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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Boston Product Day Workshop

This past Saturday (12/11), the Boston chapter had its first full-day workshop and it was a doozy. Who says you can’t spend a great Saturday in a law firm conference room? Cohort #1 (Christian, Kevin, Ali, Pedro, and Sameer) put together a great series of panels covering all aspects of product commercialization including design, sales, development, and marketing. Overall, the sessions were very engrossing and provided the fellows with several different lenses with which to view product development punctuated by anecdotes to drive home key takeaways.

Product Design
First up was Jeremy Pitts, the current VP of Product Development for OsComp Systems - a startup led by Pedro Santos, one of our fellows. Jeremy drew on his previous experience developing solar panel arrays for a venture-backed startup to discuss different product development processes. In addition to lessons learned from that specific venture, such as the importance of keeping your initial prototyping local before you outsource, he passed along several useful rules-of-thumb:

  • Nothing is a simple as it seems
  • Prototype early and often
  • Build the product – research can only take you so far
  • Focus on customer needs
  • Don’t lose sight of competitors

Finally, Jeremy discussed how his appreciation for the project manager position had grown as he recognized the importance of the role for aligning engineering objectives with management’s strategy.

Sales Panel
We were very fortunate to have Brian Cusack (Display Advertising Team Leader, Google) Kirsten Knipp (Director of Product Evangelism, HubSpot), and Taariq Lewis (Director of Sales and Marketing, HiveFire) bombard us with nuggets of wisdom from their experiences on the front lines of their organizations. They touched on a number of important topics the key points of which are summarized below:

  • Different ways to pick your first customer. Brian discussed getting to potential customers who can initially bring more than just their checkbooks to the table. The overall goal is to get your initial customers to collaborate with you so that both parties get value as the product is being refined or scaled. Kirsten, an inbound marketing guru, discussed drawing in initial customers by becoming a source of data for members of your target customer population who can then find you.
  • Initial pricing. “Free” was a four letter word for this panel. While certain elements of your product can be given away as marketing tools, you should charge even your initial customers. The panel did, however, support the idea of introductory pricing, but pricing nonetheless.
  • Selecting Sales Managers vs. Salespeople. There are distinct differences between a salesperson and a sales manager. For Brian, a salesperson is a closer who asks for business, while a sales manager can express vision, remove roadblocks, and provide discipline and training. For Taariq, selling is about psychology and an effective sales manager understands the psychology of salepeople and selling in general.
  • Managing a sales pipeline. It is important to understand your sales cycle and keep prospects moving through your pipeline. Also, to quote Taariq, “there are no dead prospects”. After cycling thorough the sales pipeline, unconverted leads are thrown back into marketing.
  • Best advice for managing a sales team. 1) If a salesperson is not pulling his or her weight, get rid of them immediately – they become toxic to the rest of the team; and 2) use intermediate milestones to keep the sales team motivated during rough times.

BREAK…After a nice traditional TiE lunch and some impressive “bio-pitches” from several fellows we continued with the afternoon sessions…

Lean Startup
Vineet Sinha (Founder, President, and CTO of Architexa) spoke with the group about agile development and building flexible companies. Key points of his talk included:

  • Write down and verify all of your assumptions
  • Don’t take too much ownership of an idea --> sharing = refinement
  • Test ideas before spending a lot of time building
  • Test your product in small pieces
  • You can’t “out-develop” your competitors but you can “out-listen” to your customers

Market Development and Marketing
Our next panel included Bob LaRoche, an expert in medical device marketing and sales, and Michelle Looney, who does product marketing for Best Doctors. They each gave a short presentation explaining how companies think and position themselves relative to their specific market and target customers.

Bob outlined a series of stakeholders, such as key opinion leaders, early adopters, potential advisors, and competitors, whose position in the market and, if possible, thinking about your product should be understood before you launch. He also passed along the following points to keep in mind as you undertake market development:

  • Primary goal of market development: listen and learn. You should ask 1) what’s the unmet need? and 2) what will be required for your product to become "the solution"?
  • Don’t rely on what you think you know
  • Recognize the need to interact with customers and prospects
  • Identify internal and external expertise and develop a plan to get/use those resources

Michelle focused her talk on marketing in the social media era and the implications of an increasingly blurry line between B2B and B2C. Key takeaways included:

  • If you enter the social media space, have a well-thought through strategy including understanding what to do if you are panned
  • Understand your customer at all costs
  • Make sure to measure cost per lead or cost per sale

Product Overview
For our final panel of the day, we were very privileged to have Marc Meyer come in and kick the session into overdrive. Marc’s list of credentials is almost too long for the page. He is the Matthews Distinguished Professor and Director of the High Technology MBA program at Northeastern University, has consulted to Fortune 500 companies such as IBM, HP, P&G, and Mars Incorporated in the area of new product strategy, has co-founded three technology startups, is a very active angel investor in start-ups across industries, and is an accomplished author. Basically, when it comes to product development on any scale or in any industry, Marc has pretty much see it or done it.

Despite being the end of a long day, Marc’s engaging presentation-style and engrossing anecdotes held the fellows’ rapt attention. He regaled us with stories from his experiences at a few large companies such as Honda, Mars Corporation, and IBM, and experiences with startup companies such as an antibiotics discovery company, an agricultural software company, and a company building online infrastructure for train ticket purchasing in Europe. A few key points stood out:

  1. Companies should only be started to address a latent need (as opposed to a recognized need) for a specific customer population.
  2. Startups should expend significant effort performing a “reality check” of their industry, customer, and solution before launching their product.
  3. Good company pitches tell three stories simultaneously: the user story, the team story, and the business story.

After Marc’s talk, the workshop ended and several fellows went out for drinks at the nearby Atlantic Beer Garden. All in all, as Will Farrell would say, “A nice little Saturday…”

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