Product Management: Insight through uncorrelated data

In my opinion, one of the hardest parts of product and general management is drawing insight from the right sources to determine ‘product health’ to identify where to focus, especially when managing multiple product lines.

In my experience I try pull data from three independant, uncorrelated sources to inform where I should focus my effort – the data, the team, and the users:

  • Data: Design dashboards that give you the metrics at the right level of detail on a daily/weekly/monthly/quarterly basis. Be able to translate data into concrete hypotheses and insights. 
  • Team: The general manager (GM) or product lead of the business is your main source of information, but make sure to spend time with team members and other functional leads as well, so you can validate/invalidate what you hear from the GM. The broader team is also an incredibly strong resource for ideas for new features. 
  • Users & Customer Service (CS): It’s important to maintain empathy/understanding of your customers, even when you’re a step removed from the product.
    • On a regular cadence (e.g. weekly), spend time reading user reviews, blogs, forum posts etc.
    • Get quantitative and qualitative information from the CS team about what users are saying about your products over customer service channels, either through a short meeting, or a list of top 5-10 issues each week.
    • Spend time actually interacting with customers, and responding to them (directly or on forums for example).

Tips on startup decks and pitching

I’ve been investing in startups across the globe for the last 10 years and seen a lot of pitch decks that vary significantly in quality.

Particularly when you come from a ‘non-traditional background’ or are an entrepreneur in an emerging market it’s a source of differentiation to have a high quality deck for investors.

Here are a few of my favourite resources for entrepreneurs which are a mix of practical advice and inspiration:

Sequoia Capital Deck Template: https://www.sequoiacap.com/article/writing-a-business-plan/

What investors actually spend time looking at in decks: https://techcrunch.com/2015/06/08/lessons-from-a-study-of-perfect-pitch-decks-vcs-spend-an-average-of-3-minutes-44-seconds-on-them/

Startup pitch deck examples from successful companies (for inspiration):  https://piktochart.com/blog/startup-pitch-decks-what-you-can-learn/

Long list of startup pitch decks:  https://airtable.com/universe/expHzpGe2PKOJcsJ6/startup-pitch-decks?explore=true

During your actual pitch I always like to learn about the ‘why’ of the founding story (authenticity and energy help a lot), and it also helps to be on top of all the important metrics and growth rates.

This tends to separate the good from the great founders during the fundraising process.

My top 5 products of 2018

I wanted to share my top 5 favourite products and services of 2018:

Google Fi: Google Fi is Google’s new wireless carrier, which has replaced AT&T for me (without changing my #) for the last 3 months on my iPhone. If you live in the US and travel internationally regularly, this is a no brainer because they don’t charge extra for international data — I think this it will save me $400 every year on my phone bill. The best features of Google Fi are:

  1. Travel: Pay as you go data in 140 countries so you don’t have to procure and change sims which can be a hassle especially in Asia and Africa
  2. Cost: Charges on data are capped (no charge after 6GB), which means the most you can spend in a month is $80. ($10 per GB + $20 line rental)
  3. Flexibility: You can pause/cancel your account whenever you want or add free data-only sim cards for other devices.

Peloton ($2k-ish): Peloton is an expensive indoor spin bike with a tablet on it. The bike is really well made and super quiet, the classes are great, and there are lots of stats (for those of us who care) so you can track your improvement over time. The best thing about it is that you can work out even if you only have a short window as it’s on your schedule vs. spin classes where you are at the mercy of the studio’s schedule.

Airpods ($160): If you have an iPhone you should get Airpods — I think they are the best product Apple has released in the last 5 years. I use them for every single call I take, and can’t remember the last time I held my phone to my ear for a scheduled call. The dual mics improve the call quality, your hands are free to take notes, the battery life is great, and they just work (without a ton of fiddling like most other wireless headphones).

Note: Some people have trouble with them falling out when using them for sport so make sure and try them out before buying.

One Night Ultimate Werewolf ($15): This is my favourite game with friends at home. It’s a more structured, shorter version of Mafia and two groups (villagers and werewolves) are assigned secret roles and then need to figure out who are their enemies and their allies. It’s got elements of logical deduction, teamwork and deception and it’s a ton of fun.

Eagle Creek Pack-it Cubes ($45): If you travel a lot, these are really great for separating out items in your bag without really adding any extra weight. It’s easier to find your stuff, keeps your clothes less wrinkled, and protects them if something accidentally leaks. They are also useful as laundry bags (although I always carry a dedicated one).

Personal Goal Setting and Living Deliberately

December 2018

I wanted to share my personal process for goal setting and living more deliberately, that I’ve been doing for the last 8 years. I always do it around this time of the year so thought it was a timely moment to share 🙂

My objective in life is to maximise both long term happiness and purposewhich, although is a generic statement, is a common objective for most people in the world. This objective is very hard to achieve without breaking it down into small, actionable pieces, much like personal OKRs.

I break this objective into 5 ‘pillars’:

  1. Family/Friends
  2. Partner
  3. Health
  4. Career
  5. Hobbies/Leisure

For the last 8 years, I’ve gone through this process at the same time each year (between Christmas and the New Year) and conduct a half-year and end-of-year check in where I rate myself from 1–3 on each goal (1 is good and 3 is bad).

Here is a screenshot from the google doc template that I use:

Please feel free to use the template for yourself (by creating a copy), and do share any feedback.

When I first started this process, I realized that I was bad at both setting the right goals, and having an actionable process to be able to hit my goals. Over the years I’ve improved at setting goals (mostly by setting more achievable goals) and now have a system to make sure that I am focused on 3–5 things each month/week/day that allow me to make progress towards each goal. Very practically, I have a persistent to-do list and a set of monthly goals in Evernote and before I go to sleep I slot tasks/reminders for the following day into my calendar to make sure I get them done.

For example, if I have an objective to be more informed about the world, and I’ve set the goal to read the Economist weekly I will create a recurring weekly meeting in my calendar at the same time (Sunday at 8pm) to sit down and read it.

Overall, I find it’s really helped me improve the quality of my life and be more deliberate about how I live on a day to day basis, and I’d highly recommend you try it!

Investor updates for startups

I’ve invested in about 30 companies over the last 6 years and received a lot of different investor updates. Some companies send few, sporadic (often too detailed), updates whereas others send updates with a fixed structure and on a predictable schedule.

I think the sweet spot for many micro vcs with a portfolio is quarterly updates which arrive on a predictable schedule – e.g. 2 Mondays after the end of Quarter. Founders who update investors on a predictable schedule generally build better companies, in my experience, as there is a correlation with discipline and organization.

Here is my suggested template for sending updates, although this is not meant to be prescriptive and more to summarize the bases covered:

Many startups often miss the ‘Metrics’ section and I think this is the area where most could benefit for improving their reporting.

Template (Quarterly)

Summary

  • Key milestones hit/missed
  • Important takeaways

Highlights

  • Limit to <5 bullet points
  • New customers, product wins, critical hires, geographical expansion

Lowlights

  • Limit to <5 bullet points
  • Lost customers, product failures, lost employees

Metrics

  • Consumer: DAU/MAU, Revenue, Retention/Churn Metric, Employees, Cash, and Burn Rate
  • Enterprise: # of customers, Revenue, New customers, Sales pipeline, Employees, Cash and Burn Rate
  • I recommend showing the same metrics in a table Quarterly and then highlighting YoY and QoQ growth

Product

  • New features or products shipped and a short summary of their impact / future impact

Team

  • New hires / team changes

Other

  • Anything that is not covered by the sections above e.g. Press coverage

Fundraising

  • If fundraising add this section to show progress / any key milestones
  • Also useful for converting existing investors for additional funding

Help

  • Specific intros to investors or potential customers generally yield the best results

I know some founders feel like these updates don’t do noticed but I read every single once of the updates I get from founders, even when I don’t reply.

New Products in Remittances

The current business model for remittances will become obsolete in the long term – margins from transfer fees and fx is going to decrease as both the underlying payment rails get cheaper, competition intensifies and new technology (e.g. blockchain) creates new mediums for international money transfer (e.g. Telgram ICO, Sureremt RMT tokens)

Customers will switch if cheaper, faster, secure alternatives emerge that can gain consumer trust. I hear from remittance providers that they have extremely good customer retention, but most have been the services that customers are switching to because they provide a step function better customer experience.

Existing remittance businesses are not going to cover operational costs at super thin margins and entrants like messaging apps with no customer acquisition cost and no requirement for profit beyond retention in their apps (Whatsapp, WeChat) will kill all small remittance startups as well as inefficient, expensive incumbents (e.g. Moneygram, Western Union)

In order to grow revenue existing remittance firms will need to leverage their unique knowledge of the sender->receiver relationship to retain their customers better, and make higher margins per dollar transferred. I think this will require significant product innovation – e.g.

  • Bill Pay – will drive customer retention because of the monthly payment cadence for bills, will improve monetisation as receiving companies (e.g. tv company or water company) will often pay a commission of a few % and the remittance provider can also batch transactions to pay many bills at the same time reducing the cost of each transaction
  • Credit – remittance companies can use historical remittance data to lever up a remittance in shock – e.g. family death or a medical bill, and then the sender can pay the remittance business back over time vs. the receiver who would not qualify or credit or get credit on much worse terms (note: this requires lots of new licenses which is a large barrier to entry)
  • Savings – if remittance companies know what receivers are going to buy and when they plan to buy the product, they can monetize it through referrals or asset finance

The remittance companies that are best placed to execute on this already have users in their platform. They will need to track retention of customers to make sure they are not losing these customers to alternatives, and then invest in new products and transfer methods to drive retention and better monetization.

Kenya – entrepreneurship, funding, and technology

Note: I wrote this about 9 months ago after spending most of 2015 living and working in Nairobi. I have had enough people express interest in reading my notes that I thought I would share broadly.

Summary

  • I lived Kenya over the last 6 months and left feeling inspired. I believe there is tremendous opportunity for awesome entrepreneurs to build products for the East African market. In particular, I would be well suited to focus on something that bridges the gap between the West and Africa 
  • There is a lot of raw talent, fundamental problems that need solving, and plenty of enthusiasm and excitement around building technology companies
  • There are few excellent company builders / focused executors and a lack of a proper seed/venture firm or decent incubator. ‘A’ level entrepreneurs (silicon valley, local or elsewhere) who have built a successful business are sparse
  • Access to seed and early stage capital is difficult and the fundraising process is suboptimal due to the lack of proper local vc funds which leads to entrepreneurs chasing short term revenue and lack of focus on the long term objective – funding/focus is a chicken/egg problem

Startups and Entrepreneurs

  • Entrepreneurs are hungry, have lots of enthusiasm and there is a plenty of excitement in young talent who want to build something awesome.
  • Startups are solving fundamental issues vs. incremental issues in the west –  access to good education, electricity, health care and phone/internet. There are opportunities to build on top of these solutions or provide additional products and services that are already mainstream in the west – I’m particularly excited about financial services.
  • Entrepreneurs often have their fingers in lots of pies, can be distracted by too many ventures, and seem to be doing too much with too little capital and too few people. This leads to lots of half-formed businesses versus a few well built ones
    • Chasing (short term) revenue is required to grow businesses here due to lack of access to capital for early stage businesses
    • This is partly due to the opportunistic nature of working in Kenya, and more commonplace with local entrepreneurs
  • Entrepreneurs lack role models in the community that they can get mentorship from who can help them with product strategy, marketing, assembling the right team, raising funding, and scaling the business. Some missing pieces:
    • Best in class experience – understanding of what ‘great’ looks like
    • Successful Kenyan technology entrepreneurs – groups of people who have built and exited an excellent businesses in Kenya (or East Africa)
  • Foreign entrepreneurs are met with mixed feelings especially when it’s believed that they are only in Kenya for a fixed period of time. I believe that foreign entrepreneurs can add a lot of value by mentoring local talent especially if they have best in class global experience and hire local teams

Investment – Venture Capital / Incubators

  • Local funds either have very little capital to deploy or strict mandates about where they can deploy their capital because of conditions stipulated by their LPs – leads to defocusing in startups
  • Entrepreneurs looking to raise small seed rounds have a few options:
    • Raise capital from local angels who are not often sophisticated investors and often don’t understand what they are signing up for
    • Raise money as grants or from funds (with LPs who have strict investment criteria) and these come with conditions that often result in unnecessary/unhelpful changes in strategy
    • Go on long (many month) investment trips across Europe and USA which are also usually an uphill battle and often result in small ticket angels vs. larger funds
  • This current fundraising process feels inefficient and distracts entrepreneurs from focusing on their product and company from both a time and strategy perspective
  • Local incubators have unfriendly terms for entrepreneurs and are not run by successful entrepreneurs or investors
    • Incubators typically have many companies vs. a few companies with lots of mentorship and focus
    • $25k investment for 15-25% of the company plus terms which are not founder friendly e.g. ratchets, clawbacks, pushing to early exit
    • Many incubators have shut down their program as they could not find enough quality companies – I think this is in part due to the fact that they were going for scale vs. focused set of companies
  • Grant funding can be disruptive and distracting – companies are incentivised to abandon their vision in the ‘short term’ (to get the grant) and end up building a frankenstein company with multiple focuses which is hurtful in the long term

Working in Kenya – personal learnings

  • Talent gap still pretty significant (orders of magnitude worse than Silicon Valley, which is not surprising) although there is thirst for learning and a no lack of young people who are not afraid to work very hard
  • Mid-Skill workers care more about job protection than innovating and often see change/removing things from their plate as scary – will they lose their job, or not be good at the new thing we need them to do
  • Micromanagement is necessary to make progress – you can’t just email people and expect stuff to get done. There is constant checking in and auditing of people’s work. The level of trust still does not exist at the same level as working with ‘A’ level talent in a place like San Francisco
  • My decision point is between spending my time training, teaching and mentoring in East Africa or or serve this market from abroad (with an already high performing team) and travel back and forth as needed
  • Local:
    • Pros: Close to market – context, people, can really help mentor, market changing fast, partnerships easier
    • Cons: spending time on micromanagement v.s solving hard problems, personal life issues, quality of life
  • Foreign:
    • Pros: Better team quality, valuations, exit options, potential to build global business
    • Cons: not close to customers, coordination overhead, travel burden, missing important things