Paul is Product Manager for Newsmart, an ‘EdTech’ Saas brand that uses premium news content to teach Business English. Previously, he was Head of Product for the London Times and the Sunday Times. He writes about digital Product Management at pivot.uk.com and tweets @pivotservices. Below is an interview with Paul, where he discusses his thoughts on defining product management, his work at Newsmart, and the elements of successful product management.
You’ve written about common misconceptions of product managers. For the uninitiated, how would you summarize what a product manager is and why it’s an attractive career to you?
Product Management appeals to polymaths, those that have a broad interest in a variety of things. This is the reason I love it. I’m fascinated by every part of what constitutes a digital service or brand. All aspects of the a business come together in the Product and, theoretically, the Product Manager should stand right at the centre of the conversation. I think Product Managers are the CEOs of the future, destined to follow in the footsteps of individuals like Marissa Meyer.
In terms of misconceptions about Product Management: the name itself is infuriatingly generic so definitions vary wildly. In the post, I discuss Rich Mirinov’s observation that the role often becomes a wish list of everything the team thinks they need as they’ve never actually met a Product Manager but have heard they can solve all problems. The Product Manager becomes a Unicorn fantasy that no one can realistically embody.
My background is in User Experience and, before that, information architecture and usability. I remember spending much of the early part of my career explaining what UX was and trying to convince sceptical engineers and designers of its value. No one in UX has to do that anymore. In a sense, Product Management is at a similar moment in its evolution: high awareness but frequently misunderstood.
The most heated debate is around the technical expertise necessary for the role. Google represents one view, namely that a CS or Engineering background is essential, and given the presence of ex-Googlers in many startups in the Valley (and in London), this view often prevails.
As a Product Manager from a non-technical background, obviously I am inclined to disagree. For me, Product Managers should transcend technology and be focussed entirely on the long term vision of how a product solves a problem for the customer.
In the future, I think the nature of the business model will ultimately define the the shape and character of the Product Team and the skillset the Product Manager requires. There’s a world of difference among a product that you pay for upfront or freemium, an ad-funded product, and SaaS type products.
The marketplace for Web-based language learning solutions is becoming increasingly crowded. Prior industry leaders like Rosetta Stone have adjusted their product strategy to fit this new competitive environment. What are your thoughts on language learning online and where do you see these product experiences going in the future?
I think we’re entering an era of specialised service models that will challenge the full service paradigm in the same way that iTunes changed the music business. Why buy the album when you can just buy the individual tracks and make your own Playlists?
Newsmart, the product I manage, isn’t a total language service and doesn’t claim to be. Its deliberately niche and is at the forefront of learning through hyper-relevant content, in this case news from the WSJ. The high quality and recency of the content and the gamification mechanics combine to drive up engagement and motivation which are the most frequent barriers to learning.
The users of Newsmart combine this service with peer-to-peer video platforms like Verbling to create a language programme that is tailored to their specific needs and lifestyle.
The content of a product, whether user-generated or produced behind-the-scenes, can be central to its success or failure. In your case, Newsmart chose The Wall Street Journal. What are the benefits of working with this familiar publication? What are the challenges you face to avoid hesitations such as ‘Why wouldn’t I just subscribe to The Wall Street Journal?”
The WSJ wasn’t chosen by Newsmart; in fact the WSJ birthed Newsmart. Newsmart is actually a product innovation from News Corp. The corporate innovation space is a huge area of activity which receives little attention as it’s not as ‘sexy’ as the startup scene.
A lot of great new products are the result of corporations and innovation agencies coming together. These products often have to pretend to be startups to be credible. Tinder is probably the best example.
News Corp worked with PreHype, a ‘venture development firm’ based in NYC, to ideate tangential ways of productising its core assets (ie. its content) and Newsmart was one of the outcomes. They then worked with specialist ELT providers (in this case, ELTJam in North London) to develop the service; an unprecedented fusion of traditional media, language learning and technology.
In terms of the attractiveness of the proposition vs the WSJ: until now Newsmart has been free which skews things a bit as content on the WSJ is metered. However that is about to change as we move out of free beta having got to product/market fit reasonably quickly. Inevitably there is a debate about the extent to which it is an add-on to the WSJ bundle or an independent product that happens to utilise premium news content.
I only work on Newsmart so believe strongly that the product can and should stand alone. Its potential and reach is huge. Mastering Business English has become a pillar of self-advancement worldwide. We tap into that ambition directly. Newsmart is much more than ‘just’ the content and, so far, the WSJ have been quick to grasp this.
What do you think a successful product team will look like in the future? What are you most excited about for product management in the years to come?
Successful product teams will always be the ones with the clearest objectives in terms of desired outcome for the end-user, the most empowerment, in terms of their ability to make decisions fast, and the most passionate individuals.
Too much focus is placed on finding ‘really smart’ people; again the influence of Google. For me passion and a bias to action are 10x more valuable. Too many ‘really smart’ people I’ve met confine themselves to abstract discussion (ie which ‘model’ is best) and don’t have the persistence to carry out their vision. Truly great people bring things about by sheer force of will and tenacity. For me, this is the ‘Hard Thing about Hard Things’ that Ben Horowitz refers to.
My background is in UCD (user-centred design) and my product experience is predominantly in Saas. For me, we’re living in an incredible period of service quality and customer-lead innovation. The transition to a subscription economy combined with total transparency in terms of reputation means that brands have no choice but to be constantly committed to delighting their customers 24/7 in order to keep them. This is driving up the quality of the customer experience to an unprecedented level.
Only a few years ago, most big brands treated their customers like sh*t. They were so internally focussed or, at Board level, committed only to ‘shareholder value.’ But they could get away with it and customers just had to put up with it.
All that is changing. Product Managers who understand that Customer Success is really their objective, not building technology or releasing ‘stuff’ will rise to the top. That’s what excites me.