Repeat (Idea > Target Audience > Validated fitment > Product)
This being the very first post, I believe, I should start at the very beginning. Its not an easy thing to do, to start at the very beginning, especially in context of product management. Earlier, I used to believe that product management should begin with the product. This was until I was told, that in today's age, one must build an audience before one builds a product. If you've built a product that took considerable time to achieve its product-market fit, this advice would resonate. Also, the unending list of successful companies who've done this, would help corroborate that this works. Basecamp.com did this (present a product to an already existing audience of their 37signals blog). Retail stores like Walmart, Carrefour and Tesco do this (through their own private labels) and so do most bloggers-turned-authors (JL Collins and the simple path to wealth).
But, as all things product management related, its not as simple or straightforward. As I explored the concept of building an audience, I was reminded that when I do build an audience, I would be infinitely better off with an audience that shares the need/challenge that my product hopes to fill/overcome. Sounds sensible and therefore brought me back to thinking about the product. Only this time, its a concept, not a product.
Eric Ries calls it the Lean Startup method. Steve Blank calls it Customer Development. The methodology prescribes defining the hypothesis, building a concept to test those hypothesis and then going out to a target audience and validate the hypothesis and concept. Only once the hypothesis have been validated, do you actually go about building and launching the product.
Here's the problem though. In spite of its good intentions and sound premise, Lean-startup is not a silver bullet. Its essentially a practice in risk management and would yield completely different results based on your own risk appetite. Also, it isn't quite as simple to execute as it looks. I once made a prototype for a product, carried out a quick lean-startupy validation and then gave up the idea. It now exists as a billion dollar company called Invision. The reason my hypothesis failed was because of the target audience that I'd selected and the number of people I engaged. It also had to do with what I thought was a very lukewarm response from the audience.
Looking back, I believe I should've been a little more careful about selecting the target audience with whom I went about validating my hypothesis. Which means, I should've put in more thought to identify indicators of need-gap and then carry out the validation experiment with a lot more of those users. Hubspot calls this "Sell to customers we expect to delight." Its part of their culture code. Slide 28.
The beauty of that statement is, that it starts describing and defining the target customer. "So who is the customer that we expect to delight?" And while you may start off with a fuzzy definition, you continue to sharpen it as you go about. It helps you organise your intuitions and experiences to identify who is my target customer and who is a distraction.
Defining, Refining ... Ad infinitum
The principle that I am trying to communicate here is simply this. Throughout the product lifecycle, a product manager would be switching between the product (idea) and the market. Spend time defining both of them and keep sharpening/refining that definition. That is by far the most critical skill in a product manager.
The best product managers don't just throw the idea at the wall and see what sticks. They build some intuition about both their own product and their target segment. This intuition is what others refer to as the pulse of the market