How one product manager thinks about bringing products to market in a digital world

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Do product management executives need to think more like marketers? What should companies pushing into mobile do about technology debt? The Enterprisers Project recently asked Rajesh Wunnava to share his thoughts on these and other topics. As a senior digital product and technology executive, Wunnava's experience spans the entertainment, consumer products, and advertising industries and includes a successful track record in leading and delivering technology-driven product and business innovation and growth through new products, insights and revenue streams.

CIO_Q and A

The Enterprisers Project (TEP): As a product manager, do you spend a lot of time thinking like a marketer?

Wunnava: Yes. I need to understand my market regarding overall trends, emerging threats and opportunities. It’s equally critical to understand my customers’ needs and wants and clearly define what problem my product solves for them. Today, of course, I also have to adopt the technologist’s mindset as well. I may be managing a product, but exactly how am I going to execute things from a technology perspective? Is this model scalable, and how can I optimize the cost structures and margins? That’s where marketing meets technology. One must wear the hat of a marketing technologist.

TEP: How would you define success in product management?

Wunnava: Success means looking at the 200 things I want to do and then validating, prioritizing and building a roadmap to help focus on things that will achieve my business and P&L goals while meeting market and customer needs. It is equally important to develop the right partnerships with other companies. Regardless of my role, I will have to work with and influence different functions from sales, marketing, legal, business development, finance, technology, and operations. At some level, all of these disciplines are now interwoven with my role of the product manager or CEO of my product line.

TEP: What kinds of things are you doing to keep up with the market and bring the right kind of mindset to it at a cutting-edge media entertainment technology company like Gracenote?

Wunnava: I am constantly keeping my eyes and ears open as it relates to what’s happening in the market, because especially in technology, new competition is springing up every day. I’ve reached a point where I say to myself, “What should I be paying attention to?” versus tracking every startup coming out of the far corners of the world. Because there are startups in China, in France, all over the globe, at some point you have to qualify them. They aren’t all going to be a threat, but some might have an impact on what I do. I like to score them on a matrix.

Second, I conduct an unbiased assessment of my current model, my business model as well as my product features. Are my products going to meet the current needs as well as the emerging needs of customers? If not, then what do I need to build to compete effectively in the marketplace? How am I going to hit revenue and profitability targets? I continually assess our current products and roadmap, as well as what is happening in the market.

TEP: What are your thoughts on delivering value by marketing to consumers at the moment as their tastes and preferences change? Does that require a constant reorientation since competitors are tweaking existing models or trying to undermine existing models all the time?

Wunnava: Yes, it is already important to deliver value through personalization at the moment regardless of whether we are talking about content/entertainment, commerce or optimal routing options based on real-time traffic and driving preferences. There is a significant paradigm shift in how companies across industries are anticipating and predicting trends and also evaluating threats from companies both within and outside of their industries. For example, GPS companies such as Garmin and Tom Tom were impacted by new entrants in the mobile navigation space more so than by traditional competitors from inside their industry.

TEP: If you are starting a new digital practice or a whole new company, what kinds of best practices can you point to?

Wunnava: Focus on vision, strategy and more importantly, build the right culture. You always need to start from the business model end and ask critical questions such as, “What is your product; why should the customer care; what problem are you solving; what is your differentiator; and does that differentiator align with your core strengths?” You have to be very realistic about this last point. Otherwise, you’re not on solid ground because pursuing goals not aligned with your strengths and capabilities could result in severe and demoralizing failure. The other key component is to execute and innovate quickly by failing fast and learning from it. Iterate and continually build for the future because the rate of change and competition could make you stagnant and eventually, obsolete. Another increasingly important question today, especially in the digital space is, “What’s your partnership model?” Gone are the days when it was possible to be a big, monolithic company and build all things on your own.

TEP: To speak to the other end of your continuum, the established company, how do you need to think about technology debt as you move into new areas?

Wunnava: I don’t want to say technology is the business, but they are so tightly linked now that you often can’t differentiate which part is driving what. It is one thing today that can make or break a business for sure. That means you have to start by asking what makes the best sense for your business and growth ambitions and not do something for the sake of technology alone. Most companies older than 10-15 years are dealing with technology debt issues and also shortened business cycles and faster time-to-market. What worked yesterday does not work or might not work as well today. There are several questions that need to be answered starting with simple ones:

  • Is it preferable to have data centers versus using the cloud?
  • What are the trade-offs between cost savings vs. time to market/innovate?
  • Should I focus on serving existing customers and protecting existing revenue or pursuing new business models and customers?
  • Should I strive to grow top-line or save on the bottom-line?

The most important thing for established companies is not just embracing technology change but also managing and overcoming the organizational and cultural changes that come with it. It’s critical to be realistic about the amount of change an organization can handle without it jeopardizing the existing business.

It goes without saying that you’ve got to embrace change if you want to be a successful company. Painful as it may be, change must be managed carefully if you want to be still in business five to 10 years from now.

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