4 Experiences That Changed How I Think About Product

Many years ago, when I was studying, I started my first-ever software project with a friend. We were absolutely certain that the two apps we were building would be the best in the world.

Guess what: They weren’t!

Back then, I had no clue about product management or building products. Reading books and blogs just wasn’t on my radar, so I started learning by doing.

Instead of spending nights at student parties, we worked on designs, discussed user flows, and looked at how to market our apps.

Okay… We joined some parties, but only for “social marketing” purposes

Neither of us had ever heard terms like:

  • Product discovery
  • Minimum viable product (MVP)
  • Lean thinking
  • Story mapping
  • Product strategy/vision

And to be honest, studying business administration doesn’t tell you how to build apps.

Nowadays, I build products for millions of customers at SumUp. The way I work and think has changed a lot. Product management knowledge, tools, and asking better questions have helped me to build products that solve problems.

I’d like to share some of my key learnings as a Product Manager with you. I believe these learnings can help you to better understand what product management is about, and how you can get started.

1. Becoming the CEO of My Own Product

I started as a Product Intern at Shopgate on September 1st, 2014.

The first lesson I learned from the VP of Product was:

“Working as a product manager means being the (mini) CEO of the product. If you want your product to succeed, it needs to solve the problems of its users.”

After he said these two sentences, I had two emotional reactions:

  1. The idea of being responsible for a product, (in this case: Shopping Apps) and being able to change and work on it the way “I want” makes me super excited.
  2. About 0.001 seconds later, I realized that I had no idea how to potentially manage a product for more than 10,000 live merchants and more than 40 million end-users. That scared me a lot!

What were the mistakes I made in my thinking?

“…change and work on it how I want...”

I was used to making changes to my own products whenever I wanted to. However, I never really focused on the problem I was trying to solve. I hadn’t even heard about the points mentioned above. Missing knowledge and the unknown was something that scared me.

So what does this mean for a Product Manager? We’re living in a world with more possibilities than ever. There are tons of ideas and startups out there.

But which products actually succeed? The ones that solve problems. You can build an app that allows you to scan wheat and tells you exactly what sort of grain it is. Does it solve a problem? Maybe. Does it help a hundred thousand people and make their lives easier? No? Then you should go back and consider the problem you want to solve.

I’ve learned that it’s easier to jump into solutions than to understand the root cause.

There was another mistake I made in my thinking process which brings us to the next topic.

2. Think Like a Team, not an Individual

As a Product Manager, you are not alone. You are working with a team.

There are multiple team setups. I’d like to focus on a very common one:

A Development Team

Some companies call it a “squad” while others call it a “Development Team”.

The setup/staffing of these teams differs from company to company, depending on the size, organizational structure, business, etc.

Common roles include:

  • Product Manager - defining the product vision & strategy and also managing stakeholders and priorities.
  • Software Engineers - developing the software like a product or specific feature for a product (frontend & backend).
  • Quality Assurer - making sure that the developed software can be shipped to the live system without issues/bugs.
  • Product Designer - creating a user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) for a product or feature (some companies distinguish between UI and UX design).

At the end of the day, what counts is that you’re a Product Manager who belongs to a team that builds a software/product.

And that means that you’re an equal part of the team.

A Product Manager isn’t a boss or supervisor. The role of a Product Manager is

to lead and empower the team

How do you do that?

Here’s where things get a bit more complex. You’ll read more articles from me about that. Let’s start with some basics:

  • Understanding and defining the problem(s) and sharing it with your team
  • Work out possible solutions together with your team
  • Making decisions and defining priorities (together with your team)
  • Define a vision, mission, and purpose for your product and your team… with your team

As a Product Manager, you should be the one driving these areas.

You should always remember that your team isn’t the only part of the organization that’s interested in building and selling a great product.

3. Learning How to Listen to My Stakeholders. Really.

Let’s have a look at the other side. We’re looking at the other colleagues and teams in our company, tribe, or domain. These people are directly or indirectly affected by your team’s previous, current, or future work. These stakeholders can be internal (within the company) or external (outside the company).

Here are some examples of stakeholders I deal with on a regular basis at SumUp:

  • ❤️ Customers -> are the most important source of input
  • ‍ Owners/C-Level -> share the company vision and strategy
  • Sales Team -> knows what is demanded and how to sell it
  • Customer support -> is aware of the pain points and wishes of customers
  • Marketing Team -> understands markets and needs regular input from PMs
  • ️‍♂️ Business Intelligence - makes use of data to make better decisions
  • Governments - provide insights on legal changes and requirements
  • ✍️ Partners - work and grow together with us

So, what does “dealing with stakeholders” mean?

Because your work impacts the entire company, stakeholders will always be interested in contributing. They don’t only want to know when it will be done or what it will look like. Stakeholders can help you a lot with their domain knowledge and input.

Never Underestimate the Knowledge of the Experts in Your Own Company!

Customer Support, for example, talks to customers on a daily basis and can give you a lot of input and feedback. Sales representatives know exactly what customers want and how to sell the product.

I’ve learned that the sooner I involve people, the better the outcome will be.

Don’t be afraid to invite stakeholders to team meetings and let them share their knowledge and needs with the whole team.

That being said…

Be careful: Sometimes stakeholders are opportunistic and try to push requirements by telling your team what to do. This isn’t healthy. I’ve seen this kind of behavior very often in sales-driven companies. However, the more senior and autonomous squads are, the less likely you are to face these kinds of issues.

Negotiating with stakeholders and managing them is worth its own article.

Product Managers play key roles in the product development process. We’ve focused mainly on internal structure and input here, let’s take a look outside...

4. Leaving my Bubble

When I started my career, I was rarely in touch with customers because I was too focused on learning how to deal with a team.

I should have spent much more time with customers because that would‘ve helped me later to work more effectively with my team.

If you want to build great products and help your customers, then you need to talk to them. Grab a Product Designer and an Engineer and head to the customers. Keep in mind: It’s always about them not about you! Ask the right questions and let them talk. Give your team members the chance to talk to the customers as well.

The Better You Prepare Upfront, the More Insightful the Interview Will Be

Interviews with customers aren’t always easy to organize. The time factor makes it even harder. Depending on your company's size and structure, parts of the discovery process can be taken by other departments like the Marketing Team. There are many more ways how you can get feedback. For example,

  • Phone interviews
  • Surveys (qualitative/quantitative)
  • Analytics tools (like Google Analytics)
  • Churn reasons

It also depends on the business segment you work in. For instance, it’s more difficult to get direct feedback in B2B (business to business) than in B2C (business to consumer). B2B2C can be even trickier.

I try to talk to merchants at least once a week. If I have a busy week, I ask our lovely Support Team to schedule a phone call. Try to stay connected!

Talking to your existing and future customers is essential. As is looking at the competition. You can learn a lot by checking out how other companies are solving problems. Sit down with your team, create accounts, or buy products from competing companies.

What are they focussing on? How did they solve a problem or provide a solution?

Understanding what’s happening around you is important to not live in a bubble (work and think outside the box).

But it doesn’t stop there. If you don’t have competition, you need to be even more attentive. Enough capital and a good marketing manager can become very dangerous within a short time.

It’s part of my planning process to look into the market and to understand what’s going on.

Keep your eyes peeled 👀

How to Get Started?

Changing my mindset according to the four headlines mentioned above helped me a lot in becoming a better Product Manager.

If you want to get started or you started recently, I recommend

  • looking into your customer problems and getting to understand them
  • Interacting more with Development Teams
  • talking to stakeholders and listening to them
  • checking out what’s going on in the market

It’s all about your (product) mindset.

If you want to dive deeper into Product Management and Product Development, I recommend you read 3 of my favorite books:

Inspired by Marty Cagan
Gives a great overview of how Product Management works and the different roles

The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
A must-read about how to build products and learn from fast iterations & feedback

Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore
If you want to understand markets and product lifecycles better

I’d love to hear your plan for getting started or how you look back on your years of experience and how you got started. Let me know on Linkedin.