When The Machines Run Your Technology Run For The Hills

I have had this recurring story I tell people, where I have been in situations where the battle is between “How” the current technology works and “How” it should work.  What I am saying is that the computer systems were built in a way that ends up producing a usability issue down the road.  Maybe early on a quick solution was put in place, or perhaps the world shifted and the technology needed to be updated.

It eventually happens that I run into a situation where technology becomes the barrier to change and dictates how things are being done.  When I hear people say that’s the way it works and we can’t change that, I always joke, “The machines are running the show then”.

You Can Change That!

The real question is whether we, as humans, will control modern technology and direct the technology to do what we want it to do, or will we give in and just accept the way it is and let the technology rule.  When we had not so Smart Phones back about 3 years ago, we just accepted the technology the way it works.  I also tell people that consumers don’t know what they don’t know.  Since you and I and your mother doesn’t know something that is coming down the road that will make life a lot easier, doesn’t mean the current technology is broken.  It’s just that technology is evolutionary, not always revolutionary.

The real question here is can you change things.  Well, when I was a technology manager I did try to change things.  People are the barrier in the end, and quite often companies have reasons why they can’t change things.

Case In Point, Pricing.

I was working for a hosting company and I noticed the pricing for their hosting plans were like $9.92, $18.34 and $26.72 for their monthly service plans.  That did not sound right.  I did a little research and found out the problem was the back-end systems would not allow a typical pricing like $9.95 and $19.95, the kind of prices we expect to see.  This was due to the fact the back-end took in a yearly price and divided up monthly. So, what did I do.  I of course set out to change this.  It was a herculean task, especially since there was no inertia to fix it.  When the employees have no motivation to fix things, mainly because they are not really feeling that improvements change things for themselves, there is a major problem.  To me this was the biggest problem I could see at the company.  If you introduce friction in the sales process, what else is more important?

Technology In Business Comes Down To People, Not Technology

Another process that got my goat at this job was the checkout process.  This hoster required people, after adding hosting to their cart, to add a domain name.  It was not an option, it was a requirement.  This was completely deranged.  Why, because the system required it.  That meant that you just added a hosting plan, and now you need a domain. What if you don’t know it yet?  Well, in fact, people would leave.  They would go off and ask a buddy, search on Godaddy.com and work a thesaurus (haven’t seen a real thesaurus book in a while).  What this meant is they often would not come back.   So, how do you get these fixes in place.  You have to go back up the chain of command find out who is in charge and the process of getting it fixed.

Data Is Your Friend

Starting with 10 years of web analytics makes me an unusual kind of web manager (of developers).  What I need is information.  With information, like the funnel accurately assessing these friction points in the checkout, you are prepared to go to battle.  You would think, who needs to go to battle to get things done correctly?  Well, that’s the way of the world.  Most people don’t want to change what they are doing, especially in management.  And they are least likely to listen to their peers.  In most minds in needs to come from the top.  You can work from the top down, but then they hate your guts.  Who are you to make a pronouncement on what happens in “my” area.  Quite honestly, I tried to listen to fellow managers with recommendations.  Just be prepared for the war, by preparing for the battle early with raw information that can not be contested.  The protectors of the machines are many and out there, because the status quo is the easiest way out in life.

A Few Good Men

I am reminded of a case where a fellow manager did listen to my recommendation and did take a piece of code and move it across from one server to another and it had a big impact.  The site was Whois.net.  I asked a program manager to move international domain search technology from his area to this site, and he listened and wanted to get something done.  It was a win-win.  A rare moment as we human unite against the machines for a short moment in time.

 

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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.