations and rewards the winners with growth.

In an evolutionary system, Getting Things Done (creating mutations) isn’t a winning formula, it just table stakes. To win you need luck and / or smarts.

Developer team structures, and growth

Working with a dev team? Check out Scott Porad’s The Best Developer Team Structure blog post.

Notes that I’ve also found to be true:

  • Let people work on their passion
  • WIP is deadly (I’ve begun to recognize it as a likely indicator of problems with the goals, design, or passion)
  • 1 PM to 3-5 devs
  • Teams, not groups of people
  • Teams need time to gel
  • Teams have leads
  • Teams share dirty work
  • Coordinating designs is a hard role and requires lots of back n forth
  • Force people to share work

Money quote:

Okay, saving the most important things for last. As your organization grows, the most important things will be “soft management”. Things like documented organizational values. Documented, as in, written down somewhere on paper (by which, I mean, a wiki). Having your company’s mission, values and vision statement written down. Having your product strategy written down. Having your technical design written down.

Nobody, especially, pointy-haired bosses, wants to spend time on this stuff. Those people are fools. That’s why comic strips are written about them.

The fact is, these are the most valuable tools in helping coordinate teams of people to get a job done. People don’t think of these things as tools… they think of them as management fluff. But, that’s exactly what they are: tools. Devices which help get a job done.

These are the tools that allows large groups of developers to have a shared understanding about the job they are working on, and the expectations for how they are to complete it.

Think anew, act anew, disenthrall ourselves

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.

Abe Lincoln, 1862

Via Sir Ken Robinson at TED 2010

This statement resonated with me in a couple of contexts: first in my daily work as I grapple with defining new commercial interactions (and attempt to avoid falling into existing patters) and then, later, as I recalled a moment yesterday when Shannon and I visited our obstetrician with Winnie in tow.

When the OB entered the exam room Win asked a ton of great questions about the various tools and equipment that adorned the shelves and walls. I was so proud that I transformed into a leering adult and asked “do you want to be a doctor when you grow up?”

“No, Daddy,” she shouted, suddenly intent on twirling the doctor’s stool with her hands, “I want to be a… a… spinning ball!”

How to startup and how to market it when you do

Sorry, no analysis here; I’m bookmarking this stuff for later reference.

how to succeed with an early-stage startup

Takeaways from the articles above:

  1. Lean startup FTW (caveat: garbage in, garbage out).
  2. Founder passion (founder domain knowledge allows you to bypass customer discovery).
  3. No marketing. Products should be natively social. Games are social, as is expression.
  4. Native monetization.

Fun quotes from Fred Wilson

…and others, culled from the articles above:

The 2-step super distribution model: Get the power users to adopt something and then the people who follow the power users will adopt it too

Early in a startup, product decisions should be hunch driven. Later on, product decisions should be data driven.

Early in a startup you need to acquire your customers for free. Later on, you can spend on customer acquisition.

If you have an idea that you can’t get out of your head, do a startup. Otherwise join a startup.

Don’t worry about whether you are building a feature, a product or a company. Build something great, have huge passion for it, engender affection with a large customer base, and let the rest follow.

There are three addictions in life: calories, heroine, and a paycheck.

Save Internet radio

This is a PSA, of sorts: Internet radio is in trouble, and now is a good time to speak up.

To get involved, check out SaveNetRadio.org.

If you love good things like Pandora or even the somewhat lame Last.fm, you might be surprised to hear that on March 2, 2007, The Copyright Royalty Board announced that Internet radio stations’ royalty payments for streaming music will increase significantly between now and 2010.

Update: CNN Money recently posted a review of this situation, focusing on NPR’s involvement in petitioning the CRB to reconsider their decision.

Broadcast Law Blog provides a helpful writeup here. Check it out and get learned. Or, check out Pandora founder Tim Westergren’s succinct explanation:

It’s an utterly ridiculous ruling that renders any form of internet radio non-economic.

There is more at stake than your Pandora playlists here: Internet radio facilitates discovery of new and distinctive music like Dubconscious, a reggae/dub jam band out of Athens, GA. It facilitates long-tail distribution, breaking the Top 40 format’s stranglehold on creativity.

How to help

  1. Add your name to a petition
  2. Write your Representative
  3. Contact your Congressperson
  4. For more information, check out SaveNetRadio.org, which includes these additional links:

Mashups are the EU of the Internet

Justin hasn’t allowed comments on his blog, as far as I can tell, so I’m stuck cluttering up my own blog posting responses to his ah, misguided analysis of mashups.

Six reasons why Justin needs to rethink Mashups (it’s okay, we’re brothers. Once you’ve taken a baseball bat to a guy’s head, mere words are but the ephemeral fluttering of so many butterfly wings):

  1. First, the easy point: sorry Justin, mashups are quite old in internet time (Wikipedia’s article goes back to September 05). They’re just getting a lot of renewed attention due to the Yahoo! Pipes release.
  2. Mashups are unreliable? That seems like a dubious critique, since people are mashing on services like say… oh, I dunno… Google Maps? Unreliable? Cmon. Remember that time Google went down? Neither do I.
  3. Changing feeds will crash the mashup? First off, if the service changes the feed or API, then sure, there’s some down time to rewrite the feed parser or whatever, but weigh that against free data and applications. And don’t you think that Google and Craigslist are aware that their services are used in Mashups? Don’t you think they’d give advance notices of updates? This is also why people are standardizing their feeds as RSS or Atom, so they can be confident that their feed schema won’t need to be refactored. Is there a legitimate reason to expect this is a persistent problem?
  4. Mashups are transitory? Sure, and so’s any application. All code is perpetually refactored and applications relaunched. Version what dot what? Mashups, like Extreme Programming, plan for change by minimizing the cost to build and update applications. So your mashup is only good for a year before it has to be updated – compare that effort to the savings associated w using Google Maps instead of building your own mapping app.
  5. Mashups are a travesty or a toy? Tell that to people who use housingmaps.com. I know a guy who planned much of his move from Connecticut to LA with this tool. It allowed him to understand the neighborhoods being advertised and narrow his search well in advance of an expensive trip to finalize his first rental arrangement. A friend at work used the same tool to understand hyperbolic real estate agents’ descriptions of New York hoods when he moved here from Syracuse.
  6. Mashups provide free advertising? By that logic, the credits at the end of a movie are “free advertising” for the people who made the movie possible.

I hate to say it, but the Madirish post reeks of so many engineers’ build-don’t-buy mentality. Sure, given enough time and resources an engineer could theoretically recreate any mashup, but in reality APIs and data feeds allow projects to achieve usable results with far less effort. Perhaps you say “yeah, but a mashup only provides 90% of the desired functionality,” to which I reply “at 10% of the cost; and really, if we can get by with 90%, let’s get real and move on.” Mashups are not PB&J, they are the European Union – by removing borders, they enable more efficient economies.

What surprises me is that this post was written after we did hours of unpaid work to create the George School campus map when we could’ve probably achieved similar results with a simple Google or Yahoo! Map mashup, at a fraction of the cost. And your concern is that a Google logo would appear on the map? I think that’s a fair trade.

Second, I find your lack of faith disturbing. Are there a ton of great mashups out there today? Perhaps not. But this doesn’t exclude the potential for greatness. We still have some work to do figuring out standards and connectivity, but I think mashups will eventually be recognized as yet another step in the current trend away from atomic applications and data sources towards a truly integrated universe where any engineer can take advantage of everyone else’s brains and sweat to create wealth for all users. Here are other components of this trend:

This is a real trend, and part of the evolution is letting go of the need to control the source code and trusting other engineers to share the load.

Update: A couple more interesting stories about the value of exposing services to Mashups and Widgets:

  • Widgify, from Snipperoo:

    As the web continues to become disaggregated, there will be a burgeoning demand for tools that can help users effectively leverage these “information atoms,” together in a meaningful manner. Not only will there be a need for tools that help users aggregate widgets, but also tools that enable widgets to work together.

  • Social Networking Sites Open Up, from Businessweek:

    Social-networking sites are realizing that if they want to grow their user base—and build a sustainable business model—they need to attract third-party developers. “Social networks have reached a point of maturity, and opening APIs will help them grow,” explains Adam Trachtenberg, a senior manager for eBay.

And that, Justin, is why the data sources will prioritize uptime and consistency: because they benefit from Mashups as much as the engineers do.

Updates: Justin has replied (with some good points and some lamerz), and I’ve fixed the oblique star wars reference.

Removing YouTube from the game

I spent the morning commute pondering Big Media’s on again off again plans to build a “YouTube Killer” website (there’s nothing quite like a found copy of Kant’s Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals to get you thinking about anything else). What strikes me as strange about the plan is that media is simply trying to replace YouTube with their own sponsored version of the same core offering. What the big media suits should really do is get their geek on, pronto.

Hark, yon geeks come a-calling

Earlier this week, my CEO suggested that we include more RSS links on our interfaces. When I replied that it was something I’d been hoping to implement for quite some time, he responded with “just don’t make it all geeky like you and Pete, just do a simple ‘Add to My Yahoo’ link. Remember that most people don’t even know what RSS is.” It was the most backhanded green light I’ve ever received.

Even though many laypeople aren’t yet familiar with RSS, business decisionmakers should be rushing to embrace it as a technology. This is especially true in the case of traditional media, where the new crop of Web 2.0 sites is eating their lunch. YouTube is supplanting traditional video distribution, Digg is replacing the NYTimes on users’ bookmark lists, and there’s still a bit of a scramble on the music side but most the important contestants are tech companies, not media companies (I prefer Pandora’s “music discovery engine”, which has recently added some social networking components). All of these companies are squirmy little geekhives, and they’re disrupting traditional media creators with access and features, not with brands or content ownership.

“Where’d that genie get off to?”

Product design biases aside, the greatest improvements in media consumption have come from distribution, not content. Are recent YouTube hits really improving upon say, the Iliad or the Bible? Lazy Sunday is today’s content darling, but it’s mostly because audiences had near-universal access and viral distribution tools. If hoary comedic standbys like “Who’s on First” were first released in a YouTube world (and perhaps delivered by a couple of bored emo teens via a fuzzy webcam), they’d probably see similar reactions.

YouTube represents the next evolution in media distribution – once upon a time, audiences got news from print or local movie reels. Television democratized media access, but kept it locked in a limited number of channels, available only at predetermined times. Today, broadband, mobile devices, and startups like Slingbox and TiVo are making programming available anywhere, at any time. As Dave Morgan writes in MediaPost (sorry, registration required):

As media digitizes, fragments and moves closer to the consumer–as the media world becomes more “open source” akin to what we’ve seen happen in the software industry

Media is becoming “open source”, and who knows open source better than those geeks in the server room?

Don’t copycat, leapfrog

CBS’s solution is not to imitate YouTube, it’s to surpass them. Restricting CBS content to a single site is like trying to stop DVD usage and pull audiences back into the theater. Better start sprinkling some crack on that popcorn. What does CBS have to offer? They have a brand that is decreasingly relevant on a daily basis, and they have difficult-to-enforce content ownership. YouTube, on the other hand, has a directly relevant brand, position as a content aggregator (meaning users will likely find something good, even if they don’t go for the blockbuster du jour), and they have geeks. How long might it take to design, build, launch, and promote a YouTube-killing site? What will happen during that time? I’ll tell you: YouTube will release several new updates and change the game again before the “killer” site ever launches.

Even though I’ve heard grapevine grumbling that Google’s massive growth is diluting the talent pool, they still have many of the best and brightest minds in the industry. (If you’re hiring an engineer, an easy measure of their talent is whether or not they’re also fielding inquiries from Google.) Assuming YouTube inherits the parent company’s style, we can expect many unexpected releases and improvements in the coming months.

The best way to beat a moving target is to identify it’s the vector, rather than focusing on it’s current location. The vector for media distribution is just that: distribute! Aside from embedding one-off clips, YouTube users still have to return to the website hub to access additional content. By syndicating their media, content producers can remove YouTube from the equation altogether and refocus audiences on the message, instead of the medium. With RSS feeds, I can receive new content directly in my Inbox, just like a newsletter subscription. Do some research on Beliefnet’s popular daily inspiration emails. Feeling pessimistic? Check out Overheard in New York for similarly addictive tidbits. Where’s my daily Late Show Top 10 clip?

How will users find these RSS feeds and this content? Syndication. Eric does a good job of outlining a vision for Internet content syndication. Create Widgets (AKA “Badges” in some circles) and feeds and tell the world about them. Get them listed on aggregator sites like Widgetbox and Konfabulator. Go after personal portal services like Google homepage and Pageflakes. The Mac OS allows users to put Widgets directly on their desktop. Mac users could voluntarily give your programming and ads a permanent home on their desktop, ready and waiting every time they pop the top.

It’s critical to realize that YouTube represents a revolution in media distribution, but it is not the endpoint. Gather some geeks and ask them how they access media and content. A good geek is both ingenious and lazy. Consequently, they devise the slickest, easiest tools for getting things done. Grab their thinking and you can repurpose it for an everyman audience that isn’t ingenious, just lazy (or busy, or underserved; however your marketing team likes to phrase it). Geeks love RSS and they’re increasingly interested in hacking on Widgets. Geeks don’t want to waste time browsing through the mostly-crappy content on YouTube.

YouTube is only your messenger. Don’t worry about killing him, just streamline him.