Looking the Tiger in the Eye, and Other Ramblings of a Mad Man.

David Eckoff

I will be one of the first to admit, as far as Product Managers go, I’m not that great.With a background in sales, I’m really a big picture guy. Sometimes small details will escape my requirement docs, like, “Login Page”.

With a background in sales, I’m really a big picture guy. Sometimes small details will escape my requirement docs, like, “Login Page”.

Fortunately, David Eckoff, has taken pity on me.  In addition to being voted best presenter at ProductCamp 13 and best session and ProductCamp 10, David is a product manager extraordinaire and has experience bringing products to market for Fortune 500 and startups alike.  He’s been Vice President New Products at Turner Broadcasting; Senior Director at RealNetworks; Senior Vice President at Rivals.com; and he’s co-founded two startups.

When you sit and talk with David, you start to feel like you are being bathed in great ideas.  Sage advice and crucial best practices just flow easily through conversation like the Chattahoochee on a Sunday morning.

During our last lunch meeting, his advice was so spot on and relevant to one of my product launches, that I was texting my team from the restaurant.  Not to appear rude and text from the table, I excused myself to text from the sanctuary of the restroom.  On my third return trip to the table, David looked at me puzzled, and I said with a smile, “Sorry, irritable bowel syndrome.”

David continued our lunch meeting by sharing the story on how he and his business partner had come up with an idea for a new social engagement platform. They estimated it would cost about $500,000 to develop the platform.

Instead of taking the traditional, “build first, learn later” approach, they decided on “learn now, build if appropriate”.

So David and his team embarked on an in-depth customer discovery exercise. Their quest was to determine if there was authentic demand for their product idea.“People will only do that which they cannot not do,” David explained to me. “Anything else they won’t do. I know that’s a double negative, so I’ll say it again. People will only do that which they cannot not do. We’re looking for evidence of something a customer ‘cannot not do’. And something getting in the way of them doing it. Anything short of that, and you’re not likely onto real demand for a product.”

For those of us that grew up South of Macon, allow me to paraphrase; people will do the bare minimum to get their job done, they will not do extra work because you built something pretty.

David had a theory that social media managers in their customer segment wanted to get more engagement from their Facebook fans. And would pay for a platform that would increase engagement.  To test this theory, and this is where I think David is a little nuts, David and his team talked to their prospective customers about an idea that was the exactOPPOSITE of what their proposed idea would do.

David described the approach this way: “We arranged a 10 minute in-person field interview with the head of marketing and social media for one of customers and said:

“We’re a startup working on a new technology for social media engagement. Here’s what our technology will do:

  1. Our application will automatically throttle the reach of your status updates on Facebook to 1% of your fan base.  If you have 1,000,000 likes to your Facebook page, with our technology, your status updates will be seen by only 1% of your fans.
  2. Of the few fans who actually see your status updates, our technology makes is so they can’t share them, comment on them, or like them, even if they wanted to.

If you used our technology for a full year, at the end of the year, what would your boss say to you, and how would you feel about it?”

To me, this sounded insane and I asked if anyone tried to take a swing at him.  Seriously, what social media marketing person worth their salt would use, let alone buy, such an abomination? This was either crazy or brilliant as anything Don Draper from Mad Men would come up with.

“Your expectation is exactly what we theorized would happen,” David said. “But it didn’t happen.”

David explained: “Our hypothesis was that when we put that idea in front of a customer, that we’d see his face suddenly look panicked, and that he’d immediately angrily complain with something like: “Are you insane? If I ever used a technology like that for even a month, my boss would fire me!! My reputation in the business would be ruined!! I’d be the laughing stock of our office. GET OUT. NOW!!”

Most of the responses from dozens of field interviews were neutral. The typical response from customers: “What would happen? My boss wouldn’t care. Wouldn’t matter if we used that technology. Nothing bad would happen to me if we used that for a year.”

What David was looking for was passion like a mother bear protecting her cubs, but what he received was something along the lines of a hipster getting a weak Wi-Fi signal at Starbucks.

Their theory was proven wrong. Which is actually a great outcome. David’s team didn’t build the product and they saved $500,000, not to mention a lot of heartache. And they are closer to discovering the truth about their customers.

David summarized it this way.  “Most entrepreneurs are delusional about their ideas. They’re delusional about their ideas to the point of irrational exuberance. And they build businesses and products with the unbounded risk that nobody wants to buy their product. Instead, mitigate that risk by looking for evidence of authentic demand for your product. Look for evidence of something your customers cannot not do. And something is getting in the way of them doing it. If you haven’t discovered authentic demand for your product, then look the tiger in the eye, and be honest with yourself about it instead of being delusional about your idea.”

Look for David at the next ProductCamp where he’s sure to present another educational session for product managers..

Kevin Sasser

Mediocre Writer and Product Manager