Culture is Product Management

If you play a role in the process of designing, developing, or managing products at a company (your own or otherwise) you’re likely to know about Mike Fishbein and his gem of a podcast series called This is Product Management. I was inspired to think about other drivers that can heavily influence good product management and consumer culture stood out. Consumer culture is particularly powerful because it can not only shape the development of a product, but can also be shaped by newly emerging products. Culture in and of itself is a rich and complex construct. One of its many definitions include the “characteristic features of everyday existence…shared by people in a place or time”, essentially boiling down to “a way of life.” Despite this broad definition of a construct so fundamental to our existence, understanding consumer culture can play a key role in developing and managing products, and can be leveraged either proactively or reactively.

The best way to think about reactively applying culture to product management is to think about how creators have leveraged authentic cultural insights to provide unique value to their audiences. Design thinking is one approach to extract such insights. At it’s core, design thinking enables the development of meaningful solutions, the creation of new value, and the ability to consider new, innovative possibilities by bridging deep analysis with creativity.

Consider for a moment, digital music startups. Going beyond fulfilling a practical need by transferring music from the physical space to the digital space, companies like Shazam, Spotify, Soundcloud, and Songza have created products that respond to a subculture that celebrates and prides itself on music discovery and sharing. The same is true for the Skimm. A company that very much epitomizes an understanding of the culture of their audience: busy, on the go, and checking email, probably while still in bed. Their product reflects (and was created to reflect) the culture of their audience. Two of our very own portfolio companies, Thrive Market and mSurvey, have done this as well — incorporating insights into their overall business model and strategy. There is a widespread and increasing trend toward health and wellness which is often inaccessible by underserved and rural communities. As such, Thrive Market created a Midwest-based, commerce startup with products sold closer to wholesale costs. Similarly, and much in line with an emphasis on insights, mSurvey created a platform recognizing the opportunity present from the closing digital divide and the potential difficulty in collecting data from remote and diverse audiences. As a result, mSurvey enables businesses, which often thrive on consumer data, to more easily collect it directly from the primary source. And then of course, there’s Bevel. It’s another fantastic example of the strategic use of cultural insights — from the product itself to the community and brand built around it.

The list goes on. Many companies hone in on cultural insights to drive their business strategy and product design, development, and refinement. I think both Ben and Mike would agree that this is good product management.

More interestingly, and arguably disruptive, is the idea that products can proactively be used to catalyze the creation of (new) cultural patterns. The design of these products and platforms are powerful. Companies that embrace this approach may face a great deal of risk, but are rewarded by having a first-mover advantage within an industry. These companies, to an extent, offer society a new modus operandi, and consequently, often a new business model as well. Consider the “trust economy” that is promoted by startups like Airbnb. Airbnb has created an environment that empowers and encourages homeowners to essentially convert their personal living quarters into rentals open to the broader public. This shift in the traditional cultural landscape took us from primarily booking hotels or staying with friends, to a more open, “trust economy” reminiscent of hitchhiker days of the past. Two results of this is that some homeowners have found a new income stream and individuals looking for lodging are offered a more exhaustive set of options in terms of both location and price. The myriad of regulatory challenges that Airbnb faces buttresses the novelty that is associated with the company and the fact that a new culture has emerged.

Mayvenn, another one of our companies, is similarly shaping culture. Traditionally hairstylists are exclusively known to provide a service in the form of…you guessed it, styling hair. Through Mayvenn’s platform, stylists now are able to manage their own inventory, ultimately transitioning from just a service provider to also becoming both the salesperson and distribution channel of hair products for their clients. The same is true for Rent the Runway. The company created a space for women seeking luxury and provided them new access to high-end designers despite having a wallet that would traditionally caution them against acting on these desires. Rent the Runway went beyond the pre-existing clothing donation or consignment shop model to create a product that fits a new market, granting groups of people access to behaviors and norms customarily characteristic of others — a bit of a “cultural transfer”. Other related concepts include co-working spaces, voice-controlled interfaces, and mobile payments. These technologies and the responsible companies have pushed us to incorporate into our daily lives, activities like conversing with smart devices and tapping our phones to complete transactions.

There remains a great amount of opportunity for new startups to shape how we operate and interact through the products they develop. Methodologies for innovation like design thinking can be used to not only extract cultural insights to improve products, but they can also be used to chart new territory — through the technologies and companies built and through ecosystems that are enabled. The growing influence of diverse groups and cultural inputs is defining new trends and new needs, and will ultimately give way to new markets. It is this mindset that underscores the thesis behind Cross Culture Ventures.

When we create to positively leverage or impact culture, we have the propensity to enhance the quality, viability, and desirability of the products and companies we build. I’m excited to see where culture-driven innovation takes us next.

In case you’d like some context to continue the conversation, both my bio and a description of Cross Culture Ventures can be found below.

About Shani Taylor

Shani Taylor is an Associate at Cross Culture Ventures and a full-time graduate student at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science where she is currently pursuing a dual MBA and MS in Design Innovation. Previously, Shani worked as an Investment Associate for Intel Capital’s Diversity Fund, an Intern with Collaborative Fund, and as a Digital Strategist at ICF International.

About Cross Culture Ventures

Cross Culture Ventures is an early stage venture fund that focuses on investing in culturally-driven technology and consumer product companies. The firm employs an agency model platform to maximize the support and value offered to each portfolio company. Cross Culture Ventures benefits from a partnership with Atom Factory, a leading entertainment management organization responsible for the successful careers of Lady Gaga, John Legend, and Meghan Trainor to name a few. Atom Factory is credited with the successful cultural branding of Uber, Lyft and Stance Socks. This partnership enables Cross Culture Ventures to provide differentiated services such as access to global influencers, product development, branding, and technology consulting to its portfolio companies.