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First month as Product Manager

I joined Microsoft four weeks back. It is my first full-time role as a Product Manager (PM), and I learned many things in the last month. I want to highlight two key learning in this blog post.

Customer advocate

The Product Manager should be a customer advocate. A very simple statement. It’s tricky to carry that mindset throughout the job. During PM interviews, we are given a product to critique or improve by adding new features. It ends at sketching out a highly opinionated plan. The PM job is slightly very different from the interview process.

A PM will be owning a product or feature area. It can be in the Platform (that is not visible to users) or in the User Experience (UX) module (which the user views on their screen).

A super simplified representation of a software product
A super-simplified representation of a software product

First thing to do is to understand the product. Login to the product and start using it as an end-user. Then, look at the engineering design behind it, not to the extent of reading the codebase but on a relatively high level. Checkpoint one passed.

The second thing to do is to read customer feedback. What the customers are saying about the product, what they like, what they don’t like, what they wish to see in the product. These are crucial inputs to the next step, research.

A PM should research potential product improvements. It can be done through customer interviews, competitor study, reading industry reports like Gartner. And that is how a PM lands on a plan very similar to the one sketched out during the interview phase. The key difference is, this plan is fact-based, metric-driven and relatively less opinionated.

There are three steps in deciding a product solution.

  1. Why do we need this solution?
  2. What is the solution?
  3. How are we going to build the solution?
Three steps thinking to a product solution
Three steps thinking to a product solution

PMs spend a lot of time in 1 & 2 and to a small extent in 3. The learning I had in my first month is understanding why 1 & 2 are important. We start with Why. Customer interviews and secondary research will help answer this. It’s very important to validate the assumptions with customers. It’s the principal character of the PM who strives to be the customer advocate.

Based on the inputs from the first question, we move on to the second part of the product solution—What is the solution. It involves deciding what customers would like to view when they use your product and in what order. PMs make a list of items they are planning to build and show it to the customers. Customers will say which items they like and want immediately and which items are not urgent needs. These prioritised items will be given as inputs to the development team in a product requirement document.

A product requirement document consists of User Personas (customers), their needs and the expected behaviour of the product/feature—User Jobs. PMs will be required to engage with the engineering team to help them clarify any doubts in the requirements and involve in the solution discussion (the How part).

User jobs with PM and customer priority
User jobs with PM and customer priority

A wise PM told me that most of the not-so-great PMs spend a lot of their time in the third question (How) and don’t get the fundamentals right (Why and What). He further added without a strong backing of Why and What, How is worthless. Often, PMs and developers build a solution that nobody wants. This miscommunication gap is bridged by iterative improvements in the Why and What questions with customer inputs.

A good PM adds a lot of value by being a customer advocate.

Measuring effort

I joined work after a two-year gap due to higher education. There were a lot of tasks and I was initially overwhelmed. I asked the wise PM during one on one, how do you manage your tasks? He showed me a two-by-two matrix like the one below.

An action priority matrix for tasks
An action priority matrix for tasks

I asked him how he measured the effort. He told the amount of time spent on that activity. I replied, “yeah it makes sense. Time is money, right”.

He replied, “That is a misconception. Time is actually greater than money”

Time can only be spent and spent linearly. Money can be earned or spent exponentially.

We always have finite time in a day. These things make time a more valuable entity than money. This perspective will influence how we prioritise the tasks at hand. PMs are always caught in situations to prioritise tasks. It was the second learning I had in my first month as full-time PM.

I will keep y’all posted on the upcoming learning in my PM role 🙂


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Thumbnail Photo by Johny vino on Unsplash

Podcasts: origin, business and beyond

I have been spending quite a lot of time listening to podcasts lately. I got curious and looked into their origin, how they work, why they are popular and where they are heading as a business. Breaking them down in this opinionated analysis. You will know everything (almost) about podcasts at the end of six minutes.

Under the hood

Podcasts are audio files broadcasted over the internet for users to download and hear at their convenience. They are accessible through devices that can connect to the internet. Your mobile phone, laptop, PC can become podcast streaming devices. How does it actually work? Podcast creators record the audio in MP3 format and upload it into a cloud hosting service. They also create a Rich Site Summary (RSS) feed for the hosting location. RSS feed is a computer understandable code that tracks updates in a location of the internet such as the podcast cloud portal. Applications like Apple Podcasts, Spotify and PocketCasts track the RSS feed. These applications are called pod-catchers. If a user has subscribed to a podcast in a pod-catcher, new episodes will be downloaded or notified when they are available.

How podcasts work
A free and open podcast system

A Guardian journalist, Ben Hammersley, was writing an article in 2004 to explain the new trend in media broadcasting. He accidentally invented the word podcast by combining “iPod” and “broadcasting”. He is credited for creating the term. But, iPod did not support podcasts until 2005. Usage of iPod in the name was enough to convince Steve Jobs to build the feature into iTunes.

Steve Jobs announcing podcasts for iTunes in 2005 WWDC

Integrating podcasts into iTunes was a game changer. Users can subscribe to their favourite podcasts in a single place and listen across their devices. Today, Apple Podcasts is the most popular pod-catcher with over 800,000 podcasts in the platform.

Why are podcasts popular?

Media companies compete for the time in the user’s day. The time a user spends in a media platform, allows them to run ads or charge a subscription to make money. Prime time, typically 07:00 PM to 11:00 PM, is already dominated by popular media. It’s difficult to acquire time outside this slot because everyone is busy with their job and daily chores. If only there is a way to consume media while doing the routine tasks.

If someone is watching TV, they are consuming the program with their eyes and ears. More senses involved in following something, lesser the scope for multitasking. Radio is still popular due to the multitasking aspect. A coffee shop owner, taxi cab driver or a construction worker can listen to radio without significant disturbance to their work. A song or voice in the background will elevate the vibe of the environment. But, one needs to have a radio receiver device to listen to the broadcast. The radio programs are also pre-scheduled and the user has no control.

Podcasts have taken the best utility of radio and solved almost all of its pain points. With podcasts, every device with internet connection can become a listening gadget. Driving to work, waiting in traffic, morning jog, cooking in the kitchen are all ideal time slots for listening to podcasts. Another key difference between radio and podcasts is that it’s more personal. Users can find and follow podcasts in niche topics of their interest. Podcasts have given the control to the listeners.

For creators, it is easier to create podcasts than any other format of media. A microphone or even a smartphone voice recorder app is sufficient to get started with podcasting. Voice only mode of communication provides a virtual mask for creators to express themselves freely.

Podcasts as a lead generating medium

Many companies offer podcasts for their own benefits. I listen to This Is Product Management where the host brings product leaders from different companies who talk about their experience in managing products. The podcast is owned by a customer feedback platform company, Alpha. “Implement what you learned from the podcast”, says Alpha.

Robinhood’s Snacks podcast is a popular, daily financial news story offering. What is the most common identifier among the daily financial story listeners? They are likely to be stock investors. And, Robinhood is a stock brokerage firm. These podcasts are self sustainable, lead generation tools for their parent companies. Traditional media companies such as BBC, NPR, ABC, Disney also offer podcasts to drive traffic to their business. Some companies use their podcasts to build reputation.

Podcast as a business

Any activity should be able to make money to be called a business. How do podcasts make money?

Podcasts primarily make money by running advertisements. In a typical podcast, there will be an introduction to bait the listener and then, “Before going into the topic, a quick word from our sponsor XYZ”. The main problem of advertising in podcasts is you cannot measure “Click-through rate”. Podcast creators only know how many times their files are downloaded from the cloud. Companies are careful on their advertising spend, they need to know the return on the investment.

A coupon code style advertisement is a quick fix to the problem. “XYZ.com/podcast-name”, became the norm in the advertisements. Users are incentivised to visit a website under a given URL with a promise of discount. Another challenge here is the user may skip the entire advertisement part. The playback metrics are unreliable.

This problem arises due to the design of podcast publishing. The podcast owners do not control the applications that are used to listen to their content. The free, open, decentralised architecture became a hurdle to run advertisements.

Another way to earn money is to charge the listeners. Platforms like Patreon allows multi-tier subscription models to create live stream, shout-outs and exclusive content to the listeners. But, people are used to listening to podcasts for free. Subscription model for audio content isn’t mature or scalable yet.

Podcast analytics

Advertisers are in a dilemma whether they are overpaying for podcast ads. Without metrics, it’s not easy to answer the question. In the last five years, ideas are emerging to fix this problem. Backtracks, calls itself “the world’s most advanced podcast analytics and hosting platform”, has developed an open source analytics standard to be integrated on the server, website or mobile podcast applications to run analytics.

Podcast architecture with Backtracks SDK
Podcast architecture with Backtracks SDK for analytics

The podcast analytics Software Development Kit (SDK) allows the podcast creator, advertisers to uniquely measure the impact of every episode and campaign. They can now know which part of the episode is played, how many people listened through the entire episode and more. It helps the creator to objectively measure their brand and advertisers can reliably spend on their marketing campaigns.

A closed opportunity

Podcasts were created in the distributive framework. The monetisation challenge pushed for innovation in the domain. Podcast analytics is a success but taking control of audio files is still a prolonged challenge in the distributive system. A closed model can solve this problem efficiently.

Imagine a platform where the creators upload the audio files. The platform manages the listening application with its registered users. It will have complete control of the usage metrics and can even change the advertisement from time to time. Just like YouTube. Now, who in the audio medium is as big as YouTube? 🤔

Spotify, it is.

I wrote about Spotify’s thin margin in the competitive music industry in the “tip jar business model”.

Spotify pays $0.00437 per stream to the owner of the music rights. That will take over 300,000 streams to earn a minimum living wage. Spotify is paying out 75% of the revenue, it is the best they can do with their business model.

the “tip jar business model”.

Spotify’s current business model is not working well for the company or the majority of its small creators. Spotify can build a podcast platform where subscribers listen to exclusive content. It will be another channel of revenue for Spotify without the rights problem. If it grows big, they can bundle subscriptions across music and podcast platforms.

Spotify's closed podcast system
Spotify’s closed podcast system

Spotify saw this coming and made multiple acquisitions of podcast platforms namely Anchor, Gimlet and The Ringer. It announced Streaming Ad Insertion (SAI) technology, in January this year, that enables it to dynamically insert ads in real time based on who is listening to the podcast. Stitcher Radio is another podcast and radio broadcasting platform that tries to centralise monetisation in podcasts. It owns Midroll where advertisers are matched with popular podcast creators.

Closing thoughts

Podcasts have been thriving for the last twenty years in the decentralized environment. Platforms like Spotify and Stitcher are trying to create a closed system. It compromises the freedom and openness that made podcasts successful in the first place. There are challenges in on-boarding existing podcasts as exclusive Spotify offerings. Spotify can try to become a better pod-catcher with its SAI technology and other innovations. But it is caught in a position to create its own high quality, exclusive podcast content. Where have we heard about a company that is put in a position to create original content to thrive sustainably? 🤔

That’s right. Spotify is aspiring to be the Netflix for podcasts.

Update:

Few days after publishing this post, Spotify has bought Joe Rogan’s podcast as an exclusive in a deal worth more than $100 million. Spotify’s stock soared 8% after the announcement (~$5 billion).


Hope you learned something new. I write on business and technology topics. Consider subscribing to my blog to receive upcoming posts directly to your mailbox. I promise to publish useful content 🙂

Feel free to say hi on Twitter or LinkedIn


Thumbnail Photo by Sam Rios on Unsplash

Accessibility and inclusion in UX for Product Managers

I stumbled on the topic of accessibility and inclusion while learning user experience (UX) design from MOOCs. At first, I thought it’s a reasonably familiar topic but I couldn’t have been more wrong. After reading through several resources, I now firmly believe, there is no better way to practice user empathy than understanding accessibility and inclusion. This blog post outlines the need for accessibility and inclusion in building products and how it’s a win for everyone involved.

Disability – redefined

When I heard disability, I used to think about people with physical disability such as those who have lost their limbs, vision, hearing. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says over a billion people, 15% of the world population, have some form of disability. They mention disabilities due to ageing, chronic health conditions, mental illness among others. Many people live a normal life without knowing they have a disability like color blindness. WHO argues disability is not just a health problem, it’s a phenomenon reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.

According to WHO’s argument, disability happens at the point of interaction between a person and the society. Consider a deaf person walking into a job interview and facing an intercom door.

The user faces enormous friction in this situation. It is a loss for both the candidate and the recruiter in the world surrounded by non-inclusive, inaccessible products. The philosophy of inclusive design addresses this problem.

Inclusive design

Inclusive design is about considering the full range of human diversity such as age, class, color, gender, literacy, race and all forms of disability. Any exclusion results in hampering the interaction of the individual with their friends, family, their neighbourhood and society. Ramps and access cards in buildings, Braille inscriptions in elevators are examples of inclusive approaches to design and offer social participation for everyone.

There is a misconception that inclusive design means designing one thing for everyone. It means creating multiple things where everyone has an option. For example, an inclusively designed train station may offer stairs for youth, escalators for elderly and elevators for those who are wheelchair-bound. The use case of mobility inside a train station is solved via multiple designs with a primary motive—do not exclude anyone.

Challenge of exclusion

Exclusion is the biggest challenge in entertaining diversity. There are temporary and situational exclusions in everyday life. Few of my MBA batch-mates broke their legs and were wheelchair-bound for months. They faced temporary exclusions from several activities on the campus. Navigating to the check-in counter of a busy airport with luggage creates a situational exclusion. Mobile phones come handy in such circumstances. The touchscreen of a mobile phone that contains every necessary option within a reach of the thumb is designed with inclusive design philosophy.

Permanent, Temporary and Situational exclusion
Permanent, Temporary and Situational exclusion. Credits: Microsoft Design

Technology interactions depend on the way we touch, see, hear and speak and remember. I have personally faced difficulties in teaching my father how to use a mobile payment application. He was forced to learn the nuances of One Time Password and Two-Factor Authentication. Many essential modern applications are not friendly to elders. It begs a question whether technology is adapting to us, or we should adapt to technology.

Empathy

Empathy is a key ingredient in designing accessible and inclusive applications. Personal biases can influence the way we speak and behave. It can easily influence the products we build unless we choose to empathize with the users.

Product Managers (PM) usually think about user personas when they face a problem statement. Need-driven user personas help PMs practice user empathy while designing products. A noise-cancelling headset or a blindfold during prototyping will come a long way in making the product more accessible. Empathizing with users will help us see more barriers than we can imagine.

Solve for one, extend to many

User empathy and inclusive design philosophy will help us design solutions that can work for multiple situations of exclusion. Consider the high contrast screen that was invented for people who had vision impairments. Today it helps people who are using their laptops under sunlight—a situational exclusion gap.

Audible, the popular audiobooks company is powered by the concept of storytelling that was initially catered to people (primarily children) who cannot read with their eyes. Video captioning that was intended to help people who cannot hear is currently used in busy airports, video call transcription services. When solving a problem for blind or deaf people, we are not only solving for them. We need to start thinking about enabling participation for people with disabilities in everyday life in society. We can extend those products and make it accessible for many more people in the future.

Takeaway

While designing a product, recognize the exclusionary aspects. Empathize and learn from the diversity of users. Solve for one and extend it to many. These are the most important takeaways from my UX lesson yesterday.

Most of the references are taken from Microsoft’s design blog. It has quite a lot of films, guides on the topic of inclusive design. I highly recommend checking them out.


I hope you learned something new. I write on business and technology topics. Consider subscribing to receive upcoming posts directly to your mailbox. I promise to publish useful content 🙂

The ‘tip jar’ business model— explained

The creative industry that consists of people who make arts, crafts, music, design, fashion, film is one of the oldest known businesses that has transformed and adapted to the changes in the economy. During ancient times, a creative person worked in the court of a lordship to write literature, compose songs, make artworks about their prowess — things that made the lord happy. The lords supported their works with generous grants of money that helped them continue creating content for a living. Affluent aristocrats, religious leaders supported creative persons to help them spread their ideas. These circumstances have changed a lot with the invention of the printing machine, mass commercialization of creative business, and the internet. The most recent trend in the creative industry is the tip jar business model that has given the liberty back to the creative minds, making the twenty-first century — the best time to be alive as an artist.

Tip jar business model is a metaphor for new age internet businesses where creators make money from direct contributions of their patrons.
 Photo by
Matthew LeJune

Before the 1400s, a musician was only known to the people in the city he or she lived. It is tough to transcribe music notes by hand. One must visit the musician in person or make them travel across cities to enjoy the music, as is the case with artists. The invention of the printing press changed that. The printing press helped music notes to be copied multiple times and distributed to other cities. Creativity spread across the boundaries of land and water.

Aristocrats in other towns bought the printed notes, hired musicians and instruments to play the music. It was the only way to enjoy classical music at that time, an expensive affair, only a few elites could afford. The evolution of printing machines also gave birth to a new art form, comics. Comics democratized the illustration art with satire, caricature and inventions like speech bubbles. The speech bubble empowered the artworks to ‘talk’, an ability that was missing all along.

Record labels along with radio broadcasting emerged in the early 1900s, disrupting the music industry. Record label businesses made agreements with artists to produce, advertise, and distribute music content. The terms of agreements determined how much the artists will earn on the music, but they did not own the content. This arrangement made musicians very popular across continents. The record labels sold rights to radio broadcasters which for the first time brought middle and low-income people to listen to opera and big band music.

Meanwhile, the record label industry was consolidated with very few companies holding much of the market. Few unhappy musicians ventured out to create independent label companies that gave more freedom to the artists. As more people started listening to music, the diversity of the content produced also expanded.

The internet took over the music industry by storm in the late 1990s. Piracy became a massive issue as people preferred downloading songs for free than paying for records and cassette tapes. Law enforcement intervened to stop peer-to-peer file-sharing services like Napster. Apple created iTunes that allowed the users to download individual songs for a fee. iTunes became massively popular since the alternative is to buy the entire album cassette. Music lovers further benefited with the arrival of YouTube and subscription-based streaming services. For $10 a month, Spotify offers over 35 million songs on demand.

All is well for the audience, but what about the creators?

Today, the more prominent, famous artists are doing well with sponsorships, endorsements, advertisement deals. However, it’s challenging to make money as an upcoming artist on the internet. Spotify pays $0.00437 per stream to the owner of the music rights. That will take over 300,000 streams to earn a minimum living wage. Spotify is paying out 75% of the revenue, it is the best they can do with their business model. YouTube that runs advertisements on the videos, designed its platform to favour popular, influential channels. If you are a YouTuber with a dedicated following of (less than) 10,000 people, who always look for what you make, it’s impossible to make money.

Projected YouTube earnings for 10,000 monthly views.
 Credits: Influencer Marketing Hub

Further, in centralized platforms like YouTube, creators should adhere to the algorithms to make themselves visible among the crowd. Writing clickbait titles, coming up with a flashy thumbnail, creating content on viral topics are steps to run a successful YouTube channel. Choosing the product endorsement path, a luxury for upcoming creators, will further put them in the backseat as they now must make content that is suitable for brand placements. If you are an amateur podcast creator, without many subscribers, attempting to make a living on YouTube or other related platforms will most probably make you broke, drive insane or both.

Other categories of creative industries underwent a similar transition. Physical books were taken up by publishing houses who owned the book and paid a royalty to the authors. Like the music industry, self-publishing is also skewed by outliers. Artworks were taken up by museums and auction houses. Artists depend on these institutions to make money. For an upcoming author or painter, it’s challenging to make money in a mainstream way.

When the New York Times (NYT) observed most of the advertising revenue going to Google and Facebook, they decided to change their digital revenue model. In 2011, NYT launched its first paywall on its website and started subscription plans. It was the time when paid revenue models on the internet were written off against the advertising models. Experts argued that advertising is the only way to make money because people are not used to paying for content they access online (for free).

But NYT’s subscription model became a massive success while advertising revenue continued to fall over the years. NYT bundled its subscriptions depending on the needs of the reader. Their crosswords alone have reached 400000 subscribers. NYT also engaged with subscribers allowing them to ask questions to the panel of experts on different topics. It enabled the news publication to forge a relationship with their readers. As of February 2020, NYT has 5.2 million paid subscribers, of which 3.5 million are digital-only. This story became the bedrock for the tip jar business model.

NYT’s success is attributed to fundamentally two things. First, users will pay for something that makes their lives better in some way. We can see this materialize in the success of e-learning platforms. Secondly, continuous engagement with the subscribers is necessary to convert them into a loyal following. Modern platforms such as Patreon, Substack are using these principles to help upcoming artists, writers to make a meaningful living without worrying about the advertising revenue.

“They are going to be paid…and they are going to be valued.”, says Jack Conte, founder of Patreon.

Artists create a Patreon page to publish their work. Patrons (subscribers) offer recurring payments from as low as one dollar every month to view the content. Artists also offer multi-tier subscriptions (like NYT bundle) for patrons to choose. A first-tier subscription (say $2) will allow them to view the content, whereas higher tier subscriptions (say $20) will deliver handwritten notes, merchandise from the creator. Substack enables writers to publish newsletters for their subscribers in the hope of converting some of them into paying members. Readers can learn new things in their area of interest. It even offers a guide to the writer to build his or her audience before asking them to pay.

A Patreon membership page

These platforms establish, for the first time, an influential audience to creator connection. The audience, paying money directly to the creator, feel good for supporting their work. The crowdsourcing platforms, suitable for ambitious one-time projects, often do not meet the goal. Tip jar platforms allow the creator to build a stable audience from the ground up. The micro-payments (as low as $1) does not add a lot of burden to the audience. Creators can focus on doing the things they love without worrying about the advertisers or uncertainty of income. The platforms also create a safe space for creators free from online trolls and bullies.

The platforms enable creators of a specific niche, to build their fans. A comic about humans living with androids or a feminist anime might not appeal to a mainstream audience, but with the help of platforms like Patreon, they will be able to make decent money. Patreon takes anywhere between 8% and 12% of the money creators make while Substack takes a standard 10% cut. Five thousand patrons with $1 a month pledge or five hundred readers with $10 commitment, it can easily cover the cost of living in any major city in the world.

Creators who are successful in Patreon say it takes an incredible amount of time from their life. Since most of that time is spent on doing more of what they love to do, it’s an excellent deal for committed, passionate artists. Running tip jar model business is not easy, and it is most certainly not ideal for a non-serious, side business. But, before going for their big break, artists can keep doing what they love or even convert it into a full-time job. It’s only possible due to the tip jar business model powered with technology.

Every business model has its risks. Firstly, the tip jar business model will face the threat of plagiarism. Anyone who subscribes can repost the creator’s content on the internet. The platforms should be prepared to address the issue. Even though tip jar platforms are less centralised as compared to YouTube, they still make and enforce rules. Patreon banned far-right provocateurs from its platform. It might push them to seek other platforms (or create their own). But, the tip jar model is here to stay.

Legendary artists like Beethoven, Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Allan Poe struggled financially. Most of the successful artists depended on kings, aristocrats, media houses, record labels and advertisers for their living. Gone were the days when an aspiring artist needed to settle for a ‘real paying’ job.

If an artist’s craft makes a difference in somebody’s life, they will be paid, and they will be valued. Now is truly the best time to be alive not just as an artist but as a human.


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The essence of Zoho and Freshworks

Two weeks back, Zoho Corporation sued Freshworks for copying its trade secrets. I wrote a report on comparing the two businesses during my MBA as part of a course requirement. In the wake of recent developments, I believe it will be an interesting read: attaching below, a version of the essay. Disclaimer: I worked at Freshworks for fourteen months before pursuing MBA

The Indian software industry used to be known for its offshore service operations of companies in the West. During the last few years, the trend has been changing. Two companies are building software products to the world from the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Freshworks and Zoho, are very similar companies, in their business strategy and problem-solving approach. They differ in aspirations and vision. Freshworks is a relatively new age internet start-up focussed on aggressive growth. It engages in guerrilla marketing, often going head to head with one of the industry leaders like SalesForce, which is more than ten times its size. Zoho portrays itself as a neighbourhood company from southern Tamilnadu with big ideas and empathy for small businesses. This essay studies the companies from a strategic perspective, compares their choices and attempts to identify their essence.

Image credits: Inc42

In the last few decades, India has become a global powerhouse of the IT services industry. Tata Consultancy Services, Infosys, Cognizant and Accenture recruit in large numbers from the engineering colleges around the country. They take advantage of the prevalent labour arbitrage, offer software services for Fortune X companies in the West. The Indian economy has prospered due to the growth of the software services industry. Tata Consultancy Services has an amassing 8.37 trillion INR in market capitalization as of June 2019, which is a little higher than 8.36 trillion INR market capitalization of Reliance Industries.

The explosion of data coupled with the availability of high-power computing enabled businesses to move to the Cloud. Migration to Cloud is a painstaking process for engineers in a company; therefore, they were outsourced to eastern countries like India. Indian software service companies, during its long affiliation with western clients, developed expertise in Cloud computing. It forms the base for software as a service (SaaS) products.

Traditional software products came with licence or purchase options often priced at exorbitant rates. Office essential software was purchased at negotiated terms, but during the brink of the millennium, things changed. The dotcom bubble period saw many businesses opening in silicon-valley without a strong vision or knowledge. Later, when the bubble was burst, only a few, invested firms survived. Companies started after the dotcom bust emphasized on investing in their productivity tools. As the cost of acquiring a new customer started rising, companies began listening to their customers. A new category of products called Customer Relationship Management (CRM) was born.

CRM consists of all the steps in the sales cycle from lead generation, approaching a client, documenting the interactions, follow-up and eventually closing the account. Sales associates who work with multiple clients were facing problems of keeping track of their customer interactions, and often these details were handled in excel sheets. Salesforce, the world’s leading SaaS player today, started developing and selling CRM software that is hosted on the Cloud. Businesses need not have dedicated servers, network monitors in their office space. The property can be used to grow their business. This revolutionary idea in Cloud computing gave birth to the SaaS marketplace.

While IT services in India were still growing in the early 1990s, a young Princeton PhD Sridhar Vembu started his career at Qualcomm in the United States. He says that he could not find a single product in the US that was manufactured in India, while products from China, Taiwan were common. He started AdventNet Inc headquartered in Chennai, Tamilnadu in 1996. AdeventNet started selling software for telecom operators in the Bay Area. AdventNet Inc was later renamed after its successful CRM product, Zoho, as Zoho Corporation.

Girish Mathrubootham, a product manager at Zoho Corporation, faced a problem with his television getting broken in transit in 2009. He approached the shipping company’s customer service and months went by without any viable solution. He realized that their customer service software was ancient and broken. Later on the hackernews website, he saw frustrated comments from customers of the software about its high price. He quit his job at Zoho and started developing Freshdesk, a support desk software. Freshdesk, launched in 2010, was rebranded into Freshworks in 2017 after adding an array of SaaS products to its portfolio. Freshworks has raised $400 million and has surpassed $200 million in annual recurring revenue.

After the advent of Cloud computing, starting a business became very easy. Registering an office space and running the company from the comfort of the laptop became very common. However, only a handful of companies become big. Everyday tools that businesses need vary based on their scale of operations and the complexity of the sector. Traditional SaaS companies develop the software by understanding the problem of big enterprises — the software becomes heavy, comes with many features, and eventually, the price is very high. A small business might not need many of these features.

For example, let us assume a help desk software is required for a company operating on the scale of Amazon. The software should be able to withstand the complexities of a global e-commerce giant. It will need support to be available in hundreds of languages, process queries from tens of channels. Whereas, a small boutique shop in the corner street, running their business through a Facebook page might not need the sophisticated features of the support software used by Amazon. They would also not be able to afford it. This is where Zoho and Freshworks operate — focusing on small and medium scale businesses who seek affordable software to run their business hassle-free.

IT service management (ITSM) is another problem faced by companies of small and medium-size. As the companies grow, they accumulate assets in the form of laptops, monitors and other accessories. They should be protected and audited frequently for any mishap or misuse. ITSM software helps them manage assets in the company.

Affordability issues can be viewed in two ways. Firstly, the high price paid to the software that is financially not viable to most businesses. Secondly, the licensing deal. Many companies work on very thin bottom-line, and they cannot afford to pay for licensing fees for a lifetime. Monthly, yearly flexible subscription plans will benefit these companies. Zoho and Freshworks offer them a free trial for the first month. The free trial helps the customers to audit the software for their needs and if they deem fit, proceed to purchase.

Prof. Saral Mukherjee says, “strategy is all about closing doors”. At any moment, a business will face multiple opportunities to choose. The strategy of the company depends on the occasions they say no to-hence closed doors. Let us analyze the strategy of the two firms.

Both Freshworks and Zoho are privately owned companies. Zoho was bootstrapped from Sridhar Vembu’s own money, and he has refused to take any investor funding. He says that investor funding will force the company to focus on high growth, and the company might lose focus on its values and objectives. He further says, “Beyond money, there is also a mission and purpose in life.” Yet, three of the five billionaires (in dollar terms) from Tamil Nadu are namely Sridhar Vembu, Sekar Vembu and Radha Vembu. Zoho is a family owned business that has not prioritised aggressive growth.

Freshworks is a VC friendly company. Accel Partners, Tiger Global, CapitalG and Sequoia are some of the investors in Freshworks. The company has delivered 61% average annual growth over the years. The focus of Freshworks is to grow and grow faster.

Zoho has said no to the conventional marketing techniques. It has positioned itself as a company that brings out products from rural Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh. An Advertisement seen recently shows Sridhar Vembu walking in the paddy fields of Tenkasi. He talks about how a world-class software product is made in the fields of southern-rural Tamilnadu. Another Zoho ad, aired during the GST rollout, discusses the Zoho software that integrates the GST feature into the auditing module. Sridhar Vembu localizes his positioning.

Freshworks is an aspirational company. Even though they started their relationship with small business customers, they wanted to grow big. Salesforce, one of the market leaders of the SaaS industry, conducts a conference every year called Dreamforce in San Francisco, California. Freshworks advertises its products on the shuttle buses running between the conference venue and train stations. Last year, it went a step further to trend #FailsForce in a blimp around the conference venue. Freshworks’ positioning is its user interface and affordability. It targets customers who are annoyed with high priced, less user-friendly products.

#Failsforce campaign. Credits: Bizjournals

Zoho primarily drives its recruitment through campus and hires at entry-level. Around 20% of the employees come via Zoho University route. Engineering students in Chennai look up at Zoho as the place to start their career. The attrition rate of Zoho is high as SaaS companies are coming up in the urban part of Chennai with competitive salaries.

Freshworks founder Girish Mathrubootham studied at SASTRA University. More than half of the workforce in Freshworks hails from there. Freshworks is strategically a poster brand for aspiring software engineers in Chennai. Amazon, Cisco and Paypal are the only sizable multinational companies in the city. Freshworks, which has been enjoying the soft spot from the press, is the place to be for Chennai software engineers. Freshworks also poaches talent from Zoho corporation and top technology companies. Girish Mathrubootham and his co-founder Shan Krishnasamy were Zoho employees. Spotting ex-Googlers, Amazonians is very common in Freshworks office.

Everyone in Zoho joins with the position ‘Member Technical Staff’. All the managers start with ‘Member Leadership Staff’ designation. The promoted ones get to be Team Leaders. All Team Leaders report to one of Sridhar, Sekar, Manikandan or Radha Vembu. Zoho has a flat hierarchy. CEO Sridhar Vembu sits with other engineers in an open workspace.

Sridhar Vembu at his desk in Zoho Office. Credits: Tech in Asia

Freshworks follow traditional multilevel reporting system which ranges from an entry-level software engineer, business development executive, customer support executive to CxOs who report to CEO Girish Mathrubootham.

Variety is a key area where both companies differ. Freshworks, initially named the same as its first product Freshdesk, at the time of writing the essay, had ten products in its portfolio. Over half of them were launched within the last two years. Freshworks focuses on building capability on its core product Freshdesk and expanding it to the other products in the portfolio. For example, help desk software such as Freshdesk has incidents reported as tickets. A support agent will be assigned a ticket with a Service Level Agreement. Once it is resolved, feedback is taken from the customer to improve their experience. Freshservice, ITSM tool treats all the service incidents as tickets with IT experts as agents. Freshsales, CRM software operates all the prospects as a ticket, sales representatives as agents. Likewise, Freshrelease tracks engineering tasks as tickets and respective engineers as agents. It may appear from the outset, Freshworks has multiple successful products. But, all of them have one common identity as a workflow tool. It has been tested and mastered and is quite successful too.

Freshworks Universe

If we see Zoho’s product portfolio, it tells a different story. AdventNet started with WebNMS, a tool for telecom operators. Once it became successful, Zoho Office Suite was simply upsold with the existing consumers. In 2007, ManageEngine, IT operations and Service Management software was launched. Since the majority of Zoho’s customers are small businesses, it has multiple products supporting mail operations, financial accounting, customer relationship management, help desk, IT support, security, operations management. It also has a separate suite of products to support the Internet of Things (IoT) for small and medium businesses. The critical success of Zoho platform lies with the product Zoho Flow which seamlessly integrates the data across the above mentioned Zoho products. With over forty five products, Zoho aspires to create one unified experience for its customers. Combining all the products, it has created Zoho One, one subscription plan to use products to empower sales, operations, support, HR, marketing and operations. Zoho is focused on portraying itself as a one-stop solution provider for small businesses, whereas Freshworks aspires to be a multi-successful-product brand.

Zoho Universe

The closed doors discussed above will lead us to understand the functioning system and strategies of Zoho and Freshworks.

Traditional SaaS companies focus on Fortune 500 clients. The deal size of the sales is enormous. Consider Zendesk, which operates at a high level and upper mid-level customer segment. They will typically hire a sales executive in their California office with around 100,000 USD salary. With an average deal size of 5000 USD, the sales executive is expected to close at least 20 deals every year to meet the cost to the company. The large deals will take lot of time to follow-up and close the account. Whereas, Zoho or Freshworks, operating from Chennai office can hire a fresh out of college grad for around 35000 INR per month. They target small businesses with relatively small deal sizes ( as low as 50 USD) but work on a high-volume basis.

The start-up ecosystem has made it easy to start a business. Therefore, there is plenty of demand. Traditional SaaS companies, based out of the United States, cannot operate in this space due to the high cost incurred with employee compensation to the company. A considerable segment of small and mid-size businesses is available for grab, taking advantage of labour arbitrage — the key benefit of IT service companies, Zoho and Freshworks are building world-class software products from India.

Even though their business strategy is the same, Freshworks and Zoho have two different souls. Freshworks is burning cash of its investors in aggressively expanding the operations. 60% annual growth rate is a voluntary standard for the company. Girish is looking to list Freshworks in NASDAQ stock exchange and will be the first Indian product company if he manages to do that.

Sridhar Vembu is not interested in raising money. His business is self-sustainable. With an entirely bootstrapped company, he believes that he has the freedom to choose the way the company operates. Zoho believes in the public good. “ We are a state-of-the-art tech company with a very old-fashioned approach to company building. “, says Sridhar Vembu.

Zoho has said no to aggressive growth, focuses on its strengths and moves slowly. It has got an array of products, but there is no strategic focus on moving up the pyramid. Zoho is a risk-averse company; they serve small businesses and operate at volume.

Freshworks is a fast growing company aspiring to be a market leader. When Freshdesk was started, they acquired customers quickly with prompt service and delivering delightful moments. If they diversify their portfolio and replicate the same success, they will become one of the market leader. They are also trying to expand into high-end customers. This is a fundamental shift to its core strength of labour arbitrage-business model. From the analysis and the current market scenario, it is understood that Freshworks is undergoing a transition in their strategy.


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How to have a successful product management internship

I interned with Microsoft last summer in the Program Manager (PM) role. Like many MBA students, it was my first opportunity to switch tracks to product management. After a successful internship, I am joining Microsoft as a full-time PM this June. I want to share a few pointers to maximise your chances of having a successful PM internship.

0. Communicate

First, understand the expectations of the project. Keep track of the progress. You can do this by scheduling recurring one on one meetings with your mentor and manager. Secondly, keep no surprises. Always communicate. Let your mentor or manager know what you are working on. Your early weeks will involve a lot of communication, that is normal. Mismatch of expectations can happen if you do not communicate often. A good PM will be an excellent communicator.

1. Respect others time

Your mentor and manager will be busy. Do not overwhelm them with your queries. Please respect the time they spend with you. Do some research on your own before reaching out to them. Always channel your work through your mentor to the manager. Mentors will help you avoid making rookie mistakes. Keep a notepad. Always take notes during the meeting and collate your queries in the notebook. A good PM will make the interaction productive for everyone.

2. Seek feedback

Feedback is vital to growth. Feedback comes in various forms-appreciation, criticism, suggestion. Seek all types of feedback and put efforts into using them in work. A good PM should be coachable.

3. Talk with data

Always seek metrics that will support your research, assumptions/hypothesis. Analyse the telemetry dashboards of your product, read customer reviews, customer call transcripts, industry reports, go through the presentations of your product in the team repository. A good PM should be data (evidence) driven.

4. Talk to your engineers

Until the fifth week of my internship, I did not talk to the engineers in my team. I took every question to my manager or mentor. Manager asked, “why don’t you ask this to your engineers”. It struck me then, “why am I taking all my questions to him; instead, I can ask the engineers”. I set up a few meetings with the developers, and they helped a lot in getting the technical perspective. Try to utilise all the resources at hand, including the engineers in the team.

5. Make connections

Talk to fellow PMs in your organisation to understand the work-culture in the company. It’s essential to find a good fit for you and the company. The company is evaluating you via the internship. Set up lunch or snack time one on ones with senior PMs. Understand how their careers pan out, seek advice or suggestions for your PM career. You may even get a mentor beyond the internship.

6. Be Proactive

Finally, you want your internship to be successful. Show the intent on your action. If you don’t have an assigned mentor, ask. If you don’t have access to a tool or a channel, ask. A good PM will be proactive in getting things done.

All the very best on your PM internship.

Let me know if you have any queries.


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The Art of flattening the internet demand curve

Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and YouTube are modifying their streaming service to ease-off the pressure on telecom infrastructure. Why would they do that? And how does it work?

Why

Telecom service providers are very similar to grocery store owners. Grocery stores procure products and sell it to customers. Similarly, telecom service providers buy/lease electromagnetic spectrum bandwidth and make it available for their subscribers’ use. Your voice calling, internet connectivity happen over the spectrum band.

During a global pandemic like the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak, the customer demand fluctuates a lot. You are working from home — you visit the grocery shop to buy vegetables, but they are all sold out. Similarly, if everyone uses the internet at their higher bandwidth capacity, the telecom infrastructure will break down. Nobody will be able to communicate. Without the internet, all of our lives will become meaningless.

Most of us resort to sparing use of vegetables at home during these times. But what about the internet? Video streaming accounts for more than 60% of internet traffic. As we spend more time at home, we tend to binge on our favourite sitcom, run the Prime Minister’s speech live and look for the dinner meal recipe on that YouTube channel. To better handle the demand, the video streaming sites have agreed to reduce the bit-rates of their default stream quality.

For example, YouTube’s default video quality is 720-pixel high definition. They have decided to change it to 480 standard pixel resolution. But the higher resolutions are not going away. The users will still be able to change it to 720 pixels or 1080 pixel quality if they want. You may ask, “Then how will we keep up with the demand?”

How

Do you know Google paid $12 billion in 2019 and $9 billion in 2018 to Apple, to remain as the default search engine in Safari browser? They are capitalizing on a fundamental internet consumer behaviour. Among billions of internet users, most are not tech-savvy. They tend to use what comes as the default option. Therefore, it makes sense to Google to be present at the forefront of the millions of Apple devices that run Safari as their default browser.

YouTube, Prime Video, Netflix and Facebook are all counting on this user behaviour to mitigate the surge in demand. Although some people will change the video quality, many are expected to stick to the default option. It will help telecom companies to flatten the curve of internet demand.

The internet infrastructure is a finite resource like any other commodity. During the time of pandemic, if we can make a little compromise on the quality of our video streaming — we all can survive our meaningful virtual life without break down.

Stay at home and do wash your hands often!


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