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.

How to Write a Product Thesis to Communicate Customer Needs to Design and Engineering Teams

Ever been handed a 10 page product spec that no one wants to read? Ever write one yourself? Tired of struggling to communicate what needs built next to your designers and engineers so they really understand the who, what, when, where, why of the next feature you need?

I’ve been using customer development, analytics, and information from my team to learn to build the right thing for years, but I always struggled communicating all the information locked in my head to the rest of the team. They needed to know why we were building it and all the necessary information to build the right thing without endless meetings or a massive spec they won’t read.

Fortunately, when I joined KISSmetrics, Hiten and I got to learn a better way from Josh Elman, who worked on product teams at Twitter, Facebook, and Linkedin.  Josh taught me about the Thesis, which is a lightweight way to communicate all the essential details your product team needs.

Now that I’ve used the Thesis on dozens of projects and tweaked it based on what I found worked best, I’m going to teach you how to write your own thesis for the next feature or product you build.

The Product Spec Alternative: How to Write a Product Thesis

> Know when to write a Product Thesis

The biggest crime product managers can commit against their team and their profession is to make up answers to critical decisions. Don’t be that guy/gal.

If you don’t know the answer to one of the sections in the Thesis, go find out. Dive into your analytics, talk to customers, run a survey, talk to your sales/account management/support teams that interact with customers regularly. You will gain the full respect of your designers and engineers if they know you always have a customer story and/or data to back up everything they may ask you about in the Thesis.

The following are all sections of the Thesis. I literally use these as headings to break up the parts and try to keep each section to 5-10 bullet points or a few concise paragraphs.

1) Why are we working on this next?

Every company, and especially startups, are resource constrained. What you choose to build affects your company’s bottom line, their standing in the market, and what your team thinks of your judgment. Use this area to concisely present your case for why this is the most important thing to work on right now.

I try to have a mix of qualitative and quantitative data here. If a mandate came from the leadership team to focus on this area, or sales needed it for a big customer, I make sure to include that. The more your designers and engineers can understand why this matters, the more interested they will be in working on it. In the end, you’re a team and everyone on the product team wants to be sure they’re building the right thing.

2) What are the use cases for this?

Most products end up having a variety of different users and ways that people use the product. To help your team better design a specific feature for the right part of your customer base, you need to detail who this new feature is for.

Be specific! A use case section that is just something like, “As a marketer, I want a mobile app so I can access my data away from a computer” is total weaksauce. Instead, provide the kind of context and detail that paints a picture of the situation:

  • On their way to work on the subway, content marketers like to check how their blog traffic is doing for items they published that morning or the day before. It helps them get into work and know how they’re doing before they sit down. If a number is low, they may try promoting it extra to try to raise the number. If the number is high, they may share the win with others on the team.

Could you picture that situation in your mind? Can you see Jenn the marketer opening an app on her iPhone while sitting on a subway car? I bet you could. Your team can too and they can also then start thinking about what the perfect (not just good) solution would be for them.

Write out as many use cases as you feel are needed. I often have as many as 4 or 5 detailed cases for a big feature.

3) What Problems do we need to solve?

Features are really solutions to your customer’s problems.  It doesn’t do any good to build a feature that doesn’t actually solve the problem, so it’s important to detail what problems you need to ensure the solution your team creates addresses them.

Problems should either be existing problems your product has (especially if you’re iterating on an existing feature) or the problems related to the use cases you just described above. Some example problems may be:

  • Performance Problem: Customers are experiencing frequent crashes. This feature is critical for customers and they are constantly having to refresh and start over, losing their work in the process.
  • Design Problem: Customers are having issues with the current UI. They can’t find key features that exist that they asked me for (Include a markup of the interface to show these.)
  • New Problem: Customers spend hours manually copying numbers to a spreadsheet and making their own visuals for their VP. If we automatically make those reports, we’ll save them time and can then have the VP see our branded reports frequently.

I usually write out 5-7 problems that a feature addresses in bullet form. If it only applies to some of the use cases I described, I’ll specify that as well.

I also try to rank the problems, so that the most important issues get the most attention.  Top problems may be because it affects the most people or functionality issues like the feature crashing constantly. When it’s time for tradeoffs when building the feature, having these detailed, ranked problems will help you make sure the right things avoid being descoped.

4) What are Future Considerations that must be accounted for?

Products are always evolving. Startups can be unpredictable, but you still know generally the direction you may be heading, especially if you’re driving hard towards product-market fit. Help your team anticipate what’s coming next whenever you can.

Depending on the feature, this could be very short or long section. If there are things you know are not going to make the first version of this feature but expect will be needed to be added later, be sure you tell your team! This section is all about avoiding hearing from engineering, “I wish you had told me that before we built [X]!” 

Balancing the present and the future is a constant struggle for a product. The best thing you can do for your team is give them the key information you know so they can do their best to balance their work against the present and future as well.

5) What is our KPI for this Thesis?

You should ask yourself, “What would make this new feature a success?” A KPI (Key Performance Indicator) is the most common way to determine that success since ideally you will tie the success of the feature to one or more of your company’s key metrics.

It’s okay to have more than one KPI, but keep it simple or there will be too many things to measure. When I’ve had multiple KPIs for a feature they’ve been things like:

  1. Support requests will drop by 90% for this feature after relaunch.
  2. Usage of the app will grow by at least 50% after relaunch.
  3. Because this feature affects the sign up flow, we expect a 5% lift in conversion after this relaunch.

You will fail sometimes, but by forcing yourself to quantify what you expect to happen, you will keep you and your team honest. By setting a number that you must hit you can also know when you should go back and iterate.

6) Further Reading:

Your main document shouldn’t be longer than 2-3 pages, so Further Reading can act as an Appendix for you.  In this section, I include links, screenshots, early mockups of ideas, markup of existing features for UX issues, and anything else that I believe would provide additional, helpful information and inspiration related to the project.

Remember: You want all the detail you can without the fluff and verbosity that makes engineers and designers skip reading it. Further reading is a great place for specific information that didn’t fit in the above sections and may be relevant to specific team members.

How does your team document what features need built next?

 

How to do a Jobs To Be Done Interview

Jobs To Be Done (#JTBD) is getting a lot of attention lately as a valuable, new method for product and marketing teams (if you’re not familiar check out the podcast and the Milkshake video that started it all).

For the product team, they can better understand the motivations and needs of their users. As a marketer, you can understand the journey a future customer goes through to go from considering finding a solution to their problems to actually choosing your product. This is priceless for your marketing site and copywriting as well.

There’s a lot of great posts coming out on why Jobs To Be Done matters, but I haven’t seen much on how to actually do the interviews. Since I’ve done them a bunch myself, taught a number of my friends, and written previously about how to do customer development interviews, I wanted to share the process I’ve learned and evolved:

How to do a Jobs To Be Done Interview

Getting in the right mindset

These interviews are very different than a traditional customer development interview, usability testing, and other common customer interview practices. It’s a lot more free form than other processes that usually just want to uncover a few problems or learn some basic customer demographics.

For JTBD, you need to think of yourself like a detective interviewing a witness at a crime scene, or a documentary filmmaker trying to tell a story. Believe it or not, there’s a significant process a user goes through to become a customer and it’s often measured in weeks or months. Once you finish this process you’ll be able to fill in a timeline that looks like this:

jtbd-timelineThe key is to get users thinking about their purchasing process and filling in the gaps while they remember the various events along the way. Your users won’t think of them with the words of that timeline, but you’ll see where those things happen.  Fortunately, the questions I’ll show you will help your interviewee remember the various steps.

Here’s a quick cheat sheet of the terms on the timeline with an example of a friend who bought a new car.  Skip down if you already understand the timeline.

1) First Thought: What caused the first thought to think about making the purchase? When was it?

– My friend owned a Prius and it was a few years old. One night when he was driving home from work, he hit a neighbor’s trash can that had rolled onto the road. He looked at the front of the car and saw it was kind of scuffed up, but not enough to take it to the shop. This made him think, “Maybe it’s time I got a new car.”

2) Passively Looking: What did they do while they were passively looking? For how long?

– My friend started thinking about what kind of car he would get next. He knew he wanted a fast car and was focused on luxury brands. He started browsing Audi, BMW and Lexus sites to look at their cars.

3) Event #1: What happened that switched them from passively to actively looking?

– My friend’s wife would need some convincing to agree to a new car. As it turns out, about a month after the trash can incident, her brother mentioned he needed a car. My friend could give his car to his brother in law and kill two birds with one stone.  With permission from his wife, he could now actively look for the car.

4) Actively Looking: What did they do while they were actively looking?

– My friend started looking up reviews of the various cars he was interested in and asked friends that owned the cars for their opinions. He has a long time mentor that he in particular appreciates their taste, and so he asked their opinion.  My friend is an Apple fanboy, so craftsmanship is really important to him as well. Both his mentor and his own research pointed to Audi being the brand best committed to those ideals.

5) Event #2: What was the event that made him decide to make a purchase at a specific day/time?

– My friend had two events that combined to push him to finally make the purchase. He was scheduled to have surgery soon and he wouldn’t be able to drive for awhile after surgery. Christmas was coming soon too.  He wanted to get the car before his surgery so he could enjoy it a bit first and not put off the purchase that much longer and knew he could claim it as a Christmas present to justify the purchase then. (Now those luxury ads about buying cars as gifts make more sense, right?)

6) Deciding: What helped him make the purchase?

– Now that my friend was ready to buy, he went to the dealerships and test drove the cars that were finalists (a BMW and an Audi). He had a great time speeding down the highway in the Audi, so combined with his friends recommendations and his own research, he was finally ready to buy the car.

Unfortunately, the answers don’t come out that cleanly. You will get bits and pieces of the various steps during the discussion, which is why these interviews have to be more exploratory. You should be able to assemble the timeline afterwards though and start to see how you can market to future customers like your interviewee and alter your product to better fit them (like helping them see the most important value sooner).

The Jobs To Be Done Interview Script

Ok. We’re finally here to the script. Remember, the goal of the conversation is to help the person you’re interviewing remember the steps and key moments in the process that led to the switch.

A few rules for the interviews:
  1. Find people who recently purchased. Most people won’t remember well anything more than 60 days ago. The more recently the event happened, the more likely they are to remember all the details you’ll hope to capture in the interview.
  2. Don’t interrogate. You want your conversation to feel like they’re just talking to a friend.
  3. Pauses are ok. The interviewee is likely going to have to think hard to remember details. Give them time and they’ll often remember things so don’t be afraid of 10-20 seconds or more of silence.
  4. Bounce around the topics. Being non-linear in your questions often leads to new discoveries. Circle back to different things you talked about throughout the interview.
  5. The best stuff comes around 20-25 minutes in. Keep digging and listen carefully. You’ll have a real *woah* moment right around then.  For above timeline example, my friend didn’t initially realize the trash cans started his car buying process.
  6. Take notes & record the interviews. There’s lots of gold in these interviews. You don’t want to forget anything, and be able to review and share them with others later.
  7. Work in teams. A pair often can do better at examining all areas of the moments you’re trying to understand and help with taking good notes. While one person is writing a key point, the other can be asking a question.
  8. Talk to more users until they all sound the same. It generally takes 7-10 interviews to get the patterns of everyone. I found out the root cause of churn for a company by interviewing a bunch of their recently canceled customers and it was very different than what people said it was in an exit survey.
  9. Organize your findings with the Timeline and Four Forces. That’s what they’re there for. You can learn about the Four Forces here.
  10. Don’t lead the interviewee. Try very hard not to ask Yes/No questions. Instead leave room for explanation and listen. Ask lots of “why” and “tell me more” questions.
  11. Timing Matters. Try to find out the day/week/month/hour something happened. There’s often patterns to be found in that timing and it can also help them recall other details as they concentrate to remember.
Jobs To Be Done Questions to Ask:

Unlike other kinds of interviews, you don’t need to always ask every question in the exact same order. These are all just ways to explore the process of their purchase and help them remember their story.

  • When did you first start thinking about your purchase?
    • Was it in the morning or evening? What time was it?
  • Where were you when you made that decision?
  • Was anyone else involved in the purchasing decision?
    • Why?
  • Visualize the environment you were in when you made the decision to purchase…where were you? What was around you?
  • Tell me more about that…(When you hear something interesting/intriguing)
  • Did you consider any competitors? Which ones? Why?
    • Why didn’t you choose them?
  • How did you decide between what you bought and the other options?
  • Why specifically did you buy that day versus any other? Why then? What was unique about that day?
    • What else were you doing that day?
    • Did anyone contribute to sparking the decision that day? Why?
  • What were you using before you had X?
    • Why did you use that? What did you like about it?
    • When did you start using that?
    • What were its shortcomings?
    • What does the new product do that your old solution couldn’t?
  • How do you normally approach choosing a new product?
    • What was your process for this product?
      • Why was it the same/different this time?
  • How do you use the product you’ve purchased?
    • Are there features you use all the time? How?
    • Are there features you never use? Why not?
  • If in doubt, ask them to tell you more about whatever tangential thing they bring up in the discussion.

You’ll notice as you do the interview, certain moments on the timeline will fit what they’re describing. I wouldn’t try to fill in the timeline perfectly until after the interview, but while you’re interviewing you can mark in your notes when it seems like it fits with some part. If a certain area isn’t seeming to be filled in, probe more around that part in their process.

But will this work in my situation? It’s special/hard/unique.

If you can get the interviewee on the phone or to meet in person, then this will work in your situation. I have seen this work for all of the following cases:

  • Buying a car
  • Buying a scanner
  • Buying steaks online
  • Upgrading to Evernote Premium
  • Buying analytics for their business
  • Getting a gym membership for the first time in their life
  • Understanding why customers churned a SaaS product
  • Buying a 2nd iPad for a family with children
  • Buying a milkshake from a fast food chain

Even if multiple people are involved in the decision making process, any one person in the process is likely able to recall most of the key moments.

What have you used Jobs To Be Done for? What are your favorite JTBD interview questions?

What the Stratasys patent suit of Afinia means for the 3D Printing Industry

Q: What is Stratasys thankful for this Thanksgiving?

A: Patents and a large corporate legal department. 

That may be a little harsh, but after the press release and filed suit against Afinia made public this week you can see that Stratasys is going to start flexing their IP muscles in this increasingly competitive market. Given that Stratasys is asking for an injunction to stop all sales of the Afinia H Series, this is a lot more than a shot across the bow. Stratasys is aggressively staking their claim to the 3D printing market.

Why Now?

The Afinia has been on the market since August 2012 and has done quite well during that time. They’ve won multiple awards from Make Magazine including “Best overall experience” and have been a mainstay at virtually every Maker Faire around the country. They also have signed distribution deals to start selling their printers at BestBuy.com and Staples Canada‘s online sites. They’re an increasingly strong competitor that is flexing their retail muscles thanks to their parent company’s experience in retail.

Q3 numbers for Makerbot was not as strong as some would expect in a growing market like consumer 3D Printers. Selling likely less than 5,000 printers had to raise some flags internally, which has led to a number of actions by Makerbot to try to grow their bottom line:

  1. A new partnership with Donor’s Choose to sell more Makerbots to schools.
  2. A change to the website to make Makercare opt-out (a $300+ cost) to try to increase LTV per customer.
  3. Opening of stores in New York City, Boston and Greenwich, Connecticut.
  4. This lawsuit against a major competitor.

Big partnerships and storefront bets are the kinds of big plays you can make to throw your weight around when you’re the biggest company in an industry. Lawsuits leveraging your patent portfolio also happen to be a powerful weapon, which when you aren’t capturing as much of the market as you like, become more appealing to use against stiff competition.

Given Stratasys has been a sleeping giant for a number of years, it appears they’re making it very clear they are awake and are ready for a fight.

The Stratasys Attitude

This quote from the press release really stood out to me:

“IP infringement discourages companies from investing in innovation”     – Stratasys CEO David Ries.

This claim is absurd. If anything, having additional competition that you can’t shut down due to patents means you have to innovate faster; in an open market, new innovations are more prevalent as companies have to push hard to stay ahead. Brand loyalty, customer service and marketing become more important as well.

Everyone is at Risk

There’s an awesome discussion of the infringement, the patent claims and possible work arounds on the RepRap form worth checking out. From the forum, these are the patents mentioned:

  • August 5, 1997, U.S. Patent No 5,653,925 (the 925 patent) METHOD FOR CONTROLLED POROSITY THREE DIMENSIONAL MODELING
  • February 2, 1999, U.S. Patent No. 5,866,058 (the 058 patent) METHOD FOR RAPID PROTOTYPING OF SOLID MODELS
  • December 21, 1999, U.S. Patent No. 6,004,124 (the 124 patent) THIN WALL TUBE LIQUIFIER
  • January 8, 2013, U.S. Patent No. 8,349,239 (the 239 patent) SEAM CONCEALMENT FOR THREE DIMENSIONAL MODELS

Most of these patents could apply to any consumer FDM 3D printing company selling a fully assembled printer and do not expire for at least 4-6 years. Stratasys went after the biggest threat that just so happened to be getting competitive distribution deals. If Afinia loses the lawsuit, it puts every other startup 3D printing company at risk of a similar suit.

The Big Picture

This is just the beginning. As CNBC has reported, over 6,800 3D printing related patents have been filed in the last decade and the rate of filing is increasing. It’s clear that Stratasys intends to enforce their patents aggressively as the CEO states:

“The entry barrier for infringers is modest, especially as technology improves and prices fall… As a result, we should anticipate that this will be a growing challenge for right holders and law enforcement.”                     – Stratasys CEO David Ries.

While Stratasys and 3D Systems aggressively try to capture a consumer market that doesn’t yet know why they need to get a 3D printer, I expect other low cost printers to start to capture value at the low end of the industrial market. Whether by helping make molds for sand casting or just being a low cost alternative to the more expensive printers, textbook disruption is happening. This disruption will take decades and given our current trajectory, will include quite the blood bath for both big and small companies on their balance sheets and in the court room. Yesterday’s patent suit announcement is a key point in history and another of the many likely battles in the court room between challengers and incumbents in the 3D printing market.

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The Rise of the 3rd Party Manufacturer in 3D Printing

There’s a lot to be learned about the present and future of 3D Printing by studying the rise of the Personal Computer. Today we have hundreds of companies building supply chains from scratch to sell 3D Printers out of garages, co-working spaces and tech shops, not unlike Steve Jobs’s garage and the motel in Albuquerque that spawned Microsoft. However, this part of the journey did not last forever.

As the market and individual companies matured, 3rd parties began supplying various components to the PC makers as they built more sophisticated manufacturing processes. The PC makers welcomed this so that each one of them did not have to reinvent the wheel for each component as well as get better prices from suppliers who could gain volume advantages by selling to many of those PC makers.

Today, we’re seeing the very beginning of such opportunities emerging with a handful of really interesting companies becoming the first 3rd Party Manufacturers (also known as OEMs). Here’s a few I’ve been tracking:

The Rise of the OEM

Extruders:

1) DGlass3D: You may remember these brothers from previous blog posts and the 2nd edition of my newsletter, when they were on Kickstarter. While they did not fund successfully, they were able to connect with companies interested in their technology. Given the challenges of dual extrusion caused by the decreased build area, added weight for the stepper motors and quality of prints when switching back and forth between heated materials in each extruder, I expect more than a few companies may be interested in the technology to shortcut adding this pivotal feature.

Why this matters: Many use cases open up when you add the second extruder including printing your support structures in a water soluble material, multi-colored printing and printing in multiple materials with complimentary properties (like part hard, part soft or part conductive, part insulated).

2) The Prusa Nozzle: Josef Prusa is one of the most prolific contributors to the RepRap movement, which includes the Prusa Mendel, one of the most popular RepRap printers. Recently, he unveiled the Prusa Nozzle, which allows you to print at up to 300 C and is a much easier to use, single piece. See more about the Prusa nozzle in edition #4 of my newsletter.

Why this matters: Printing at temperatures as high as 300 C allows additional materials to be printed like polycarbonite (bullet-proof glass) and food-safe stainless steel materials are better than the past use of brass.

Materials:

1) Proto Pasta: Another new Kickstarter entrant, these guys are working on reliable, high quality filament for your FDM printers. On their Kickstarter, you’ll find a carbon fiber reinforced PLA, high-temperature PLA and an experimental polycarbonate material. They’re testing and certifying their materials, which is rare in the current materials market.

Why this matters: Stronger, more reliable materials allows users to print for more applications. Combine this with dual extrusion (ie- multiple materials in one print) and it really gets exciting.

2) MadeSolid: This Oakland-based materials manufacturer recently completed a successful Indiegogo campaign which expands the color options for FormLabs printers from gray and yellow to the full rainbow. They’re working to make quality resins and filaments to make higher quality prints. They have some very cool technology in their pipeline I’ve seen some parts (hint: the days of PLA and ABS may be numbered).

Why this matters: Component makers have not fared as well as many 3D Printer companies on crowdfunding campaigns. It’s good validation that people are hungry for new, better materials that MadeSolid hit their goal. It also means that they do not need the distribution channel of any printer manufacturer to be successful, which provides huge negotiating leverage should they talk distribution with one.

Build Plates:

1) BuildTak: If you spend much time printing, you quickly run into issues with your printed material sticking well to your build plate and also being easy to remove after the print finishes without damaging the print. BuildTak works with both ABS and PLA and is more durable than kapton tape, which has a habit of tearing as you remove objects. This company is just starting out but is already being evaluated by some 3D printing companies.

Why this matters: Reliability is one of the most important aspects still needing dramatic improvement in the 3D Printing space especially for novice users. If this works as promised, it could address one of the major causes of failed prints: poor adhesion to the print surface.

2) Automated Build Plates: Unfortunately, this technology doesn’t exist…yet. Makerbot tried and failed in the past to create this system for automatically removing parts. For those looking to print items in a queue, they currently have to manually remove every object upon completion. That’s why Hack a day put a call out for work on such a project recently.

Why this matters: The development of a process for removing prints would be very valuable for any organization sharing a printer with multiple users and wanting to leave prints unattended and still have multiple items printed. Of course, the printers need to be used enough for that to be a key pain, which is only an issue for a small percentage of users right now.

Even a company with a large engineering team and an unlimited budget would struggle to keep all this innovation in house. It is only a question of when, not if, 3D Printer manufacturing companies at the low end of the industry move from an integrated solution to a more modular approach*.  This opens up many opportunities for individual OEMs to emerge to produce key components that supply many of those companies. (* Note: Patent-heavy, unique processes will keep the industrial printers closed for the foreseeable future).

What other great OEMs have you seen emerging? Leave a note in the comments.

[Ed Note: A version of this post originally appeared in my bi-monthly Observations in 3D Newsletter. Sign up now to get more in depth analysis like this at http://bit.ly/Observe3D]

Why the Mayday button is another genius move by Bezos and Amazon

Amazon recently launched the Mayday feature with a television ad campaign showing a one button press for help from a live person who can control and guide you through the use of your Kindle Fire HDX. If you haven’t seen the ads, here are a few of them:

At first my techie self said “why would anyone want that?!?” Then I realized Bezos’s genius.

Mayday isn’t for you.

If you’re reading this, you probably work in startups or technology. Since we are already well served by the iPad and various full-Android tablets, Bezos is targeting the technology laggards of the tablet adoption curve. These are people that want a proven product and only buy once the market is commoditized and discounted. They don’t care about the millions of apps that Apple has as they will only use it for a handful of key applications. They also don’t see the need to pay the Apple premium price either, so a sub-$300 Kindle Fire fits well.

Instead, these users are more like some of my older relatives who use their tablets for email, Facebook, browsing the web and watching videos, often as a second screen. These users sometimes struggle learning new technology and can be sensitive to asking for help as they are worried about feeling dumb.

Mayday is the perfect name.

Do you know what “Mayday” means? If you’re under 25 I wouldn’t expect you to. Anyone in the Baby Boomer or older generation will distinctly recognize it and understand its meaning as a universal call for help. It’s also way catchier than just another “Help” button and probably even trademark-able. Given the target of helping those less tech savvy who have likely not adopted a technology yet, it should immediately click with them.

Amazon isn’t in the tablet business.

I wondered: how could Amazon afford to do this on such a commoditized device where their margins must be slim? Then I remember this is Amazon. They’re not in the tablet business; they’re in the e-commerce business.

We know that e-reader Kindle owners dramatically increase their purchasing with Amazon (50-100%). I bet by now they know the LTV of Fire owners and realized they could afford the support because of all the ancillary spending they would get from those owners and opportunities to redirect users to Amazon solutions when they ask questions. Add to this the data they get on Fire owners knowing all of their activity and the optional ads special offers people can accept, and there’s a lot of value in getting a new Fire owner.

Amazon had to shake things up.

Amazon’s tablet market share is reportedly down significantly (21% in July 2012 vs 10% in July 2013). They needed to use a Blue Ocean Strategy to differentiate and find a unique part of the market they could win. Combining the Mayday button (to attract the hard to attract laggards) with some very obvious use cases (the family accounts with ability to limit access and a child’s time spent on the device) very specifically tries to carve out a strong niche for Amazon. If it works, the difference in cost structure for Amazon, the e-commerce company, versus other tablet makers will make it hard for others to duplicate the Mayday button.

Bezos continues to show he is one of the best strategist CEOs on the planet. Mayday is just one more move to capture value from an under served group and move them into the world of Amazon purchases.