The Two Most Important Words for Product Managers to Use

What does your sales team think of you? Does customer success enjoy their conversations with you? Or do you feel animosity and tension with them?

And what about with customers?

How about the squeaky wheel who sends in feature requests regularly, or the enterprise customer with contractual promises?

Product management is about relationships.

One of the biggest mistakes I see otherwise good product managers make is not managing internal and external stakeholders well.

Rather than building collaborative relationships, where everyone feels like they’re on the same team heading in the same direction, they sow seeds of tension.

As a product manager, any communication issues fall on you. It’s your job to build bridges, even on challenging terrain.

You can do that through a variety of tactics:

  • Product advisory boards, and regular check ins with key customers.
  • Peer 1 on 1s with key sales, customer success, account management, and other department leaders.
  • Regular updates, training, and collaboration on collateral creation for new and updated features.
  • Following the timeless of advice of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Throughout those conversations, both internally and externally, there are two words to always remember: “Not yet.”

Let’s dive into the nuance of how 4 letters can make such a big difference…

“Not Yet”: The Two Most Important Words for Product Managers to Use

Remember when you were a little kid and you wanted something and you asked your mom or dad? How did you feel when they said “no”?

Chances are you were pretty unhappy.

We’re not so different when we grow up.

Just say no…to saying, “No.”

As a product manager, when you tell customers and colleagues, “no”, it creates problems for you now and in the future.

No is denying what they want.

No makes them feel unheard.

No is a wall between you and them.

And most importantly, no is the end of a conversation.

Where do you go after you say, “no, we’re not doing that”? You can possibly explain why, but the other person is likely already thinking about how they can either convince you to change your mind or tuning you out in frustration.

The Power of “Not Yet”

Four letters. That’s all that separates “No” and “Not yet”, but in reality it makes all the difference.

Not yet is, “we might do that down the line…”

Not yet is, “I hear you, but…”

Not yet is hope.

And most importantly, not yet is the start of a conversation.

“Not yet” builds empathy

If you’ve ever learned about the power of using “and” instead of “but” in conversation, you know that a simple change in word choice actually leads to a larger transformation.

By changing the word you use, you change the entire nature of your discussion the rest of the way.

When you say, “not yet,” it lends itself to explaining why. This is powerful because it helps them understand the choices you’ve made.

When it’s an internal stakeholder, explaining why can help them see the other priorities. I’ve lost count of the number of times that once I’ve explained what we’re doing right now already they suddenly are willing to wait on their request; you may even be working on something important to them.

Meanwhile, with customers, it’s an opportunity to build excitement and engagement. Maybe you can’t give them what they asked for right away, but you can tell them about some other things in the pipeline.

Often, a couple of the things you’re doing are also important to the customer. You can then offer them the opportunity to provide feedback on the feature as it’s developing, or early access. Either way, it ends up feeling like they’re coming away with something, even if it’s not what they originally asked.

Show your work.

A key part of all of this is that you’re showing your work to others. You don’t need to explain the whole roadmap, but even a small snippet can help people see there’s a solid foundation to the decisions you’ve made.  It also demonstrates the hard work and rigor of the product team:

  • Data driven: Good PMs know their numbers, so you can explain to them how the feature they asked for may have a much smaller impact than the current features you’re working on.
  • Customer focused: Whether you have an enterprise contract with deadlines due in 30 days, or are finally delivering on the #1 most requested feature, showing that what you’re doing is backed by real customer insights shows you’re a PM that listens to customers.
  • Strategic: Great PMs see the big picture, and help others see it, too. Concisely explaining strategy comes with practice, so use these “not yet” conversations to practice clearly explaining how the new API opens up thousands of leads a month, or how the onboarding improvements will drive more revenue to hit key company goals.

When you show some of your cards to your colleagues and customers, you help them understand your decision making process. While they may not always agree, they’ll often respect the decisions you’ve made a lot more than when all they heard was, “No.”

In my experience, when you show you have data, strategy, and customer insights backing up your decisions and bets, your colleagues and customers will trust you. Just like they expect you to trust them to do their jobs well, they’ll see plenty of evidence to believe in you as well.

Save your relationships!

This may seem like a small thing, but I can tell you from experience,  it matters a lot. No may feel like the expedient way to handle requests, but it comes with a long term cost.

Over time, saying “no” leads to resentment and may sour relationships. People you want to partner with to make launches successful and for everyone to hit their numbers suddenly avoid you, except when they want to demand and override your No’s. They may even try to go around you and talk straight to a designer or engineer to get what they want.

And since you represent the product team, it can even lead to inter-departmental drama and rivalries. Rather than engineering and sales being partners, they become enemies, with each side criticizing the other. I’ve seen and heard it too many times, and it’s really the fault of product managers on those teams for it becoming like that.

You can avoid being that kind of cautionary tale by taking the time to regularly communicate with other teams, stakeholders, and key customers. When you meet and talk with them, remember to use “not yet” so those relationships flourish and they understand your decisions.

Never underestimate the power of using the right words.

How to Write Product Updates that Delight Customers & Reduce Churn

If you launch a feature and you don’t tell anyone, did you really launch it?

Okay, maybe the “tree falls in a forest” analogy isn’t perfect, but you probably get the point: you need to tell your customers when you make improvements.

But how do you do it in a way that customers will care?

I’ve seen dozens of ways for people to do product updates over the years, including these common ones:

  • Popping up in app to tell them (think Intercom-style, or a product tour)
  • Posting on your company blog
  • Emailing to everyone who has an account
  • Passing it to sales or account management to tell customers
  • Updating a change log that lists all updates over time
  • Praying they stumble upon the changes

Of all of those, my favorite is the semi-regular email to customers.

I like it for a few reasons:

  1. Flexible medium: I can write and include images and gifs to clearly show what’s new.
  2. Non-interruptive:  Unlike pop ups in app, they can read this when they have time, instead of dismissing it when they’re in the middle of something in your product.
  3. Reminder we exist: People get busy. You are not the center of their universe. An email about product improvements can get people back into your product they haven’t logged into in a while because they see you in their inbox.

For the past nearly 10 years, I’ve been sending product updates at the SaaS companies I’ve worked at and founded. Because of the structure I follow, I’ve seen it help build stronger relationships with customers, reduce churn, and help everyone feel more product momentum.

Today, I’ll show you my process so you can experience those benefits with your customers, too.

 

How to Write Product Updates that Delight Customers & Reduce Churn

First and foremost, credit where credit is due. There is an AWESOME Tweetstorm from Steven Sinofsky on this subject you should go read now:

Okay, so now that you read his 20 tweets, you understand why this is important, and the pitfalls to avoid. Now, let’s talk about how to actually write one.

A few assumptions:

  • You talk to customers: If you talk to customers, all of this is easy to do. If you don’t, not only is this very hard to do, but you are a disgrace to product managers everywhere. Worst of all, your designers and engineers are rolling their eyes at you. Jump here on my blog to reform your ways if you need to start doing so.
  • You’re data informed: Quantitative numbers are not everything, but they’re very important. They help you understand how many people are affected by a problem, the total addressable audience for a feature, and measure the impact of a change. Having these numbers is key for both internal buy in and explaining things to your customers.
  • You have buy-in: The bigger your company, the more stakeholders you need to manage. It’s good to get things done, and it’s also good to keep people in the loop who also interact with customers or care about this. Use your best judgment on who may want to see what you’re doing. If you get resistance, try to get support for an experiment of doing them.

If you’ve done those 3 things, you’re ready to apply these tactics to make an awesome product / feature update.

1) Start with a “Thank You”

Every product update I take the time to write out a list of thank yous to customers that took time to report bugs, share feedback, answer questions, or do customer development interviews.

This costs you *nothing*, but can mean a lot.

First, you’re letting people know you were really listening. It reminds them that their input matters and the time they took out of their day to email you, hop on a call, or beta test a feature was worth it.

It also creates a reinforcing loop:

  • You thank someone for feedback.
  • Others see that you thanked people for feedback and it gets them thinking about giving feedback.
  • Coworkers see their colleague’s name and talk about it, think about using the product more, and consider giving feedback as well.
  • Next month, the list grows, and you have more people to thank.

Immediately after I give thank you shout outs, I also then remind people just how easy it is to give us feedback, so I teach more customers what to do:

Remember: You want a product people LOVE or HATE.

Silence is your enemy.

Make more people care by letting them know you’re listening. The feedback and problems they share help you build a better product, and improve adoption throughout a company or network.

 

2) Tell your story

Every product has a mission and vision. As a product manager, you need to understand and lead that vision. It should impact everything you do, including what you write in your product updates.

The best way to manage expectations with customers is to guide them on the journey of your product.

Ask yourself questions like:

  • Where is our product heading? What is the big picture?
  • Why are we heading in that direction?
  • How does our direction help our customers be more awesome?
  • What won’t we be doing? Why not those things?

As you explain each update and change, you should keep those questions in mind. Make sure what you tell people aligns with that goal.

For example, with Lighthouse, our focus is on making managers great. We know they’re busy, so things like speed and performance in our product is as important as a new, shiny feature. We need to work reliably for them.

That meant that when we had a product outage due to Mandrill failing, we decide to switch providers to Postmark. Here’s how we framed that:

tell a story to your customers

Obviously, this is a very simple version of a story. For new, big features, there’s *a lot* more I would speak to explaining how we think it fits their workflow, why it matters, and how it fits into everything they do.

 

3) Explain your reasoning

While telling your story is important, it’s also helpful to have a rational side to it. What was the motivation for this decision?

If you’re doing product management right, you already wrote a product spec or product thesis that explains to your internal team why you’re choosing to work on this feature next. You should translate that same quantitative and qualitative data to a version that makes sense to share with your customers.

As Sinofsky points out, if you don’t give people a reason, they’ll make one up. So plan to give them a good one.

A feature can be commonly requested, but you don’t build it because it doesn’t fit your vision and mission. A feature can also be less commonly requested, but only because people can’t use your product until you build an integration they would need.

Either way, you would want to explain your decision. Tell people why you chose this of all the things you could do.

Maybe you have a Slack integration, and with all the hype and press around Microsoft Teams, you realize it makes sense to allow MS Teams users to do what you already allow in Slack.

Or maybe your company is moving up market and that means building some permissioning, and security is now more important. Your SMB customers may not be as excited, but if you can help paint the picture that, “one day your business may grow and you’ll want to use these, too” can give them a better feeling about it.  Explaining the upmarket move can then also signal to your handful of current, big customers that you are investing more in what matters to them.

If you just say, “We built some new security features” with a list of bullets, you give your customers no idea why.  Do better than that.

 

4) Paint a picture of the future

Your product update is a snapshot in time. It’s one step in an endless journey towards (or keeping) product-market fit.

As important as it is to explain what you built and launched this time, you also should paint a picture for the future. Help people understand and anticipate what is coming.

The key here is to strike a balance. You do *not* want to publish your whole roadmap; it can change too much, and you want to give yourself some flexibility.

At the same time, if people know how you’re thinking and what you’re working towards, they can help you in a variety of ways:

  • Volunteer to give feedback: If they know you’re building things they’d like, they’re more likely to reach out.
  • Good customers stay: Most people hate switching products. If they feel like you’re heading in the right direction, they’ll give you time to fix problems and get there.
  • Tell their friends/colleagues: When a product “just gets me”, you’re much more likely to rave to friends about it. By telling your story for features and where you’re heading, it builds excitement and anticipation for your best fit customers.

give a teaser of coming attractions

Strike the right balance on what you share

Giving just the right amount of detail on the future is definitely a learned skill. However, as a starting point, I like to do the following:

  • Talk about things under construction: If you’re already committed to and building something it’s pretty safe to hint at it by showing a small snippet, or explaining what it will do.
  • Focus on themes: Rather than listing the 27 things you hope to do (and could change), tell them thematically about your goal or vision. This could be like saying we’re going to “allow you to do key activities on your phone you told us are important when on the go” instead of listing mobile app features.

 

5) Seek feedback and input

You should never send something product related that is “no reply”, and this is especially the case for product updates. If people have something to say about what you built, make it as easy as possible for them to share their thoughts.

You can then use this to also recruit people for future customer development based on the upcoming features you’re going to launch, or to get people to take a survey.

The more you show you’re listening and acting in their interest, the more engaged your customer base becomes.

Creating a virtuous feedback cycle

When I joined KISSmetrics, they were getting about 10 pieces of customer feedback a week from our feedback box in the product. Unfortunately, no one on the team was replying to those for a variety of reasons.

Through being more customer driven, replying to those messages, and sending notes like I’m outlining today, we were able to boost that to getting over 50 pieces of feedback (5X) a week while the customer base grew about 2.5X. This helped us catch and fix bugs faster, and more easily get insights from our customers.

The easier you make it to give feedback, and the more you respond and act on what you receive, the more feedback you’ll get from customers.

Before long, you’ll find it’s really easy to find and recruit customers for new feature feedback and customer development.

 

one size fits none, be specific

Adapt this to fit your business and audience.

With my startup, Lighthouse, we sell to managers. They’re generally in an office and live in email. This makes an email update great.

Once a month is a good cadence for us to send an update out as it’s a couple sprints, and usually enough to fill up a good update.  It also is a frequency that resonates with our audience as they do a lot of their projects in monthly increments.

Your business may be different, so consider changes to what I’ve outlined here like:

  • Message on another platform: Can you tell them in Slack, via a small text, or somewhere else they’re most likely to check?
  • Tweak the frequency: Update your customers as often as you think fits your update cadence and your customers want them. More, shorter updates, or fewer, longer may make sense.
  • Use another format: If you’re a video platform, then video updates probably are better. If your business includes a really popular podcast, maybe a quick audio clip.
  • Show your personality: This is a huge opportunity to build your brand, so put some of your company’s personality into it. If your company is nerdy, be nerdy, if it’s playful or irreverent, be irreverent, and if you’re really formal, then your update should be, too.
  • Involve the right people: Who has the strongest relationship with your customers? They should be in the loop on this. For example, if you have account managers it may be best to have them get the word out, at which point you could draft something they can copy/paste and adapt.

The best way to get to the right format and approach for your customer is to listen and iterate. Get the right people involved in your company and start trying things.

As you build the habit of doing this, you’ll see more of what works and doesn’t so you can work towards getting messages like this from your customers:

 

How do you update your customers about changes and improvements to your product? Share your favorite tactic in the comments so everyone can learn.

Calming the Angry Elephant: How to Communicate with Customers During a Product Crisis

So you have a crisis. Your product went down. Your site or reports froze.

Emails weren’t sent…or maybe they did…100 times instead of once.

Whatever it is, your product didn’t do the job your customers hired it for.

When disaster strikes, you have two choices: Hide from it, or face it down.

Hiding will cost you.

How you react will directly affect your customer churn or renewal rates, what your customers will do (do they tweet about it? Do the offer to help?), and the morale of your team.

That’s why, if you’re the product manager, and there’s an issue with the product you’re in charge of, you need to take the lead to help communicate with your customers about it.

You can’t often do much to help engineering do their jobs, so helping with communication internally and externally can be really valuable to reduce distractions for them and show you’re doing your part.

You also then build a culture of facing problems down directly.

My team knows that if anyone finds a bug or problem, the first question will be, “who is affected?” followed by, “can you get me a list of their names and emails?” (More on this shortly).

Today, I’ll share how you can lessen the long term damage, and even earn some good will in a tough situation with your product.

What PMs should do first in a Product Crisis

Ever had a wave of upset customers mad about your product? I’ve been there.

I first learned about dealing with such issues when I was at KISSmetrics. We ran into some serious tech debt / scaling issues that led to angry tweets, lots of support tickets, and even AdWords run against us by our cutthroat competitor, MixPanel:

While there’s nothing you can say or do that will save you if the problem continues, the right message at the right time can buy you time to address it, and relieve a great deal of tension.

Here’s how to approach it:

1) Communicate internally

This is one of those times all those soft skills of being a product manager come into play:

  • Your customers are stressed: They can’t use your product as intended for the reason(s) they pay you for it.
  • Your product team is stressed: They’re scrambling to understand and resolve the issue.
  • Your company is stressed: Everyone from sales to customer success to executives will hear about a big issue. And they often won’t be able to do anything about except add more pressure to the situation.

As a product manager, you need to step up your game and work to communicate with everyone calmly and effectively.

Be a source of calm…

The first thing you need to do is relax. As leader, it’s important to be calm and under control. Understanding the problem and having a plan should give you reason to be confident when communicating internally, then later externally, about the problem.

Don’t understand the problem? Then, that’s priority one.

Ask the basics:

  • What happened?
  • Who is affected?
  • Why did it happen? (If you can get to the root cause)
  • Is it ongoing or are things back up and running?
  • What is the estimate to a fix?

If you know those basics, you can help your team by starting to communicate with those that need to be in the loop. Those can be people like the sales and customer success teams you interface with, and of course any other key stakeholders.

From there, you can start looking at how to communicate with customers.

2) Use the right level response for the size of the problem, and the size of your company

This advice applies most to small startups and businesses (1-50 employees). As you grow, you’ll likely have a more resilient product, a full marketing team to support you, and set policies to follow.

However, regardless of your company’s size, it’s very beneficial to understand what your plans would be in the event of a crisis. By the time something happens, it’s a lot harder and more stressful to come up with it on the fly.

You also want to scale your response to the size of the problem.

Find out who is affected. Only send a response to them, especially if it’s a small group

I like to send personal emails (or work with account managers/customer reps) for small groups affected. Then, for bigger groups, I’ll ask an engineer for a list of every customer affected with their name and email in CSV. That makes it easy to quickly import that list into your favorite email marketing tool to fire off such a note.

tell your boss about the product crisis

3) Always keep your boss in the loop

Finally, use your best judgment and run any plan like this by your boss.

Whether that’s the CEO, a product leader, or a founder, they’re going to have opinions, thoughts, and concerns as your product crisis unfolds. And if you’re not updating them, they’re going to ask you, or go bug your team for updates.

While we’re focusing today on communicating with your customers, many of these same approaches can also help in managing up with your boss.

As important as it is to update them, it’s also a good idea to get their approval for sending the kind of note we suggest. They can help with a quick proof read of your email before sending, so it fits the desired tone, and make them feel a part of the solution, too.

angry customers

How to Communicate with Customers During a Product Crisis

When reports started getting slow at KISSmetrics, at first we hid from the issue. We assumed it was just some edge cases, and maybe it would go away. (It didn’t.)

Instead, it got worse.

Finally, we decided we needed to say something, so our VP of Product and Engineering wrote an email we sent to customers.

And then we braced.

We didn’t know how customers would react, and so we hoped for the best and prepared for the worst.

Fortunately, the immediate response was incredibly supportive. Suddenly, the elephant in the room was gone, and we could focus on improving things for customers without fear of how they’d react.

Since then I’ve used the same approach, and learned a few key additions that have helped me with products I’ve worked on and a number of my friends do the same.

Here’s a few keys when you need to write the note:

show empathy to your customers and their situation

1) Show empathy

If your product matters, which if people buy it, it must be important to them, then showing you appreciate its importance can help a lot.

Speak to the use cases you know the problem impacts like “your ability to have those numbers for your weekly marketing meeting” or “your ability to properly prepare for your 1 on 1s with your team members.”

If you don’t know how your customers use your product, then it’s time to figure it out. Pay attention to what people are quite possibly screaming to support about that they really need, and speak their language.

When people feel heard and understood, they are more likely to be calm and understanding. When you show empathy to them, they’re more likely to show empathy for you.

Put this early in your note to customers.

self deprecation is an asset here

2) Call yourself every name in the book

This isn’t a joke. You’re showing that you know it’s bad, and you need to do better.

By bravely standing up and admitting a mistake or error happened, you show leadership.

I learned this from Dale Carnegie’s leadership classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People:

“Say about yourself all the derogatory things you know the other person is thinking or wants to say or intends to say – and say them before that person has a chance to say them.

The chances are a hundred to one that a generous, forgiving attitude will be taken and your mistakes will be minimized.”

It may seem counter-intuitive at first, but if you try it, you will be amazed at how well it works.

Caution: You win and lose as a team

Do not throw any team members under the bus. Stick to we’s and group/company wide acceptance of responsibility. Emotions will be running high as your engineering team works hard to fix it, so the last thing you want to do is to pile on more stress or frustration by calling them out.

And even if say a now-fired engineer deleted a database, or someone made a big error, your company still bears the responsibility; your company hired the wrong person, or failed to have effective safeguards to prevent such an incident. Finger pointing gets you nowhere.

Importantly, by calling yourself out, you save your customers from having to. This can prevent many angry tweets, or a large, public outcry.

Best of all, when you do self-deprecate over an issue, as Dale Carnegie teaches, there’s really only one thing left for them to do: be magnanimous and forgive you. “Oh it wasn’t *that* bad. I’ll live.”

we have a plan

3) Talk about what you’re doing about it

This is a great excuse to work with your engineering team to understand the technical side of your product better. When they’re not in full crisis mode, or they take a break, sit down with someone on the team to get a layman’s term explanation of what happened.

From there, you convey however much you and the team are comfortable stating about what happened, and then most importantly, you look to the future on what you’re doing about it.

You see this a lot in the world of engineering products. They’ll actively tweet out about an issue and then even share the post mortem publicly for other engineers to see what they learned.

While that may be overkill or not relevant to your market, explaining what you’re doing to prevent the issue going forward definitely is important.  Doing so builds confidence that this will be an isolated incident, or you can warn them, “We’re making this fix now, and a broader fix will take X weeks, so let us know if you experience issues in the coming days.”

This is the best way to end your note to customers about your product crisis.

 

Putting it all together.

Here’s an example note I sent to customers in 2017 when we accidentally emailed people 7 prep emails in the morning for each of their 1 on 1s that day. For some people that meant a busy day of 1 on 1s caused them to be sent 50+ emails in just a few minutes.

example product apology note

Now, this isn’t the biggest failure ever, but it was an opportunity to set the standard we own up to mistakes they’ll certainly notice.

And the response was exactly as we hoped:

apology note response example 1 apology note response example 1

Our response looked personal, but with a little planning, it was all automated and totally scalable to the size of that issue and others like it.

You can see a similar message here:

 

The bigger the issue, the more the detail you’d put in the note, and the more you’d be self-deprecating. Use your best judgement and fit the culture of your company for how to specifically frame it.

Update! Buffer has a fantastic example of this with a recent issue:

 

 

 

 

I also like a couple things extra they did here:

In addition to covering the basics we outlined in this post, there’s a couple extra things that the note does that are worth calling out:

  1. It’s from the CTO: Showing this issue was given attention all the way to the top of the organization.
  2. They thanked their customers: When someone helps out, it’s always good to thank them for their contribution.
  3. Reinforce behavior you want: By continually setting an example and stating how they like their customers to act, it helps reinforce customers should behave that way. This is why it’s better to say, “Thanks for your patience” instead of “Sorry for bugging you.”

Note: This is not a silver bullet.

In the end, this approach will buy you time and earn some good will. It helps you be a part of the solution with your team and sets a good precedent for communicating with your customer transparently about issues.

However, much like in baseball, “3 strikes you’re out.”

If this happens too often, no amount of well crafted apologies will save you.

You have to fix the issue and do better going forward, and then it will be a distant memory in your customers mind, and you can get back to making more awesome stuff.

How has your product team handle crises? Would love to hear your stories of what’s worked in the comments.

 


>>> Are you passionate about building great products & live in New York City?

I just moved to NY and am looking to connect with other people that love building great products to share tactics, fresh ideas, and cool products.

Interested? Reach out on Twitter (I’m @Evanish) and let’s get coffee.

Not in NY? Follow me on Twitter and let’s keep in touch there.

Why You Want to be the *Second* 1st PM

Wait, what??? What is a “second” first?

If you’ve been a first product manager (PM) at a company before you know what this means. For the rest, let’s take a look.

What is a first PM?

The first product manager (PM) is exactly what it sounds like: it’s the first product manager hired at a company.

Typically, that means you’re taking over for one of the founders who is now too busy to handle the responsibilities.

In other cases, the company has not really had anyone serve as product manager, and finally hits a point where they recognize the team needs stronger product direction and focus than a variety of people can figure out ad hoc.

In both cases, that usually happens somewhere between employee #8 and 20. So the team is small enough to be nimble, but big enough to make some serious progress.

So what’s a *second* first PM?

Joining a company as first PM is a big risk. The company usually has some traction but not a lot. They’ve likely raised some money (or have substantial revenue), but not tens of millions in the bank.

However, that’s not the greatest risk.

The greatest risk is that the founders that hired you don’t know what they really need.

Unfortunately, the first first PM often ends up being a sacrificial lamb so that the company can figure out what they really need in product leadership.

Today, we take a look at why it happens, and what product people considering being a first PM should think about before taking such a role.

 

The Unique Challenges of the 1st PM

The first PM is a special job. You’re coming in to bring order to chaos, and disciplined habits to a company with some (or a lot of) traction.

With that comes a lot of challenges starting on Day 1:

1) Metrics: You may or may not have *any* metrics, which makes decision making looking back hard. If there are some analytics implemented, you’ll likely be the first person to seriously look at them regularly and use them to make product decisions.

2) Resources: The team may or may not be fully staffed. Chances are you’ll be working with a mix of junior hustlers who were early and are “figuring it out as they go” and the first executives brought in to bring order and scale. In particular, you may not have a full time designer to work with.

3) Process: Unfortunately, what worked in the “Figure it out” mode of early days, doesn’t work so well with a dozen engineers and a growing roadmap. You have to work hard to get buy in so that a little process can help everyone’s work go more smoothly. Sometimes, founders can be the most resistant to this.

4) Founder Passion: Giving up their baby to let you run product can be really hard. A founder’s vision & gut for what is “right” has gotten them incredibly far, and now you need to work with them to chart the right course forward. There’s a fine line between executing their vision, and being stuck forced to build things they want that you know aren’t the most important thing.

5) Founder experience: If they’ve never worked with a PM before, they may not know what that really means. Given how vague product responsibilities and outputs often are, it’s not uncommon to hear “I like how this project/new feature is going, but I have no idea how you’re contributing to that.” 

Now, these challenges make the job uniquely difficult, but also can generally can be overcome as long as you don’t face too many of the above issues together.

Unfortunately, it’s their combination with the 2 biggest factors below that leads to a first PM’s departure, and a second 1st PM being hired.

 

Why the *first* 1st PM often ultimately fails

Most 1st PMs are experienced product leaders. Whether they’ve been a product manager for years, or started their own companies, they’re generally very T-shaped employees that know how to deal with a variety of challenges.

Despite this, being the first 1st PM still does not work out in a lot of cases. I’ve seen this firsthand and commiserated with fellow PMs who have been through it.

So what are they unable to overcome? Why do they ultimately fail?

1) The founders don’t know what they really want and need

The earlier a startup is, the more haphazard the hiring process is. At 10-20 employees, they often don’t have a recruiter (or often any HR) on staff, so they’re making it up as go as they hire people. This means many hires are directly from their network or referrals from there, without a lot of vetting.

With all the problems that have built up leading them to realize it’s finally time to hire a product manager, they start asking around for product people they know.

Eventually, someone gets introduced to them that understands this early stage startup world. In the interview they’ll be able to point out some obvious problems the product or product team has with plausible solutions.

This makes the founder think, “Yes. I need this person to solve these problems!”

Unfortunately, when they hire this person, they later realize that while those problems did need fixed, they weren’t *the most important thing* they needed in a PM.

Instead, these founders slowly discover that the skills of the PM they hired don’t align as well as they hoped:

  • Market: Are they well-suited for the nature of your market? Do they relate well to your target customer?
  • Stage: Are they comfortable with where your business is in finding product/market fit? Pre-P/M fit requires a level of experimentation and exploration some PMs can be very uncomfortable with, and is very different work than post P/M fit.
  • Non-Technical: Is it a very technical product? Then your UX issues may seem glaring now, but won’t matter when you’re trying to make core feature innovations quickly.
  • Too-Technical: Is technology not the most important differentiator in your market? Then, a technical PM may relate well to a technical founder, but not bring the customer empathy or design skills that are more important in your market.
  • Rapport: The PM and the founder they report to have to build a very close relationship. If they think too differently, or clash in personality, it won’t work.
  • Culture: How the company operates often follows the habits of the founders. If they’re disorganized it can be very hard for a process-driven PM to bring in process and get buy in from colleagues if the founder isn’t supportive of those changes.

Hiring a first PM is like the story of Goldilocks; you have to try a few to find the one that’s “just right.”

Unfortunately, first PMs often end up being like Goldilock’s first bowl of porridge; not quite right.

Given product management comes in many different flavors, it’s easy for founders to choose the wrong one for any of the above reasons, or similar ones.

Note: this post does a great job of grouping and explaining different types of PMs.

2) The company isn’t fully established

The other side of the coin is that this is still an early stage company. Even if at the time you hired them, the PM is the exact right fit technically, market-wise, and culturally, it still may not work.

Why? Because if your company makes a major change, so does the PM you need:

  • B2B vs. B2C: If you take the leap from consumer to being a B2B product, there’s a good chance that your first PM won’t be the right fit on the other side.
  • Moving Up or Down Market: Someone great at building for the enterprise with many stakeholders and permissions leveling may not be good at building for SMBs who are used to free trials, and a self-serve approach.
  • Solution format: If you were a consulting and services heavy business it’s great if they’re from that world as well, right until you want to build a product that stands on its own without any of that.
  • Industry passion: Just because the PM was excited by your original mission and industry does not mean they’ll still be in love with your business if you suddenly have a whole new customer base to work with that’s very different.

On top of all this, as other roles are hired, what the PM needs to do could change, too. For example, if you hire an amazing designer who loves usability research, then a PM strong in that is less important than another unfilled gap.

One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.

Due to all these factors we’ve explored, the first PM ends up being a very expensive learning experience for both the PM and the company.

The company learns all the things they really need in a PM, and the things they really don’t. They can now confidently write a much more specific job description, and will be more precise in how they source, filter, and evaluate candidates.

Meanwhile, the first PM is likely feeling pretty burned out and frustrated. They fought many unwinnable battles, and in the end saw that they were never in a position to succeed. They may have even raised concerns during the interview about issues that ended up being foreshadowing of exactly what would go wrong.

This first PM has a short, challenging stint at a company on their resume, and leaves either saying “What if?” or “Glad I’m outta there.”

The second first PM then reaps all the benefits.

The glory of being the *second* 1st PM

Being the second 1st PM has all the benefits of being the first PM, but few of the drawbacks.

There are many reasons it’s fun and tempting to be that first PM:

  1. Prestige: It’s really cool to be the first product person in the door. You call many of the shots, you get to bring in process *your way*, and put your stamp on a product with some momentum.
  2. Equity: A good first PM can get a sizeable stock grant (0.2 – 1%) depending on pedigree and need, so the upside can be high.
  3. Challenge: If you like rolling up your sleeves and making something from (almost) nothing, this is an amazing role, with other awesome, hungry, hard working people to go with it.
  4. Growth: If the company succeeds and grows (which you play a key role in), you get to build a product organization, growing into a management track.

And unlike the *first* 1st PM, you are being hired with a much clearer picture of what they need; they’ll have learned from their mistakes the first time around.

This is why being the second 1st PM is one of the rare times it’s *not* a red flag that you’re applying for a role that is being back-filled.

In fact, it’s better than hearing it’s a brand new role, because you get some extra things that were created thanks to the efforts of the now departed first first PM:

  • Buy in: After what the other PM started, there is more support by the whole team and especially founders to make changes. They likely hired you specifically for skills and changes they now know they need.
  • Momentum: Chances are the first PM laid a foundation that gives the second 1st PM things to work with; they’ll have some analytics tracking set up, some semblance of project management, etc so you have the basic tools you need to do your job from Day 1.
  • Potential: The company is now a bit further along, a bit more traction, a few more key hires. So while you get the title, equity, responsibility, and opportunity, there’s a bit more certainty in the business so you can be confident in the opportunity.

I was a second 1st PM.

I’ve had a few friends go through being the first 1st PM and run into the challenges outlined, and once I heard their stories, I realized how much I benefited in being the *second* 1st PM at KISSmetrics:

  • Foundation: The first 1st PM had gotten us started on a number of key things I could pick up with: processes, customer lists, habits, etc.
  • Buy in: The team was experiencing a bunch of challenges as the 1st PM had left a few months earlier. They knew exactly what they needed this time, and were supportive of what I wanted to do from Day 1.
  • Opportunity: An amazing VP Sales had just come on, the business had hundreds of paying customers, Series A was raised, and it was clear what they needed and that I could run with it. I couldn’t ask for more.

At the time, I didn’t appreciate the battles that had already been won, and the buy in that I inherited.  Now, I do.

To all the first 1st PMs, who often don’t vest any equity, and found a huge difference between promises during recruiting versus reality, we salute you. It’s not a job for the faint of heart, but there’s another PM who greatly benefited from your hard work.

What if I’m interviewing to be a first PM?

If you’re interviewing at a company that is hiring their first product manager, be sure to ask if they’ve already had a 1st PM before.

Their answer will be very revealing, and helps dictate what you do next…

If you’re the second 1st PM

Dig into what the founders learned from the first PM. Find out why they think the other PM didn’t work out.

Look for signs that what they need is what you can do, and that they’re accountable to their side of what went wrong (or you may be set up to fail, too). The more thoughtful and introspective they are, and the more what they describe are things that you’re great at, the better your chance of success.

You also likely would benefit from networking your way to that first 1st PM. They likely know the skeletons in the closet and can give you an alternate perspective on the company. Then, you can work to discern the truth that is somewhere between what they and the founders tell you.

Not all previous PMs will want to talk, so if they decline speaking with you, respect their privacy. Instead, look for other ways to learn about the company like Glassdoor, asking others you may know there, etc.

Meanwhile, if you’re the first 1st PM

Go in with eyes wide open. Proceed with caution!

Unfortunately, no matter your optimism, or pre-existing relationship, there is a high chance you won’t work out.  Make sure it’s the right time in your career for the risk, you’re confident in the founder you’ll report to, and you can work from day 1 to iterate to what they need.

Once you’re there (or if you’re already the first 1st PM) a few things that can help:

  • Understand why you’re there: One of the biggest challenges of the 1st PM is turning a vaguely defined role and need into a clear cut set of goals you can achieve. Spending time with the founders to clarify everything can help you start on the right foot.
    • How to do it: Take another look at the job description and what you learned while interviewing. Talk with the founders to confirm what they need most, then deliver on those things as best you can.
  • Over-communicate: Building trust and confidence with the founder you report to is essential. You need to calibrate with them so they understand what you do and why, while also understanding their vision and expectations.
    • How to do it: Use 1 on 1s, weekly emails, get their feedback pre-launch, and give them access to the tools you use so they can see what’s happening.
  • Create a clear plan: Make a 30-60-90 day plan of what you are going to do, why you chose those things, and mutually agreed upon success metrics. This helps them understand how you think, and make sure you’re heading in a direction they agree with.
    • How to do it: A Google doc with bullet points is often all you need, and allows them to comment and ask questions easily. Then keep updating and reviewing it as you pass those monthly milestones.

There are definitely times where the 1st PM has worked out the first time, so it is possible. However, whatever vetting you typically do for a role, triple it before taking such a role, or even consider consulting as a way to try before you buy if you’re unsure.

Is a 1st PM role right for you?

Being a first PM can be a great way to learn quickly, level up your career, and work with amazing people. It can also turn into a short stint on your resume, cause burnout, and create deep feelings of frustration over what could have been.

If you’re thinking about becoming a first PM, realize it’s very different than just about any other product role you can have. Take your time, talk to others who have been 1st PMs, and make sure it’s what you really want.

Have you been a first PM? Please share your story in the comments so others can learn from your experience.


>>> Are you passionate about building great products & live in New York City?

I just moved to NY and am looking to connect with other people that love building great products to share tactics, fresh ideas, and cool products.

Interested? Reach out on Twitter (I’m @Evanish) and let’s get coffee.

Not in NY? Follow me on Twitter and let’s keep in touch there.

Peer 1-1s: The Missing Habit Separating Good and Great Product Managers

There are many skills that go into being a great product manager, and one of the most underrated is communication, as these Silicon Valley product leaders emphasize:

“As a product manager, it is imperative that you understand the company’s overall goals and objectives and exactly how your team fits in to the broader vision.Josh Elman

“We lead by example. We succeed by making others successful. We listen first and make certain that others feel that they’ve been heard. We pursue diverse opinions. We rally our teams behind a vision that yields passion and commitment. We value and foster strong team relationships.” – Satya Patel

“Good product managers communicate crisply to engineering in writing as well as verbally. Good product managers don’t give direction informally. Good product managers gather information informally.”Ben Horowitz

You can be the best former engineer or designer, but if you can’t communicate, not only with your product team, but the broader company, you’ll struggle.

Great Product Managers communicate beyond their teams.

While it’s important to develop great written communication skills, informal, verbal communication skills are just as valuable.

When you are working with other departments to either gather customer insights or share with them a new feature launch, you’re exercising crucial communication skills.

Now, you could just blast off an email, internal survey, or update a wiki page and consider your work done. However, you’re missing out on crucial relationship building and major learning opportunities. Every moment of contact with another team in your company is a leadership and learning opportunity for product managers.

The Secret, Winning Habit of Great PMs

When you’re a product manager you have to influence people, because you have limited power on your own. You need to get buy in to accomplish anything.

And to be a product manager people enjoy working with instead of loathe, you want to be a trusted, respected colleague, not a politician or Machiavellian monster.

And the best way to build that trust and respect? Peer 1 on 1s.

What’s a Peer 1 on 1?

Peer 1 on 1s are a secret weapon for many great companies. They help fellow managers commiserate and support one another, and teams that interact regularly work together better. Usually, these meetings happen every 4-12 weeks, depending on what the two people involved feel is the best frequency.

As a product manager, having semi-regular check-ins with key members of teams you work or interact with can be priceless. It gives you a chance to give and receive feedback, hear new perspectives, gather customer data from new sources, answer product questions, and build rapport with them.

It can also ensure that people understand how you approach product decisions. You may be crushing it as a PM, but that doesn’t mean everyone else sees it that way. Product people have some of the greatest visibility across an organization, which can make it easy to forget that not everyone knows everything you do.

Who should product managers have peer 1 on 1s with?

The culture of your company and the nature of your product can make this vary, so use your best judgment when you apply this to your job.  For me, I was leading product at a 20-30 person SaaS startup, and so I will share what I found worked there based on the advice I received.

1) Your Product Team

Your engineers have an entire engineering org that decides their compensation, job title, and work. All you can do is influence what is worked on next and collaborate with them on making the best (not just good enough) solution. The same goes for designers.

When your team is small, meeting once every month or two with everyone can help ensure you stay on the same page and fix problems. Identifying a bottleneck, something frustrating, or a blind spot can save your team hours, days, or even weeks of lost time from infighting, inefficiency, or poor decisions.

You may also find opportunities to help them understand how you make decisions. This can reduce resistance to changes you propose and open up constructive feedback to communicating with them and their colleagues.

Everyone?!? At first, yes.

When you’re small (7 or fewer designers + engineers), meeting with each person can ensure your processes are working well and ensure everyone feels heard.

As you grow, focusing on the team leads who you work with most can help you scale. They can be a voice for their team. Assuming the design and engineering team leads have one on ones with their teams, they can raise with you any concerns they hear from their teams. (Note: it can help to remind the lead in advance to ask their team before you meet.)

Peer one on ones are a great way to take the temperature of your product team. If when you meet with them, they clam up, refuse the meeting, or seem combative, that’s a major signal you have work to do to improve your teamwork.

Having a good relationship with the product teams you work with is table stakes as a Product Manager. Yet, many PMs mess this up. Good peer one on ones are a good option to improve the relationships no matter your situation with your team.

2) Customer Facing Departments

As a PM, one of your most important jobs is to understand your customer better than anyone. There are only so many hours in the day, so even if you’re awesome and talk to multiple customers every day, you should still look for ways to get additional perspectives. And the best place to get those are others at your company.

Ask yourself: who else regularly interacts with customers?

  1. Customer Success / Support
  2. Sales
  3. Account management

In many orgs those three departments are off in a different area of the company reporting to a different C Level leader than you. They may literally be on a different floor or in an entirely different office. Because of this, it’s easy for sales and product to develop different cultures and even some animosity.

Break down the silos with communication.

Product managers are the perfect people to break down those barriers. You’re probably already working with them more than you realize.

Product people often get pulled into sales calls on the biggest deals, and help launch new features that success teams must document and support. They’re also driving the roadmap that ambitious sales people may use to excite prospects.

When I was running product at KISSmetrics I met with all those groups. And in each case I had two goals:

  1. Find out any lessons I should take back to the product team about customers.
  2. Answer their questions and concerns they have about product today and in the future.

So I set up regular peer 1 on 1s with people from sales, customers success, and account management.

Here’s some of the kinds of questions I’d ask to make the most of the meetings:

Customer Success / Support:

  • What are you sick of answering over and over for customers?
  • What bugs do you find you have to help users work around most often?
  • How can I make your life easier when we launch new features or make changes in the product?

These questions help improve our process around launching new features, updating FAQs, and identifying existing problems in the product we should fix. Few things make success team members stuck on the hamster wheel of never ending tickets feel better than having things that drive them crazy in the product fixed.

Sales:

  • What are common product-related issues that are causing us to lose deals?
  • What features get leads most excited about our product?
  • Are there any areas of the product that are unclear to you that I can help you understand better or fall flat in your demos?

These questions often required me to do a little 5 why’s to dig deeper to really understand and get them out of their sales mindset. Yet, with a little effort, I often found gold when I did. It also helped me better understand how my conversations with customers compared to those by sales. There’s a lot of great customer problem knowledge trapped in your head as a PM. Transferring it to sales team members can drive revenue for your company.

Account Management:

  • What features do you find you have to explain to customers the most? What’s most confusing?
  • Where in onboarding do users tend to get stuck most? How do you help them?
  • What could product do to make your job easier/better?

The people that help customers get activated will know many of the pain points that are affecting your onboarding funnel. Much like Customer Success team members, removing friction they deal with every day can really make their day, and help your customers.

Peer 1 on 1s are a privilege, not a right.

I worked hard to ask lots of questions and be helpful in these meetings. After the first meeting, I expected they would be prepared as well. I only continued meeting with people that truly brought good data, ideas, and/or concrete feedback. Otherwise the 30-60 minutes we would meet could be better spent elsewhere.

This was a challenge, especially in sales. Not all sales people really get to know their customers, but the best ones did. The best could coherently explain why we lost a deal versus just trying to ask me for every feature a competitor had.

The same was sometimes true in success; I didn’t want to know what happened that they remembered today. I wanted numbers so I knew how big a problem it was.

This then helped me make the business case when trying to decide between building something new we could sell and fixing what we had. When you can prove someone that costs $35 per hour is wasting 10 hours a week on something and it affects customers X, Y, and Z, it’s much easier to justify a change.

Build a Customer Driven Culture

When I set out to have these meetings, I was just trying to get more data and feedback to do my job as a PM better. A great byproduct of the meetings ended up being that everyone in the company became more customer driven.

As I met with people more regularly, and they saw me take action on their feedback, it created a positive feedback loop. The more I listened and demonstrated I heard them, the more they wanted to provide more valuable insights and contribute. That led to more discussions about approaches they could use in their job to get me better data and good questions to ask customers.

Patterns converge

What was particularly fascinating to me was that quite often, I would hear similar things from the majority of people I would talk to; often an issue in product would impact everyone in different ways, whether it made a sale harder, increased support tickets, or changed how account managers taught our product.

By empowering all of them to share with me what they were experiencing and teaching them how to best do so, they helped me better triangulate customer needs and calculate fully their impact. With everything else on everyone’s plates, this would never have happened without regularly scheduled meetings to talk about it.

There’s always more work to be done than time for a product manager. Taking the time to have peer 1 on 1s with key members of teams you work with can be an invaluable part of your processes as a product leader.

Want to work with a product person that lives this customer driven approach every day?

If you’re an engineer in San Francisco interested in joining a fast growing, early stage startup, I’d love to talk to you about how my startup, Lighthouse, can be a great opportunity for you. Send me an email at jason at getlighthouse dot com and tell me a bit about yourself.

To New Beginnings: TCN Acquires Greenhorn Connect

Dear Boston,

5 short years ago, Ashkan Afkhami and I were sitting on Northeastern’s campus talking about Boston’s startup community and what could be done to help better organize everything it had to offer.

Not long after that, I found myself at the unConference at Sun Microsystem in Burlington listening to Scott Kirsner and Tim Rowe’s “TurboCharging the Entrepreneurial Culture in Massachusetts” session where they talked about how there needed to be a central place for all the resources and events in Boston’s tech scene. On that day, I nervously raised my hand declaring I wanted to take on that challenge.

That was the day Greenhorn Connect was born.

These last 5 years have been amazing. We’ve seen so much growth in the ecosystem and played a small part in making it better. We’ve helped many find jobs, connected thousands with the resources they need, and been a voice for the community.  I’m proud to have been part of making that a reality and honored to have had a great team and community partners help Greenhorn Connect thrive over the years.

From the beginning, I had the goal of Greenhorn Connect helping organize the Boston tech community and making it easier for newcomers 10 years after its start. Now, after 5 successful years of Greenhorn’s life, I realize that fresh ideas and new, local leadership can take Greenhorn Connect to places in the next 5 years I never could.

That’s why I’m excited to announce that TCN, The Capital Network, is acquiring Greenhorn Connect. Of all the organizations I spoke to about Greenhorn Connect, TCN had the best combination of resources and a shared vision for serving the Boston startup community. I am excited they’re taking the reigns to lead us into the second half of that goal.

Greenhorn Connect has always been resource constrained with our small, passionate team, and TCN will be able to alleviate some of that by mixing our team with theirs. Our teams have complementary skills and established relationships, which will enhance and grow both missions.

TCN is committed to continuing our current programming and building on what we’ve created. Expect to see our Student Dinners starting this fall and the Greenhorn Summit is very far along in planning for our annual fall event.

I want to thank Paul, Ariel, and Eric for being awesome throughout this process and I’m excited to see what they can do with TCN as the next chapter in Greenhorn’s history is written.

As for me, Tim Rowe told me once, “it takes as much effort to start something small as it does something big.” I’m excited to put that to the test as I set out on the next steps in my startup career.  I’m currently applying all that I learned in building, managing, and ultimately selling Greenhorn Connect to my next venture already in progress: Lighthouse, an app to help you be a better manager.

Thanks to everyone that has helped Greenhorn Connect along the way. This day would never have come without you.

Thanks,

Jason


 

PS: I’d like to call out in particular a handful of people that have been instrumental in Greenhorn Connect’s history.

To key supporters, Thank YOU

  • Scott Kirsner for giving us so much press and support over the years.
  • Tim Rowe for helpful advice and helping spark Greenhorn Connect with the MassTLC session with Scott.
  • Gus Weber for being the first sponsor of Greenhorn Connect. We wouldn’t be here today without the ongoing support we’ve received from Microsoft and it’s people like Walter Somol, Abby Fichtner, Sara Spalding, Betsy Aoki, and Cathy Wissink.
  • Greg Hoffmeister and Jon Frisch of T3 Advisors for being amazing supporters since our early days.
  • Microsoft has been an amazing host and sponsor to so many events including almost every event we’ve ever put on. The tech ecosystem is much stronger due to them.
  • David Ekelund for being Greenhorn’s startup lawyer who understood our needs and was always helpful.
  • Our many partners & sponsors along the way including: NEVCA, thoughtbot, Acquia, Grasshopper, the City of Boston and their 1in3 program, Cort & Jake for helping in the early days as they hustled on DartBoston, Wayfair, Carbonite, Sonos, Yesware, and so many others.

…and the team, THANK YOU

  • Ashkan Afkhami for being crazy enough to cofound with me on starting this business.
  • Pardees Safizadeh for being the first person to join our team and give us a real voice on social media for Greenhorn.
  • Ian Stanzyk for helping with our job board which was a key revenue stream during our history.
  • Paul Hlatky for rising to the occasion and doing a great job taking the reigns when I moved.
  • Angela Lei and Will Cox for being awesome team members as Paul took the reigns.
  • Ariel Winton and Eric Pasinski for being great team members today and going forward as we transition with TCN.

And finally, thank you to the community.

You all are awesome. It’s always been a blast serving this community and I appreciate all your support. I hope you’ll do the same for Sam and the TCN team.

Why don’t we reward good managers?

{Note: My startup, Lighthouse, just launched its blog. If you’ve been enjoying my posts on leadership and management, follow me over to http://GetLighthouse.com/Blog and subscribe on the right sidebar to get every post.

Below is an excerpt from the first post there, “Why don’t we reward good managers?}

We all know management is important, and yet, it has not changed the largely dismal outlook of management: 70% of American workers are disengaged. Poor management is largely to blame.

People don’t leave companies, they leave bad managers.

As I’ve spoken to managers and employees, it’s amazing how often I hear about managers that ignore their people, stifle their team’s efforts, and are totally unaware of the unhappiness of their employees. Unfortunately, this candor on their frustration is with me, not their employer.

Some of these issues can come up in 1 on 1s, if you have them often enough and you ask (many are afraid to volunteer such issues, especially introverts). If you miss those opportunities and they’re now leaving, you can do exit interviews to learn what went wrong, but that’s too late to help them. You are also unlikely to get straight answers in an exit interview; if an employee desires to leave on good terms, they have incentive to sugar coat things and find the most diplomatic reason to say they’re leaving.

Bad managers affect everyone.

Good employees work hard to produce, but they resent their manager if they’re not appreciated and treated well. When it happens to mediocre and bad employees, they will just shut down and under produce, creating dead weight on teams. Your good team members will eventually decide they’ve had enough and look elsewhere. In a competitive market, this will happen sooner than later.

Continue reading on the Lighthouse blog…

Why you should think of your employees as Allies in the future of work

The rules of work have changed. Gone are the days where you spend your whole career at one company that gives you a great pension and a retirement party.  And yet, we still act like that’s the case when we hire people, and in how we approach managing them.

We live in the world of “at will” employment. Layoffs and “it’s just not working out” discussions are always just around the corner.  Meanwhile, many employees job hop from company to company always searching for greener grass.

When talking to candidates, we interview them expecting to hear how committed they are to anything the company wants, even though both sides know a lifetime commitment is pure fantasy.

Why are we lying to ourselves?

Rather than be in denial, we should accept the new rules and take full advantage of them. That’s what Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh advocate for in their new book, The Alliance I just read.

The current system is bad for everyone. The-Alliance-Managing-Talent-in-the-Networked-Age

It creates major problems for both the company replacing team members regularly and the former employees who see their tenures cut short.

The worst parts about replacing team members are:

  • They leave when you don’t expect it.
  • You have no plan for what to do without them.
  • Work is left incomplete even if they give some notice.
  • Their knowledge and experience is lost from the company.

And for the employee, the worst parts are:

  • Unfinished work and incomplete milestones that now can’t be put on their resume.
  • Less development in their career as companies fear to invest in them.
  • Damaged relationships due to resentment over the first 2 items.
  • Distrust in every employer they have going forward.

Hoffman, Casnocha, and Yeh advocate for a new system that considers employment as an Alliance: a mutually beneficial relationship, without the empty promises of long term employment.

Why You Should Think of Your Employees as Allies in the Future of Work

In an alliance, both sides work together for mutual benefit. This means shifting your thinking on employees. It’s a lot more than, “do this work and I pay you.” Instead, the relationship is, “I help you grow, learn, and tackle these challenges, and the company benefits from that work.”

The authors call this a Tour of Duty. You select a length of time (a year or two up through 5+ years) and a set of goals for them to achieve with core responsibilities. The agreement is that you will help them have a Tour that is of interest and value to them, and they will do good work for your company.

By agreeing on the time frame and what the Tour entails, you eliminate many of the biggest problems for both sides:

  • Employees now have a clear set of goals and milestones and a plan to get there.
  • Employers have more certainty how long they can count on having an employee.
  • Employees have a clear point where they can cleanly transition out if they want.
  • Employers can plan ahead as a tour is about to complete, avoiding any surprises.
  • Both sides have more certainty and a clear commitment to one another.

Now the end of a Tour is not the end of someone’s employment. What Reid Hoffman found with Linkedin, was that people were often hungry for new Tours. It provided opportunities to quickly progress people onto tracks for major leadership roles (they call them Foundational Tours), or give them a new, interesting, challenging job different than what they just completed.

Either way, you can keep renewing the Tours as long as there’s a good fit between company needs and employee interests. And if there’s not a clear fit at the end of a tour, you can have a very smooth transition for both sides, allowing the employee to find work elsewhere without hurting the company or vice versa.

Your people want tours. You just don’t know it.

As I’ve been working on my app for managers, I’ve spoken to a lot of employees in addition to managers. What I keep hearing over and over again is how frustrated people get over a lack of progress in their work.

Employees want to grow and learn new things. They want to be challenged. They want to be recognized for their good work, and feel like they’re working towards something greater than just a list of tasks for the day. When they don’t feel that progress, they feel stifled and quickly lose motivation. Not long after, they’re looking for the door.

Tours address all of these issues. A Tour:

  • Creates a clear set of goals to achieve in a role.
  • Creates a set end point where new opportunities can be explored.
  • Ensures a discussion about an employee’s goals and how they fit into the company.
  • Necessitates regular check ins to be sure progress is made on a Tour and will be completed on schedule.

Planning Tours take effort and have big payoffs.

Planning Tours for your team members doesn’t happen by accident. It’s why they wrote the book and are building a site around the idea (www.theAllianceFramework.com).

You have to have healthy discussions with each team member and plan out a path for them. What can they achieve in a few years? How does that align with their long term goals? What are the measures of success for a Tour for them? Do those goals interest them? If those are questions that are foreign to you, you need to start discussing them.

The best time to have these discussions is during your 1 on 1s.

With so much work to do, so many short term priorities to address, who has time for this? But if you want to keep your best people motivated and engaged and level up your team as a whole, you need to make time for these discussions. That leaves 1 on 1s as your best chance to have the time (You are having 1 on 1s, right?).

You’re already hopefully having candid conversations in 1 on 1s, so it’s time to shift part of each 1 on 1 to work on aligning their long term goals with their current roles and responsibilities. It won’t happen all in one meeting, but you can slowly put together a plan over a series of meetings.

You’ll see the benefits quickly.

Once you start this process, pay attention. Watch closely. The more you align someone’s work with their goals the more motivated they will be. Show them how the work you’re asking them to do gets them closer to what they want and they’ll work harder to help you with what you need.

It’s no mistake. It’s the Alliance at work. As Hoffman, Casnocha, and Yeh, write,

“Every employee relationship should be bidirectional in nature; it should be clear how the employee benefits and how the employer benefits.”

That’s because it creates the best situation for productive, happy work. And the Tour takes that to its greatest outcome by sustaining that over a multi-year period.

Are you creating aligned work for your team? Are you engaging your team towards mutual benefit? If not, learn more in The Alliance and start doing Tours at your company.


Get LighthouseLooking for a system to track your team’s long term goals and break them down into the near term goals you need?

Want to have more effective 1 on 1s that build towards alignment like what’s described in the Alliance?

Then sign up for Lighthouse, the app for managers.

Why Replacing a Good Employee Will Cost you $65,510

“Oh no! I didn’t know you were leaving, too.”

When a friend left his job, his coworker made the surprise comment that he was about to leave the company as well. What seemed like a few minor problems on the team soon snowballed into a costly mass exodus.

Employee retention is one of the most overlooked aspects of managing your team…right until you start losing good employees. It costs much more than you might expect to replace them. I was curious myself just how much it could cost and the surprising results are below.

Note: All salaries are assumed to be $100,000, which is $40/hr assuming you work 50 hours a week for 50 weeks a year. Adjust the numbers accordingly if anyone costs more or less for you.

The Costs of Sourcing a Hire:

Unless you’re a really hot company, it’s unlikely that great people are beating down your door to fill open roles. And even if you are well known, the best people probably aren’t refreshing your jobs page for an opening. You have to go find them.

You can source candidates a ton of different ways, but they all cost money either in the form of payment to another company or in time invested by one of your employees.

Sourcing CostsWith just a few attempts at sourcing some good hires, between third party costs and labor in your company, sourcing costs can easily reach over $26,000. The scariest thing is, you haven’t even interviewed any of these candidates yet!

The Costs of Interviewing a Hire:

Now that you have a full funnel of candidates kickstarted, you start the dreaded interview process. You’ve got to filter through all the LinkedIn profiles, social accounts, resumes, and cover letters to find those gems who will then navigate your hiring process.

Here the costs are a bit more hidden. It’s all about lost time for various team members. What other great work could your team be doing instead of working on candidate hiring? Every minute spent hiring is a lost dollar invested in your business.

Assuming you have a clear funnel where you only have to look at 120 resumes, only have a third of them make a phone screen, a quarter of those make it to in person interviews, and you prep 3 offers, interviewing costs you over $5,000. For some specialized roles it could be significantly higher if you have many more interviews and phone screens.

The Cost of Onboarding a New Hire:

Congratulations! You found the candidate you’ve been looking for. Now you need to onboard them so they become a productive, integrated member of your team. Again, you have hidden costs. Now, you have losses both in how productive a new hire is versus a veteran on your team, and your team training them (an important investment, but also a significant time sink for your team).

When you hire an employee, there’s often some kind of bonus you need to give them. It might be a salary bump, moving costs, or something else to sweeten the offer. It’s part of the cost of doing business. When you combine that with your costs as they start on your team and get up to speed, onboarding can cost you over $10,000.

Of course, we’re assuming your hire works out, which unfortunately, it won’t always. You can go ahead and double these costs and many of the ones in earlier sections if you have to go back to the drawing board on another candidate.

The Cost of Lost Productivity:

While your team member has departed, the show must go on. The rest of your team has to cover for them, whether that means writing their code, calling their leads, or finishing their reports. As much as you’d like to think the rest of the team can just make up for them, if the hire really was good, that’s impossible. Lost ProductivityWhen someone leaves, team members are distracted. Those that were close to them in particular will be less focused and productive. They’ll probably grab beers with their friend before they leave, when they otherwise may have worked late.

Meanwhile, if you push your team to cover for them, the stress and extra hours can affect their physical and mental health, which will lead to vacation and sick days. If hiring drags on, you’ll probably hire a consultant or freelancer to cover which could easily exceed $100 an hour for their work.

All of this combines to lead to a Productivity loss cost of over $24,000.

So let’s add this up…

Total Costs

Ouch! Replacing even a single team member is expensive! Wouldn’t it be a lot cheaper to retain all your good people?

What can you do?

Next time a good employee asks for a raise, investment in equipment to help them on their job, or a morale boosting opportunity is presented, consider the cost of losing them before saying, “we have no budget for this.”

If your manager is blocking you from helping your team, remind them what you’re asking for is a lot less than the $65,000 cost to replace a lost member of your team (let alone the cost of multiple losses!).

While free lunches, ping pong tables, extra vacation days, and other perks are a nice bonus, they aren’t what keep people at a company. Even raises only satisfy people for a short period of time.

What really retains teams is managing people well.

This comes by having discussions with them about their personal growth & goals, company and self-improvement, and recognizing the things that are important to them personally.

I know that’s easier said then done. You have a million things on your plate as a leader and what little time you can spare has to be maximized. And it probably isn’t right now.

You have notes on people all over the place. One on ones are sporadically effective, because you may not always be prepared for the next one. Goals are a great idea in theory, but they’re buried in your HR app you can’t stand.  There must be a better way.

Get LighthouseThat’s why I started Lighthouse. It helps you stay on top of what matters quickly and efficiently for each of your people. It’s designed with managers like you in mind, because I’m a manager myself.

If you want to be the manager people love to work for & save the costs of replacing people, sign up at GetLighthouse.com.

What to Expect When You Start Having 1 on 1s

Ben Horowitz advocates for 1 on 1s. So does Marc Benioff, the team at Bufferapp, and many, many others. Yet, in many ways they’re still shrouded in mystery.

Some people see them as a waste of time. Others are unsure how to make the most of them. Ask 10 managers and you very well could get 10 different answers.

If you’re convinced to get started with 1 on 1s, and never done them before, you’re in for a few surprises. Here’s a few tips for what your should expect:

1) They are different than any other meeting

As a manager and leader, you’re in a lot of meetings. Probably more than you should. And in most of them you’re being asked to give your opinion, make decisions, and answer questions that all focus on driving the business forward. One on ones are nothing like that.

As Ben Horowitz suggests after he took some heat for his firm stance on the importance of having 1 on 1s,

“The key to a good one-on-one meeting is the understanding that it is the employee’s meeting rather than the manager’s meeting. This is the free-form meeting for all the pressing issues, brilliant ideas and chronic frustrations that do not fit neatly into status reports, email and other less personal and intimate mechanisms.”

It bears repeating: One on ones are all about the team member, not you nor the company. You need to flip your mindset to thinking about what’s important to them and how you can help. This context switch can be difficult, but the payoff is huge. Set the standard that you recognize that these meetings are different from other meetings and you’ll be on your way.

2) You will learn important things you won’t hear any other way

You may think you know your team really well. You may think you know everything they’re thinking about for work and have addressed all their concerns they’ve aired publicly. If you’ve put in some effort to listen to your team in a group setting, that’s a great start, but there is always more they’ll bring up privately in 1 on 1s.

As URX CEO John Milinovich recently said in his interview with First Round Capital,

“There will always be things that people won’t bring up in a community forum that are still so important to address, especially before they become bigger issues.”

Build a trusting environment in your one on ones and follow through on what you hear and you’ll be amazed at what you’ll learn people are thinking about or have concerns with. The more you act on what they confide in you, the more they’ll share that will improve the company, your team, your management, and them as an employee. For the introverts on your team, who are less likely to bring up any issues publicly, this will be especially important.

3) They should bring things to talk about, and so should you.

It’s easy to put the obligation on your team member to drive the 1 on 1. It’s definitely important to let them talk about things that are important to them. However, especially early on, you need to bring some questions as well.  There’s a ton of different 1 on 1 questions you can rotate through and you can also use 1 on 1s as great coaching opportunities.

As Jason Lemkin (CEO EchoSign, VC @ Storm Ventures) writes,

“You may think you know if you have drinks together, or go see movies together, or whatever…But you don’t.  Even if people complain in that context, it will be general complaints.  You won’t learn what your top people need to find their growth path at your company.  Where they feel stalled out and frustrated.  You have to ask.

By mixing up the questions you ask, you will ensure you’re not missing anything they may be afraid to bring up.  You’ll also avoid 1 on 1s getting into a rut where certain topics become safe and easy, at the expense of never discussing any elephants in the room. You get out what you put into your 1 on 1s, so prepare, listen carefully, and follow through.

4) They may be a little awkward at first

Your first one on one won’t be easy. It can be especially awkward if you recently got promoted and now you’re having a one on one with a former peer. Fight through the ‘fight or flight’ urge to not ask the questions a manager should ask in a one on one. Those early questions will break the ice and give you your first opportunities to build deeper trust and rapport with them. Over time, you’ll get in a rhythm and build trust. Then you’ll probably even look forward to them.

Stick with them. The benefits are huge as Michael Wolfe (PipeDrive, Vontu, Kana) wrote,

“Over time you can build up a very good relationship with most people simply through this time investment. Even though you may need to discuss tough issues, try to build up enough trust and openness between you that you can enjoy solving problems and working to make the company better.”

It’s a relief when a problem at work is solved. If you form a real partnership with your team member to address the issues they bring up, they’ll trust and respect you more even if you don’t always give them the answer they want to hear.

5) You will quickly learn why this is a manager’s best tool.

The conversations in one on ones are the keys to understanding your people and motivating them.  Everyone has different drivers and idiosyncrasies; the better you understand them, the more effective you’ll be able to work with them.

As Ben Horowitz notoriously recalls when he almost fired two people over a manager not having one on ones,

“Being a good company doesn’t matter when things go well, but it can be the difference between life and death when things go wrong…and things always go wrong.”

Unfortunately, if you don’t do one on ones, Ben continued,

“…there is no possible way for him to even be informed as to whether or not his organization is good or bad.”

You can fix so many problems and improve the morale of everyone on your team with these meetings. You’ll find out about issues before they blow up. You’ll be able to help people when they’re struggling, and give them good and bad feedback regularly.  You can talk about career goals and growth opportunities regularly. Bit by bit you’ll see improvements across your company and you’ll wonder why you didn’t do them sooner.

black_alphaWant help getting started with one on ones? Want to build a better relationship with your team members?

Lighthouse keeps you organized and prepared for everything that matters to your team members including goals and 1 on 1s. Learn more at GetLighthouse.com