Web Feature Discovery Process – Part 2

This article is the second part of 2 articles on the Web Feature Discovery Process. You probably should click here and read article 1 if you are here for the first time.

Ok, so you have finally figured out the key assets and are starting to go down the road of making your new web feature happen… well let’s just say you are only 20% towards the finish line. There are some major hurdles involved for most of us, including even the big guy or gal at the top. The thinking part of discovering ripe juicy revenue or visitor producing features is the easy part. The difficult part is making it happen, navigating the human beings all along the way, especially when you know they are all trying to make sure you either fail directly, fail indirectly, fail just by the fact that you don’t have the energy to fight anymore, fail because you left the job or fail because the job left you. It is a fight to the death my friend and its all because you sorted through the company assets with a flashlight at night when nobody was looking and you had an idea, you brought it into the daylight, and now you are a pure unadulterated target for those who don’t want you to succeed. So how do you proceed in the most murky of environments…

Social Engineering

I first began to understand social engineering, when I was reading a great article about Kevin Mitnick, the infamous hacker who broke into Sprint and stole tons of information about their customers. He was not genius. He was not very technical. He was basically a petty thief. How did he do it? He used social engineering. If you think about it, social engineering (in the Mitnick version) is about figuring out how to use information and people of an organization to think what you want them to think and do, using that information wisely. Mitnick figured out that when executives names where mentioned, people lose their minds and do what you want. “Uh, Dick Lynch the VP said we need that report now!” Minick found out that if you know some small piece of information or just a name, you could easily navigate an entire organization, call around to people and they would hand you off like you were a friend. He would use person X’s name and say hey person Y, Person X recommended me. What really did is say the VP wanted me to get onto System Z, now so get me a login and password…

The point is, you need to understand the dynamics of the organization, the motivations of people in the organization and the hierarchy of decision-making. Getting the organization on board with you is what I am getting at! But ultimately, like I have said before, you can take the high road or the low road. Taking the high road means bring the organization along on a ride towards success (success means getting your feature implemented).

Education Camp

Sometimes unusual methods are needed in order to gain the trust of execs and the whole organization. For instance, some of the features I was trying to get implemented at my last company required me to make sure that the organization understood the features. What did I do about it? I ran a seminar. Now people in my company who came to my seminar looked at me in strange ways as I ran them. Once again who was I to run a seminar? I was just a programmer there, sometimes a manager, but in no way did I have the keys to the kingdom or really was in charge of much there. Fellow employees would look at me with confused looks. Who was this guy standing up there talking about things? I ran periodic internal seminars at the office. This means a short 45 minute talk, on WordPress for instance. I ran a seminar on Whois. I was planning a seminar on a variety of subjects. What was I doing in my crazy convoluted method was starting the social engineering process by planting seeds through my seminars. I wanted this company to adopt certain strategies and methods. Once again, nobody stopped me from running a talk at noon time in the conference rooms. This is a great place to flesh out your ideas and don’t freak if someone shows up to show you up. My answer to them would be, show me how to do it better!

Plan 32

One thing that a great product manager should always have is a pile of ready to go plans in their back pocket. You have all the plans (I mean PPTs, Power Points) that are company planned, on the so called “Road Map”. Actually I am going to digress here and tell you that if there is a Road Map beware! The kind of process and thinking a Road Map can create can be a real negative, because from experience nay-sayers love to use the Road Map as a way to block new Road Entrances. Never let the Road Map not allow the process to be re-prioritized and redeveloped. I have yet to see the Road Map (in the web feature world) be the best guide. Now, as far as plans are concerned, you have the top line plans already planned out from the execs and board. You have the plans that others know about that you are promoting, and you have a dozen others that they are not aware of, but you have them ready to go, in standby mode, in a file on your hard-drive or cloud, just in case the time is right. Why the three types of plans? Well, part of succeeding is not giving it all away too soon. You have to release plans periodically to the organization, who can’t handle all the plans at once. They have to be part of a series of changes over time. Once again, as a champion, of a lot of other people’s ideas (OPIs), you need to map out these features properly and get your presentations just right. Sometimes you have to sit on things and let osmosis occur. You wake up some morning and your brain somehow figures it out. Who knows why things work that way, but often they do. I would highly recommend sitting down with all the guys and gals who thought them up and show them where there idea is now!

The Shadow Government

Sometimes all the education and all the presentations and all the board room brawls are insignificant compared with the reality that something has to be done subversively. It is a rare thing to do, and there are some well documented cases where it is a necessity. A great example is the case of the James Cannavino at IBM. I read a great story about Jim in the late 1960s trying to convince management that he could speed up the IBM Mainframe. They rejected his notion, but in a subversive move, he had the technology developed outside the company and when it was finished went over his bosses and showed it to the board. He faced either being fired or being promoted. Luckily he was promoted. Hopefully it doesn’t come to this, but sometimes getting things done in an organization require unusual activity, because like I have been inferring there are many more forces at work trying to not make things happen than happen, even on the smallest scale.

Project Mercury

Those funny project names, that often mimic Nasa project names are not just wild imaginative words that are spread around at a company. They are used to get your attention, to try to get the organization to recognize a plan. These project names may sound strange and odd, but customer oriented, improved website features are often a shift and they may seem quite odd at first. Social networking stuff like Twitter and LinkedIn and Facebook. These are now household names, but 10 years ago they would sound strange. And it is only going to get stranger. When I say Tweet, Joomla, Droopal, lamp or soap to people in the web world, they better know what I mean… What should be happening in most American web firms is an injection of militarization combined with humor and something to spice it up. That’s what a project name is all about. If project names are not attention-getters, they should be. I would always try to make the name relevant, but a good bit of creativity is a positive not a negative.

Misdirection And The Book Of 5 Rings

Talking about military tactics, people’s military training can go a long way in corporate America. Just because I was not in the army, doesn’t mean we can’t learn from military tactics. They are important. At the end of my MBA program I took a class which revolved around Musashi’s “The Book Of Five Rings“. Musashi is a Japanese expert on war in the middle ages who survived to his old age and therefor, because he was only one of the very few warriors to survive, he wrote about his tactics. One of the tactics listed is a method of drawing an enemy towards oneself and at the last minute let the enemy run themselves off a cliff. In our language we call it misdirection. Sometimes you have to lead people down a path and not stop them from their self destruction. Often your plan has one way of doing things and another person has their plan. If you see their plan is faulty you don’t always have to stop it from failing. Sometimes it is best to let it fail. When I worked back at the phone company we used to leave documents around about projects that were never in existence in order to confuse people about what our real intentions were. Sometimes it is important to not reveal these intentions until you are ready to present and make it happen.

This the second of a 3 part articles. I have not yet finished article 3 about Making the Web Feature Happen.

This is the first article (You should read them in order)

http://www.strategicpoints.com/2011/06/22/web-feature-discovery-process-part-1/

Web Feature Discovery Process – Part 1

Not that I am any bit an expert on web features, product management… and not that I know something that anybody else couldn’t figure out, but I am somewhat obsessed with the website “feature” development process, especially when it comes to overlooked, under-estimated, misused assets. This blog entry is about how I would go about discovering features and services and solutions towards increasing website traffic as well as finding new profitable directions and increasing conversion rates. I am going to give a few examples, mainly from my experience working on a site like Whois.net (which is far from maximized; as far as I know they have just started the process). But first, before I describe the process to develop these features and new products (aka, the old product management process in a new era), first we have to understand the lexicon of the web feature discovery process

Assets

Assets are virtual and sometimes physical things that an organization or company owns and manages. Examples are domain names, websites, email addresses, segmented email addresses, unique site visitors, pageviews, sms, twitter accounts, Facebook and LinkedIn, Persona of the visitors (how can we break up the kinds of visitors based on background), programs and applications, patents, copyrights and internal resources like people. Oh yes, even people are assets. These assets have a value and if you don’t put a value on these assets, you are making a mistake.

You need to start the web feature discovery process by working with asset value and not revenue, because while most everything in marketing is revenue based, the overall value of what you are building towards (ultimately revenue) may be determined by the value of the assets, and assets may ultimately determine long and even short term revenue. When I say assets, many technology and marketing execs would often give me a blank stare, like they have no clue what I am talking about. (I can only chalk this up to the fact that asset value is not how they are compensated, so don’t blame them, blame the boardroom for not keeping up with current valuation measures!) But what is going on in the start-up world, whatwe can call the modern world of business, is a whole new world of asset valuation. And if your division created a website worth $20 million that only made a net income of $100,000 a year, maybe it is time to sell it and take the profits…

The second thing to know about these virtual assets are the more detail you know, and the more they are optimized, the more valuable the assets are worth. We are in a world where websites, domain names and other assets are sold off to make some cash. So, don’t overlook asset creation vs. revenue creation. They now go hand in hand. 20 years ago you would think I’m a loony bird, but the world has changed and companies do sell stuff. At my last firm they did sell assets, except not after we maximized them, but after they personally devalued them.

Often a firm may be collecting email addresses. I say “may”, because some out of the way places don’t. Good luck to those outfits. If most organizations just knew 10 things about these email addresses, what people were interested in, or simple things like their first and last names or where they are located, the asset value of the list may be double or triple the value. Add more detail detail like age, demographics, what they like, who they like, etc and increase the value further.

How do you value these assets? My way of valuing them is simple. If you were to take them away and wanted to get them back, how much would it cost you? For instance, and I am often going to use Whois.net as an example, because that was the last large site I worked on. The Whois domain search site got about 2 million unique visits a month. Now the company saw no real value there because they had a hard time understanding the relationship to their sales, but when I asked execs how much would it cost you to buy 2 million visits a month by buying the PPC (Pay Per Click) words “Domain Name” and “Hosting”, it would have cost them a minimum $2 million dollars a month budget and therefor, just the traffic was worth $12 million a year or $36 million over 3 years. It’s a bit of fuzzy math, but going with “remove it and try to reacquire it”, is a great way to get them to understand. The reason most don’t understand is they typically don’t sell assets and are graded on revenue…but is that really what this is all about in the end… Because if you make something worth millions maybe the asset sales is bigger than any revenue you would ever be able to generate.

So start the process by doing an inventory of assets. First day on the job and you want to make a new web features happen at your web company, start by finding out the basics. What domains do we own? What websites do we run? What are total number of email addresses? How many visitors to each site? How many segments are we catching from customers in the email area? How many members? How many orders? How many skus? How Many? What? Where? Why and How? Get this information down on paper, because this information is the foundation for new and improved services.

Champion

Leaders, execs, people who have an idea, guys in the company basement, people on the customer service lines, MBAs with a business plan or just a lonely CEO with an idea are champions of web features. This means that somebody has to believe in it and want to make it happen. A group of people may want the features to happen, but a person has to ultimately answer and stand up and say I am the product champion. Groups don’t champion stuff, individuals do. This is one of the critical mistakes made by corporations, to think that a group of people will decide by committee ultimately what a web feature will do and how it goes is a big mistake. Not that web features are made by a dictator, and if the champion is a dictator, he probably will fail. If he is a benevolent dictator and listens well, it will succeed. Funny thing is this champion can not be limited to execs with great salaries and titles like VP, Director, CEO, CIO, CTO, BFD or Founder. A champion can and should be everybody. That is what makes companies succeed, not a special group who say only we do the thinking. It can and should by anyone, including employees, shareholders, customers, husbands & wives, sons & daughters, friends and the UPS man. Champions need support and guidance and promoters from above, below and sideways. Being a champion has its risks, as I’ve learned and you can get burned by being the champion or you can get the accolades and make it happen. You can even make it happen and not get the accolades, but then you would have known inside you made it happen. So it does not matter! Money comes later, first comes action!

Little Trees

Years ago we used to pay to plant trees in Israel. And then years later when I visited Israel I got a chance to see those trees grow. In order to grow a tree, a big tree, you have to plant seedlings or small trees. This is where many execs lose their patience and understanding of the product management process. You have to test, test and test again these little trees in order to find a big one. Ok, if you don’t get the tree allegory of ideas, you may be missing the point. Where do you find these little ideas? Somebody recently said, “Dan’s An Idea Guy!” That is not true. I am not an idea guy, I am a guy who listens and hears other people’s concepts and evolves them into ideas. There are ideas all around us, if we would take the time to just listen and sort through the data. Remember, the assets… Just doing an inventory will start to flesh out these little trees or concepts or ideas. One thing I always did at these companies is walk around and chat with the various people in the business. They have ideas. They know what may or may not work and though they don’t know how to implement, they do know something they are not telling everybody. Often its something in the business that bugged them for years that they want to share.

Sharing

Never thought the web feature discovery process would come down to sharing, but learning to share, something my 3 year old has not yet mastered, is the key way towards finding those little trees. People need to get together and chat and think and find answers. These answers are something somebody read somewhere. A company environment where people don’t share their thoughts is a place that will never flesh out new concepts or web features. Look at Google, they are actually asking for the ideas and look what they have produced. If we want the rest of corporate America to be successful on the web, they better listen up and start to share. Like I said earlier, it is the champion that takes an idea and makes sure it happens, not the product management guy or gal. The product management person should be the facilitator and not the creator in the end. Listen and learn, not ignore and complain. Sometimes doing your job requires less not more of giving and taking. Learn from your childhood and share. The secret to sharing is giving of oneself. If you can not give to others, by give I mean tell people something about yourself or your ideas, you will not be able to acquire ideas. The sharing has to start with you.

The Other Guys

Now this is the easiest way to find those things that people have not thought of and get the real brainstorm on what is happening in the market. You actually need to go off and look carefully at the competitors. This is not about mimicking people, this is about concept development. You see a feature on another competitor and you grab it. Fine, but you not only have to take it, you have to own it and therefor it needs to come from you in a new way. What I ended up doing for my Whois.net thesis, which you will read about in my other blog articles on Domain and Whois Tool searches. This meant locking myself up and reading through 500 websites. From this exercise alone I ended up with a dozen new products and features for the Whois.net site. No rocket science involved here. It is simply looking and learning.

Integrative Strategic Thinking (Aha Moments)

Once you have all this data in front of you, such as the assets, the new ideas from those around you, and the competitive information, you now start to see things from a different level. At this higher level, as you look holistically at information. You can start to piece together stuff you did not see originally in just the assets. For instance, when I looked through and discovered that Whois.net did not allow international domain name look-ups, I knew immediately this was an important issue. The importance was simple enough. If you increase upon (extend) what people already like, you will probably have success. They used to call it product extensions. This is where you take a product that is already successful and you add on a new feature or extend the product to new areas. Not a high risk activity. For Whois.net, international domain name traffic look-ups blew out the traffic, automatically doubling it in six months and it tripled and quadrupled traffic over a year. Just satisfying people with stuff they already wanted is easy. However, what is easy to do, is often not seen by the blind. And when you are busy in a high end corporate product management job, you are blinded by the requests from above and from the sides.

Stats and Prioritization

What did I do with the 500 websites I viewed in my these on Whois searches? I came up with a scientific approach to figure out what feature was important. Most of you who read this probably prioritize every day. I rated each feature by value (yes a monetary value), ease of implementation, where I found it, as well as the monetary value of the websites I reviewed. This review process was not about money, it was about assets again. What I focused on, was how do I get visitors to this site, not on how do I convert. I was leaving conversion and selling at this point up to marketing and sales. That was something they knew how to do pretty well. What you need to as a good champion is to understand the data beneath the hood and how to use this data to make a point. Prioritization and hitting low hanging fruit are extremely important ways of working as well. We are in an impatient world, where execs don’t have the time or energy to listen unless they are just seeing the cream of the crop. Maybe they shouldn’t know everything till the time is right. Sometimes companies kill a product or project the first time around because it failed. That does not mean the second time it will be the same.

Learn From Your Mistakes

Organizations that learn from their mistakes and take actions the second time around to make things right are rare. Most organizations bury a concept that has failed and when it is mentioned again by an newbie, the newbie is crushed with the notion that “this has failed here”. This is a big mistake. Failure should never be viewed as a doorway an organization can not go through again. It should, however, be the shining example of how not to do the same thing, the same way. Failure should be used as a way to understand what to do right next time. Like a pyramid, building upon their knowledge, great organizations store this learned mistake information and use it positively going forward.

Leapfrog

One of the concepts I learned while working on a well ignored site like Whois.net was if you are so far behind the competition, it is sometimes worth it, to not mimic, but rather take a leap of faith and go for something greater, different, in a way that competitors would never do. Why won’t they? The competitor has already made their product or web feature decision and taken the current path. If they are leaders in the market already, it will take a lot for them to change. This leap of faith may be something like give it away for free, or combine it with something new or offer something completely different or in a way that is easy to identify but not the same. Simply cookie cutter mimicking is a nuisance on the web. Who wants to go to Bing, when Google does it so well? Why would I ever do that, other than Microsoft has figured out a way to trap me when I load the next IE Browser? Now if Bing did something so different, so incredibly well done, it would make sense. If they were better on an Ipad, sure. If they were better with voice search, sure. If they were bettter or different…it would matter. Making it matter means being different not the same. In the case of Whois.net, I was determined to make the site a competitor with Sedo, the domain auction house, except my idea was to make it a free place to buy and sell domains. Sedo is not free. This is the kind of leap that makes a difference.

Hopefully this blog entry got you interested in discovering a new web feature… I will continue this blog entry in Part 2. Click Here to go to Web Feature Discovery Process – Part 2! And it turns out there will be a part 3, which I am currently working on.

Learning is Earning

A few years ago, and I would love to find this article again, on Yahoo Finance, there was an article about why you should just forget about getting an MBA. Just start an Internet start-up and skip business school! That is what the writer prescribed. Not sure if this was written to get the Yahoo Finance readers up in arms or to make a point. It did get lots of responses, good and bad. And in some ways I totally agree with the writer. In some ways I did not. I had my own answer to this, but my situation was very different than the audience the writer was writing for. Seemed like she was writing for a group of 20 something technology hacking recent grads.

Your GMAT Score Is Inversely Related To Your Ability To Run Your Own Business

Your GMAT score is inversely related to your ability to run your own business. I stole this line from a book I read years ago on how to survive the Harvard business school. Yes, it is true that MBA programs train people to work at companies and deal with big company issues. It is also true the degree is a generalist degree in many ways, kind of like an engineering degree. What you learn in school is not what you are going to be doing in real life. And it may actually be true that those who go to get their MBA are often not able to start and run their own business, but when I ask entrepreneurs if they could have an MBA right now to assist them in their business and their answer is always yes. It is always better to have more education. I would get a PHD, if I had unlimited money, time and resources.

More Learning Means More Money

If you do some research, like here, you will find that the more education you get, the more you earn in general. Obviously we would all love to start a company and make money on our own working for ourselves, but the statistics say that overall getting more education means more money. It is a simple principle. Also, not everybody can go off and start an Internet company. There are as many failures in online business as there are offline. It is easier and faster to start a business online and thousands of new websites every year prove it. You can’t knock people from trying, but don’t argue this start-up method is an alternative to an MBA. You can have an MBA and be in a start-up, in fact that combination is more powerful than a start-up founder without an MBA.

I Went To Learn

My MBA education was not about the degree. Well, it became about finishing the degree in the last year, but overall, it was done over time, at 2 programs and I literally took my time and made often my class work about my day job. This was not about the degree in my mind, it was about my mind. I think it is important to learn and not just be handed a piece of paper. One of the issues that speaks broadly about this, is the lack of ethics among MBA grads. Well, if they are not about learning, and just about the degree, what do you expect them to be like. There are many with no scruples, no ethics and why do we often hear about guys like Madoff attempting to run a scam.

Education Realization

I recently had a epiphany not about my own MBA, but about certain pillars of my own learning in the past 10 years, especially about the web. What I realized is that there are probably a dozen foundational areas of being an expert on websites, such as web design, web programming, web analytics, business development, product management, email marketing, search engine marketing and organic SEO. What I realized is that you can be an expert in one of these areas. Once you become an expert, you will find that your desire to learn more in that specific field may top out, especially after many years in the field.

This just means you need to get knowledge in the other areas, if you work in the web. Our brains can handle the same thing day in, day out for just so long. And learning something new does not mean giving up what you know, it means building on what you know by learning a new area, especially if it is related. Maybe I am nothing like the rest of the web workers out there, especially if their answer is I am happy knowing my little silo of information and that’s that. This is a rare person, and in fact, this kind of person is the perfect company person.

Ford’s Assembly Line

If you look at the original concept of Ford’s Assembly Line and why it was so ground breaking, its because of specialization. Each person in the factory would specialize in one small area of the making of the car and just do their job. I probably would have quit that job at some point, or maybe I would have moved around the plant and worked on the fenders for a while. I need to get around and learn more about different areas after I master an area of business. I had for the longest time been considered a web analytics expert. This expertise, which is somewhat uncommon in the market, is in my opinion, not an end unto itself, but one of many disciplines needed to truly understand the web. It is foundational.

The Designer Becomes The Programmer And Vice Versa

I have actually seen web designers start out writing a few PHP programs here and there and turn into a full time programmer. I have seen designers become directors and engineers become writers. We seem to migrate towards not what we know, but what we are good at. In fact, maybe initially we did not even know we were good at these things, but when we found out, by chance, that we were good at it, be decided to like it. I stole that idea from the New York Times article on why Chinese Mothers are superior (They make their kinds learn something. They say be good at something, and then one day you will learn to like it!).

Web Education

Let’s face it, you can get an education on any subject in like 15 minutes today. I use Youtube.com when I cook and watch videos on how to make Indian food. I use Instructables.com to figure out how to do this or that. I research facts that make me as knowledgeable as any doctor, on certain matters, in a matter of minutes. I even found out at a retail outlet going out of business recently, the approximate value of a painting on the wall, before it was sold to me. We are empowered with the ability to discover and learn at a moment’s notice. Think about the impact of this on future generations who will have an answer to any question imaginable in a second. Still the web doesn’t give us the core part of an education that we get in the classroom, and that is working in teams, directly with an instructor that can’t exactly be mimicked online. The day is coming with Skype, Wifi and iPads where this will not be true anymore…