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ITX Product Momentum Podcast – Episode 12: Treating Your Product Community Like a Product

When you’re building software products, do you think only about adding features? Or do you think in terms of hiring your software products to solve a problem you have? Context is critical. Consider new products – and their features – in the same way you would new employees. What problems am I hiring them to solve? What will be my return on investment?

In this episode, Sean and Joe chat with Mike Belsito, a startup product and business developer with a rich background in creating big, important things out of nothing. Mike co-founded Product Collective, now a 20,000-member community of like-minded product people. He conceived the idea to help folks like himself navigate this untamed wilderness called product management. Out of Product Collective Mike spawned INDUSTRY – in just its fifth year it’s already one of the largest product management summits anywhere in the world.

Jobs To Be Done

When we start to think of software products in terms of solving customer problems, we’ve come a long way toward not only understanding the purpose of our products, but also defining what problems truly are. Followers of Bob Moesta know that problems are “jobs to be done.” Sometimes we hire people to do the jobs that need doing. Other times we build or buy products to tackle the tough jobs. Doesn’t matter if it’s weeds in our lawn, a car that won’t start, or a balky user interface; customers hire people and products to get stuff done and make their problems go away.

Enter Product Collective and INDUSTRY. The two seem always to be mentioned in the same breath. Honestly, it’s hard to think of them any other way. Mike launched Product Collective because he was trying to figure out for himself what it means to be a product person. He wasn’t alone in addressing this problem.

Mike sees Product Collective as a product. If he’s right – by the way, 20,000 community members happen to agree with him – and if we build products to solve problems, what problems are product people hiring Mike and Product Collective to solve?

Getting to the answer, Mike says, starts with acknowledging there’s some sort of unmet need that’s out there.

“I think a lot of people have that kind of need because product management isn’t some school we went to,” Mike says. “So it makes sense when people say they’re hiring us they’re really doing a ‘gut check’ on themselves like, ‘am I actually doing this the right way?’”

As it turns out, there’s a long list of problems product people are hiring Product Collective and INDUSTRY to solve. Mike and his team learn about them the old-fashioned way – by asking their community members and conference attendees.

Qualitative Feedback Gives Us the “Why”

Quantitative feedback may explain the “what,” but it’s qualitative feedback that gives you the “why.” For all you Simon Sinek fans out there, that’s the place to start.

“Sometimes attendees just want to fill the hole in their team,” Mike adds. “They might say, ‘The only reason I came is to meet people to recruit them to come work at my company.’ Others simply want to ‘get smarter.’ A comment we hear pretty often is ‘to connect with other people.’ Some say they want to ‘find inspiration.’”

Product management is still such a relatively new skill area, most say they hire Product Collective and INDUSTRY to figure out whether they’re doing this right.

Measuring Product Performance

There are any number of ways to measure product performance, but the math gets a bit more fuzzy when your product is a conference, and fuzzier still when it’s a community of product people.

Clearly, the right things are happening at Product Collective and INDUSTRY. For Mike, it’s all about delivering three experiences: the attendee experience, the sponsor experience, and the speaker experience.

“Our rule internally is to do the things we can do to lift one of those without denigrating any of the others. If we can keep doing things each year and add to the conference, we can continue the upward trajectory.”

In spite of how it looks – 20,000 members and 1,500 conference guests in just 5 years – the work is not easy. So what’s the secret?

“We surround ourselves with smart people, and we keep them in our lives,” Mike says. “We’re just trying to get in front of them as often as we can to get their perspective on things. They’re not giving us these magic answers,” Mike adds. “They’re making sure we ask the right questions.”

They’re not giving us these magic answers. They’re making sure we ask the right questions. – Mike Belsito

Superpowers and Secret Sauce?

With all this learning going on, what separates the best product managers from the rest of us? There’s a couple things at play, Mike offers.

“I just feel like product people have to be able to hang their hat on something. They should try to find that one thing they love doing and that they’re really good at, and leverage that.

“There’s this age-old question: Does a product manager need to be technical? I don’t think they absolutely have to be technical, but I do feel like every product manager should have something – I don’t like to use a word like ‘secret sauce’ or ‘superpower,” or anything like that. But what’s that one thing you can do that might be better than other product managers. If not, it’s hard to sort of separate yourself from the rest of the pack.”

Either way, the key is to always be learning. “There’s not any one area of product management where I feel like I’m an expert,” Mike says, “where I feel I don’t have to do any more learning. No, I definitely need to learn a whole lot more.”

Be sure to catch the latest ITX Product Momentum Podcast episode with Mike Belsito: Treating Your Product Community Like a Product, where you’ll hear Mike –

  • Describe ways you too can do distinguish yourself within the growing pack of product management people.
  • Explain why Home Depot, McDonald’s, and Chick-fil-A are actually tech companies, and why these massive organizations may be the best “proving ground” for product people.
  • Predict the number of wins this coming NFL season for his hometown Cleveland Browns.

Recommended Resources

Give Mike a listen on his Rocketship podcast.

Learn more about INDUSTRY: the Product Conference. 

It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work, by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.

Jobs-to-be-Done The Handbook, by Chris Spiek & Bob Moesta.

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