2 million points and counting

I recently met someone who collects points as a hobby. He mentioned he currently has more than 2 million points – enough for fully funded airfare and hotel stays for more vacations than he has time for.

But, that doesn’t stop him from collecting points. He does it because it feels like play. The process is far more interesting than the outcome.

This exchange reminded me of the power of combining passion and purpose. Passion asks “what has the world got to offer that fits my interests?” while purpose asks “what have I got to offer the world that has value?”

We’ve seen a lot of good rebuttals to the “follow your passion” advice over the past few years. The central theme is that we don’t often know what our passion is. Instead, we’re better off focusing on purposefully getting good at something that has value as passion often follows expertise.

While it is the pragmatic approach and one that at least ensures we’re not waiting around for the universe to reveal our passion, it has its downsides too. For example, if collecting points was a lucrative profession, I could become an expert at it. But, the process will never feel like play.

Ergo the power of combining passion and purpose.

It is magical when we’re able to get good at something we care deeply about. For most of us, that may mean a long and winding road to understand what this is and a lot of trouble to eventually get there – but, the juice tends to be worth the squeeze.

The Product Marketing Sales Manager

A note for new subscribers: This post is part of a monthly Sunday series on my notes on technology product management (this is what I do for a living). You might notice that these posts often link to older posts in the series on LinkedIn even though they are all available on this blog. That is intended for folks who only want to follow future product management related posts. Finally, for all those of you who don’t build tech products for a living, I believe many of these notes have broader applicability. And, I hope you find that to be the case as well…

We kicked off this series – “Notes on Product Management” – by defining the role of a product manager and outlining the 4 key skills required to do the job – problem finding (solving for value), problem solving (solving for usability and feasibility), building effective teams, and selling.

We then spent time working through why problem finding is the most important skill and how to approach building problem statements and hypotheses. The next high priority skill we’ll spend time on is selling. For the sake of simplicity, I referred to the process of persuasion using marketing and sales as “selling.”

Today’s note, thus, is focused on how to think about Marketing and Sales in the product management process.

Why Marketing and Selling are part of the job.

“If you need to persuade someone to take action, you’re doing marketing.” | Seth Godin

Marketing, thus, goes beyond price, ads, placement, and product. It is the story about what we do and why it matters. It begins with the product and extends beyond the product.

The popular adage that people don’t buy a drill and instead buy a nine inch hole is incomplete. They don’t buy the hole or even the photo frame they hang on the wall. Instead, they buy the experience that comes from looking at something they care about. Great marketing generally starts with great products. But, great products don’t guarantee great experiences. Harley Davidson motorcycles aren’t special because they’re the most technically advanced motorcycles (they aren’t). The Harley Davidson experience, on the other hand, is something else altogether. There aren’t too many other brands who get their customers to willingly tattoo their logo.

So, what then, is the difference between marketing and sales? I’ll defer to Seth’s elegant distinction –

“Marketing tells a story that spreads. Sales overcomes the natural resistance to say yes.”

Marketing and sales are thus part of the job description of every educator, executive, and knowledge age worker. The proportion of the job involving marketing and sales might defer. But, they’re always key.

As far as the product manager goes, the importance of marketing and selling are self evident if they’re working on a (usually B2B) product that is sold by a sales team. But, these skills are just as vital internally.

It is common for marketing and sales to have a negative connotation when used in the context of the workplace. I’ve seen them used as a proxy for politics. That is unfortunate and is a result of a loss of purpose.

Good marketing and selling exist to make important change happen. Product managers who do marketing and selling right ensure their companies don’t ship their org chart. They use these skills to ensure good ideas that add value to users and customers are given a fair shot at changing the status quo. When marketing and selling is done right, the user wins and wins big.

On the other hand, when marketing and selling are used just for the purpose of career advancement, the user loses. The good news is that bad marketing and selling never survives in the long run – but, that is a discussion for another day.

How to think about marketing and selling in the product management process

As Product Managers, we are always attempting to persuade people to take action. We attempt to persuade our customers and users to use our products. We attempt to persuade our executives to resource our problem areas. We attempt to persuade our teams to do their best work. And so on.

My visual of this persuasion process is as follows.

We have 3 elements of persuasion at our disposal to make the change we seek to make –

(1) Direct marketing: This is everything that we do that is content led. When we combine easy-to-use flows and thoughtful in-product copy that attract “self-serve” customers, we’re doing direct marketing. Similarly, when we create a thoughtful strategy doc for a new initiative that wins readers over before the meeting, we’re being effective direct marketers.

(2) Sales: The other alternative is to employ the human touch. When we build a product that works and combine it with a narrative that inspires our sales team to be more effective, we are doing our job as effective salespeople. Similarly, when we facilitate an effective discussion that persuades our executive team to support that new idea that will massively improve the way we serve our users, we are selling effectively.

(3) Brand marketing: Brand marketing is the friction-reducing atmosphere in our persuasion process. When great brands deploy sales teams, they need to focus less on acquisition and more on customer success. Similarly, when we’ve acquired a reputation in our organization for someone who does great work on behalf of our users’ needs, it becomes easier to get cross-functional buy in.

The next step is to explore how we might get better at these skills – more on that in the next two posts.

A career and life sidebar: Our lives are an endless chain of persuading people to do things. And, while the process is hard enough when we’re dealing with adults, the difficulty level only goes up further when dealing with kids. While understanding how to apply these skills has a lot of obvious applicability in our careers, they extend well beyond work… making for a fascinating life-long learning journey.

Activation Energy

Activation energy is the minimum quantity of energy required for a reaction. The activation energy idea shows up every day in our lives in the form of the minimum amount of energy required to build momentum toward what we want/need to do.

Activation energy is why its hard to get to the gym on a cold morning. It is why getting started on something important is painful.

But, for those of us who have (at least on occasion) managed to make it to the gym on a cold morning, we have likely experienced that is easier to work out long and hard once we’re there.

Activation energy, thus, regularly stands between us and desired habits. So, it is worth understanding activation energy and how we can work with it.

Overcoming activation energy requires willpower. In the long run, the best use of willpower is to create habits. Habits, in turn, help us reduce the amount of activation energy required to get something. But, it isn’t easy to create good habits. So, here a couple of interesting questions for us to consider in our quest to do so –

1. What are ways to reduce the activation energy until we create a habit? For example, we could start the year with a commitment to go to the gym with a friend for the first 6 months. Or, perhaps, we might pay for a personal trainer.

2. Are there ways to bypass the friction and still reach the end outcome? A consistent home workout for a month may be a great way to get us into the habit. Once we consistently begin to feel the benefits of a good workout, it becomes to lower the activation energy threshold.

Like most things, activation energy is neither good or bad. It just is. And, our experience with it is what we make of it.

Extreme opinions are useful for promotion and debate

Given the sheer competition for attention on the internet, it is a melting pot of extreme opinions. Extreme opinions are great for publicity and entertainment value. They can also be pretty useful to spark debate.

But, by spurning nuance, extreme stands rarely help us get to the truth of the matter.

My approach over time has been to treat extreme opinions like the dissonance between the quotes – “many hands make light work” and “too many cooks spoil the broth.”

Each is useful in stretching our thinking in the right context.

But, the truth, almost always, lies somewhere in the middle.

Making “be kind to yourself” easier to implement

The advice “be kind to yourself” tends to resonate with a lot of folks (me included) because of our default tendency to be harsh with ourselves. For years, however, I found myself wishing I’d find an easier way to remember it in the moment.

A model I’ve begun using to better translate this powerful idea reframes it around the question – who does your self talk sound like? I’ve picked three characters my self talk tends to sound like depending on the day. It could either be harshest critic (“that was a dumb move”), spectator (“hey, what happened there?”), or coach (“let’s talk about what happened there and what you’ve learned from it”).

You could imagine other characters across the spectrum- mom, close friend, critical friend, etc – depending on your natural tendencies.

Thinking about self talk from the lens of these characters and reminding myself to channel the coach more often has made it easier to implement “be kind to yourself.” Here’s hoping it stays.

If you have ideas/models/habits that work well for you, I’m all ears.

The one thing learning loop

In his book, Morten Hansen uses a concept he calls the “learning loop” to apply the principles of deliberate practice at work.

He suggests the following – pick one skill you’d like to get better at, find a coach/create a plan to improve the skill, periodically review progress, and then loop through the process.

The most useful lesson I took away from his approach was to pick one skill – just one. I’ve been guilty of trying to improve three or four things at a time for far too long. The downside of running so many loops is the absence of focus.

This simple idea has changed how I think of improving my ability to “communicate constructively and with clarity” during the workday. I can sense the sharp increase in awareness as I communicate over the course of the day. And, I’m looking forward to experiencing the results of this increase in focus in a few months.

Another timely reminder that more is not better. Better is better.