One of my goals at Product Talk is to showcase what good product management looks like. Today, I’m excited to introduce a new series, Product in Practice, where I’ll profile product managers doing great work.
To kick off the series, we interviewed Rachel Allen, Director of Product at Omnitracs.
I met Rachel when she was a product manager at Arity (an Allstate company). At Arity, Rachel built out a shared mobility business line from scratch. You’ll see as Rachel tells her story that one of her superpowers is launching new business lines within large companies.
I want to share Rachel’s story because too often I hear from product managers about all the things that won’t work at their company. As you read, notice how Rachel uses her company’s context as an advantage. She has a relentless focus on finding good markets, a strong sense of urgency to ship a product, and the track record to show that her process works.
I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did. I also want to thank Melissa Suzuno, my blog editor, for conducting this interview.
Do you have your own Product in Practice story you’d like to share? Submit your story here.
Tell us a little about your background. How did you first learn about product management and how did you decide to pursue it?
I had no idea what a product manager was when I met the woman who managed a portfolio of products at one of my former employers, HERE Maps. I was there to present my findings on how one of our business lines was doing.
At the time, I was a Lead Business Analyst. After sharing how I thought the business could improve based on the market situation, customer feedback, and some new ideas that leveraged our core technologies, she looked at me and said: “What are you doing? You are a product manager.” A few weeks later, she offered me a job on her team.
At the time, you couldn’t really find much about product management online. So, unlike my former role where I focused on writing system requirements, I just started doing whatever I thought the business needed. If my product needed a better value proposition, I worked with customers to invent it and finance to determine how much new value we could capture. If it meant doing something different, I worked with engineering to design it. If I broke the rules, I’d work with legal to sort things out.
As product management became more popular, I’d like to say that I went out and read everything that was out there about it, but I didn’t. Instead, I just kept my focus on the market, learning as much as I could about the problems I was trying to solve—I’d let myself get frustrated with them.
I kept meeting with every team in the company to learn more about what my business was good at, even if it didn’t involve direct contact with the products that I was building. I kept meeting with people that could mentor me to think differently. And that’s still how I operate today.
I guess you can say that although I have learned a lot from others, I still haven’t learned much about product management itself, even if my title says that is who I am. What I have learned though is that product management gives me the flexibility to get involved in every aspect of the business, and I can use what I learn about it to invent new possibilities. So, I keep pursuing product management for that reason.
Product management gives me the flexibility to get involved in every aspect of the business, and I can use what I learn about it to invent new possibilities. – Tweet This
What type of work are you doing now?
I work with people to deliver transformational products, but there’s a dirty secret to it. People don’t just do what you ask them to because it makes sense to do it and the market doesn’t just take your product because it solves their problems.
When I was at HERE Maps, working with various teams to implement things, they didn’t just “do it.” They didn’t just “do it” when I moved on to Conversant, and they didn’t just “do it” when I moved on to Arity. As a Director of Product at Omnitracs, I can tell you with full confidence, people won’t just “do it” here either.
It’s the same for the market. Customers don’t just adopt. So, the work I do—and have been doing for most of my career—is about taking in gobs of information, synthesizing it, forming a point of view, and getting people excited to make the point of view better based on what they know.
Product management is about taking in gobs of information, synthesizing it, forming a point of view, and getting people excited to make the point of view better based on what they know. – Tweet This
My teams move markets. It’s hard to do that. So, what work am I doing now? I’m selling. I’m listening. I’m selling. I’m researching. I’m selling. I’m challenging. I’m selling. I’m pushing. I’m selling. I’m partying. I’m selling. I’m pivoting. I’m selling.
What does your product practice look like today?
My focus is on new to market product management. What that means is that I work on extracting value from an enterprise to create new value. I look at the core assets in a company and see if we can either extend them into new markets or create totally new products with those assets. And, within that domain, I’ve started to specialize in mobility and transportation-related things.
For example, since my former employer Arity was founded by Allstate, I took a predictive model that was historically used for understanding risk in order to price car insurance and I worked with my team to transform it into a model that helped shared mobility platforms decide if they wanted to take on the risk to rent their vehicles to new drivers.
I’ve really found it powerful to repurpose massive assets—you usually get a unique advantage to drive your product ahead. Larger companies have more experience and great assets to train predictive models. They make it possible to spin up something robust and they have the power to launch the product to a wide, trusting, customer base.
Since I typically work on projects that involve figuring out how to improve mobility or how to better transport goods to improve our economy, the crux of it all falls back on using location data, creating new predictive models, and designing experiences for people to communicate better with machines.
It’s kinda trippy to watch how machines are really changing the way we live. My product practice involves a deep sense of learning about what machines can do, breaking them up, and figuring out how they can do it better for people who want to move around and consume goods at the click of a button.
Can you walk us through how a recent product release came to fruition?
I start by understanding what our business objectives are. If we need to create short-term revenue, I’ll take one approach. If we need to create long-term revenue, I’ll probably take a very different approach.
I typically work in more Horizon 2, Horizon 3 types of worlds. Based on the definition from McKinsey and popularized in the book, The Alchemy of Growth, “Horizon 2 ideas extend a company’s existing business model and core capabilities to new customers, markets, or targets. Horizon 3 is the creation of new capabilities and new business to take advantage of or respond to disruptive opportunities or to counter disruption.”
The objectives I’m working on are usually more long-term revenue. In those cases, I do a lot of market research to understand upcoming trends, new technologies, and potential problems in a future market.
These problems may not necessarily be manifesting themselves today or they may not be problems that real potential customers are actually experiencing just yet, but they’re a hint of a problem to arise.
I’ll ideate on potential solutions. I focus on understanding how big the problem could be and how much of a problem it actually will be for a market we’re about to target or a market we want to target. And then I just marry that up with the core capabilities of the organization and see if there’s a fit.
It’s really about research and ideation, about being engulfed in the market—reading everything about it, talking to everyone who has a role in the ecosystem, bringing in other players in the market to help you define your point of view, and not being scared to have a strong point of view with a vision.
Do you generally do the research on your own or have others who are participating with you?
I always start it on my own, and then work with experts to dive into specific areas. It depends on the resources that are available within the organization—but typically I work with UX, design researchers, a competitive intelligence team, data scientists, engineers, marketing, and sales.
How do you know that something is the right direction if you’re working off of future anticipated needs?
There are always small market signals. When I was at HERE Maps before there were many bike lanes on the road, there were some cities that had bike lanes and we saw some bicyclists but it was nothing like what we see today with the Divvy bikes or Jump bikes—it was personally owned, commuter-based biking.
Very early on, I wondered what it would be like when new cyclists hit the road. I started reading about how cities wanted to build bike lanes to develop a better eco-footprint and encourage biking, but they hadn’t actually built them yet.
So, I just assumed that there would be a problem navigating roads for bikers who wanted to take advantage of the new infrastructure.
There were signals of this problem early on, but at the time most people weren’t renting bikes to go to new places, so they didn’t really need to know the routes.
HERE Maps worked with a ton of car manufacturers, so I asked our sales team if I could sit in on a meeting to chat with the customers about the roads. It turned out they had a fear of bike lanes causing accidents for their drivers, who would also have to adjust to the upcoming trends.
They really understood that as cities started to develop more bike lanes and as bikes became a shareable asset, there would not only be this problem of understanding how to get to new places on bicycles using bike lanes, there would also be a safety concern.
Although I originally thought the product should start by going direct to consumers, I learned that there was another market that may find value from the products as well, and that value was arguably greater. It was fairly easy to monetize the value since I could make it an up-sell to the organization’s current offering by adding an extra layer on top of a core map that provided vehicle navigation. So, I started developing bike lanes on a map.
So you start with the research, try to identify potential needs, and once you’ve gathered enough information, do you try to get internal stakeholders bought in or are you trying to get potential customers on board?
It doesn’t really operate in a sequence—it operates in parallel. But the most important thing is about building the business case.
I’m trying to see how big the opportunity could be—how much is it worth to the organization? How much could we actually make by solving it?
The most important thing in product management is about building the business case. I’m trying to see how big the opportunity could be—how much is it worth to the organization? – Tweet This
And then it takes very little to validate it externally in the market. Sometimes you don’t need to believe what potential customers say. I’ve had so many situations where customers say, “No, that’s not something we need.” And then we build it, it’s in the market, they need it, and it’s the most important thing once time passes.
There are always early adopters in the market—the forward-thinking risk takers. They are the ones you need a “yes” from and there’s usually very few of them.
But they are forgiving of product weaknesses. They will help you refine things. They will help you get the product ready for mainstream, while other players in the market catch their business up. And by the time the other businesses catch up, you’ll have a success story with the early adopters.
Launching a product isn’t the only responsibility of a well-rounded product manager. They need to be responsible for the product’s growth. And, many times, this is assisted by promoting success stories.
Launching a product isn’t the only responsibility of a well-rounded product manager. They need to be responsible for the product’s growth. – Tweet This
Success stories allow businesses to take risks when they are ready for them. These stories allow you to change the market’s perception instead of forcing you to follow it. And that requires glazing over most customer feedback.
All this being said, this strategy can’t and won’t work if the market you’re building a product for isn’t new and you aren’t betting on its growth. Only hearing “yes” from one to two customers should give you enough confidence when there is no popular voice to hear “yes” from yet, if you’ve done thorough research to know that one day there will be a large market and a voice in it… and you want to have first dibs on shaping it.
Only hearing ‘yes’ from one to two customers should give you enough confidence if you’ve done thorough research to know that one day there will be a large market. – Tweet This
And what are you doing to get internal stakeholders bought in to what you’re doing?
It’s all about great pitch decks that create a story—one with zoomed out state of the market that then goes deep into a problem (a reason why something isn’t working) and ends with a hero (the company’s solution).
And it always has numbers to show how big the market is that is having the problem, how big the problem is for the market, how much money the company can make by solving it, and how much it’s going to cost to solve it.
I’m not terribly methodical, but this is one thing that I always do. And then I just start shopping it around. You need everyone on board: your leadership, your team, teams that won’t be directly helping you to build things… absolutely everyone. Everyone will help drive the story to the ending at one point, so it’s important for them to want to drive it to the ending that you envision.
Can you share a time when this went well? Maybe a time when it didn’t go so well?
I did it really well when I was pitching to create a product that helps shared mobility operators predict the risk of new drivers before they let them rent a vehicle or drive around passengers for rideshare.
I gave the hero story and people really wanted to be part of the solution. It became a company goal and everyone clearly understood it.
Folks from procurement rallied to negotiate pricing with a third-party vendor that we used. When we pitched it to a few customers and they wouldn’t take it right away, sales kept pushing through objections. They could have given up, but they believed in it. Everyone in the organization fought for it from different angles and it was beautiful. People started using the product name as verb.
Then there was another time in a previous role that I didn’t really do my pitch well. I believed in the product so damn much and I was so excited about it that I didn’t have the patience to discuss it with everyone.
I talked about it with my team but I guess I thought the value was so obvious, everyone else would just understand. But, they didn’t. So, they tried to kill it—three times. And they did. Twice.
By the third time I was so gung-ho about this thing that I doubled down on my story. I got all the facts on paper, listing every single customer testimonial I could get (and by this time, we actually had plenty). I showed how our competitor was starting to do the thing. Now it’s being built… again… but later to the market than I hoped, and missing opportunities to learn. And this was my fault.
Let’s say that you’ve done the pitch and you’ve gotten people bought in to the idea. What happens next?
Then it’s all about staffing it up. If you make the right business case, it doesn’t only include how much revenue you’re able to obtain, it also includes how many resources and the type of resources you need to build the product. So then it becomes about building the team that can actually start delivering the product.
The right business case isn’t just about how much revenue you’ll obtain but also which resources you’ll need to build the product. – Tweet This
Have there been situations when you realized along the way that your hypothesis didn’t hold up?
When you make the hypothesis and come up with the big idea, it’s not refined. It doesn’t have any sort of detail in it about the product. It’s not really about the product; it’s more about the business case.
For all intents and purposes, you could call the product “Thing X.” Once you actually start developing it, it takes on a form that you might not have imagined at all in the initial phases.
It’s always growing and evolving and that comes from taking so many different perspectives from the organization and really listening to people to leverage their expertise.
When you start leveraging the experts, that’s when you really start to understand what the true product is. In the early stages you’re never really talking about a product; you’re talking about a line of business.
When you start leveraging the experts, that’s when you really start to understand what the true product is. – Tweet This
Tell us a bit more about this process of leveraging expertise from others in your organization.
You’ll have a bunch of different conversations with people. For example, for a model that predicts the risk of a driver before they enter a platform, I knew we needed something.
Working with UX, they said, “Here are the people in an organization that care about predicting risk in advance and they would want to see these kind of analytics but they won’t manually make decisions,” so that drove the product to be refined by understanding who was going to be using it day to day.
Working with data scientists, we understood all the variables that were required for that product, which made us customize it in a certain way to make it competitive.
In working with our legal team, we saw that we had this unique advantage where we were able to partner with a third party and leverage the enterprise discount, so we could reduce the price and still provide as much value.
Any conversation you have shifts the product in one direction or another—in a good way.
Any conversation you have with internal experts shifts the product in one direction or another—in a good way. – Tweet This
Is there any danger of not being able to decide because there are always more people you can talk to or more information you can gather? How do you know when it’s time to move?
You move right away. You move the moment you have people assigned—you just start and then you let it mold.
It’s like building a clay sculpture. The moment you have the clay, you start working with it, and with each new thing that you learn, you might extend it one way or the other, and it’s warm so you can do that, but you don’t ever wait. Ever. Or else your clay will harden as a completely useless blob.
Larry Slamen says
Good overview — I’d appreciate more details about change management, and especially overcoming resistance from risk adverse .org complacent to stay in horizon 1 in the continuous decline of margins while pushing against horizon 2 and disruption say horizon 3 industrial 4.0 emerging technology
Good overview thank you
Philip Guziec says
Great guidebook for product innovation and creation! I say guidebook because the principles described are much more useful than a specific defined path.