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What It Takes to Build a Great Subscription Product

A Conversation with ThriveGlobal CPO Jennifer Mazzon

When a content organization, that offers “products” like news, music, video or learning courses, transitions to subscription pricing, many other changes are required as well. One of the most challenging parts of the transformation is starting to think about the product as the full experience across the entire customer journey — not just the content.

Having the right person running the product team is critical.

Jen Mazzon has played this role in multiple organizations. She has run several subscription product teams over her career, including for Coursera for Business, Education.com, and the original Google Docs team. Now she is running products for Thrive Global, Arianna Huffington’s company. Thrive Global’s mission is to unlock human potential by ending the stress and burnout epidemic, something that is more important now than ever.

The following interview is adapted from my podcast, Subscription Stories: True Tales from the Trenches. This interview was conducted in March, 2020.

Robbie Baxter: Did you set out wanting to be a leading expert on building digital subscription products and membership?

Jennifer Mazzon: Right out of college, I started working at Intuit in the product organization. I was there for over 10 years. And I just I loved it. I kept on doing it. I worked at big companies like Intuit and Google and then lots of smaller startups as well.

Robbie Baxter: It’s an interesting career. And it’s it’s kind of a niche that’s not just product, but really building ongoing relationships with product. In fact, Intuit is kind of the granddaddy of customer-centric technology products.

Jennifer Mazzon: That’s right. It is ingrained in their DNA that it’s all about the customer. There’s a lot of customer research going and visiting customers and a deep, deep understanding of customer needs to have that lifelong relationship with the customer.

Robbie Baxter: So starting at Intuit, did that impact how you thought about product when you went to other companies?

Jennifer Mazzon: It absolutely did, because it all starts with the customer. You have to have that strong customer focus in order to innovate, in order to unlock value for the customer that is going to be differentiating and that they will be excited about that will help you grow your business.

Robbie Baxter: Something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is, you know, different cultures and being customer-centric is like motherhood and apple pie. Nobody is going to say, oh, we don’t care about our customers at all. But we know that there are some companies that are customer-centric and there are some companies that are maybe fail-centric. So really focused on quarterly goals or product-centric, honestly, where the love of the engineer, the love of the person who’s coming up with the content is most important, even more important than what the customer might actually need. Can you talk a little bit about some of the cultures you’ve seen in product?

Jennifer Mazzon: Changing from a transactional to a relationship type of company is really hard to do. I do think you can do it no matter if you’re more technology focused, or sales focused, or what have you. But it does mean that everyone in the company needs to embrace the idea that the customer comes first. There needs to be an investment in that and an understanding of that. Maybe in certain businesses, it makes sense for it to be sales driven because sales is really on the frontlines of understanding those customer needs. And so they’re really critical for product people to partner with and collaborate with to unlock that understanding. In the case of technology, it depends. You know, maybe the technology you’re actually building is for other technologists. One of the companies where I worked and led product at was Apigee. Apigee was a B2B subscription-based business that was a technology platform for developers within organizations. It was later acquired by Google. In that kind of company where you’re building a product and a platform in a service for developers, it makes sense that maybe the developers in the company play a leading role. And in that case, it’s up to the product people to engage with those internal stakeholders and partner with them and co-create. As long as the product organization has that orientation that, no matter where the center of gravity is, that’s closest to the customer, that’s where I will be and that’s where I will be co-creating and and coming up with the product direction plans, then the product team can be successful.

Robbie Baxter: You’re now at Thrive. You describe your mission as being ending the stress and burnout to unlock potential. So if I’m a company, I’m subscribing to your service so that my employees will deal with their stress and burnout so that they can perform better at work. How do you balance the needs of the C, the consumer, with the needs of the B when you’re thinking about how you build this product and what features you provide for each of those two groups?

Jennifer Mazzon: In the last month at Thrive Global we have definitely been focused largely, I would say eighty to ninety percent, on the end user, the consumer themselves. It has been about unlocking the value for them and building capabilities that are going to increase efficacy for the end user. Then there is that ten to twenty percent of effort that you really need to put in to build things that the organization needs in order to deliver your solution to their folks. From my experiences, for example, building Coursera for Business at Coursera. That balance can change over time. So far, the biggest challenge at Thrive Global has been really coming up to speed and keeping pace with the increased customer demand that we’re seeing during these difficult times when obviously stress levels have been really going through the roof for everyone. Since we’re in a crisis, we are trying to promote this notion that committing to building healthy habits is even more important. The emphasis recently has really been on helping people build those healthy habits.

Robbie Baxter: You came in at a crazy time. Tell me what that was like because you had kind of a double whammy. You were you were getting up to speed, moving into an existing product where, you know, you were asked to kind of take on tasks that had been waiting for you. And at the same time, you had this epidemic coming in from left field. So what was it like coming in at the helm of a product team that already had product?

Jennifer Mazzon: It was really exciting because we were actually launching a key new aspect of the platform, which was a new mobile app to our first customer a week later. So it was a great time to come in, literally just before that went out the door. Then subsequently the week after that, we had another really big launch with a strategic customer as well. What’s happened during that time also is the situation with the coronavirus and the global pandemic has continued to get worse and worse. And so, you know, more companies are expressing interest in helping their employees and we’re trying to be there.

Robbie Baxter: Is it fair to say that as an organization you are focusing more on the long term right now as opposed to optimizing for whatever short term goals that you had in place? In other words have you changed anything as a result of the pandemic?

Jennifer Mazzon: We have made a big effort on a short-term initiative of developing a lot of additional microlearning, micro workshop content, micro-steps, which are the little steps you take to develop or have a change, all specific to dealing with this coronavirus crisis. Because in our lifetimes, we’ve never seen anything like this. It really calls for some focused attention. We have done a lot from a content perspective to be very timely to what’s happening. We’re working to deliver that content in ways that will work for our users and customers via our platform. That’s really been the short term focus. So it’s not just we’re not just relying on, hey, this is a product we have and now people need it more. We’re trying to add more customizations and add more specific content to address the needs that people have now.

Robbie Baxter: Many businesses have relaxed their walls during this time, especially those companies that know that their products and services are really needed during this time. For example, Zoom Communications, we’re recording this interview on Zoom, they’ve really relaxed what the freemium subscription holders get. Are there features and functionality that you’re rolling out to the public right now? Or how are you thinking about what should you be giving away for free vs. running a business that needs to answer to shareholders?

Jennifer Mazzon: We’ve done a couple of things to try to make pieces of what we do more accessible and more available. So, for example, we did a quick partnership with Snapchat, making some of our content available to Snapchat users. In the first day, we had over a million views or something insane like that, of the content that we distributed on Snapchat. We’ve also partnered with the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. We have launched a “first responders first” website where we’re helping to take donations for first responders. We’re trying to help through our partnerships and in a broader way as well.

Robbie Baxter: So what are the metrics that your team uses to gauge whether you’re doing a good job, both in this moment where you’ve changed what the rules are, and then more generally? So maybe start with kind of what are your general dashboard metrics as a person running product at a subscription business? And then how, if at all, are you thinking differently or telling your team members to think differently about what their goals are in this time of crisis?

Jennifer Mazzon: In terms of general key performance indicators are key results that we’re looking for. Customer retention is is always number one, I think, for subscription businesses, right? Because, you know, maybe the Google algorithm screws up your SEO and your adoption goes down temporarily. But if your customer retention is solid, you’re still good, like you can weather that temporary downturn while you figure out how to dig yourself out of that adoption snag. So customer retention is, and you talk about this a lot in in your in your first book, Robbie, about how customer retention is really at the heart of any subscription business. And it’s kind of the number one health indicator for the business. And then the next one for Thrive Global as just a general business metric is, of course, just general annual recurring revenue. So that’s the combination of both your net revenue retention from previous customers as well as new. So for a B2C business that’s about your conversion rates and your numbers of new subscriptions. And then the other key performance indicators are really more user focused. User adoption, engagement, and then one that not all businesses have but certainly we did have in the online learning space with Coursera, and Education.com, and also now Thrive Global, is about measuring outcomes. How are users adopting and engaging? What are the actual benefits in their lives that they are reporting?

Robbie Baxter: Are those reports built into the product? So do you ask in the product “Okay, Robbie, you’ve been using this mini module for three weeks. Are you feeling more relaxed?” Or are you taking my pulse, and calling my husband? Is it built into the product or is it kind of outside of the product?

Jennifer Mazzon: We do have it built in. We call them pulse surveys. And actually we’re working on some partnerships with wearables companies so that we can also not only have sort of self-reported, but then also show you, hey, according to your biometrics as recorded by our wearables partner.

Robbie Baxter: That must be fun for product people. Here in Silicon Valley, you know, most of the companies and most of the executives that I know, people like you, have always worked in tech and are working at the cutting edge of tech. But a lot of companies, and I think Thrive is based on the East Coast, what I’ve noticed is companies that are based elsewhere and companies that come out of the media space or come out of the health space or come out of, the academic space, they’re learning that they need to be a technology company. They need product teams, people like you. And it might be worth it to just talk a little bit about what a product team does in a product that’s not explicitly a tech product. I’d love to understand kind of what is the role, as you describe it, and how do you attract the best possible product managers in a highly competitive space where a lot of product people really want to be working at the most techie of the tech companies? So, again, what does product management do? And then how do you make it sexy?

Jennifer Mazzon: So what a product manager does, they partner with designers, data analysts, data scientists and engineers to build product that meets customer needs and solves customer problems and fuels the business. It is fundamentally a role that’s around leadership and collaboration and kind of taking 360 degrees of input from technology, from the business, from customers, from data and co-creating, in collaboration with cross-functional partners, a product that will be differentiating and meet customer needs.

Robbie Baxter: So it’s the actual what we sell, how we sell it. In your case, it’s…

Jennifer Mazzon: It’s a combination of different things. It’s a platform that includes an app, it includes, web-based learning, it includes sort of live workshops that now are virtual but didn’t always used to be that way.

Robbie Baxter: So translating those live experiences. I’ve done a lot of work in the media space, and one thing that really surprised me, I think it was at the Financial Times, that as of last year, they had more product people, more tech people, on their team than journalists. Because, if you use it, you know, there’s an app, it’s online, there’s a digital experience.

Jennifer Mazzon: And then also the input. Product looks at what’s working and what’s not working for users. Then provides that information to other people in the business to help guide strategy for other functions as well.

Robbie Baxter: So you’re building product, product for the customers, both sets of customers now that we’ve talked about. The end users, the employees of the company, and the company that wants to see outcomes and wants it to be easy to deploy to make it available to their teams. And then on the other side, you’re actually making products that support the business. So you said, you know, we’re trying to create things that help with the outcome. It’s not just outcomes for your customers. It’s outcomes for your colleagues as well.

Jennifer Mazzon: That’s right. So, for example, often it is the product team that is working with designers and engineers and data scientists, not only on the customer facing product, but also on internal tools, which may include, for example, content management systems and, you know, data dashboards that help actually guide the business going forward.

Robbie Baxter: It’s really interesting. So how do you attract people to Thrive? Is it the mission? Is it the way you run product as a technical person? Is it being part of a subscription business? What makes people’s eyes light up, at least the people that you want?

Jennifer Mazzon: I think you can attract great product people in three key ways, and one of them is certainly with your mission. That’s a big part of it. You know, different people are attracted to different missions. So it’s either going to attract them or repel them, which is good. You know, you want to attract the people who are going to be successful and committed to your business. The second way is with your team. And that was certainly the case with me joining Thrive. I was really looking for a dream team experience at the executive level. And I think it’s critical to look for a dream team and to really, through the process of talking with a company, think strongly about whether you want to spend every day with these people. Do you really love talking with these people? I think that’s important. Again, that’s going to be either an attractant or repellent, like either you’re going to feel it or you’re not.

Robbie Baxter: And I think especially in companies that have a very strong culture and, you know, sometimes when companies are growing, they want to just say, well, we’re a great place to work for anybody because we’re cool people and we do cool stuff. That’s about as explicit as they are. And it seems like Thrive has such a clear mission and such a strong culture that somebody would walk in and say, “Oh, wow, this is not a tech driven place. This is a mission driven place. And that’s not what I want.”

Jennifer Mazzon: I’d say that, the third thing that is really critical to attract great product people, and it’s not so much having it be tech-centric, but it’s all great product people love big, complex, hairy challenges. Challenges that are going to make them learn and grow in new ways. So you may not be a “tech-centric” organization, but pitch the problems that your company is trying to solve. If you’re trying to engineer, pitch the technical problems, if you’re product, pitch the customer problems that you’re trying to solve. All great product people will be attracted to those kind of problems. Now, again, it could be a little bit of an attractant/repellent in the sense that if someone’s like, “Oh, you know what? What you just described, I’ve like solve those problems at three different companies already. So, you know, I need to find something new.” Or maybe the person will be like, “You know what? I touched on that problem a little bit and I’d like to spend more time on it. I know I could learn and grow doing that.” The other key is pitch the problems and the hairier and more challenging they are, the more you will attract people.

Robbie Baxter: Do you think that what makes a good product manager in a subscription business is different than what makes a good product manager in, as we talked about, a more of a product-centric or sales-centric kind of a business that has more of a transactional sales cycle?

Jennifer Mazzon: I think the best practices of product development really do apply equally to subscription products and other kinds of products. But I think in subscription products, your customer community plays a much more active role in participating in the product direction. And that’s actually one of the points you make in your first book as well, Robbie, to get to know your super users very well. To understand what makes them super users and create ways to get more of your customers, to use your product in similar ways and get maximum value from your product, as the super users do. So I think that having an active customer community can play a big role in that whole process. And product managers who maybe have worked with other kinds of products, that may not be intuitive to them. They may not realize that, they may not unlock that, or focus on that.

Robbie Baxter: I’ve seen some knockdown, drag out fights between product teams and other parts of the organization, not not to go too into a dark place, but I’ve seen things about product teams that want to sell by the movie, by the course, by the day, by the week, by the size, versus a subscription all included. I’ve seen product teams that want to have transactional and subscription revenue to give different options. I’ve seen product teams that want to work on what I call headline benefits, as opposed to engagement and retention benefits. There are benefits that trigger someone to join. And then there are benefits and features that are built in to engage in and provide ongoing value. And some companies really love those sexy headlines. How do you collaborate with the rest of the organization, make the voice of the product team heard and do what’s right for the business?

Jennifer Mazzon: I think the number one thing is to bring the voice of the customer into the conversation.

Robbie Baxter: How do you do that at Thrive? Or how have you done that in other organizations?

Jennifer Mazzon: It’s literally through interacting with users, doing user testing, analyzing the data of how users are actually engaging. And a lot of that can be through A/B tests. You can experiment with a lot of the different facets. And of course, that’s a lot easier in B2C businesses than B2B businesses, but it can also be done with B2B. At Coursera we tested our way into a change of strategy, which was in the early days. We were focusing our B2B offering on kind of big customers and we had this lead generation form and most of the lead gen submissions were from much smaller companies that would never be worthwhile for the sales team to spend time with. And so, we took a little time, but we eventually were able to convince the sales team that it’s OK, we can create a self serve purchase experience so that small organizations can also, you know, benefit from the offering without having channel conflict with their sales.

Robbie Baxter: It sounds like if the whole leadership team is truly focused on the customer data, that everybody first agrees that that’s how you make decisions, and second, that you have good quality data to make those decisions from, then the answers present themselves.

Jennifer Mazzon: The other thing that has to be true is that everyone is aligning on the Why. The higher order of what are those KPIs that we were talking about before? What are those top level goals and objectives that the company is going after? As long as you have alignment with the goals and everyone is in agreement about those, and then you bring the voice of the customer in and you have a compelling argument in terms of, hey, we can mitigate risk by doing an experiment here and it’s an A/B test. That’s a successful way to try new things.

Robbie Baxter: So you’ve worked in businesses where subscriptions are a new thing, an underinvested tactic. How do you convert the leadership team culture to a member mindset?

Jennifer Mazzon: That’s a tricky one. I think it comes down to the goals of the business and showing the lifetime value of the recurring customer and that ongoing relationship vs. the single transaction. You have to show it in the numbers. It can’t be just, philosophically, this is better. No, it has to work for the fundamentals of the business.

Robbie Baxter: I want you to give advice to entrepreneurs and executives, first as a product team leader at the executive team running a subscription business. If somebody were stepping into that role and they hadn’t done it before. What’s your advice?

Jennifer Mazzon: My number one piece of advice is to go out and talk to your customers. So, for example, if this is a B2B company, I would say start going on sales calls. Start going with your customer success team, start attending quarterly business reviews, start using your own darn product. Just get really close to the customer right off the bat. Also get to know your cross-functional partners. The quality of your collaboration with your cross-functional partners in the company will, to a large degree, determine the success of your efforts. You have to have so much trust and communication and treat them as part of your team. People make mistakes when they focus only on the product team and getting it up and running well. And meanwhile, the rest of the company is wondering what is going on. Sometimes product and engineering together are a bit of a black box for other cross-functional teams within the company. A lot of people don’t understand how the sausage gets made. And it’s not easy to explain. And frankly, even if you explain it, you’re not going to understand it. You kind of have to go through it and nobody else is ever going to go through it. I think it’s the role of the product leader to be really transparent and make sure that people don’t feel like they don’t know what product is doing.

Robbie Baxter: What is your advice for a senior team member working with a product person? How do they deal with the black box, especially for subscription entrepreneurs who may be very mission driven and don’t really know a lot about how the sausage gets made? I think by which you mean how the technology team decides, prioritizes what features, what functionality, what’s possible, what’s not possible, how long it’s going to take, how it’s gonna be designed, what other kinds of technologies have to be purchased from the outside versus developed internally? There’s a million details that go into it. It’s important to collaborate and you gave a lot of great examples of how you as the product person try to collaborate well with sales, customer success, marketing. What about the other way? How should somebody reach out to you?

Jennifer Mazzon: One thing to do is seek to understand. If your product leader is is telling you something and you’re like thinking in your head, “I don’t understand this. Why is it that way?” Just open your mouth and ask. Try to engage in that conversation and participate in that demystification process. And then the other piece of advice, I would say, is that often I think leaders get into this thing of like, OK, well, how long is it going to take to deliver X? We have to launch customer Y, you know, how long do we have to take? And so they get an answer and then they feel frustrated because it’s typically longer than they want. I think going back to product engineering leaders and not saying, you know, what is it going to take? Not saying something like, hey what is it going to take to do it in, one week less or, you know, launch sooner. Instead, clarify the priority of what you’re talking about and tell them to think about what resources they need, what help they need to accelerate that timeline. Think about it. Talk about it and come back and bring me a proposal. And let’s see if we can do it. Let’s see if we can support that accelerated timeline. That’s a conversation that I have had with Arianna, multiple times in my first month. I appreciate the leadership she demonstrates and how she approaches that conversation and makes it about, hey, how can I support you so that we can achieve a better, more timely outcome for our customers.

Robbie Baxter: OK. First subscription you ever had?

Jennifer Mazzon: I think the first subscription that I ever had was actually a payroll subscription at Intuit. It was a quick books payroll subscription service that I worked on.

Robbie Baxter: Favorite subscription you’ve ever personally used?

Jennifer Mazzon: I think I have to say Spotify.

Robbie Baxter: What is your superpower? Your professional superpower?

Jennifer Mazzon: My professional superpower, I would say really is my growth mindset and my ability to collaborate effectively.

Robbie Baxter: What do your employees love about working with you and hate about working with you?

Jennifer Mazzon: Employees really like my energy and my ability to help make order out of chaos. What do they hate about working with me? I got this feedback from a junior PM at my previous company. In my high energy way, I can sometimes inadvertently sort of freak people out. They feel a little bit sort of deer in the headlights pressure when I’m asking them questions about what they’re doing. So that’s something that I need to gauge. Once you get to be a chief product officer, you’re gonna have to say, OK, how should I approach this person in a way that won’t blow them over?

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Robbie K Baxter

Robbie K Baxter

Author of THE FOREVER TRANSACTION & THE MEMBERSHIP ECONOMY; Leading expert on membership models and subscription pricing. http://www.robbiekellmanbaxter.com