Doing things that don’t scale – my Brian Chesky moment

People can’t sit quietly

The evening sun shone warmly upon us, as we sipped hot tea together in the slightly cold winds of November. I had been discussing a plethora of topics with my partners E and S. (They would like to stay private. Hence, the post will refer to them as E and S). We decided to challenge ourselves.

The challenge – Run an experiment where we had to sell a tangible physical product within 24 hours and generate revenues (and hopefully profits) respectively.

And thus began some of the most exhilarating hours of my life along with my partners in crime; E and S.

An Idea and Washrooms

The problem statement we narrowed down on was to help people surprise their respective partners / friends and give them the opportunity to make memories.

We entered a mall and used the washroom entrance to target people. Since we did not have the necessary permissions to openly sell within the mall. ūüėÄ

Insights –

  • While we received prospects, pushing them along the funnel and converting them into buying customers was ridiculously hard.
  • Attempting to use the mall without permissions as a growth hack was exciting. Luckily, we spent sufficient time trying to gain prospects, before being thrown out. ūüôā
  • Lack of women on the team, which would have made our task of approaching female groups easier. Lack of children with us, which would at least have helped us approach and interview families. (Side note – Made me ponder on why companies keep fighting against diversity, since a small experiment like this made it very clear that collaboration between people from different backgrounds / genders / experiences, etc can help make things easier, and also add value.)
  • The true power of trying out something crazy showed up, as a couple walked over to us and talked about how they had tried something similar and would be happy to help us in our growth.
A Pivot and a Rocket ship

This time, instead of taking the typical product approach of building something and trying it out in the market, we decided to take a diametrically opposite approach. The decision was to target the areas which would have the biggest crowd, and figure out what could be sold respectively.

While S and me took to observing the people walking in and out of the temple, in hopes of spotting some clues; E begun exploring nearby shops. A good 20 minutes later, E walked up to us and mentioned that we should be selling ghee (traditional clarified butter) which could be used by people to light up diyas (oil lamps) and place them in the temple respectively.

Our eyes widened, as the two of us stared at him in silence. We had a deep feeling that E had truly lost it! ūüôā With nothing to loose except precious time, we none the less decided to jump onto the bandwagon. And backed against the wall, the only worse thing that could have happened was a second failure and a third pivot to something crazier.

Someone comes knocking!

We ended up landing our first customer. While she was reluctant at first, we did manage to convince her, and ended up making the first sale. It was more of a relief than a celebratory moment. However, nothing had prepared us for the moments that took place a few minutes later. Since it was our first sale, we had not even considered the potential customer success use cases.

The Brian Chesky moment

While we begun quickly turning around our business with a couple of more customers; our first consumer returned angrily. She begun pounding us with details on where we were screwing up. In this fit of irritation, she mentioned a festival that happened to be on that Saturday.

While my partner pacified the angry consumer, I made mental notes of the various points with a high degree of astonishment. Brian Chesky had talked about finding a singular user who helped them define the next set of features. I stared in complete disbelief as the words started coming true right in front of my eyes. We not only got a detailed road map for the next 2 hours. But thanks to her, we capitalized on this new found consumer insight; turning our next two hours into absolute craziness.

We immediately diversified our product categories to both ghee and diyas. Gradually, we realized that a complete ready to light diya was turning out to be more profitable. Hence, we quickly shut down our original product of direct raw materials and went full bang on a packaged diya.

As our consumer demand shot up, we soon ran out of supply. With S stuck fulfilling other supplies, I had to dash to the nearest ATM barefooted to withdraw cash and replenish the ghee supply. Running wild eyed and barefoot for about a KM as people stared at me is a moment that’s going into my bucket list of crazy stuff I have done. ūüôā

Customer centricity

As a product manager, I keep interviewing customers in hopes of figuring out insights that not only solve further problems for the customer, but in turn also impact product metrics (conversion / retention / churn / etc) and ultimately business metrics (profit margins / operating margins / cash flows / etc).

This customer centric mindset helped us nail superior profits in the closing hours or our experiment, as we discovered that customers wanted paper napkins to clean their hands after using ghee / lighting diyas. The insight was a value add as we utilized it into premium pricing for our product.

The power of persistence and a team

Having worked with diverse teams / stakeholders as a product manager, I have been a strong believer in teams, with whom I have shared both tough yet happy moments working towards outcomes. This experiment brought alive the power of diverse teams yet again. E came up with the idea, S ran the supply chain like a slick operations guy, and I as the product manager, did whatever was required to get stuff out. I participated in driving the end to end execution, providing a lending hand in the consumer facing messaging as well as supply side, when things got really fast.

Customer messaging and Sales
Results

We not only went from zero to one, but ended up making a small yet neat profit from the measly amount we had invested.

I have been immensely lucky to have executed this experiment in collaboration with two amazing people who keep me motivated through their own respective journeys. And yes, a mention for one of the best episodes of this wonderful podcast, which keeps my craziness alive, despite life constantly pushing me towards the negative quadrant on the Y axis.

 

I finally got customer obsession. Sadly, not the best of companies!

The sun had just begun shining brightly, as the day progressed towards a lazy afternoon. Sipping hot tea, I lazed around, reading a couple of articles.¬†Finally, I had a weekend to myself, without classes and assignments from Asia’s first B school for product leaders. (The B school staff ensures¬†to not make me sit idle,¬†while¬†being in pursuit of my passion of¬†becoming¬†a product / digital leader).

A couple of ads placed together caught my eye. Assuming that they are personalized and targeted, I clicked on them with an inclination to experiment.

The Flipkart ad for a shoe ended up in a clothing store. Even the URL indicated to me “https://www.flipkart.com/mens-clothing-store”. At first, I doubted myself, wondering whether I had probably clicked randomly, without really focussing on the ad.¬†I navigated back to the page to check the¬†same. And there it was,¬†the¬†flashy¬†shoe staring back at me!

Right below was an ad from Amazon, and it took me directly to the page of the book. I not only saw the book details, but the prices and the add to cart button. This clearly played on making things easy for the consumer. It essentially nudged me, as an end user, to finally make that purchase.

There does not seem to be much complex tech involved in this. In any case, since this was a facebook ad, the core competency was being taken care by the FB ad business team themselves. Yet, after burning millions of ad dollars, if this is the customization offered to end users, it is surprising to say the least.

Customer obsession involves fleshing out¬†all the touch points across the customer journey and working backwards to ensure that all are met. While we se¬†many errors / bugs / customer complaints across different products, it is imperative that any company works in that direction.¬†Frictionless checkouts are considered default in today’s software products. Failing to oblige the customer in that direction is only a lost cause in the long term.

This post is not biased against either company or team. The pen was put to paper to indicate that customer obsession lies in the simplest of things. Either there is a lack of supply of better product marketing managers, or a lack of better testers.

Or simply better product managers are the demand of the day, to drive the respective teams towards offering value to customers / consumers.