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88 / Effective Product Managers Embrace a ‘Back to Basics’ Mindset

Hosted by Sean Flaherty & Paul Gebel



james-mayes-podcast guest

James Mayes

Mind the Product

James Mayes started his career with 15 years of building high-performance technology teams for startups, tech giants, and the banking world. From there, he moved into startups, joining the founding team of Mind the Product. He’s spent the last 12 years growing the firm into one of the most recognized and respected brands in the product management space, with conferences in five cities, meetups in over 200, and an enviable blue-chip client list. MTP was acquired by Pendo in February 2022, where James remains heavily involved as an evangelist for the product management discipline and especially product-led growth.

Imagine you have over 300,000 customers who love your product. Then, in the span of one weekend in March 2020, you suddenly find yourself with no product to deliver them. Where do you go from there?

You go back to the basics, says James Mayes, who joined Sean and Paul in this episode of the Product Momentum podcast. As co-founder and CEO of Mind The Product, the global flagship product management conference, James went from having a business model he thought was the product, to the brutal reminder that the market is in control.

“The pandemic, and the lockdown that followed, made our core product unviable,” he adds. “When your environment changes at that magnitude, you can’t prepare for that. So this was a reminder of something we already knew: You cannot be prepared for every eventuality and every change that will occur.”

In a world full of uncertainty, James contends, you go back to what you know. “So we said, ‘we’re product managers, right? We’re designed to live in uncertainty. It’s part of our DNA.’ So we did just that; we went back to the basic fundamentals of product management.”

Turns out, the same lessons MTP applied to navigate the pandemic will help your team in times of ambiguity. Catch the entire fast-paced conversation with James, and learn how the steps MTP applied can work for your team too –

  • Stop the bleeding. When you find yourself deep in a hole, stop digging.
  • Take inventory. What do we have that still works in this world.
  • Tweak existing assets where we can. Create new ones as opportunities arise.
  • Stay close to customers. Be available, accessible.
  • Discover, create, test, refine, release, learn, and repeat.

Paul [00:00:19] Hello and welcome to Project Momentum, where we hope to entertain, educate, and celebrate the amazing product people who are helping to shape our community’s way ahead. My name is Paul Gebel and I’m the Director of Product Innovation at ITX. Along with my co-host, Sean Flaherty, and our amazing production team and occasional guest host, we record and release a conversation with a product thought leader, writer, speaker, or maker who has something to share with the community every two weeks.

Paul [00:00:43] Hello, everyone. We’re thrilled to be able to bring you a conversation with somebody who’s very likely influenced the careers of any product manager who’s entered the industry in the past decade. James Mayes is the Co-Founder and CEO of Mind the Product, widely regarded as the global flagship product management conference. In our conversation, we’re going to talk about how Mind the Product had to learn to eat their own dog food during the early days of the pandemic. It defies an easy summary to introduce it, but suffice it to say, I learned that no matter how far advanced you are in your career, staying sharp with the basics is always a critical skill. Enjoy.

Paul [00:01:16] Well, hello and welcome to the podcast. We are really excited to be joined by James Mayes today. He’s the Co-Founder and CEO of Mind The Product. Since his first conference in London in 2012, he’s been focusing on taking over an ever-increasing number of challenges as the company has grown, leading to his appointment as CEO in 2017. He still owns many of the partnership discussions and spends much of his time traveling to maintain and develop these relationships. And before joining Mind the Product, he had two other careers. He started as a tech recruiter in 1996, his first project being Europe’s first Java development team for IBM’s research lab. And he continued this for 12 years. His focus was on building niche technology teams for startups and enterprises alike. He embarked on a startup journey of his own in 2009 in a commercial product role selling TweetJobs in 2011. James, so happy that you’re able to make time to join us today. I’ve been looking forward to this for months.

James [00:02:05] Likewise. Thanks for having me on the show.

Paul [00:02:06] Outstanding. You know, there’s so much that we could talk about, especially your journey most recently with Mind the Product and Pendo. To get us started to focus on one of the pieces of the subplot that I’m most curious about, it’s really about March 2020, right, and what happened and how you as a product leader in a product company started to take on this concept of pivoting, a bunch of really smart product people thinking about your business like a product and figuring out what mattered most. So can you just set up the context, take us back in time, and help get us into the mindset of, what is this problem that you were trying to solve?

James [00:02:44] Sure. Firstly, I want to say that from a product perspective, it was very much to the key leadership team, everyone at Mind the Product that did the real hard work. And Martin Eriksson and Emily Tate really led the product and were absolutely awesome. That’s what saved the business. But I think obviously we can go back a little and discuss the Mind the Product history a little to get us up to speed because that goes back to 2010. March 2020, fundamentally, we’d expanded the team to about 20-odd people. We’d launched conferences in five different cities around the world. We’d invested hard in developing the tech platform and what we were able to make available to people. And then lockdown hit. And at that point, we were approximately 100% reliant on real-world revenues. So all of a sudden we had a website that was growing fast, a team that was growing fast, a payroll that was growing fast, and revenue literally zeroed in the space of a week.

James [00:03:25] Now you think that’s scary, and it is, but it gets worse! Because you look at your bank account and you think, “okay, we can calculate, we’ve got some runway, we know what payroll is, we know what’s in the account, we can work with this.” And then you realize that Mind the Product is built on brand reputation, and when you can’t run stuff anymore, people are going to ask for that money back. And we wanted to stand by that and make sure that we could do that. So that runway shrank really quite fast. That was what we call in the UK squeaky bum time. And it was uncomfortable.

James [00:03:51] You know, for me, I focused hard on the more commercial side of things I could do. So looking at what the UK government was putting out there in terms of emergency business loan schemes, furlough support for staff that we needed to sit back at home to stem the bleeding, I focused very much on that side of things. Meanwhile, I’m going to give all the glory to Martin and Emily, who very much moved quickly to look at two things fundamentally, assets and backlog. And they figured they would find some useful starting points in that. And they did. Martin particularly had been interested in the idea of some sort of membership model for a good four or five years and as a growing conference business, we’d never found the time to explore it, and all of a sudden we couldn’t do conferences. So we very much had the time. We also had a very pertinent driver to go find a new guy to stay afloat. And then on the assets side of things, the two things that became clearest were that we had ten years’ worth of amazing content online and all the SEO juice that goes with that. And secondly, an audience of 300, 350,000 product managers around the world who love what we do who were meeting up in meetups on a regular basis pre-pandemic in over 200 cities. So we were touching much every corner of the technology world at that point. But those are the two classes that we had to go at. That’s kind of where that pivot started.

Paul [00:04:54] It sounds like you had a business model that you thought was the product, but the market responded and told you what you really had, what your value really was. Is that overstating it?

James [00:05:04] The market dictated and made our core product unviable.

Sean [00:05:08] Reminds me of Robert Sapolsky. You know, he’s a famous biologist who lived with the monkeys and he studied the biochemistry of human behavior and he’s got this definition of evolution. You know, the ability to survive relies on the zebra’s ability to run faster and faster in the face of a changing environment.

James [00:05:25] Mhm.

Sean [00:05:25] You don’t have any control over that. Seems like a beautiful, growing, happy, healthy business and the environment is going to change.

James [00:05:30] Absolutely. I mean, we spent 2019 investing hard and things that we believed would come good in 2020.

Sean [00:05:35] Yeah.

James [00:05:36] And when your environment changes and experiences change of that magnitude, particularly, you can’t prepare for that. You cannot be prepared for every eventuality and every change that will occur. I think most businesses were caught unaware by what happened in 2020. I think reflecting back on it now, the biggest thing that strikes me about Mind the Product’s approach, as opposed to pretty much every other business I speak to, is simply the sheer speed at which we managed to adjust. That’s the bit that I’m still astonished by what our team was able to pull off in such a short space of time.

Paul [00:06:01] Yeah. Maybe this is saying the quiet part out loud, but do you attribute that speed, that ability to evolve on the fly to having an organization of product people? Is it your DNA that was able to help you to flex or is there a product mindset that you’re able to bring that other people weren’t?

James [00:06:17] Yeah, absolutely. We’ve always had a baked-in philosophy of figuring out what we could test fast and lean and light, and the informal meetups that we run around the world under the product banner have enabled us to do that. Pick up groups of people and sound them out,” what do you think about this? What do you think about that?” And then take that feedback and say, “okay, well we can formalize this a little bit, let’s build a little MVP, let’s launch that and see what happens.” And that’s something that we’ve been doing repeatedly for ten-odd years.

James [00:06:40] And then Martin and Emily, between and 40-odd years worth of product leadership experience, very much took hold of that and said, “Okay, we’re product managers, right? We are designed to live in uncertainty. Well, these are indeed uncertain times.” So they did discovery hard and fast and were very, very clear about just exactly how quickly we needed to see that change go through, supported by our one and only developer at that time who had somewhat of a brutal experience over a couple of months. I think the first version of our membership product, it took him about eight weeks to ship. It was ridiculously fast.

Paul [00:07:05] Yeah.

James [00:07:06] Now, as you might imagine, it was a little quick and dirty, but it got us swift progress in the direction that we needed.

Paul [00:07:10] Absolutely. Yeah. Just to kind of cap this thread, then, I think one of the things that stood out to me in chatting with you before the show is a quote. Basically, “it doesn’t matter how senior you get, the basics still count.” It doesn’t matter how far up the organization you go, being able to dig in to these product management fundamentals is always going to be germane to whatever business problem you’re looking down.

James [00:07:30] Oh, absolutely. I was visiting Berlin last week. A VP of Product I was having dinner with had a quote sort of misquoting Tyson, the famous boxer. His adjustment was, “everybody has a framework until they get punched in the face.” And that feels very, very much appropriate to where we were at that point in time.

Sean [00:07:47] So give us some insight into some of the details. Like, when you saw this happening, what did you do? How did you guys respond? Like, what were some of the things that stand out in your mind that helped you make some of these decisions?

James [00:07:57] Initially, it was as I say, stem the bleeding. We can see that things are going to be very uncertain. We know that we’ll get back to conferences at some point, but we didn’t know at this point if it was going to be two weeks, two months, two years. So stem the bleeding. You know, it’s just a good business decision under those circumstances. And then from there, I think Martin and Emily dug very, very swiftly into what assets we had, “let’s just be really clear about what we have that still works in this world.” And that was twofold. You know, partially, it was the identification of the content, the SEO, the audience, which contributed to the membership product. And then partially it was the belief that we had the skills and the network in-house to do something online that would see us through. And that was obviously pivoting the conferences to an online model and likewise taking the workshops that we were running from physical classrooms and moving those online.

James [00:08:37] So we worked very, very closely both to make amendments to existing products, but also to find something new. In terms of the existing one, the first online conference we had, we had no idea whether anybody was going to see anything valuable in an online conference at all. A full-blown physical Mind the Product conference takes us a good 9 to 12 months worth of planning. We had nowhere near that kind of leeway on it. So we said, “Look, we’ve got to pull the Singapore conference.” That was due in March time, things like March, April, June, so it was like, we’ve got to pull the plug on that as fast as we can and kill any associated cost. Secondly, what can we do online? Honestly, we don’t know. But we’ve got to throw something up fast. We need to run a test. We need to know whether people will attend. Will they attend for one full day online? Is eight hours in a Zoom window doable? No, clearly not. So we looked to do it a couple of hours a day over a week. Does that format work? So the first thing for us on that was, I think probably best described by Tom G, the previous Google X guy. His key metric he often defines as being time to learning. And that’s very much what we were looking for in that first online conference; what’s the fastest thing that we can throw up and just learn about what people’s expectations are, what will fly and what will not?

Sean [00:09:40] Yeah. One of the things that stuck out to me on the pre-call was you mentioned this sort of customer concern mapping, like figuring out what the customers cared about and creating almost like a dominance hierarchy of their concern.

James [00:09:50] Yeah. I mean, that’s certainly something that we went heavily on with the membership models. We looked at the assets, what we had, and there were things like our content and ability to put together training, the conferences that we would be running, our ability to access amazing speakers around the world or get discounts to different things. Like, let’s just wipe all this, what’s the massive list of things that we could put into a membership that people might be interested in and then put that out to a relatively close circle of the community and say, “stuff like this, what do you actually care about?” And that’s where I prefer to say, you know, it doesn’t matter how senior you are, you go back to basics. We had some assumptions. We put some things in there that we thought would absolutely come back as being top of mind, “this is important, can we get this, can we get this, can we get this?” Absolutely not. It was a real eye-opener to say, “huh, funny enough, no one seems to care about that.” Well, I guess you are not your customer. Back to school.

Sean [00:10:36] Yeah, like you and Paul said, back to the basics, I think, you know, the real core product management basics. Because, you know, like all of us, if we were just to go to our default, to what our gut says we should try to do, you end up building a bunch of features nobody wants. And getting back to the basics, organizing the customer concerns, and then going out and validating.

James [00:10:53] Yeah. And it’s one of the reasons why I still try to listen to as many of the conference talks as I can when we do run things now, whether they’re online or physical, it’s like, you never know when somebody’s just going to drop something on stage and you’re like, “Yeah, I did know that, I seem to have stopped doing that, I need to remember to do that.” It’s always worth listening to those things.

Sean [00:11:07] Wake you get back up again, right?

James [00:11:09] You know, just bringing you back to basics and making sure you stay true to the things that are really tried and tested and that you know are good discipline. But you can fall out of habits over time, especially in a role as diverse as product, where one day you’re experimenting, another you might be designing, the next day you might be deep in analytics, or maybe all those things in the same day. It’s really easy to forget some of those core principles and skate over them sometimes.

Paul [00:11:27] Yeah. It’s super humbling to hear that said, especially coming from sort of the makers of the original product conference. One of the things that I’ve been thinking about as we’ve been talking, and maybe we can scale out as a use case for what a mid- or even senior-level product manager, product leader could take away from this concept. There are a couple of things that stood out to me. Like, don’t worry about feedback tools that aren’t fit for purpose. Listen to what matters and filter out the rest. Knowing that you’re going to take on some tech debt, like knowing that you’re going to get an MVP out and it’s not going to be right, but that you can learn from it.

James [00:12:03] Absolutely.

Paul [00:12:04] Are there some other lessons that you think a product leader listening to this conversation can take away and apply in their team today?

James [00:12:11] I mean, I think the first one is to go a little further on the tech debt and say the tech is okay. The key to it is not whether you have it or not, it’s whether you’ve actually got it clearly identified. It’s no different to saying, “I’m going to buy a house, but it’s going to take me 20 years to pay off, let’s take the mortgage.” But you know what that mortgage is. You know what you’re paying every month and you know what that roadmap looks like to get rid of that thing. Tech debt should be the same. So long as you got that clarity, you don’t need to feel guilty about it, you don’t need to beat yourself up over it. The tech debt you beat yourself up over is the bit you don’t know about. Or the bit you can say, “I know that’s in a dark corner somewhere, but I won’t tell anybody, we’ll pretend it’s not there.” That is going to bite you.

James [00:12:43] I think probably the one thing that does impact product leaders, and anybody else actually, is that with Martin and Emily particularly, they have consciously made a spectacular, sustained effort to stay close to customers, make themselves available for conversations, and to say, “Hey, it’s not just our world that changed; as product leaders, your world changed too, right? You can’t work with your team in the way that you used to. You can’t work with your devs in the way that you used to. So how do we support you? How do we take you through that?” And one of the things that’s been hugely successful for us over the last few years is the newsletter that comes out every week to members. And Emily and Martin put a huge amount of work into writing the foreword on that and making sure that it really does reflect the changing times. So, you know, certain times of the year, it’s year-end, for example, fall hiring season begins or new L&D budgets drop or a new report comes out on the mental health crisis that companies are going through and everybody suddenly transitions to remote. So they’ve made a conscious thing to stay close to product leaders, understand their challenges, and figure out how we support. Now that’s something I’ll throw back to every product leader. When was the last time you spoke to a customer?

Paul [00:13:37] Yeah.

James [00:13:37] I think there’s a lot of party leaders who do make that transition into product leadership and say, “my team is now my product.” You’re absolutely right. They are. But that doesn’t mean you get to outsource all of your customer conversations to your team. You should keep some of those.

Paul [00:13:49] Yeah, I love that. I’ve heard a stat, I don’t know if there’s research to back it up, but essentially if you haven’t talked to a customer in two weeks, you’re beginning to lose touch. And if you’ve reached six weeks, I’ve heard that you are completely out of touch and there’s no chance that what you’re building is anything else but an echo chamber in your own head.

James [00:14:05] Yeah. I mean, I think there’s one of those where gut feel builds and builds with product people and you start to trust your own judgment more and more as you get more senior. That’s great. But it also means there’s more opportunity to trip you up.

Paul [00:14:15] Absolutely.

Sean [00:14:16] I think there’s a broader leadership lesson here around that concept. You know, David Packard from Hewlett Packard wrote the book The HP Way. And one of the things that resonated in that book with me was his concept of, like, leadership by walking around, like being present for the business, being present not just for customers but for the people doing the work too. And I think the pattern that I see is the best leaders do that. They make a little bit of time for that, make sure that they’re talking to customers, they’re getting out there.

James [00:14:45] Absolutely, and I think it’s actually one of the things that Mind the Product culture has done really well, both pre-pandemic and since, is that because we’re a fairly small team working on disparate things like we’ve got the conference and we’ve got the site. We’ve got the content or training or whatever. There’s a lot of siloed work that happens with people saying, “I’m going to get my head down for two days and crank this out.” But we also try to make sure that we come together for team days. And the idea of a team day for us is that there will be one central meeting that’s all-around alignment throughout the company to make sure everybody knows what’s important, to make sure we have a lot of alignment. But we don’t map the whole of team day into meetings. There’s a lot of opportunity there just for organic conversation. You start uncovering problems. You start uncovering things that you think, “Oh, just flag that, that should maybe be on your radar.” “Oh no, no, no, no; that should not just be on your radar, that’s going to move very, very quickly to the top of your list.” And things like that come about through just the opportunity for spontaneous conversation that surfaces different problems and different issues. And I think the Mind the Product way of doing things over the years has been incredibly beneficial in making sure that they stay in decent focus or get surfaced quickly.

Paul [00:15:41] Yeah, for sure. Thinking back to lessons learned and sort of practical applications, one of the things that stood out to me, it’s almost a paradox that the pivoting is not reactive. It was a very deliberate choice. Even though it seemed like the market presented you with a new set of conditions that you had to respond to, you took the time to very deliberately and proactively test and see what worked. You didn’t come up with a new strategy on the fly in a vacuum. It was a very thoughtful, deliberate approach. So this concept that pivoting is a reactive measure, I think is a flawed perspective.

James [00:16:11] Yeah.

Paul [00:16:12] And hearing your story, it sort of reinforces this idea that pivoting is going to happen and it can be reactive. But when you successfully pivot, it’s usually due to a thoughtful, experimental approach to testing the market and seeing what your customers need, not imposing your own reactivity onto an already volatile situation.

James [00:16:31] Absolutely. And I think the discovery part is the absolute key part of that. If you pivot as a reaction, then it typically is a reactive thing that you built. If you recognize there’s a pivot required, okay, that’s the reactive bit. The deliberate bit is then to go and redo your discovery. Because if a pivot is required, then the chances are it’s because your customer circumstances or your market has changed in some way. At that point, you have to do discovery again.

Paul [00:16:53] Absolutely.

Sean [00:16:54] Yeah. Well, tell us a little bit about what you’re up to these days.

James [00:16:57] Well, we survived the pandemic, clearly. We got towards the tail end of last year and we could say, “you know, we figured out hybrid conferences now, we can bring together people both physically and online; we’ve pivoted the workshops to online, they’ve been working really well.” And in fact, the corporate customer feedback for the digital workshops has been even better than it was when they were in classrooms a couple of years ago, for a number of reasons. When we got to the end of last year we said, “okay, let’s assess.” You know. We’ve always said that our vision is to bring product people together and further the craft. We’ve done an amazing job with that over the years. I’m very proud of that.

James [00:17:22] But we didn’t necessarily know where we wanted to end up as Mind the Product, the company. That was still an unanswered question. So we had a conversation with the board last year and we said, “okay, the best way to do this, let’s talk to conference providers, training providers, VCs, the software firms that have sponsored us over the years, and so on, let’s have those conversations and say, ‘Oh, there’s seven or eight different things that we do right now, which do we go harder on, should we consider sunsetting some of these?’ and really getting that clarity.”.

James [00:17:43] And out of that came a number of conversations where people said, “so does this mean Mind the Product is up for sale?” Well, technically, no, we don’t need to sell. We’re not in that position. But if you’re in a position where you put a number on the table in front of me, then I have to go and discuss that with the board and we see where we go. And funny enough, yeah, there were three or four companies that were very interested in that opportunity, at which point we kind of got much more into the strategic alignment than anything and really got into the conversations with Pendo. And they’re in the position where obviously they focus hard on product managers in terms of the software that they build for engagement, for adoption, and so on. But they’d also had a strong arm in the past with both events and content production themselves. So they understood what was at the core of our business. And when it came to saying, “What does the future look like for Mind the Product within Pendo, it was actually pretty simple. The main goal of it is to say, “build more product managers, build smarter product managers.” Well, that’s kind of what we’ve always done. So what you’re saying is we need to keep doing what we’re doing and as we go, we’ll fly the Pendo flag a little bit and, you know, represent that brand, but otherwise, that’s it. Like that feels like the best possible outcome.

James [00:18:43] Because from my team’s point of view, they went through a hellish couple of years making sure that this thing survived and now they get to say, “we’ve got a billion-dollar organization behind us that can provide us with that little bit of extra support in legal, in finance, a little bit of extra security and so on,” which is great. It kind of takes a little bit of weight off their mind. These folks have been on the edge for a while now, but likewise, it also means that they get to retain that autonomous, small-team approach in London that has built such an amazing culture over the years. And yeah, we’re fantastic. When we closed the deal in February, literally a week later, we were all on a plane over to North Carolina to go join them for their company kickoff. And that was a full sort of immersion in the Pendo way, just to get to meet the new family and figure out where we’re at. Pretty full on, I got to admit, but well worth doing. So yeah, we’re now part of Pendo, but for all intents and purposes, Mind the Product is as it has always been, which is wonderful.

Paul [00:19:24] I love that. It’s such a good news story and I think as a user of both Pendo and Mine the Product, it’s been a really clear mutual win for both. The content quality for Mine the Product has only gotten better over the years. The cultural touchstone that Pendo has made themselves into as sort of a product for product managers and wanting to build better product managers into the community, I think, is a really great testament to the way ahead. It seems, on the surface, an event organization and a user analytics and product management tool doesn’t seem to be the typical match, but once you understand the DNA of the two organizations, it makes so much sense. So I’m really happy that you’re able to share that story with us.

James [00:20:01] Yeah, we’re pretty happy with the outcome and very much looking forward to see where the next couple of years takes us.

Paul [00:20:06] Absolutely.

Sean [00:20:06] When we talk in the pre-call, I heard you use the mantra that the goal of MTP was always to make the product market bigger and smarter. You said that a couple of times.

James [00:20:12] Yeah.

Sean [00:20:12] I think it fits right into what Pendo does and it’s like a great match. How’s it been going? How’s the integration been going?

James [00:20:20] Oh, it’s always interesting when you’ve got two very different cultures. Pendo is obviously very U.S.-centric. Mind the Product grew out of London. So there’s a little bit of a difference there. And Pendo now, they’ve grown to be 1000 people very, very quickly over the last couple of years and Mind the Product is only 16, 17. There’s a few differences in terms of systems and processes, and you get the usual integration fun of figuring out how we’re going to make all of that work. But by and large, Pendo has been fantastic at saying, you know, “you guys know what you’re doing with conferences and with training and with content; please keep doing that.”

Paul [00:20:46] Wonderful.

James [00:20:47] So, you know, we couldn’t really ask any more of them in that respect. And on top of that, they’ve been saying, “okay, so these are the things that we have available in terms of infrastructure, support, training. Where can we help you? What else do you need? What else can we put on the table?” Now it’s a case of saying, okay, we’re going to spend the next six months really getting to know one another, figuring out where those synergies are, where we can be complementary, where there are areas where we need to make sure that that divide remains in order for Mind the Product to retain that authoritative, neutral voice in the marketplace. But you’re always going to have that.

James [00:21:13] I think one of the things I love most is that we had a conversation early on about the Mind the Product conferences and the Pendo conference, Pendomonium. And the Pendo intent is that Pendomonium remains an event for Pendo users. That will absolutely be their major user event of the year. People will come together and, you know, look at where Pendo is going in the future, what it could do more of. The whole point of Mind the Product is that it remains the open house for the whole of the product will come together. So there are sponsors, for example, that, you know, we’ve had in the past that would compete with Pendo. So far as everybody is concerned, we are good to keep working with those folks. We want to make this conversation as big as we can, as open as we can, and have everybody participate. And Pendo is fully supportive of that.

James [00:21:48] Likewise, I think there were a few early comments of, you know, “when a community gets acquired by a vendor, does that mean that the stage line up is now just going to be full of folks who work for Pendo or Pendo customers?” Absolutely not. The curation team that we have here is as it always was and the Pendo input to it is simply a case of, “if you see rising trends in the marketplace that you think we should be aware of, tell us and we’ll figure out if we need to go find speakers to address those things.” It’s like, over the last year or two, you’ve seen more and more people talking about product ops and the importance that that can have, particularly in large organizations. That was one of the first things Pendo mentioned is like, “Are you doing anything with product ops? We’d like to hear more on that.” “Absolutely, we will, we’ve got some great speakers in mind.” “Cool. Well, off you go.”

Sean [00:22:24] Awesome. I’m going to change gears a little bit and ask you about learning. So what have you been reading or into lately that’s helping you learn more about the product industry?

James [00:22:33] There’s a couple of different ones to it, partially is, obviously, I’ve got a lot of learning to do about Pendo themselves. It’s a pretty complex product set there, so I need to understand that a whole lot more, and likewise, where they sit in the market against their various competitors. I want to understand who I work for and really get to know that stuff deeply. Outside of that, I think there’s an interesting truth starting to become evident with the digital transformation that we’ve been seeing over the last couple of years. A lot of the organizations that Mind the Product was worked with within the last ten years or so, they’ve been on this digital transformation for the last 20 years. Particularly organizations like banks. And what they’ve typically been doing is just taking everything they do and saying, “Well, let’s put it online.” Well, brilliant. All you’ve done there is scaled back process experience. The vast majority of them have just literally recreated that same operation online. At no point have they actually gone back to customers and done, what was that word we mentioned earlier? Discovery. I’m guessing the banking behavior of pretty much everybody on the planet has changed under all recognition over the last couple of years, but very few digital transformation projects are actually doing anything in the way of customer discovery. So that’s just based on spending a fair bit of time at the moment looking for both the good and bad examples of what’s going on there. There’s plenty been written and plenty more that we’ve got the contacts to have a little dig around, see what’s going on, and start extracting some of those stories.

Sean [00:23:40] Selfishly, I’m going to ask you outright, like, what’s your number one book that you would recommend?

James [00:23:45] What’s my number one book? I got to be honest, I’ll go a little out of school on this one. I go back and I read Rework every year. It’s short, it’s concise, but it’s full of those really obvious little lessons of, “Ah! I knew that, but I stopped doing it!” It’s a really good level set. Gonna re-read that one every year.

Paul [00:24:01] Wonderful. Before I let you go, we have one last question for you. How do you define innovation? What does innovation mean to you?

James [00:24:08] That’s a great question. To me, innovation is not just minor improvements. It’s not just gently iterating on something. It’s when you discover a way of doing something new for a customer that was unanticipated by everybody but delivers significant benefit.

Sean [00:24:22] I love that little tweak. Undiscovered by anybody else, yeah?

James [00:24:26] For me, it’s is the unanticipated bit. If everybody looks at it and says, “Yeah, that’s pretty obvious,” well, probably not innovation, really, is it? It’s just iteration.

Paul [00:24:33] That’s a really great take. I love it.

Sean [00:24:35] The distinction between iteration and innovation I think is valuable.

James [00:24:38] I think it’s an important one, yeah. I think there’s a lot of companies who say they do innovation and we could argue that.

Sean [00:24:44] Yeah. We talked about a lot of things and you’ve obviously been in this space for a long time and you’ve got a tremendous amount of experience. So I’m going to go through this list of key lessons that I’ve captured.

James [00:24:53] Sure.

Sean [00:24:53] One, apply the basics, like the basics work. And don’t forget your roots. The market is what the market is. That’s number two. You don’t have any control over that so this concept of applying the basics when the market changes. Brilliant. Number three, validate everything. Number four, be present for your customers. Don’t give up on that. Like, make sure that you make space and time for being present for your customers. Number five, be purposeful with your technical debt. It’s not about not having technical debt, like, if we are trying to be perfect and produce the perfect product all the time, we’re not going to get anything to market. So and then lastly, transformation is more than just moving what you were doing offline to online. Get out there and do some customer discovery and make the space for real innovation versus iteration. Love it.

Paul [00:25:37] That was a blast. I had a ton of takeaways. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us today. We will look forward to seeing what the future holds.

James [00:25:45] Absolute pleasure. You know, from here, I step a little bit out of the leadership level and more into the evangelism role of telling the story of what we’ve done and getting on the road again, which is the bit I love the most. I’ll be honest.

Paul [00:25:53] We’re happy to hear it.

James [00:25:54] If everybody wants to reach out to me, I’m very easy to find.

Paul [00:25:56] Outstanding.

Sean [00:25:57] Thank you.

Paul [00:26:01] Well, that’s it for today. In line with our goals of transparency and listening, we really want to hear from you. Sean and I are committed to reading every piece of feedback that we get, so please leave a comment or a rating wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Not only does it help us continue to improve, but it also helps the show climb up the rankings so that we can help other listeners move, touch, and inspire the world, just like you’re doing. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next episode.

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