Thursday, August 8, 2013

Best Practices from a Tomato Gardener

It's August and every day I pick a few red, ripe tomatoes from our vegetable garden.  As I admire the tall tomato plants, I am reminded of a dinner I had years ago, at a one of those upscale steakhouses with large booths, wood panelling, thick steaks, and plenty of hard liquor.

Around the table were the CEO, VP of Sales, and COO of the company I was working for.

The VP of Sales said how she much she valued working with people who were athletes, who were great team players and were driven to win.

The CEO said how much he valued working with people who had a military background - to him, business was a battle field and he was building a team to go to war.

The COO, who had just brought me in to run product management, asked me if either analogy resonated with me.  Were we in a sports competition, or were we at war?

I took a sip of bourbon and said that product management was a lot like tending a vegetable garden.  After some chuckles from the VP of Sales (who ended up being a great coach to me) and from the CEO (who ended up sending me out to many battles with engineering teams or customers), I shared some vegetable gardening best practices with them.  The bourbon kept flowing and the food was plentiful, and what may have started as a folksy analogy ended up being a great way to exchange ideas about product management.

Here are my best practices for growing tomatoes

1. Diversify. When selectings seeds, buy proven winners for your climate and soil, but also try some unusual varieties that might be resistent to unexpected drought, frost, or pests. 

2. Start Early. Germinate your seeds early. When there is still snow on the ground and the days are short, you can already give your plants a head start by providing them with rich soil, a warm space, and plenty of light.

3. Thin Out. Once the seedlings appear, thin them out vigorously.  Keep only the healthy seedlings. If you have space in your garden for 16 plants, you should have 48-64 seedlings at this point.

4. Harden Off. A couple of weeks before transplanting your seedlings, move them outside during the day to harden them off, and bring them back inside at night.  While the seedlings are hardening off, prepare the garden soil. Loosen the soil, add fertilizer

5. Leave Room for Support Structures. Layout the garden so that you can plant the seedlings far enough apart to allow space for cages, stakes, and trellises.

6. Select the Strongest. Select the strongest seedlings for transplanting.  Give the others away to friends or neighbors.  Since they have not made all the same preparations that you have, their tomatoes will never be the same size and quality as yours.  Keep a few seedlings for experiments such as upside down growing, or container gardening.  Or sneak across the street into a public space and plant a seedling, just to see if it will thrive.

7. Encourage Root Development.  When planting the seedlings in the garden soil, plant them deep.  Very deep.  Deep enough so that only the top two leaves peak out from above the ground.  This allows the plants to develop deep roots and will help them grow big and strong in the weeks ahead.

8. Guide Upwards. As your plants grow, guide them upwards, using stakes, cages, trellises or wires.  Even a small garden can yield a great crop if you use vertical space.

9. Watch the Surroundings. Watch the plants and the soil and the surroundings carefully, so you can apply water, nutrients, and pest control when it's needed and where it's needed. The larger and tastier your tomatoes become, the more attractive they are to all kinds of pests.  If you don't want to use chemicals, consider other creative methods such as plants that repel pests, netting, or noisemakers.

10. Use Creative Ways to Make the Harvest Last. The best way to enjoy a freshly harvested tomato is to simply slice it and eat it.  However, if you end up with more tomatoes than you can consume this way, make sure you have recipes and supplies on hand to make your harvest last longer: spaghetti sauce, salsa, soup, and ketchup can be preserved frozen or canned.  You can dry your tomatoes in the sun, or in an oven. 

11. Create Opportunities at the End of the Season. When the end of the season is near, harvest the green tomatoes, and make green tomato pickle, relish, fried green tomatoes, or salsa verde.

I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture.  Any of the principles that help create a successful pest-resistant, high yielding tomato patch can be applied to product management. 

Here is a picture of some of my early crop - one of which tips the scales at 638 grams (1.4 pounds)

So you can stop reading right now, slice a tomato, and eat it while you listen to another great Soul Classic: Sliced Tomatoes, by the Just Brothers

But if you're still here, let's look at product management best practices, brought to you by a tomato gardener.

1. Diversify. When looking at your product portfolio and deciding where to invest, invest in proven winners for your marketplace and your company's domain expertise, but also invest in some projects that can take your company into new markets or new problem domains, so you will be able to withstand a change in regulation, threats from competitors, or fluctuations in demand. 

2. Start Early. Start your innovations early. When others are launching a new product or a new release it is not too soon to look for disruptive ideas and incubate them in an environment that fosters creativity and risk taking. 

3. Thin Out. Once your new ideas have taken shape, in the form of prototypes or plans, evaluate them and keep only the viable ones.

4. Harden Off. Before launching the product, take the product through regular user testing to harden it off, and bring it back to the development team for iterative improvement.  While the products are going through their iterative improvements, prepare the market with promotions and education.

5. Leave Room for Support Structures.  Plan your go to market and take into consideration different sales channels. Does your pricing take into consideration revenue sharing, cost of services, and other costs? 

6. Select the Strongest. Select the strongest products for launch to market.  Spin off other ideas to partners or clients.  Keep a few immature products for further experimentation, such as open-source delivery.

7. Encourage Root Development. When releasing the product to early adopters, provide plenty of support and hand-holding.  Plenty of support.  This helps the early adopters be successful with the product and gives you reference clients and invaluable product feedback. 

8. Guide Upwards. As your products get adopted in the market, work with sales teams and clients to discover opportunities for services and new products and new benefits you can deliver to the market.  Even a small client base can yield great profits if you can deliver services.

9. Watch the Surroundings. Watch the products, the clients, and the delivery teams carefully, so you can adjust pricing, issue patches, offer services when they are needed and where they are needed.. The more adoption and marketshare your products gain, the more you have to think about support resources, product scalability, performance, and reliability.  Consider creative methods to address these issues such as partnerships, or the use of cloud-based solutions.

10. Use Creative Ways to Make the Harvest Last. You can see a lot of profit from selling your product directly to a customer.  But if you have more opportunities than you can cover through direct sales, make sure you consider partnerships or product extensions to get your product to a larger market: find ways to get to international markets, open up APIs to allow other parties to integrate with you, find ways to release the product on new platforms, or become part of larger solutions.

11. Create Opportunities at the End of the Season. If the product is near its end of life, look at how you can create solutions with components of the product.  Have you considered IP Licensing, spinning off a services business, or reusing newly developed business processes to create new solutions?

This just in:  Ned Johnson of Fidelity is having some problems with his tomato crop.
Read it in the Boston Globe

Just look at the diversified portfolio:  Cherries, Oxhearts, Swiss Heirlooms, with sprigs of Holy Basil, which has protected them from pests.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Your 2013 Product Horoscope

Our Product Psychic has studied the stars and consulted her crystal ball. 
Here are her predictions for 2013:
Product Monger 
You bravely forge ahead and let nothing come between you and success.  You are masterful with the tools of your trade.   Next time, don’t be so quick to help out a co-worker with a broken PowerPoint – let them learn for themselves.
Product Myopic
You have deep expertise in your domain.  Your research papers and RFP responses have helped win many a deal.  In the new year, look around you and expand your horizons -time has come for you get involved in new projects!
Product Mogul
No opportunity is too big for you.  Your determination and the alliances you have formed over the years make you unstoppable.  In 2013, Your product’s market share will grow and grow.  There are no boundaries other than those inside of you.
Product Mother
Under your loving care, your products have flourished and matured.  In the new year, don’t be afraid to let go of some of your products lines – they are big enough now to start portfolios of their own.
Product Maverick
Far away from the pack, you do your own thing. Your ideas are so original and your insights so fresh, customers love them.  2013 might be a good time to start your own company.
Product Mercenary
You will do anything to make your customers successful.  Go ahead, lower the pricing, and add a few items to your requirements spec.  It will all pay off!
Product Moper
You know too well where all the hidden defects of the product are.   Make a fresh start this year:  Spend less time reading the bug database and the support logs, and instead focus on the benefits your product delivers.
Product Magician
Nobody knows how you do it.  Just when disaster is about to strike, you come through with breakthrough innovations and brilliant value propositions.  Keep the magic coming, but please give the developers a chance to refactor.
Product Marathoner
You have tremendous stamina.  You fly on red-eyes, preside over long meetings, and write the most complete specs anyone has ever seen.  This year, give yourself time to recover, and you will be able to drive yourself even further.
Product Mediator 
Working in cross functional teams, prioritizing requirements, and harmonizing portfolios are what you do best.  Everyone wins under your leadership.  In the new year, make sure you negotiate some rewards for yourself!
Product Matchmaker
You understand that in a complex marketplace, products need strong partnerships to succeed. You are a master of alliances.  Be careful in the new year: Channel Conflicts may limit the growth of your product and it’s up to you to resolve them.
Product Moron
You have a fresh outlook.  You are not afraid to ask questions, and your ability to state the obvious has helped clarify countless requirements.  Be on the lookout – a mentor may be ready to help you to the next stage.

If you are not sure which sign you are, or if you would like a personal reading to help you with your product success in 2013, call the psychic product hotline at 4 ALLYO 7974. Standard rates apply !