What I learned moving from building enterprise to consumer software

Last April I decided to take a big jump from building enterprise software to building consumer products. I am very grateful to have found a place that would allow me to learn the ropes of the consumer business without sacrificing any of the internal goals. This past year has been a great learning experience with big learnings and here are my key takeaways.

Enterprise vs Consumer? What’s the big deal? 

Building enterprise software is a different beast than building it for consumers. They share several core components such as requiring a secure, reliable infrastructure and following best software practices including sprint models. However, I see three key differences.

Difference 1: Knowing what your customers want 

In the enterprise world you go out and talk to your customers and it’s fairly clear what they need. Even building roadmaps is fairly easy. In the consumer world it’s not as easy. Because you are building software for millions of customers you can’t talk to all of them, so you have to find proxies to it.  Unfortunately, many times these proxies are not perfect hence you require to test a lot (and I do mean a lot). On the good side, because consumer software is used right away you get instant feedback and know if you have a success or a fail.

Difference 2: Speed 

My first products were at Microsoft where it would take 3 years to release a product. So there was a lot of focus on building the perfect product, then I moved to the enterprise cloud work where I thought we were moving really fast and delivered products so fast that HP Enterprise didn’t know how to handle our release cadence. However, even in the cloud enterprise products you have to be very careful about speed as you cannot break your customers. Their business depends on your reliability and they won’t don’t move fast for you.

Now, in consumer, holy crap the difference! In this past year we have delivered three new products, iterated hundreds of times on both product and merchandising, and every day we have several releases. This comes even when we are a small team of three PMs and about 20 devs. Moving this fast enables us to test a lot of things, some work, some do not, but being fast enables you to continuously improve. For me, moving from an enterprise world where you usually do not want to fail, to this fast moving pace of failing fast was a bit overwhelming at first. However, it is extremely satisfying to look back and see all the accomplishments and how much further the products advanced in just a short period of time.

Difference 3: Every day survival 

In enterprise you are locked in to long contracts. While I worked in enterprise I really didn’t care much about everyday revenue rather than winning the next big contract. However, in consumer, every day you are sweating your butt to ensure revenue goes up, and God forbid goes down. The pressure on consumer is big as if you mess up anything related to revenue you might screw the monthly goals. And believe me, there is nothing worse than going to your CEO and telling him, “well we just found a bug that led us to 40k revenue loss for this month”. So you need to move fast while not tripping on your feet.

Ok, great. Got the differences. So what are the learnings?

Learning #1: Move fast, but don’t rush 

As a product manager you need to have three mindsets. What’s the long term direction  (easier said than done), what’s the work for next two sprints and what are we doing today. It’s critical that the team moves fast delivering value to both our users as well as to the business. Being fast is critical because you have to try many things and because you need to get feedback to continuously improve. Don’t aim for perfection, rather market fit and improve by iterating. If you are slow, you will never make it. However, there is the danger of rushing things and being sloppy. Sloppiness can come in two forms, doing things that didn’t matter (because you didn’t have enough time to think them through) and bad quality (bugs, broken experiences). Both are bad and hit teams morale hence it’s important to remember you are in a marathon not a sprint. Constantly delivering quality work is better than rushed outbursts of work.

Learning #2: Always think what if and what else 

As a product manager in enterprise we usually got specific features in mind which would require a lot of thinking and polishing. It really doesn’t require that much creativity and imagination. In consumer world, it’s the opposite. You have to keep thinking creatively of options to attack problems. There are many ways you can achieve the same goal (e.g. increase click through, conversion or retention) but usually the first idea doesn’t work or even if it does, then there is the question of what else? Hence why it’s so critical to always keep thinking of options and doing research on what others are doing (even outside your industry).

Learning #3: Never lose sight on the goal that matters  

As per Learning #2 it’s important that you know the goal you are trying to achieve. Believe me, you can spend a lot of time doing cool stuff but everything you do should be because you want to move a metric or metrics. It’s also important to know how much you want to move your metric. This is definitely easier said than done, especially having so many data sources. We’ve had our fair share of challenges on this subject. Hence, it’s important to define your source of truth and automate this as much as possible.

Learning #4: What you think will work, probably won’t. Have options. 

One needs to get used to the idea that logical stuff not always works. Enterprise software is all about making the logical decision, in consumer it’s about doing the emotional decision. In consumer, more often than not, the thing you think is the worst is the one that works.  A great example of this is infomercials, I have never bought anything from them because I think they are cheap products and crappy ads but… they sell a ton otherwise they wouldn’t be paying big bucks for airtime.

Learning #5: Marketing is your friend 

One of the biggest skill gaps I had before joining the team was the ability to be a sales man. I took branding, advertising and other marketing related classes in my MBA but never really applied them. There are two components of marketing that is very important to nail down. In order to execute them well you need to make sure you become peas in a pod with your marketing counter parts.

The first is having the right product offerings. This includes right pricing, bundling and the ability to upsell to your users. We have all heard that supermarkets put candy at checkout or put beer next to diapers to make customers buy one more thing. We struggled  for months until we hired a marketing pro to help us get our act together. It’s critical to have a framework and be very disciplined as you can easily lose track of it.

The second is to sell a dream. Whatever you do, it’s important that you are clear about what you are selling. Sometimes as product managers we love to brag about the new features or even products we build. However, customers don’t care about any of that. Customers care about what they can accomplish or get with your product. Learn to tell a story that your customers want to hear.

 Learning #6: Enable actionable user feedback mechanisms 

You can spend a lot of time trying to get data from your users to know what to improve. However, if you do not structure that effort in a way that you can take action on then it’s useless. Be very clear on what and why you want to understand. Furthermore, build communication mechanisms with your users. For example, in our new app we implemented several mechanisms that allows us to control the conversation but also we have the commitment to respond to every piece of feedback. This allows us to be closer to our users and it really makes a difference.

To finish, building consumer products is similar but not the same as enterprise. Both are very exciting and each has its rewards. So far my reward has been to open my mind to endless possibilities and enabling curiosity that I used but was constrained. Can’t wait to see what the next year will bring on.

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