Friday, October 30, 2015

unConference 2015 Session: Spidey Sense and Mike Tyson Quotes — What Makes for a Great Product Manager?

Spidey Sense and Mike Tyson Quotes — What Makes for a Great Product Manager?
by: Julie Yoo, Co-founder, Chief Product Officer, Kyruus  Originally posted here.  

Scene: The MassTLC unConference 2015. Roughly 50 product management professionals from greater Boston gather in a large room. 3 facilitators (Lee Weiner, CPO @ Rapid7; Molly Baab, VP Product @ Rue La La, and myself) kick off the session by throwing up 8 pre-set product management topics to potentially discuss, which rapidly turn into 20 possibilities (product managers are not shy and tend to have opinions — surprise surprise).

We decide to break out into 2 groups — those who want to discuss the “people” related topics, and those who want to discuss the “process” related topics.

I ended up facilitating one of the more high-bandwidth conversations of my week with the “people” group.

Here were the 3 major themes we touched upon. I’ve sprinkled a few content links and my own commentary throughout to provide additional perspective:

1. What does product management mean in today’s tech world? What makes for a stand-out product manager?

We discussed the fact that there are 2 major dimensions to product management: 1. the “product owner” dimension, which tends to be more tactically- and project management-oriented as a core function of a scrum team, and 2. a more market-facing dimension that requires setting vision, understanding and articulating the business opportunity, making key decisions, and ultimately having accountability for the health and life of a given product.
  • In startups, you need people who can span both; as you grow, you may be able to specialize and potentially have different people (at different levels of hierarchy) playing those two roles. We all agreed that it is hard to find people who span both — those are your unicorns!
  • We also discussed the difference between product management and product marketing, and one person cited this classic SVPG article that provides a perspective on that distinction.
Everyone agreed that a key product management skill is the ability to define opportunity, versus give instruction to your engineering team. Engineers are motivated when they are given the chance to buy into a (data-driven) vision for a product. One person articulated that this dynamic ultimately tends to lead to better products and design decisions. In addition, visibility into long-term product vision and direction helps engineering teams make the right architectural trade-offs when designing their development approach.

The phrase “spidey sense” was used multiple times to describe a skill that all strong PMs have — this oldie but goodie talks about it as well.
  • A necessary element of spidey sense has to do with solving for the market, not the customer; solving for “what the user is trying to accomplish” vs “what the customer wants”. An enjoyable read along these lines is this post on being “product-driven versus customer-driven”.
There is the common notion of “product manager as CEO of the product” — but is that the right analogy?
2. Metrics — how do you measure product management success?

The obvious metrics are things like revenue, and perhaps more importantly, adoption and re-use rates of the product. A product could be selling like crazy but have low adoption, which hinders organic growth through reference customers and up-sells/cross-sells.

The harder ones to measure include how well and efficiently a product manager is able to defend, execute, and iterate on a plan, versus the accuracy of a plan. In the words of Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” and it’s how a product manager responds to getting punched in the mouth that is the true determinant of ability.
An interesting “counter-metric” to consider is how often there is miscommunication about priorities and market opportunity within the company. That may be a signal that the product manager is not being effective at aligning stakeholders and communicating vision across the team.

“Dark Patterns” — we had a provocative conversation around this question: “If your product fails in the market, are you a failure as a product manager?”
  • One person relayed a story about being pushed by a company exec to build a product, even after the product manager had shown through a disciplined validation process that the proposed product had no utility or apparent market opportunity associated with it.
  • The strongest claim that was made in response to this story was, “if you find yourself building something that you don’t believe in, you are complicit in the problem.” See this great talk by Martin Fowler on YouTube that articulates this point (around the 10-minute mark).
3. Roles & responsibilities — how does product management function in an org?

Product management as a hub — think the classic “bowtie” diagram of input coming in from a thousand sources, decisions being made by the PM, and those decisions communicated out and executed on the other side.
  • What org structures best support this model? One company had product management reporting into engineering leadership, while several had engineering reporting into product leadership. A couple of companies have peer product and engineering leaders reporting directly to the CEO.
  • Is the latter the better model to support the notion of the product manager needing to lead by influence without explicit authority?Typically, the very people that the product manager relies on to be successful do not report to that PM, nor live in their team even, so the further down the org chart the PM function is buried, the harder that person will have to work to exert the right level of influence.
  • This SVPG blog post on Product Management Organization is dated, but many of the concepts described still seem to apply.
Roadmaps — necessary or not? We debated the merits of creating a roadmap in earlier stage companies, where the combination of speed and small size of team might not necessitate that much “formality”. However, on larger teams with more commercial presence, one person mentioned that it is as important to communicate what you are doing as it is to communicate what you’re NOT doing on some reasonable time horizon (e.g. 1 year), especially to enable field-facing teams like sales, marketing, and implementation services to represent your solutions confidently to their constituents.
  • We at Kyruus use a 90-day product prioritization and communication process loosely based on Pandora’s model as described here; we’ve extended it to publish a 1-year outlook on thematic priorities as well, as a means to reduce the uncertainty and communication overhead of our customer-facing teams needing to ask the product team about every potential feature that comes up in a field conversation.
Top-down clarity on company strategy provides a platform for the product manager to be successful. One person brought up the fact that definition and execution of product strategy comes much easier when the company’s goals and priorities are clear. It is a form of “air cover” that enables product managers to have ground to stand on and a backdrop against which to exert their influence.

Other key themes we discussed included the following:

  • There is a difference in approach to product management between companies who sell directly to their users, and companies who sell to someone different than the user base. In the latter scenario, the dual focus on “what sells” AND “what gets adopted” is of utmost importance.
  • Is an engineering background an asset or liability in product management? Some said it might constrain you in terms of being overly pragmatic about what is possible to build when defining opportunity; others felt it could be a huge benefit in terms of connecting and earning the trust of the engineering team.
  • Helpful or hurtful to have a PM who used to be the customer? Most agreed that it can be blinding if you project yourself as the ultimate representation of the end user, when in fact you were just one data point of many that would inform an overall market opportunity.
Are you a product manager or engineer who lives and breathes this stuff everyday? What do you think? We’d love to hear your comments.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

unConference 2015 Session: Hiring Good Tech Talent

The following is a list of best practices for a number of attendees that participated in the Technology/Development unConference Track.

The Challenge: finding/hiring good tech talent – both senior and junior
      Employee referrals – range from $500 - $5000 (more senior positions)

·        Post good job descriptions that make it attractive & “sexy” – draw them in
o   Understand what your purpose of the position is
o   Know what qualities in a candidate you are looking for
o   Opportunities à “Maybe”

·        Sourcing Candidates - Leverage networks – social networks **Build your network**
o   Linked In – especially for seasoned engineers and tech talent
o   Referrals and word of mouth
o   Job fairs – usually attract Junior talent – universities
o   University site posting
o   Monster – Old School – not much success there
o   “Casting Call”
o   Be Active and not Passive – reach out and search rather than wait for applicants
§  Reach out to authors of tech papers
o   **Attracting Millennials
§  Beer in Friday
§  Casual – jeans
§  Talk opportunities to grow – Development plans
o   **Attend Meetups or host them – grow your network and get involved
o   **Twitter

·        Talk to candidates – the interview
o   Want rapid learning -- velocity
o   What have you been doing at your current position
o   What is their passion - What are you doing on your own (hobbies)
§  Do they have passion for the job
o   Are they a cultural fit ? – meet the team
o   Collaborative process
o   Ask them to solve a general technical question, then ask “what if” that makes them refine their answer – offer to collaborate to find best solution
o   One idea was the “American Idol” Audition – candidate makes a presentation to a problem solve, then panel asks questions to try to derail them
o   Keep the interview structured - Studies show unstructured interviews are not proven to be good
o   Skills based interview –
§  structure the same question and repeat it for each candidate
§  understand how you will rate/grade the answers
§  ask candidate to code a solution and collaborate on a solution
§  talk about your team’s challenges and see if they can offer a solution or ideas on how to help
o   2nd interview – bring candidate in to a company project review – Check References
·       Have a clear Organization Mission

New Recruiting tools:
·        Referral Mob
·        Drafted


News article 10/23/2015 – War for tech talent escalates:

Hiring good Tech Talent – Where to start?

Upcoming MassTLC event – Talent Summit 9 November in Waltham

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

unConference 2015 Session: Startup Transparency

unConference 2015 Session: Startup Transparency
October 23, 2015 
Stuart Levinson, Open Company

This a new concept for many CEOs, but more and more startups are opening up and sharing key business information about finance, growth, ownership, risks and more. Instead of controlling the information and giving it out on a "need to know basis" they are sharing it broadly to empower and align all stakeholders. 

Questions amongst the group included:
  • What kinds of things would you consider being transparent about?
    • Salaries: Most said no because they felt it would cause problems among employees wondering why they weren't being paid the same; or felt it might have the effect of driving salaries up overall which is difficult for startups. Buffer is an example of a startup that makes salaries public.
    • Equity: So few people understand what equity means, so why put it out there? Because so few people understand it!
    • Runway or Cash Left in the business: The group was mixed on whether or not to provide this information to everyone
    • Expenses: What about the salesperson that spends $1K on a sales dinner? one person said it would cause grief with developers feeling it was unfair, but another felt it required context. Was it to take out 3 or 30 customers? Was it the top client or just another dinner? Context, and being able to ask questions about it might be important.
    • Employee Performance: could this be public?

  • If you put key information out there are they reading it? Just because you're transparent doesn't mean everyone knows about it. There's a difference between pushing information to someone and making them seek it. Don't make it difficult to know changes have been made. Bring the new information to them.
  • Isn't it a waste of time if development is spending time reading information about sales? If so, why put all this information out there?
  • What are the perverse effects of openness, meaning, what are the negative, unintended consequences? The SEC mandated that public companies detail CEO pay because there was such a discrepancy and shareholder complaints; but making it open has had the reverse effect. Public company A points to public company B and C and says, "look at what they're being paid! I deserve at least that and more!" Will the same thing happen if startups make their salaries public?
  • What is the motivation to be transparent? It creates accountability when you have to report on your work. One person talked about their AllHands where each department head walked up to report on their progress that week. Doing that in public created pressure and accountability.
  • There was a fear of having to do more work. The best systems are those that generate reports or information based on the work you did, not having to do the work and then turn around and report on the work.
  • Does transparency create maturity and responsible team members? Or does the visibility create the feeling of responsibility and therefore more mature, trusted team?
  • How do people share information today? What tools are they using? Small, early startups are using email. Larger companies are using confluence and custom systems. Everyone was doing some type of AllHands meeting with their teams to deliver information.

unConference 2015 Session: What’s the thing with the “Internet of Things”?

By Daniel Payares, Electrical Engineer and recent MBA graduate from Hult IBS. Passionate about innovation, sustainability and strategic planning.

Just like the Cloud was on everyone’s mouth a couple of years ago, the “Internet of Things” (or IoT) is one of the most important trends in technology right now. A group of technology professionals and enthusiast at this year’s MassTLC unConference had an interesting discussion on IoT and its main drivers, concerns and applications.

With the IoT, physical objects equipped with sensors and network capabilities can collect and exchange data with each other. A great debate circled on the true value of IoT, and whether it rested in the added convenience for the customer, the increased amount of data and information for the provider, or ultimately a combination of both.  Also, if it was startups or established companies who were playing a bigger role in developing IoT and its applications. In this case, a head start was given to the incumbents, especially after the eventful last couple of weeks buzzing with new launches from Amazon, Microsoft and IBM.

The group pondered about the current and potential applications of IoT. From the smart thermostats and fire-alarms provided by Google’s Nest, activity trackers like Fitbit, and major applications in supply chain and shipping tracking, to automatic maintenance and repairs done online, applications in the restaurant and hospitaility industries, ending with smart home appliances that could automatically order groceries for you (similar to Amazon’s new Dash system). The conclusion? The possibilities with IoT are endless.

However, there is still a lot of question marks with IoT. In fact, the most discussed topic revolved about security and privacy issues with IoT. Although everyone in the group agreed that IoT is already making its way into our lives, with all signs pointing to this trend increasing in the future, people showed concern about the amount of personal information that could be hacked and the dangers associate it with it. One important driver of this problem is the lack of a unified standard to support the IoT platform, since every provider of the service tries to push its own procedures.

Ultimately, IoT is not just a fade and is here to stay. The big companies are already starting to see the incredible opportunities and advantages of using it, while entrepreneurs have now a new playing field to explore and possible create the next big thing.

unConference 2015 Session: “Coopetition” – When is my competitor my friend?

Moderator: Dan Lieber, President, Innovative Ideas Unlimited, Inc.

This afternoon session asked the questions, “When is my competitor my friend?  When is coopetition helpful and what do I need to be wary of?”

Good reasons for “coopetition” include:
  • General market promotion and validation
  • Industry standardization efforts
  • Regulatory process engagement
  •  Market seeding in which one firm “gives away” a short term advantage to ensure better long-term growth.
Downside risk of coopetition includes:
  •  IP exposure and theft
  • Corporate espionage (though this may be a mutually accepted risk
  • Getting pushed out of a partnership that you may have initiated
For the most part, coopetition is effective when there is clear mutual gain for both parties.  Often, asymmetrical relationships work best.  These are partner arrangements in which two firms are widely different in size or stage of development. This eliminates much of the fear of head-on competition and allows a freer exchange of information and a better alignment of interests.

The group raised a few best practices for companies who feel a need to approach a current or potential competitor for a “coopetive” relationship:
  • Bear in mind that these relationships usually start between individuals who trust each other.  Keep and build that trust through the process.
  •  Be sure you are bringing something tangible of value to the partnership and be as transparent as possible.
  • Know your role in the relationship. Understand what you’re bringing to the table and keep the big picture in mind.
  • Understand that IP litigation won’t save you and the United States Patent Office is unreliable at best.
One participant said, “IP litigation is the sport of kings and small companies are not kings.”
Keep your focus. Keep working on filling your company’s core values and execute on that.  Bail out if the coopetition starts to force you in direction that is not compatible with your mission.

unConference 2015: CEO Track Session

Moderators: James Geshwiler, Managing Director, Common Angels Ventures; Jodi Goldstein, Director, Harvard Innovation Lab

More than 80 CEOs gathered for the morning session at the 2015 MassTLC unConference.  While most members of the group were leaders of companies with fewer than 20 employees and many were first-time CEOs, several seasoned CEOs, CFOs and CTOs also were in attendance to offer their perspective on issues of management team composition and evolution, fundraising, business process and other key areas of corporate growth.

The area that drew the most sustained interest and richest discussion was the question of management team composition and executive team building.  Many entrepreneurs – and newer CEOs, especially – had questions about:

1. CEO evolution – skill growth and knowing if and when to step aside for more seasoned help
2. Recruiting CTOs and technical co-founders
3. Fundraising, investor outreach and relationship building

There was general consensus that strong CEOs are leaders of teams that cover all of the key elements of running a company: technical/product, sales/marketing, and finance.  It is the rare individual who can cover all bases entirely and those skill gaps often become apparent as startups reach the $3-5 million revenue stage.  So, it is incumbent on CEOs to do two things:  first, invest time and energy in educating themselves in every area of their business to develop a working knowledge of all that’s happening inside their company.  Second, CEOs should develop an inner circle of high-level experts that cover each of those functional areas at the expert level.  This “whole brain” concept of team building says that the areas of expertise should be covered by skill and experience, if not always by title, and must represent the spectrum of corporate needs from vision to action to sustained operation.  From an investor’s perspective, teams that cover these areas and show few if any gaps are the most likely to get funded, stay intact, and grow and evolve with their businesses.

One of the great takeaways concerning CEO evolution was something attributed to Andy Grove, legendary former CEO of Intel who said: I wasn’t the only CEO of Intel.  There were five of them but they just happened to be me every time. The job changes.

Regarding CTOs and the specific need for a technical co-founder, the group consensus was that a technical expert was necessary at an early stage. Good executive pairs are sometimes characterized as “a hacker and a hustler,” and many investors consider the technical innovation aspect of a startup to be its most investible asset. Many session attendees saw a real disconnect, however, in how new founders approach potential CTOs and technical co-founders by offering too little equity, too little incentive to partner, and too little professional respect. Fundamentally, great techies are not lacking for opportunity in this market and it is to every startup executives’ best interest to not only trust and nurture a technical co-founder but to make the equity split as close to 50/50 as possible to develop a true and highly functional partnership.

At the end of the morning session discussion centered on best practices for new founders seeking VC investment and the lack of transparency inherent in the process.  A few of the attendees likened the investor-startup relationship to courtship and marriage because these relationships should be long-term, mutually beneficial and fully transparent.  Startups seeking funding can help themselves most by doing plenty of homework and “stalking” potential investors to uncover their past investments, how often they invest in first-time CEOs (and how often those first-timers get replaced) and the relative size of their deals to see if it makes sense for the startup to attempt a meeting with a particular VC.  Sources such as CrunchBase and LinkedIn are good for seeing an investor’s history and for finding referral sources and connections to potential investors. It’s as important for startups to interview VCs as it is for the investor to vet the startup to make sure the fit between them is solid.  And, whenever possible, startups should seek to cultivate a champion  -- an insider at a particular firm who can advocate for the startup and help navigate the particular investment culture at the VC firm.

Despite the official close of the session at 11:45, the roomful of CEOs hung together to continue the discussion in small groups and individually.

Resources cited during the session:
1. Co-Founders Lab,
2. The Hitchhikers Guide to Boston Tech

unConference 2015 Session: Mid Life Entrepreneurs

By Ken Lynch, Jones & Company, @jones_mktg

This MassTLC Innovation2015 unConference session drew a small, but highly engaged crowd.  From a personal perspective, the topic resonated because I am a mid-life entrepreneur myself.  From a conference attendee and blogger’s perspective, this was topic I hadn’t seen covered at other events throughout the great entrepreneurial environment and startup scene that is Boston.

Rob Kornblum (@rkorny) was the perfect facilitator for this session.  As a business leader and investor he is among those of us with…ahem…decades of experience.  It was apparent that everyone in the room was familiar with the life of an entrepreneur, either having been one at some point in their careers or interacting with the many incubators and accelerator programs throughout the greater Boston area as a mentor, advisor, or program leader.

To kick off the session, we were challenged to think about what it takes to be an entrepreneur, the differences between young and “experienced” entrepreneurs, and what support systems are (or more precisely should be) in place for mid-life entrepreneurs.

Those of us with a minimum of twenty years work experience found it striking how young founders today (our peer CEOs in their 20s) do things differently from how we did them as young entrepreneurs, and certainly in stark contrast to our experiences within established businesses.  Everything from work environments to recruiting practices seems to have changed dramatically either through technology advancements or cultural shifts. 

One of the primary discussion topics was the difference in the support systems that are available to young company founders versus those available to the mid-life entrepreneur.  Not surprisingly, Boston produces great student entrepreneurs through some of the nation’s top educational institutions and supports them with a tremendous access to workspaces, networks, and capital.  Most of this support structure is city-centered, with Boston being a vibrant hub for entrepreneurship.

But for a mid-life founder the story can be quite different.  We find ourselves asking where the most legitimate place to build a company is, given that we most likely live in the suburbs.  We often have to balance more family commitments with work time.  We may have to take on more of a financial risk.  And, we may find investors telling us that we don’t look like their last startup founder!

Despite these challenges, it was very interesting to learn that research conducted by the Kauffman Foundation and others report that the average entrepreneur is 40 when they launch their startup, people over 55 are twice as likely as people under 35 to launch a high-growth startup, and the average age of a successful startup with over $1 million in revenues was 39.  The bottom line?  Age is less of a driver to entrepreneurial success than previous startup and industry experience.  That’s right.  Older founders bring significant assets in the form of personal experiences, business skills, and experiences with challenges that may seem insurmountable to a first time founder.

The conversation shifted back to topics on the Boston startup infrastructure, how we could expand the way most people think about innovation and entrepreneurship in general, and what could be done to better support the mid-life entrepreneur.

We discussed the possible expansion of existing mentor programs to companies beyond the incubator stage – be it venue based or in some other consultative fashion. 

The Boston public transportation system became a hot button topic.  With innovation centers spread throughout the city, it can be very time consuming and unproductive to try to visit more than one in a day.  Heck, there isn’t even a direct connection between North and South Stations.  Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to get from the Cambridge Innovation Center to MassChallenge in less than an hour and with fewer than three connections!

Finally, we discussed the creation of networking groups that included both mid-life entrepreneurs and our younger counterparts.  Events, curated communities, and in person and online meetups were all introduced into the conversation.

So where do we take this?  A good jumping off point may be reading our track facilitator Rob Kornblum’s book about mid-career entrepreneurship – soon to be found in a bookstore near you (my plug, not his)!

unConference 2015 Session: Paying the Piper - Reducing Technical Debt

By Tobias Kahn, @Tobitronkahn

Technical debt naturally accrues in any large codebase. This is particularly true with development that deals with a high proportion of legacy systems, or any team pressured to move more quickly than they would ideally prefer, a.k.a. every development team.

The conversation ranged along a variety of strategies to reduce tech debt, with consolidation emerging as a theme. Combining multiple APIs into one, the use of micro services, decoupling dependencies in general. Viewing maintainability as the most important aspect of engineering helps reduce tech debt. In many cases legacy systems are only legacy because they weren’t maintainable.

Getting buy-in from business is essential, and often difficult. Technical debt can be a black box to non-technical people –there’s no good parallel in other aspects of a business– and it’s difficult to get business folks to understand technical debt. It’s essential to communicate finite business benefits when making the case for time to reduce tech debt. “We’ll spend two weeks to make the site faster and more stable” goes a lot further than “the codebase is a mess we need to spend two weeks fixing it.” When communication fails, developers find themselves needing to sneak tech debt reduction into normal feature development. Rue La La does a feature freeze in Q4 to allow devs to tackle technical debt, but this is very much the exception rather than the rule.

The participants discussed the importance of testing and why it so often falls by the wayside: time. Building out a test suite can be daunting, and it’s important to take it one step at a time. While some refactoring can be complex, requiring hours of focused time, writing a test here and there can be squeezed into 30 minute time slots. Slow and steady wins the race.

unConference 2015 Session: Product Management - Metrics, Responsibilities and What Makes a Good PM

By Tobias Kahn, @Tobitronkahn

The discipline of product management is essential in any complex product development environment, yet the specific attributes of what makes a great PM, and how to measure their success remains murky. If a product manager leads a failed product does that mean they’re  bad? If a product succeeds, does that mean the PM leading the charge was the cause? Not necessarily in either case, and therein lays the challenge.

The importance of communication, and a product manager’s ability to communicate quickly emerged as a key attribute. The PM needs to be the hub, synthesizing information from other experts to paint the big picture. It’s essential for a product person to be able to communicate in stories. Not just user stories (the documentation used for feature requirements in agile software development), but the overall story and goals of the product. If you aren’t clearly defining what’s important, it’s hard to get people to understand. Buy-in from engineering and other departments is essential, and story telling helps to achieve this.

Another key thread discussed was the importance of domain knowledge and experience *as* the customer. There’s multiple sides to the argument here: on the one hand, domain knowledge gives you insights to subtle details of a customer’s experience, and this is particularly important in complex systems like healthcare. But too much passion or an “I know how it is” sensibility could restrict a PM’s thinking to one path. Similarly, experience having been the customer could be blinding. One customer doesn’t represent the entire customer base, and perhaps the customer you have isn’t the customer you want! In any case, the antithesis of a good PM is someone who simply does what the customer said they want. The ability to extract the need from the want is a skill set any PM should have, regardless of domain knowledge.

Monday, October 26, 2015

unConference 2015 Track: Customer Success

Having a satisfied customer is not a guarantee of their business next year, or even next month.  More than ever, customers are powered by choice.  Consequently, a satisfied customer no longer guarantees that you will have their business, as they continuously seek to reduce costs and increase profitability.

Every year companies spend millions to generate revenue from new sales.  Yet, after the sale very little (in comparison) is spent to protect this investment and retain customers.  There is no doubt that retention, churn and customer lifetime revenue have replaced the idea of a simple closed sale.

These and other aspects of Customer Success were one of the areas of interest tackled by attendees at this year’s MassTLC Innovation2015 UnConference.  Facilitating this highly interactive track were Brian Gladstein co-chair Boston's Lean Startup Challenge and EVP of GYK Antler, Dave Witting, Vice President, Customer Success at Localytics, and John Paladino, Vice President of Client Services at InterSystems.  Based on experience and with the desire to learn from their peers, attendees contributed thoughts, ideas, and questions to help shape an improvised agenda that UnConference is known for. 

The areas of interest were wide ranging. Attendees wanted to know how to measure customer success.  They wanted to learn how product, marketing, and customer facing teams could work together to drive change around customer engagement.  And, they wanted to explore ways in which companies could create customer success outside of the actual product or service they are selling.

Based on near equal interest, suggestions were narrowed and smaller breakout sessions - mini-unConferences within the UnConference - were held to discuss the top three selections:

·         Effective testimonials/case studies
·         How to increase renewals and limit churn
·         Nurturing the client relationship

What came out of these conversations were shared experiences, lots of ideas, and lots of questions.

Is the Case Study Dead?

For some, the traditional method of producing a case study to promote customer success came into question early in the conversation.  Many feel there is a disconnect between what internal account managers and delivery teams think a case study should be versus what marketing feels they need to create for lead generation. Marketing likes one-page summaries organized around the mission, problem, and solution to use as a conversation starter, while delivery teams want a long-form post mortem.  Finding common ground can be challenging.

For others, “case study” has become a dirty word – at least in the eyes of the customer.  It was discussed that customers often feel vendors over-promote themselves, while it is the customer proving the benefiting of the product, service, or technology that should be the focus of the case study.

Whether it is format, content, or distribution channels, in near unanimity, attendees believed there must be a better way to include the customer in the process, craft more natural case studies, and find creative ways to distribute the message. 

A few creative ideas included:

·         Using video to create more engaging and potentially viral testimonials
·         Finding an internal advocate at your customer to be a storyteller in an effort to build word of mouth referrals
·         Become a teacher by creating a story that will help others solve their business challenges
·         Position the customer as a thought leader, not just a user of your product
·         Co-host events with your customers, giving them a chance to outwardly market themselves

Nurturing The Client Relationship

Discussions on nurturing the client relationship and reducing churn covered lots of ground, with an underlying commonality being the necessity to be a complete “partner” with your customer.  Doing so can promote a lasting relationship based on trust and help you avoid guessing what your customer’s needs are.

It was agreed that having the right people on your team is key.  It can be helpful to have staff with deep experience in the customer’s market so you can easily anticipate customer needs and identify pain points.  However others pointed out that being too immersed in a customer’s market might be restrictive and limit your ability you to think outside of the box and look beyond near-term needs.

Attendees agreed that having a customer service mentality is important.  Making your customer’s problems your problems and introducing a practice of collaborative conversation – as opposed to constantly selling – is critical.

Near- and long-term planning, being honest about your own abilities, and having a well designed feedback loop were factors everyone agreed help to build trust for future success.

In the end, said one participant, courageous leadership helps.  Having executive leadership with equal focus on vision and execution can make all the difference in the world.

unConference 2015 Session: How To Use Storytelling

By Ken Lynch, Jones & Company@jones_marketing

It seems every few months a new buzzword gains traction in the business world, gets a few books written about it, is the highlight of industry events, and then fades away.  Today, one of the biggest buzzwords in business is “storytelling.”  Marketers are obsessed with storytelling and its getting lots of attention as a tool for businesses to use to gain a competitive advantage. 

Not surprisingly, How To Use Storytelling was one of the best-attended sessions of MassTLC’s Innovation2015 unConference.  In this dynamic session facilitated by Eric Braun of 30Hands Learning (@southshoreeric), the questions started flying fast. 

What is a story?

Do you need permission to tell your story?

Do stories need to be true?

To help ground the conversation, it was quickly pointed out that storytelling isn’t new, but that it continues to take on new forms, especially in today’s connected world where social media has gotten us comfortable having conversations with each other and companies in new, impactful, and sometimes questionable ways. 

Participants provided several examples of the history and foundation of storytelling. Greek philosopher Socrates challenged his contemporaries to ask themselves if what they were about to say is true, good and useful.  Aristotle divided storytelling into three categories – Ethos (credibility), Pathos (emotional), and Logos (logical).  Citing a more recent example, participants were pointed to a now famous TED Talk given by Simon Sinek where he introduces the Golden Circle of Why, How, and What.  Why, says Sinek, should be the core and driving force of every company’s marketing and business operations – including their storytelling.

A colorful dialog continued with nearly every attendee in the room providing input on what makes a good story and how to leverage storytelling to build a brand.  Several examples provided by participants are captured below:

What Makes a Good Story?

·         A story is a narrative that gives background and makes an impact on the audience.  A story must be told in a way that “connects” with the audience.

·         A good story should entertain, inform, and provide utility.  It should affect the hearts and minds of people and move them to action. 

·         Stories should address emotional, functional, and financial needs.

·         It is good practice to put others (your customers) in your stories for them to "feel" connected. 

·         You shouldn’t tell people you are funny, smart, or that your product is the best, but you can communicate these points through a story by providing examples of what you’ve done.

·         Your story must be unique – customers will know if they’ve heard it before.

·         Viral stories include a “magical moment” or “moment of change” that prompts that others to tell your story for you.

Why is Storytelling Important?

·         It has been proven that people don’t remember data as much as they do stories, but it seems children today are being taught information, not stories.  Stories should have a message (a takeaway) as opposed to just providing data.  It is important to tell your story and interject data as part of the narrative.

·         Storytelling can have a tremendous impact on success.  For example, scientists who write their findings as a story have greater paper acceptance rates.

·         Consumers are more likely to purchase from companies with stories that align with their own.

·         Business people not only have to understand their companies’ past, but they must project the future. In this way, stories can be used for employee engagement and retention.

How Do You Become a Good Storyteller?

·         Don’t make your story a sermon, but allow it to become a dialog.

·         Make sure your story has personality.  Include a high impact message at the beginning of story, fill in the details, and end with a clear takeaway.

·         Customers can tell the difference between being sold to and being told a story. Know your audience, know when to tell your story and when to modify your story, and don’t stray far from your objective.

·         Let pictures tell the story for you.  Using visuals as a backdrop forces you to tell a story and is a great tool for self-discipline.

·         Have variations of your story.  Don’t let your 30-second elevator pitch become a 3-minute presentation.

·         Don’t over-own or over-tell your story.

Modern Uses and Examples of Storytelling

Leveraging the discussion points above, the session concluded with conversation about how one can use storytelling in modern sales and marketing practices:

·         Prompt customers to tell their story.  This can be more effective than giving a pitch or even telling your own story.  You may find that your customers will make you part of their story, providing an unsolicited endorsement.

·         Get others to tell your story to create word of mouth buzz.  It can be as easy as attaching a video of your story to your email signature.  When it comes back to you from a new prospect, you know you’ve done something right.

·         The easiest way to go viral with your story is to copy an already successful viral idea, but with a different product or new concept.

·         You can create a storytelling campaign without creating the content.  How ALS foundations raised awareness through The Ice Bucket Challenge is a great example.

·         Be careful with this one, but a story doesn’t have to be 100% true.  There are ways of going over the top to engage and audience in a positive way e.g. Dollar Shave Club advertisements.

·         Let everyone own your story.  Don’t control it, let people create content around your context and let it go viral.  #GivingTuesday, a global day dedicated to giving back was formed with these principles.

·         Great products sell themselves.  Have you seen an Uber ad or received a call from an Uber sales person?  Let your product tell lots of micro-stories that resonate with a broad audience of buyers.

Several other resources were cited throughout the discussion, including: Center for Story-Based Strategy - a national movement-building organization dedicated to harnessing the power of narrative for social change; The Power of Visual Storytelling, a book that suggests attention is the new commodity and visual storytelling is the new currency, and Contagious, a book that asks and answers the question: Why do things catch on?

Much like the the closing of Simon Sinek’s TED Talk, this unConference session challenged us to find inspiration and become leaders through storytelling.  In Sinek’s parting words:

“Whether they are individuals or organizations, we follow those who lead not because we have to, but because we want to.  We follow those who lead not for them, but for ourselves.  And it’s those who start with WHY that have the ability to inspire those around them or find others who inspire them.”

unCon 2015 Session: Product Management

By Rose Metayer, Boston Private Industry Council, LinkedIn

When the group first got together we generated a list of 20 topics we wanted to discuss in regards to product management. I sat back and marveled out the level of engagement and curiosity on being better and more innovative product managers. After the group split into the two groups: products and people versus the products and process group. The products and process group focused on discussing formulation of products, product decisions and reference customers. 

The group for the first half on the conversation focused heavily on reference customers and product/market fit.  We determined that it is the product team’s role to get and sell the product to the reference customers. Getting customers involved in concept of products early on can be both beneficial and hurtful to the final outcome of your product. Often times one of the road blocks in this process is that sales teams will say what the customer needs but there is no accountability and the product will fail.  Therefore, some group members agreed that it is beneficial to keep working with reference customers until you get the perfect and the best product/market fit. It seems that the most successful way to match product to market is to implement some grassroots movement, i.e. calling current customers, reaching out to people, networking with customers. 

The dilemma with customer feedback is that sometimes customers do not want to talk they just want the product. There needs to be a strong balance between owning a market and owning a set of customers. Do customers help or hurt you? “If we just built everything our customers told us our product would fail miserably” (facilitator).  In the enterprise software world customers do not know what they want because they have not seen the software before.  Customers have a hard time being innovative. Therefore, customer opinion in the enterprise/software world is sometimes not very helpful.

In conclusion, you want customers to feel that early on in the process they own the product.

Session #1:  How do culture/values impact innovation?

  • How to continue to motivate and engage people?
  • Scale and maintain culture as you manage business growth?
  • Impact on team dynamics/scaling?
  • Improving culture within a team?
  • Using culture to drive alignment?
  • How to make employees feel as loved as the customer?
  • How do tech companies define culture?
  • How to foster a creative culture in a corporate environment?
  • Diversity of culture in tech spaces.

From the moment this group got together I knew that the group was energized to learn how to motivate their employees. Instantly, after introductions the group dove into discussing how to motivate employees. David Delmar from Resilient Coders spoke first and stated “the key to successful and motivated employees is to give them these three things:

Motivating staff in 3 main pillars (David Delmar- Resilient coders):
  1. Autonomy
  2. Purpose
  3. Ability to hone your craft
The group discussed the pros and cons of autonomy but most importantly the group began a discussion around finding ones purpose in the work place, in particular finding it difficult to find purpose in corporate spaces. One company had a “make-a-thon” where employees were able to make whatever they wanted to. Employees then started to realize that in their role they do not have the ability to “hone” their craft and they do not have purpose. Therefore, when a new project comes up a leader can ask an employee do you have the ability to hone your craft in this project. As organizations we have to be accepting to failure. If you are pushing the line of innovation and you are not failing then you are not pushing the line of innovation hard enough.  Welcome experimentation instead of labeling it as failure. What is the right type of “failure”?

If you have a company purpose and if you have an employee who buys in to the purpose they will willingly work out of the 100 percent boundary to work on other projects that align with their passion. If you are only hiring staff that align with the purpose of the company you might unintentionally limiting the type of staff you are hiring.

The group lastly switched to a conversation around the difference between office culture and office climate. We began our discussion analyzing who creates cultures and company values. Maintaining culture in a company typically comes top down. If your leader communicates the culture effectively then as the company grows making sure the managers you are hiring and who will eventually hire new people. If your staff connects to the values they will all return back to the things that are the most important.  Successful companies start by having a base value and base culture that everyone can buy into. But then ask them what motivates them to connect to the larger values. Use peoples intrinsic motivators to motivate them to a bigger goal.

Ways that you hire staff to make sure the match culture and value?

  • Letting potential employees experience a day in the life so that you can get used to the office.
  • Having someone in a different department and a different team to see how you will interact with different people and teams.
  • Behavioral interview questions
Who creates a culture? 

  • If someone is forced to create the culture it will not be globally accepted
  • It starts out with people who are passionate about something and he/she leads and others follow
  • The CEO leads it and involves others in discussions about culture and values
  • The generator of the idea is the person who creates that company
  • The norms that are created that are not verbal i.e. if I continually take a 35 minute break and you allow that then you have a culture of 35 minute breaks.
  • There is a difference between culture and climate (Culture comes from top down i.e. the CEO say this is what we value; Climate is more grassroots and it comes from bottom up)
  • Geographic distance influences culture as well
Session #2:  How to engage industry in STEM education K-12

This group was an eccentric blend of industry professionals, k-12 professionals and MassTLC board members. The group decided that the best use of the conference time would be to create a list of challenges and solutions. The conversations began with a powerful quote from a group member. The member proclaimed that “Innovative thinking in schools is not rewarded in our current school system. For teachers you are rewarded for how long you have been there and not how innovative you are being in the classroom.” An easy way to bring technology into our classrooms is to simply start by inserting technology into teaching curriculum. The group brought solutions to the table on how the k-12 professionals could include technology in all types of classes.

Lastly the group talked about divergent vs. convergent thinking. This new form of thinking in schools could be instrumental in creating pockets of innovation in the classroom. With convergent thinking everyone converges into the same answer. i.e. what is the square root of 64. There is only one actually answer. However, if we teach students to think with a more divergent mind frame our students will learn that there can be many answers to some of the questions explored in the classroom.  With this thought process students will be more apt to explore many different pathways to come to a solution. They would be more excited to incorporate technology into those possible solutions.

  • Talent shortage on the industry side
  • Talent on the sidelines
  • Demographics misused in companies
  • Curriculum does not match industry needs
  • Need access to hands on learning environments
  • Retaining talent that come here for schools do not stay because they do not see Boston as a hub for tech innovation
  • Responsibility for vocational guidance falls on parents
  • Students views of education is impacted by what’s around them
  • Industry partners do not know how to help and how to reach out


  • Show kids that their classroom knowledge can be used in the real world
  • Capture students in middle school in order to foster their love of education
  • Putting young people in professional settings
  • Parents becoming more involved
  • Record student presentations and send to parents from internships
  • Teach creativity and failure