Customer interviews - My learnings

As a product manager, there’s nothing more important than having a single source of truth for discovering problems or opportunities. That source of truth is the customer. This isn’t rocket surgery to be honest but with this post I do intend to emphasise on why speaking with customers is an essential part of the product development lifecycle. Over the past year, I’ve averaged at least one customer interview per week and I still feel I should’ve done more. These interviews were in the form of job-shadowing, discovery, UX research and prototype testing. While each of these types of interviews are different, the end goal is always to ensure that you are solving a real problem for the customer and that when you go to market with a product, you ensure some amount of predictability for its success.

We’re all familiar with the product lifecycle development stages, right? Well, here’s a simplified version that I have I created where I mention the various touch-points where customer interviews play a crucial role.

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Like any interview you undertake, preparation is important. Here are some of my learnings that I think anyone new or experienced at customer interviews might find useful.

Learnings

Segmentation


Before talking to the customer/user, it’s important to get as much context about who she is. You want your segmentation research to give you an idea on who she is, how long has she been using your product, how active is she and how much is she paying for it. This will help you make assumptions on what drives her to use (or not use) your product. 


Have a script ready


It’s always handy to have a script prepared on what questions you plan to ask the user. This not only helps you bring a structure to the interview but as you interview many users, a script ensures that the same research methodology is applied in the entire set of interviewees. 


Avoid leading questions

Leading questions would probably form an entire chapter in a book about doing good customer interviews. However, if I were to extract the gist of it, it could be simply put as - “Avoid questions that can be answered with a yes or a no”. Leading questions do not add value to the research process as you fail to understand factors influencing users’ decisions or their emotional state. The answers you seek in interviews should not be biased by the questions but rather you want customers to open up about their experiences. For example, if you ask a user - “Are you having problems with our product X?” The answer could be a curt ‘no’ or a ‘yes’. But if you frame the question as “Can you walk me through how you use our product X?” The latter helps pinpoint the journey of the user and the “problems” that you seek will be revealed in due course of time with follow-up questions. Refer to the next point below on the five whys. 


The five whys


This is a simple yet effective technique to get to the bottom of a problem. It was first conceived in the Toyota production facility for identifying bugs. In the interview setting, it is brutal and unrelenting when used in the right manner. The short version of how this is done is when the interviewer persistently quizzes the user with a “why?” and follows that with another “why?”. At times, insights are derived before the fifth why is asked but it’s the process that matters more. This could be an example of asking the five whys:

Me: You’ve been using our product X for 2 years now. Can you walk me through how you interact with feature Z.

User: I actually don’t use feature Z.

Me: Why don’t you use feature Z?

User: I don’t know, it looks complicated.

Me: Why do you think it is complicated? 

User: I visit the page and I see a lot of text that I don’t understand. 

Me: Alright, why do you feel that way? 

User: English is not my first language and I also prefer to see a tutorial video to understand how to use a new feature

.
…and the process continues but I hope you catch my drift.


Don’t listen to the user’s solutions


It’s easy to fall prey to what the user/customer says about your product. The caveat here is that the customer is not always right. It is imperative as an interviewer to understand what problem the user is facing rather than accepting the solution the user instructs you to build. This is a fairly common occurrence where users lay out feature-flows and solutions down to the tiniest details. But as a product manager, you are solving problems for an entire customer/user base, not just one person who gives her version of the solution. 


Record, record, record


Record your interviews in one way or the other. If it’s an interview that is happening over video call, then you can ask the user’s permission to record the session. Or else if you have a co-interviewer who can observe and take notes during the interview, that is another good option. If all else fails, you need to brush up on your note-taking abilities. You wouldn’t want to miss out on key insights during the interview process that you can revisit at a later time. 


When do you stop interviewing


This is quite a common question that comes up. Just how many customer interviews is enough? The unfortunate answer is that it’s never enough. But my general thumb rule is to interview as many people within a particular time period and you should stop interviewing when you see a pattern developing in your responses. In short, stop interviewing when you stop seeing variability for that set of customer interviews.

On a closing note, these learnings and observations have happened over a course of time and I hope you found them useful. While researching this topic on the interwebz to see other people’s opinions, I also came across a very useful chart on conducting interviews at the Product Tribe which is quite share-worthy.

Until my next post, happy interviewing!

Best of 2018 (Music)

Ahoy!

*insert tumbleweed gif*

This space has been awfully quiet. My listening habits have also taken a slight backseat but nonetheless, heavy music über alles! As it has been in the past four years, I’ve managed to conjure up a list of my favorite (aka most played) albums that were released this year. The criteria for choosing these albums has always been replay value and how memorable the music is. I must confess though, my consumption of new music is now a fraction of what it used to be - primarily due to the fact that I barely visit the blogs, forums, discord channels et al. So if I do not mention a popular album, it’s because I probably missed it. Spoiler alert - there’s a lot of black metal.

Without further ado, here are the ten.

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10. Black Viper - Hellions of Fire

Norway is increasingly garnering attention for the flock of bands who play old school heavy and thrash metal. Bands like Nekromantheon, Deathhammer and Condor have cemented Norwegian thrash metal on the world map. Black Viper’s debut Hellions of Fire is a noteworthy addition to that list. Their musical style is very reminiscent of 80s speed metal with a production to match. Prepare to have your head bobbing continuously as you meander through the more traditional heavy metal passages in Quest For Power to the blistering guitar solos in Suspiria. The album isn’t a gimmicky nostalgia driven effort, it’s legit and honest for what it is. Much like their peers, Black Viper wear their influences on their sleeves. Hellions of Fire pays tribute to the bygone era of traditional heavy/speed metal of the 1980s and is a must-listen for any fan of this sub-genre.

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9. Kriegsmaschine - Apocalypticists


Kriegsmaschine is the lesser known project of the two key members of Mgła, who are arguably a very established black metal band in the underground circuit. It is, thus, inevitable to compare the two. The moment you tune into Apocalypticists, you’ll instantly notice how prominent and hard-hitting the drums are. This is a feature throughout the album where an atmosphere created by atonal riffs is pierced by pulsating (utterly progressive sounding) drum sounds. It’s as if Darkside (drummer of Mgła & Kriegsmaschine) unleashes his pent up fury on record. I also feel that Kriegsmaschine’s take on black metal is that of a less traditional path by relying less on blast-beats and tremolo riffing. The music is definitely hypnotic. While we wait for Mgła’s next magnum opus, Kriegsmaschine’s Apocalypticists will satiate your palate quite well.

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8. Deceased - Ghostly White

Deceased are the grand-daddies of death/thrash/heavy metal who have a particular penchant for all things horror. It’s in their lyrical themes and of course, in their artwork. Deceased have been around for 35 years and are still going strong in the underground. Ghostly White proves just that and with this album, you will hear more of the same Deceased sound. The album’s got dollops of traditional heavy metal passages with twin guitar solos, King Fowley’s signature howls and a truckload of galloping goodness. Up the tombstones!

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7. Gaerea - Unsettling Whispers

Unsettling Whispers is Gaerea’s debut album. Hailing from Portugal, Gaerea play a style of black metal which bands like Mgła and Uada are known for. Considering this is only their debut, Gaerea have managed to present listeners with some stellar atmospheric and melodic black metal. What sets this band apart though is that they don’t seem to be afraid to go with a cleaner and more polished sound. It’s not overproduced in any way but it does have this ‘modern’ sound, which many in this sub-genre shy away from. The musical spectrum ranges from dreary melancholic soundscapes to tremolo riffing over blast-beats. Personally, I’ve had this album on rotation for quite a long time since its release and it’s very enjoyable to say the least.

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6. Sargeist - Unbound

Shatraug, the musical genius behind Sargeist (and Horna among many), has recruited new members into Sargeist and they present a new face of the band with their latest release Unbound. Let it be known that I’m a sucker for Finnish black metal - it’s the melodies that get me good! Unbound is no different in that regard. But what makes this album more memorable are the vocal patterns employed by new vocalist, Profundis. They range from seething angry rasps to almost Alan Averill (legendary vocalist of Primordial) like shouts. That said, Sargeist seem to have also grown in their sound. For lack of a better word, it’s more dynamic. Yes, we still hear all the Sargeist elements - the melodic riffing, the underlying rock n’ roll sensibilities and the overarching evil atmosphere. But, it somehow feels more expansive, you know. It’s beautiful and it’s worth a listen.

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5. Sacral Rage - Beyond Celestial Echoes

Beyond Celestial Echoes is the band’s sophomore album. Back in 2015, Sacral Rage caused massive waves with their debut and unsurprisingly they also featured on my AOTY list. I touted them as the Helstar of this generation. Suffice to say, expectations were quite high when I learnt of this release. The band returns with their own brand of technical/proggy power and thrash metal. Beyond Celestial Echoes takes you further into dizzying technical musicianship. It paces itself quite well with welcome breaks consisting of interludes and grand buildups. Take for example, the epic 13 minute track called ‘The Glass’ which feels like a journey into space. It does takes a few listens for the album to soak in. While it’s definitely denser than their debut ‘Illusions In Infinite Void’, this album does establish Sacral Rage as a technical power/thrash metal juggernaut. Personally, I really hope to catch this band live one day!

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4. Visigoth - Conqueror’s Oath

From the get-go, Visigoth waste no time in diving straight into what Conqueror’s Oath is all about. From the album opener ‘Steel and Silver’ to the more epic ‘Traitor’s Gate’, Visigoth deliver a slab of 80s traditional heavy metal which will make Mark Shelton smile wherever he is (RIP you legend you!). It’s straightforward heavy metal without any fillers. You get what you expect to listen when you pick up this album - it has epic singalong choruses, loads of riffs and a few softer ballad-like interludes thrown in. Before you know it, you’ll have your fist held high chanting in unison with the tunes. If you like bands like Manilla Road, Omen, Grand Magus and their kind, you’ll surely dig Visigoth.

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3. Tomb Mold - Manor Of Infinite Forms

Tomb Mold’s debut album slipped under my radar in 2017 and when I heard about their second album being released this year, I jumped on it promptly. Manor of Infinite Forms makes you wonder how prolific a death metal band truly is after putting out releases in two consecutive years without compromising on quality. Tomb Mold’s sound harkens back to the late 80s early 90s era of death metal. It’s murky, disgusting and envelopes you with shroud of a suffocatingly dense atmosphere. You’ll give in to making a stink face while nodding violently to the barrage of riffs the band throws at you. The caveman vocals are supremely guttural and fit this style perfectly. Above all what I love most about this record is that it’s very well produced - just the right amount of rawness to bring out the best in Tomb Mold.

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2. Craft - White Noise and Black Metal

I won’t pretend that I’ve been a big Craft fan for many years. I only started listening to these legendary Swedish black metallers in 2017. In that regard, I approached White Noise and Black Metal with an open mind, unsure of what to expect since the band hadn’t put out something in a while. By the time, I got to the second track ‘Again’, I was sure as hell that I was listening to the riff of the decade. Through the imagery and lyrical themes, you can easily tell that Craft are proud misanthropes and nihilists. This is, of course, reflected in the music they put out. But what’s the point if this hateful music lacks the catchiness that would make you want to listen to it again and again? The album draws you in with plenty of grooves that is often lacking in black metal these days. To sum up, I’d say this is one of the best black metal albums in the past decade - it’s something any avid fan of the genre would look for.

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1. Chapel of Disease - ...And As We Have Seen The Storm, We Have Embraced The Eye

To me, Chapel of Disease were among the many death metal bands who were influenced by the Swedeath sound - buzzsaw guitars et al. Nothing too memorable and not much to write home about. However, things have changed for this German death metal band after releasing ...And As We Have Seen The Storm, We Have Embraced The Eye last month. Yes, the title is quite a mouthful. But I honestly don’t know where to begin. The band has stripped away their generic Swedeath death metal sound and introduced more progressive, punky and melodic elements. It’s as if they suddenly became fans of early Kverletak. The entire album feels free-flowing, effortless and at the same time flirts with the boundaries of not getting too progressive or adventurous with their new found sound. The band does retain its heaviness. No doubt about that. The vocals are reminiscent of a less gurgly version of Martin Van Drunen (of Asphyx fame). The album is great to listen to in its entirety, this isn’t a “song’s album” if you catch my drift. The main reason why I rate this as my numero uno album of 2018 is because every time I listen to it, I hear something new, something fresh. I hope this is the start of something new for the band. Onwards and upwards!

Podcasts for Product Managers

2016 saw me really dive into the world of podcasts. I felt this urge of making my commute times more productive, so I turned to podcasts. With some advice from fellow podcast listening friends, I downloaded the Podcast Addict app (I now use Pocket Casts and it's 100x better) and I was off to the races!

Coincidentally, the period of 2016-17 was the time when I was sinking my teeth further into the field of product management. Here's a joke - "How does one know if a person is a Product Manager?". "S/he'll tell you about it, blog about it, podcast about it and create a PPT about it". Okay I made that up. But the point I'm trying to make here is that there's a lot of material on podcasts directed at new and experienced product managers alike.

Keeping my cynicism aside, I have learnt a lot from these podcasts. They give you a sense that the playing fields are levelled, you can up-skill hard and soft skills, and eventually, you feel at par with accomplished product managers in marquee companies. I'm going to use this opportunity to mention a bunch of podcasts that have helped me grow as a product manager over the past two years. Please note that the list is not in any order of preference. 

1. This is Product Management
This is arguably the most popular podcast for product managers out there. Their amazing catalog of podcasts covers every imaginable topic a product manager would want to listen to. TIPM is produced by the team at Alpha, a tool for generating user insights. While TIPM is vast, I find the tone of the podcasts fairly monotonous. It's less conversational and more of doling out advice or product experiences. Nevertheless, it's a great place to start or revisit for certain key topics. 
Listen: https://www.thisisproductmanagement.com/

2. Rocketship.fm
Rocketship.fm does a great job of creating stories for each of their topics, which makes it a very enjoyable podcast. They usually have a recurring theme across a series of podcasts. It's a podcast that helps a layman understand the goings-on in startup life. While the podcast covers general topics, of late, they have been talking a lot about product related topics. There's a very interesting episode on the origin of product management which talks about the 'Brand Men' at P&G (circa 1930s). For the compelling stories, structure and conversations, I rate this podcast highly.
Listen: http://rocketship.fm/

3. Inside Intercom
Intercom is a tool used for customer support and in-app customer engagement. While I'm not completely sold on their product, I must say that they're doing a fantastic job in getting inbound traffic via their website. They've created a blog and a podcast which comprises of a knowledge base spanning topics on product management and design. It's done well enough that it doesn't feel like "content for the sake of content". Des Traynor, the founder of Intercom, usually hosts the podcast and the show has had respectable guests from the startup/design/product world. There are some great conversations in the podcasts, especially the one on the Jobs-To-Be-Done framework. 
Listen: https://blog.intercom.com/category/podcast/

4. Exponent
It doesn't get more credible than Exponent when it comes to the people behind the podcast. Exponent is run by Ben Thompson, author/founder of Stratechery, and James Allworth, author and Harvard Business Review writer. Exponent isn't directed at product managers but they often talk about over-arching problems, trends, innovations in the technology space. Whether it's AI/ML/Bitcoin, Amazon's dominance or Facebook's newsfeed algorithms, there is always something useful for the listener. The hosts (and guests) pick each other's brains on several topics every week. Prepare yourself for some great analysis and deep-dives into interesting subjects on the Exponent.
Listen: http://exponent.fm/

5. Product Popcorn
Product Popcorn is the Aubrey Plaza of product podcasts. By that I mean, it's quirky and funny. Product Popcorn is hosted by Kimberly and Adam, who will give their light-hearted take on product management interspersed with elephant trumpet sounds. What I love about this podcast is that you'll feel like it's a roundtable discussion with friends. Another aspect of the podcast that I love is that the hosts share updates on their own professional lives, something like a stand-up meeting update. It helps you connect with the hosts and what they encounter on a daily/weekly basis while PMing. I would 12/10 recommend a listen. 
Listen: https://www.productpopcorn.com/

6. The Startup Chat
With close to 300 episodes, the Startup Chat is an important podcast for entrepreneurs and startup folk. It's hosted by Hiten Shah (founder of Kissmetrics) and Steli Efti (founder of close.io), who have been hustling for over 10 years. This podcast pretty much covers all the bases on advice related to starting a startup, the modalities of running one and the specifics on key topics like hiring, processes and more. The episodes usually don't run over 20-25min, which makes it very easily consumable and retainable. I also love how Hiten and Steli can be at loggerheads with each other during debates on "controversial" topics. This podcast becomes more relevant if you're a product manager at a startup because you see these different flavors play out around you. 
Listen: https://thestartupchat.com/

Best of 2017 (Music)

It's listicle time! ♫ 

For the last 3 years, I've been making Albums Of The Year (#AOTY) lists, so 2017 won't be different in any way. These lists consist of albums which have caught my fancy, have high repeat-spins, are "unique" and bring something fresh to the world where most music is shite. While, it's impossible to listen to all the popular and critical releases of 2017, I reckon I would've sampled at least 100 odd full lengths. My personal taste lean towards heavy music, hence these lists comprise mostly of metal music. 

This year had a string of stellar releases popping up towards the end of the year. I've luckily managed to come across such albums this month and have promptly added to my AOTY list. So here goes nothing, in descending order. 

10. Jordablod - Upon My Cremation Pyre
Jordablod's debut was picked up by the (in)famous Iron Bonehead records and that in itself is a reason why it deserves at least a listen. Hailing from Sweden, this one-man band plays black metal swathed in luscious and grand atmospheric/psychedelic vibes. What stood out for me is the guitar work, especially the solos which isn't something that one talks much about in black metal music. I look forward to his future releases. 
Full album stream: https://ironboneheadproductions.bandcamp.com/album/jordablod-upon-my-cremation-pyre

9. Contaminated - Final Man
This is another full length debut to make my list. Contaminated are a death metal band from Australia and they love their tunes crunchy, buzz-saw like (Swedeath influenced), played through a filthy and raw filter with an additional dose of doomy sections. I feel this album borrows the best bits of the Incantation/Immolation sound and marries it beautifully with what death metal bands from Sweden are best known for. It packs quite a punch! 
Full album stream: https://bloodharvestrecords.bandcamp.com/album/final-man-12lp-cd

8. Nokturnal Mortum - Verity
While many die-hard fans would've expected this band to recreate another Voice of Steel (their magnum opus), I honestly feel Nokturnal Mortum did quite a stellar job with Verity. It's more of the same ol' grand and symphonic folk black metal that you'd expect from the band. Verity has an abundance of melodic riffs which will get your head bobbing in no time. For any of you unfamiliar with the band, you can expect a lot of folky sounds played on traditional Ukrainian instruments.
Full album stream: https://nokturnalmortum1.bandcamp.com/album/verity

7. Wiegedood - De Doden Hebben Het Goed II
Wiegedood are a black metal band from Belgium, somewhat born out of an older band called Oathbreaker who play post-hardcore/metal (or some such abomination). I've never been a fan of Oathbreaker so my apprehension to listen to album was justified. Much to the fanfare surrounding this release, I'm glad I checked this album out. It's beautiful if intense tremolo riffing over blast-beats is your thing. The album is also atmospheric in the modern/contemporary black metal way. While this may not appeal much to purists, I feel Wiegedood have produced a great black metal record. I'll definitely revisit this in the years to come.
Full album stream: https://wiegedood.bandcamp.com/album/de-doden-hebben-het-goed-ii

6. Malokarpatan - Nordkarpatenland
Malokarpatan were a last minute addition to my AOTY list as I started listening to this album only two weeks ago. I feel with a couple more full listens, this album could be bumped up to a higher rank. They play a primal form of black metal which essentially is heavy metal with harsh/screechy vocals. Fans of early Venom, Master's Hammer, Bathory or Mortuary Drape will really enjoy this sophomore album by Malokarpatan. As an added bonus, the band also experiments with folky sounds, making it quite an interesting listen. Funnily, the band calls their music - "Old school rural Slovak black metal". A very apt descriptor. 
Full album stream: https://malokarpatan.bandcamp.com/album/nordkarpatenland

5. Hällas - Excerpts From a Future Past
Given this list, I reckon this album will be most accessible for "non-metal" listeners. Hällas play 70s influenced rock, almost progressive too. You'll hear instrumental passages where guitar solos harmonize perfectly with Deep Purple-esque keys. Even if you're overly tired with the retro bandwagon that many bands keep jumping onto, you should still give Hällas a listen because the lovely instrumentation and the song composition are top-notch. It's only their second release and you can hear the maturity in their songs. One of the main reasons I really enjoy Excerpts is because on a deep personal level, I feel the songs/music put me in a self-reflective mood. Not sure what I mean? Listen to the album. 
Full album stream: https://thesignrecords.bandcamp.com/album/h-llas-excerpts-from-a-future-past

4. Perturbator - New Model
James Kent aka Perturbator breathes in new life into his project with New Model. While the foundation of New Model is still built on the retro-synth wave sound, the songs are way more darker and grittier than the previous releases. I've been an ardent follower of Perturbator since 2012, I've also been lucky to see him live (plugging the live video I took in 2015). In that regard, you could call me a big Perturbator fan so my expectations were quite high. Synth-wave as a genre can get very insipid and boring very fast, and hence experimentation is key. Perturbator does just that with different vocal delivery on songs, by slowing down sections and playing around with various industrial elements. New Model makes it difficult to pigeonhole Perturbator as just another retro-synth wave artist, which is great in my opinion. 
Full album stream: https://perturbator.bandcamp.com/album/new-model

3. Shaarimoth - Temple Of The Adversarial Fire
This was the first release of 2017 that caught my attention. Very early on I proclaimed it to be AOTY material and it's survived a whole year retained in my top 10 list. Shaarimoth are from Norway, a place where underrated death metal bands are ready to burst into the scene. Temple of Adversarial Fire is an album which would appeal to black metal fans too, as it rubs off heavily with that characteristic atmospheric sound. While still being very riff-heavy, the band experiments with lots of vacant instrumental doomy passages, tremolo riffing and fast thrashy sections. The production is perfect for my liking where it's finely balanced between murky-sounding and "good clean discernible" sounding. I wish more metalheads listened to Shaarimoth because the album quality retains its consistency from start to finish, making it a truly memorable record.
Full album stream: https://wtcproductions.bandcamp.com/album/temple-of-the-adversarial-fire

2. The Ruins of Beverast - Exuvia
Exuvia is the remains of an insect's exoskeleton when it has shed it off. Is it a metaphor for the new album by Alexander von Meilenwald (the genius behind TRoB)? It could be. TRoB have an extensive discography spanning close to 14 years and Exuvia, in my opinion, gives the early albums a run for their money as TRoB's best work. Exuvia is like a journey into shamanic rituals (look at the album art as well). It is psychedelic, doomy, atmospheric and retains TRoB's characteristic black metal sound. Similar to TRoB's older material, Exuvia's songs meander long and winding, almost merging into one another and they're best consumed from album start to finish. I can't think of a better album in 2017 if a listener wants to immerse herself into a meditative state. Truly hypnotic and highly recommended! 
Full album stream: https://theruinsofbeverast.bandcamp.com/album/exuvia

1. Elder - Reflections of a Floating World
Well well well, here's my favorite release of the year. Elder's 2015 album was highly rated, which I'll admit I missed out on and hereby regret not including it in my list. I'm making amends this year because Reflections of a Floating World is if not better but as good as their previous album. The album is primarily an instrumental stoner/doom masterpiece. It crests with beautiful guitar melodies and then troughs (in a good way) with heavy pounding guitars and drums. I think what makes this album a masterpiece is its wide-appeal. Fans of rock (heavy rock, progressive, rock n' roll), doom metal, psychedelic/stoner music and anyone who appreciates great musicianship will dig this album quite a lot. I see myself still revisiting this album many more times in the future. How will Elder top two successively brilliant releases? One can hope. Until then, enjoy the full album stream below! 
Full album stream: https://beholdtheelder.bandcamp.com/album/reflections-of-a-floating-world

 

The Hard Thing About Hard Things - Book Review

If there's one feeling that you will be left with after reading Ben Horowitz's 'The Hard Thing About Hard Things' is that you'd be kicking yourself for not having read it earlier. In my opinion, it is the definitive guide to doing business whether you're an entrepreneur, a sales guy, a product manager or a team leader in any department. 

Image picked up from Google image search

Image picked up from Google image search

One of the primary motivations for me to pick up 'The Hard Thing about Hard Things' is the essay titled 'Good Product Manager, Bad Product Manager'. This was first featured in the book and has been widely touted as a 101 reading for all aspiring product managers. And rightfully so. I had read that essay a couple of years ago and it outlines the qualities of good product managers and how most fall into the trap of certain bad habits. It's essentially a list of dos and don'ts. A good product manager makes a team a winning one, whereas a bad product manager creates negative value for the team. The essay can be read here.

But moving on to the book on the whole, it was an easy read. I suspect this would even be entertaining for a reader if s/he is not well versed with business jargon. Each chapter comprises of the choicest anecdotes from Ben's expansive career from Netscape to Loudcloud to Opsware to HP and finally a16z. All of these stories, if not relatable, will evoke a sense of empathy with Ben's narration. I love the honesty and the struggle behind each of the big decisions Ben, as an entrepreneur, had to make.

'The Hard Thing  About Hard Things' succeeds like no other business book because it embraces failures while instilling advice and leaving you with memorable takeaways. Sure, what you may face as a future entrepreneur may or may not mirror Ben's or Marc's (Andreessen) struggles but the learnings are timeless and many of them can be applied in different scenarios. For example, no matter what team you lead, your team members will have the base expectation of you not bullshitting them. Many team leads and CEOs fall prey to this. This is one of the basic principles that is hammered to the reader with many of the stories. Some of the other key lessons that Ben talks about is going against the grain of the executive management or board members. Important decisions often get swayed by group-think or risk-averseness. It's your job as a CEO/manager to champion the tough decisions especially when you have corroborating evidence of a positive hypothesis, whether data leads you that way or it's customer feedback or market research, what have you.

As you progress through the book, you will realize that Ben's narration pretty much covers the major events in the life cycle of a company. Some of those are:

  • Working in a startup and scaling it 
  • Product - Market fit
  • Fending off competition from incumbents
  • Excelling at sales
  • Knowing the true value of your company/product
  • People management as your company scales
  • Knowing when to go public with your company
  • Knowing when to get acquired

One criticism that this book faces is that most of the stories predate the current millennial-tech-ecosystem. Okay that's not really a thing (or is it?). But I hope you get my drift. The companies mentioned in examples by Ben aren't glamorous but they're hardcore businesses which survived the 2000 dot-com bubble, made hundreds of millions of dollars and one even being valued at $1.6 billion dollars in the mid 2000s. If those aren't great benchmarks, I don't know what are. Just because a Snapchat may have a completely different model, doesn't mean that their teams don't struggle with sales or people problems. A lot of the learning in this book stems from principles of doing business and handling situations.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things is not an entrepreneur's playbook to success but it's a warning to that lot that...well...shit happens! And when you realize that you've been dealt a bad hand, Ben proves that there are still ways to maneuver through them and come out standing. It's a book to be re-read multiple times! 

I'm going to wrap this up by quoting some of my favorite lines from the book. There are many to choose from but these quotes were an instant home-run for me and they left me nodding profusely in agreement. 

"Note to self: It’s a good idea to ask, “What am I not doing?"

"Take care of the People, the Products and the Profits - In that order."

"If you're going to eat shit, don't nibble!"

"A healthy company culture encourages people to share bad news. A company that discusses its problems freely and openly can quickly solve them. A company that covers up its problems frustrates everyone involved."

"Having dogs at work and yoga aren't culture!"