Design & Media

Gear: Hub City Vintage Watch Rolls

People who know me know that I’ve recently picked up a really bad case of watch fever. Hopefully it’s not terminal, but it’s bad enough that, over the past year, I’ve accumulated enough watches to need a way to safely house and transport them all. To that end, I recently purchased something called a watch roll from a fantastic company out of South Carolina called Hub City Vintage. And I liked that first roll so much that I went ahead and purchased two more.

My experience with the Hub City Vintage family of watch rolls inspired me to create this video review. Give it a click if you’d like to learn more about watch rolls, discover why the watch lover in your life might need one, and why I think the Hub City Vintage family of watch rolls is perfect for the type of person who, like me, never thought they’d find themselves buying a watch roll.

Oh, and I think it’s worth mentioning that Hub City Vintage watch rolls are all handmade in the USA, all feature 100-percent natural materials, and can all be spec’d as fully vegan products. This is really rare in the watch roll space, which is filled with products that rely heavily on leather or microfiber synthetics. If this is important to you, definitely give HCV’s family of watch rolls a look

Links referenced in the video:

    WTF is a product manager?: Follow-up, part one...

    I received way more feedback to my post explaining what exactly a product manager does than I had anticipated—a huge thank you to everyone who took the time to share thoughts, feedback and questions.

    And speaking of questions, there were lots of good ones, the majority of which touched on a few recurring themes. I had originally intended to post one all encompassing follow-up in which I addressed each of them, but, given how long it’s taken me to get through just one answer, I decided to go ahead and publish my responses piecemeal. Apologies for the glacial pace of my replies!

    Before diving into my first piece of follow-up, however, I wanted to share two film recommendations as we head into the weekend. The first, which is still in theaters, is called BALLET 422 and it “takes us backstage at the New York City Ballet as Justin Peck, a young up-and-coming choreographer, crafts a new work.”

    I’ve never been a particularly big fan of ballet, but I found this film exhilarating, both in its depiction of the remarkable artistry and athleticism of the dancers, and in the way it captures the process of creation: its loneliness, its conflicts, its demands for partnership and its glorious moments of shared discovery. I think anyone working in product management will see parallels with their world and may come away with learnings that can be applied to their day jobs, particularly around the ability to balance individual vision and group collaboration.

     If you’re a product manager in search of filmic inspiration this weekend, I’d strongly suggest  BALLET 422 , which is  in theaters now , and  Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview , which is  available on Netflix streaming . Images from  BALLET 422  (left) and  Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview  (right).

    If you’re a product manager in search of filmic inspiration this weekend, I’d strongly suggest BALLET 422, which is in theaters now, and Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview, which is available on Netflix streaming. Images from BALLET 422 (left) and Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview (right).

    The second film is Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview. Though it hit theaters in the wake of Steve Jobs’ death in late 2011, the interview in question actually took place in 1996. The interviewer, Robert X. Cringely, captures his subject at a unique moment in time, when Jobs—who was never one for retrospection—was willing to talk candidly about his history at Apple, and the formative experiences that shaped his views on product creation, technology and leadership. What’s remarkable, given how long ago the interview took place, is how timely it remains in content, if not in video quality. Unfortunately, Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview is no longer available for purchase via any of the leading digital media services, but it is available for streaming on Netflix.

    Okay, so on to follow-up, part one...

    This is a really interesting question from Ryan Singer at Basecamp, formerly known as 37signals (my old stomping grounds!).

    For people who’ve only ever worked at start-ups or very small companies, the answer may seem self-evident: If you need resources you ask the founder, and he or she will give you a yea or nay right then and there. But for anyone who’s worked at a larger firm—whether that firm deals in bits or in bolts—Ryan’s question will no doubt conjure dark memories of the Rube Goldberg-esque organizational apparatus nestled at the heart of most megacorps.

    I have plenty of stories I could share about navigating that maze, but that’s another topic for another time. Getting back to Ryan’s question, I’ll start with the first half: The force that most frequently constrains a product manager—from above or otherwise—is inertia. This is because most individuals dislike change and, barring a strong opposing force from above, this individual antipathy seeps into a corporations broader culture, smothering any inclination towards innovation.

    Even in companies with a history of risk-taking, it can be incredibly difficult to get a new idea over the top. That’s because, while many people love to talk about innovation and taking chances, very few have the courage to act when that action might jeopardize their personal financial security or career prospects. It’s also true that there are simply a lot of fucking intellectually lazy people in the world who can’t be bothered to learn anything new.

    Sadly, our culture gives these people plenty of cover: Expressions like “Don’t rock the boat,” and “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” and “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” cloak inaction under a veneer of wisdom. But these bromides no longer hold water—I never thought I’d quote Mark Zuckerberg, but he’s spoken powerfully on this topic and, critically, has shown a willingness to back up his words with actions:

    “The biggest risk is not taking any risk... In a world that’s changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.”

    It’s important to emphasize that I’m not suggesting companies take risks willy-nilly. As someone who co-managed a micro start-up in 37signals, I know that everything a company does comes with very real costs in time, attention and capital. And, as someone who’s managed multi-million unit product lines at Nike, I’m well aware that product leaders must thoroughly consider the pros and cons of any potential opportunity before acting. But too many companies today are in perpetual harvest mode, seeking to eek out every last drop of value from existing products and processes before investing in better, higher value solutions.

     Spend any time studying Apple’s product cycles and it quickly becomes evident that the company maintains a highly structured approach to its cadence of evolutionary and revolutionary updates. The strong sales of established lines enables investment in new, high-risk products that start at low volumes, but grow to subsume previously established franchises. Their offset invest/harvest/divest cadence also helps to mitigate any downside impacts associated with weaker-than-anticipated adoption within any one product line. This willingness to invest in new concepts and, just as importantly, divest of older ones, is a critical contributor to Apple’s continued success in the hyper-competitive consumer electronics space.

    Spend any time studying Apple’s product cycles and it quickly becomes evident that the company maintains a highly structured approach to its cadence of evolutionary and revolutionary updates. The strong sales of established lines enables investment in new, high-risk products that start at low volumes, but grow to subsume previously established franchises. Their offset invest/harvest/divest cadence also helps to mitigate any downside impacts associated with weaker-than-anticipated adoption within any one product line. This willingness to invest in new concepts and, just as importantly, divest of older ones, is a critical contributor to Apple’s continued success in the hyper-competitive consumer electronics space.

    The problem with this seemingly prudent approach is that, by the time they’re done sucking blood from their precious stones, the marketplace has moved on and left these risk averse companies in the dust. Just ask the folks at Kodak or Blockbuster how well a strategy of perpetual harvest (the corporate euphemism for this is, “we’re focusing on our core businesses”) worked out for them. And yet, though cautionary tales illustrating the risk of not taking risks abound, sticking with the status quo remains the default mode within most organizations.

    This may lead you to ask a new question, namely, how can I convince my company to be more open to risk? This has become a popular topic amongst business journalists and management consultants in recent years, with leading players like Accenture, The Economist, Harvard Business Review and McKinsey devoting much brainpower to the discovery of an answer. I know this is going to sound defeatist, but, in my experience, if a company’s leadership doesn’t already have a healthy appetite for risk, no amount of kicking, screaming or reasoned argument from below will be sufficient to effect change. As such, my advice to those who feel consistently hamstrung by organizational inertia is to find a new job at a company that’s shown a willingness to take smart chances or take the plunge and start a company of your own.

    Now for the second part of Ryan’s question: How do products get resources? The specifics will vary from company to company, but the CliffsNotes version is pretty straightforward: Make a compelling case for your product.

    In some companies this will entail lots of quantitative research, such as data on historical sales of related products, sales or usage trends across your broader market or important behavioral trends. For example, during my time in the ad world, my team successfully persuaded a large client to pursue a big-budget second-screen marketing campaign based in large part on behavioral research showing that second-screen viewing was exploding in popularity amongst their target audience. This supporting data gave our client the confidence to fund what was initially viewed as a risky proposition, and their return was an innovative campaign that delivered engagement levels far beyond industry norms.

    Oftentimes, however, you’ll need a blend of facts and feelings to get a new product concept funded. For instance, at Nike, a pearl of wisdom from Phil Knight that anyone involved in product creation lives by is: “Always listen to the voice of the athlete.” This maxim is part of the bedrock of the company’s culture, so qualitative feedback from athletes (i.e. customers) holds tremendous sway at the Swoosh—much more so than it would at a more analytically driven company, such as Google. But, that being said, in order to get the highly unconventional Nike LunarGlide+ running shoe concept through the company’s organizational matrix, I had to buttress the positive feedback we received from early focus groups and wear tests with copious data on marketplace trends, as well as findings from our Sport Research Lab, which showed that the shoe offered quantitatively unique performance benefits.

    You may be surprised to learn that there was no product manager’s handbook at Nike that walked me through the steps to success. Perhaps at some companies there is, but my experience tells me that it wouldn’t have been much use anyway, because I’ve yet to see two product creation scenarios play out in precisely the same way. I think this ability to empathize with and address the needs, questions and doubts of internal stakeholders is as crucial to the success of a product manager as is his or her ability to empathize with and address the needs of prospective customers. Because, if you can’t do the former, you’ll never get the opportunity to deliver on the latter.

    I hope this helps and, as ever, let’s keep the conversation going on Twitter @edotkim.

    WTF is a product manager?

    It’s a good question. Before joining Nike back in 2007 as a product line manager, or PLM, within the company’s Running Footwear category, I had no idea that such a job existed. What a designer does is pretty straightforward: he or she designs a product, which includes a strong say into how that product works. What an engineer or developer does is also largely self-evident: he or she figures out the best way to realize a product concept, whether it’s with bits or with bolts. But a product manager: WTF?

     My business card from my first stint at Nike, during which I served as a global product line manager, or PLM, in the company’s Running Footwear category. FYI: My phone number has changed since this card was issued—if you want to get in touch, the best way to reach me is on Twitter  @edotkim .

    My business card from my first stint at Nike, during which I served as a global product line manager, or PLM, in the company’s Running Footwear category. FYI: My phone number has changed since this card was issued—if you want to get in touch, the best way to reach me is on Twitter @edotkim.

    Before diving in, I should note that this piece is based largely on my experiences at Nike. But my years in the digital design and advertising worlds gives me the confidence to say that the description below applies across industries, and spans the digital/linear divide as well. In other words, the broad strokes of what I describe below are as applicable to a product manager at a physical goods company, such as Proctor & Gamble, as they are to a product manager at a digital goods company, such as Twitter.

    Okay, so if a designer designs and a developer develops, what does a product manager do? The most succinct answer I can give is this: A product manager defines the job that a product must do in order to succeed.

    What does this entail? Usually, this definition is captured in the form of a brief, which defines the what of the job, along with relevant information regarding the target audience, context on market positioning and an indication of success measures (e.g. brand impact, sales, downloads, engagement, etc.).

    Critically, what a good brief does not do is address the how of the job. That’s because any good product manager recognizes that the how must be left to the designer and developer to define. This is an enormous oversimplification, but one way to think about this is that the product manager outlines a job opportunity in the form of a question—e.g. Can we solve problem X for customer Y?—and the designer and developer apply their domain expertise towards answering that question in the most compelling way possible.

    An example I’ve used in the past is that the designers and developers at Nike are so good that they could create a shoe that looks like a boat, yet still offers the performance and comfort of cutting edge athletic footwear. But if it turns out that there’s no market for shoes that look like boats, that product would fail—regardless of its beauty or functionality. In short, it doesn’t matter if the answer is right if the question you set out to answer is wrong. It’s the job of the product manager to ensure that the product team is working to answer the right question(s).

    +++

    Now, a question you may be asking at this point is: Does a company really need a person dedicated to the product manager role? Couldn’t a designer or developer figure out the job that their product must do on their own? Well, yes and no.

    Say you’re a very small operation with an equally small product line that doesn’t change very often—for example, the boutique watchmaker Autodromo, which introduces just one new product per year. In such cases it’s often necessary for staffers to wear multiple hats, and it’s also very often the case that people who start passion projects like Autodromo enter into such endeavors with a clear preconception of the products they intend to create. A dedicated product manager would be superfluous in this context.

    But then you have bigger companies—e.g. Nike, Apple, Facebook, et al.—that offer a wider range of products, in higher volumes and in fast moving industries. In such cases, if a designer or developer were to try to keep up with all of the inputs underpinning the job that their product must do on a version-by-version basis, he or she wouldn’t have any time left to design or develop. It’s in these contexts that a dedicated product manager becomes essential.

    Before moving on, I’d like to dispel a couple of common misperceptions about the product manager role. First, the product manager doesn’t simply hand-off a product brief and then kick up his or her heels until the designer and developer come back with a concept. Creating a product is an iterative process—a path that seems promising one day may prove to be a blind alley the next, and it’s not unusual for a team to debate the core tenets of a brief well into this journey. A good product manager will remain engaged from start to finish, answering questions as they arise, re-assessing assumptions when warranted and doing whatever it takes to get his or her team the resources they need to effectively deliver on the brief.

    On the flip side, the designer and developer aren’t just passive consumers of the product manager’s brief. In every successful project I’ve been part of, the ultimate product brief was created in collaboration with my teammates in design and development. As noted above, it’s impractical to expect the designer or developer to keep up with markets and user needs to the degree that a product manager must, but it is imperative that the designer and developer believe the core question they’re being asked to answer is the right one. And the best way I’ve found to cultivate this shared belief is to formulate that question in partnership with the people who will be asked to answer it.

    +++

    Okay, so a product manager defines the job that a product must do in order to succeed, and his or her primary deliverable is a product brief. What kind of knowledge base is required to deliver on these responsibilities? I’m glad you asked. The product manager role demands expertise across a few key domains, as illustrated below:

     The product manager role sits at the intersection of three key domains of knowledge and expertise: your marketplace, your target end-user and your company’s brand.

    The product manager role sits at the intersection of three key domains of knowledge and expertise: your marketplace, your target end-user and your company’s brand.

    I know, I know, Venn diagrams are très cliché, but it’s a useful construct to illustrate the fundamentally multi-faceted nature of the product manager role.

    Know Your Market
    As mentioned above, a product brief typically includes context on market positioning. In some cases a product may create an entirely new market segment, but, most of the time, it will compete against other, similar products within an existing segment. For example, as innovative as Apple’s iPhone was on its introduction in 2007, it was entering a pre-established smartphone segment within the larger mobile phone marketplace. Steve Jobs’ original iPhone keynote made it clear that he recognized this, as his argument for the superiority of iPhone was built atop a dissection of the shortcomings of the existing market leaders, with Jobs specifically name-checking products from Motorola, Blackberry, Palm and Nokia.

     This is a screengrab from Steve Jobs’s introduction of iPhone at the MacWorld exposition in 2007. Jobs was a fan of the 2x2 segmentation matrix and used it to great effect here to illustrate—some might say exaggerate—the benefits of iPhone relative to its competition.

    This is a screengrab from Steve Jobs’s introduction of iPhone at the MacWorld exposition in 2007. Jobs was a fan of the 2x2 segmentation matrix and used it to great effect here to illustrate—some might say exaggerate—the benefits of iPhone relative to its competition.

    While a company’s sales and merchandising teams typically develop the deepest marketplace expertise, it’s essential for a product manager to understand the overarching dynamics of the segment that their product will occupy. For example, what are the leading brands and products in a given market segment, and why are those players succeeding? What are the opportunities within that segment—i.e. are there needs that aren’t being met, price points that aren’t being served? Are there key gatekeepers within the segment that stand between your product and your customer? A good brief will be informed by answers to questions like these because marketplace dynamics can play a huge role in the ultimate success or failure of a product.

    Know Your End-User
    Next, a product manager must develop a deep understanding of their target user. Why do they buy the type of product you intend to create? What job does it fulfill in their lives? Do they have functional or emotional needs that aren’t being met by existing products in the marketplace? This may all sound a bit fluffy, but small nuances in the motivations of your end-user can mean the difference between success and failure.

    I can provide an example here from my own time as a product manager, or PLM, in Nike’s Running Footwear category. I was the PLM for what would eventually become the Nike LunarGlide+ and, in the early stages of that project, my team and I struggled to deliver on our shared brief for a no compromise running shoe targeting a new generation of runners.

     The fundamental insight that enabled the success of the original Nike LunarGlide+ was the outgrowth of countless hours of engagement with our target runner. As an aside, I mention in the accompanying piece that the product manager’s primary deliverable is a brief, but that is by no means his or her only responsibility. For example, as the frames above depicting me in “talking head” mode illustrate, the product manager must serve as the evangelist-in-chief for their product, both inside their organization and out.

    The fundamental insight that enabled the success of the original Nike LunarGlide+ was the outgrowth of countless hours of engagement with our target runner. As an aside, I mention in the accompanying piece that the product manager’s primary deliverable is a brief, but that is by no means his or her only responsibility. For example, as the frames above depicting me in “talking head” mode illustrate, the product manager must serve as the evangelist-in-chief for their product, both inside their organization and out.

    Our “Aha!” moment finally arrived after several months of on-the-ground research: We realized that, when our target runner told us she wanted a “simple” shoe, she actually meant she wanted a shoe that was “understandable.” We then had to dig into what “understandable” meant in the context of a running shoe, but this seemingly subtle distinction in the meaning behind a word completely changed our design direction and—I’m not exaggerating here—enabled us to progress from prototypes that runners hated in one round to samples they loved in the next.

    We would not have reached this epiphany had we not spent an enormous amount of time engaging with our target user. As in the case of marketplace expertise being “owned” by sales and merchandising departments, some large companies will have consumer insights teams dedicated to the study of consumer needs and behaviors; but even in these instances, a product manager must develop a profound familiarity with their intended end-user within the context of the product they intend to create. In the case of the LunarGlide+, I had to understand the role running and running gear played in the life of our target runner, but I also had to know her well enough that I could appreciate the meaning behind her words. This connection was fundamental to the ultimate success of the product.

    Know Your Brand
    Finally, a product manager must maintain a deep understanding of the values underpinning their own brand. This probably sounds incredibly obvious, which may explain why so many product managers seem to forget it.

    A good recent example is Amazon’s Fire Phone, which is widely recognized as having been a flop of epic proportions. Fast Company magazine was so interested in understanding why it failed that their February 2015 issue devotes 5,425 words to explaining what went wrong. They identify a number of factors, but it really boils down to this conclusion:

    “Bezos, insiders say, was ‘the product manager’ on the Fire Phone [and] what makes the Fire Phone a particularly troubling adventure is that Amazon’s CEO seemingly lost track of the essential driver of his company’s brand. ‘We can’t compete head to head with Apple,’ says a high-level source at Lab126 [Amazon’s secretive R&D division]. ‘There’s a branding issue: Apple is premium, while our customers want a great product at a great price.’”

    So, Jeff Bezos, a very smart man who is the CEO of Amazon and, according to many insider accounts, was the de facto product manager for the Fire Phone, failed to recognize that a successful product must embody the values of its brand. Goes to show you that this can happen to the best of ’em.

    For counter examples, witness Apple’s refusal to offer a sub-$500 Netbook, which many industry “experts” insisted the company must do to remain competitive in the PC space back in the late-2000s (meanwhile, Apple just keeps setting Mac sales records, while the rest of the PC industry shrinks). Or their continued refusal to offer a cheap smartphone, again, against the entreaties of armchair pundits who exclaimed that Apple “would be stupid not to” release a low-cost phone (meanwhile, Apple just keeps setting smartphone sales records, while also growing market share).

    Apple has refused these calls to go low-end because the company’s leaders know that to do so would be antithetical to the promise of their brand, which is founded on aspiration, innovation and a desire to surprise-and-delight. Tim Cook, the company’s CEO, made it very clear that he understands this in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek:

    “There’s always a large junk part of the market,” [Cook] says. “We’re not in the junk business ... There’s a segment of the market that really wants a product that does a lot for them, and I want to compete like crazy for those customers. I’m not going to lose sleep over that other market, because it’s just not who we are.”

    Cook’s forthrightness is doubly impressive to me because this interview took place in September of 2013, at the height of the “Apple is doomed if they don't release a cheaper iPhone” mania. It reflects a deeply internalized understanding of the truth at the core of his brand—something every good product manager must develop and have the discipline to stick to.

    +++

    This post has ended up far, far longer than I had intended, but, for the two people who’ve actually made it this far down, I hope it’s helped you to better understand what a product manager does, and the areas of expertise that he or she must develop to be successful in the role. In a future post, I’ll answer the question I most often get from people who already know what a product manager is: How do I become a product manager?

    In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a video of the best product manager of our generation brilliantly demonstrating all of the skills and domain expertise I’ve outlined above. Note how the presenter begins with an overview of his company’s target market (starts at the 1 minute mark), moves on to a discussion of user needs (starts at about the 8 minute mark) and then closes with a discusses of the attributes that set his product and brand apart from the competition (starts at about the 14 minute mark). This is going to sound terribly geeky, but I periodically re-watch this video to remind myself what it means to be a great product manager. Enjoy!

    Agree? Disagree? Have questions? Let’s continue the conversation on Twitter @edotkim.