I was recently reading Janna Bastow’s article “Growing up Lean: Lean strategies for maturing products”, in which she points out that “no one seems to write about managing products that are reaching maturity […] at that stage things get really hard”. Janna makes a good point, and now that I am indeed managing what many in the startup world would deem a “mature product,” I was inspired to share some learnings.
A little background on myself; I co-founded Ticketscript in 2006, when the term “startup” hardly existed in the Netherlands. We were inadvertently taking a Lean approach to developing our product, without even having read Eric Reis’ book. We were building software during the week, testing it at events on nights and weekends, making changes on the fly, and testing the results again.
But, roadmaps? We talked to our customers (in the dozens around this time), knew our market very well and cranked out as many new features to support our customers’ needs as best we could. The initial sell was tough “My visitors have to print their own tickets at home?!” but we were solving real needs on both ends: No more waiting in line to get tickets and lower fees (for attendees), and real-time feedback and insights into ticket sales (event organizers).
Startup life sure wasn’t easy, but in terms of building product, things were pretty straightforward — talk directly to customer -> understand problem -> build solution -> validate solution -> iterate to improve. One engineer (yours truly) also acting as PM, customer support agent, triage, onsite support, etc. One backlog. One repository. Comfortably living the Lean life.
By the end of 2016 I had moved from being CTO, to where my true passion lies: Head Of Product. We had six (cross-functional, distributed) engineering teams who were responsible for four products, one QA team and one triage team. We had grown from the “nimble new kid on the block” to the “standard-setting industry mammoth.”
In early 2017 Ticketscript was acquired by Eventbrite, and my next iteration included moving to the San Francisco Bay Area, where Eventbrite is headquartered.
Today, I am responsible for a suite of products that support the processing of over 3 million tickets per week. At Ticketscript we had a very clear focus on Europe, however Eventbrite’s event creators are scattered throughout 180 countries across the world. The platform supports millions of events per year. In short you could say my scope definitely expanded.
Throughout this transition, I came to realize (like Janna) that managing a mature product is vastly different from a less mature one. You want it to be the same. You sometimes act like it is. But it isn’t. There are different forces at play. More feedback, more stakeholders, more teams, more communication… basically there’s a lot more at stake. Let’s look at these things one by one high level.
More customer feedback
More customers means more feedback. The first problem you’ll run into is how to collect that feedback and (more importantly) how to respond to it. The second issue is how to make sure there’s a clear process for reporting feedback to the product teams. And last but definitely not least, how do you prioritize action upon that feedback?
Having a clearly defined and transparent process in place that is known and carried throughout the organization is key. Within my teams, I make sure that all PMs assess incoming feedback systematically. Feedback should be replied to in a timely manner and have a clear answer; this can range from “This is actually something we have planned for in Q4” to “Great feedback, but this is currently not in line with our strategy so we’ll park it for now”. The question you should always ask yourself before replying to, and deciding whether or not you want to act upon feedback: Does this fit our overall company and product strategy?
Just as having more customers means more feedback, being a larger company means more points of view, and more diverse points of view from a slew of departments and functions like legal, fraud, marketing — departments that don’t often exist in smaller startups. Managing stakeholders, assessing their needs against the company strategy and clearly communicating to all those people adds an extra layer of complexity to developing product. But an exciting one! There is an incredible wealth of knowledge amongst your colleagues and if you engage them it can be a key factor in the success of your product.
What makes product development more complicated with more stakeholders, is that prioritization will become more challenging. Product people know that the larger part of their job is saying “no”, but the more people you have to say “no” to the more pushback you’ll get. Having a clear product vision and roadmap will help guide these conversations to get to a shared reality.
As I mentioned, at Ticketscript I ran about five teams. At Eventbrite this has grown to about 10 in my immediate domain, but a few dozen throughout the company. This has forced me to put more process in place. I am a big advocate of creating cross-functional, co-located scrum teams, who can work autonomously, make their own decisions and iterate as fast as they can. But autonomy gets you nowhere without alignment, so that’s where process comes into play.
In managing a mature product, crystal clear communication is key. Internal communication (emails, All Hands updates, conversations, meetings, interpersonal communication, customer communication, consumer communication, communication with media, transparent roadmaps, clear information about product releases (tailored per audience), etc. In essence being a good communicator is an essential and critical trade for product people and is something you can’t put in the “too hard basket” if you want to succeed. If you’re not sure how to do this, engage your communications team and ask for their help, or take some training.
And then last but by far not least; innovation. I recently read a description of innovation that really spoke to me; innovation is the profitable application of creativity to improve products and services, processes, or business models. In our early Ticketscript days, this was all we did. Constantly improving our product to solve custom needs as creatively as we could. And this was in an era when people were not always comfortable (or able) to transact online, or print their own event tickets. As such, I had never developed any of these technologies.
For mature products, innovation is a whole different ball game. Therein lies a huge danger of slowing down (or even worse; stopping) the rate of innovation as your product ages. But even if the stakes are higher, innovation simply cannot stop. It’s the single one driver that will see your company survive. While this is a topic all of its own, I want to at least underscore that without innovation — whether your product is mature or not — your customers will slowly move to more innovative competitors, and sooner or later your business will be done.
I am happy to be working for a company, where I can say we have a mature product, but have not lost our ability to innovate. There are a number of initiatives we have in play at Eventbrite that help to infuse innovation and iteration into the product development process, from having teams that constantly focus on innovation, to having clear product principles like “Ship, Validate, Adapt” that guide how all teams develop our product. I count us as one of, if not the most, innovative ticketing platforms in-market today. Eventbrite has always been a proponent of redefining the norm in an industry not historically known for stellar customer service or tech innovation, and I’m excited to keep pushing boundaries on our Product and beyond.
These are just some of the high level challenges I have come up against in managing a mature product. What things have you faced?