West Coast Product Management

June 27, 2017

More than geography, it’s a customer-centric philosophy.

Tech titans Google, Facebook, and Amazon have built digital products that revolutionized the way we socialize, shop, navigate through space and carry on our lives in general. They also make up a collective market cap that exceeds $1.5 trillion and their stock prices have tripled to quintupled in the past five years alone. What’s their secret? These companies embrace a strategy at the core of their business that I like to call “West Coast Product Management” (WCPM for short).

The closest thing to an instruction manual for how to execute WCPM are Amazon’s Leadership Principles, which serve as the blueprint for how a startup selling books out a garage grew to be a $600 billion company.

West Coast Product Management

At its core, West Coast Product Management is an idea that putting the customer first (no matter what) when building digital products will inevitably create substantial, measurable value for the company. The principles in this manifesto describe this customer-centric product development approach.

The roots of WCPM can be found in the silicon valley companies that made their mark during the dotcom bubble of the late 1990s and survived the subsequent crash in 2001. In order to compete against “traditional” companies (e.g. brick and mortar retailers), startups like Amazon had to give customers a compelling reason to adopt a completely new way to shop. Google and Facebook faced fierce competition from entrenched rivals (remember Altavista and Myspace?) and had to figure out a way to innovate by quickly testing and building features to become the obvious choice for search and social media, respectively.

As people left these behemoths to create their own startups, they carried the core ideas of WCPM with them. The culture and way of doing business proliferated organically along the West Coast of the US through the 2000s and while the majority of WCPM still happens there, it’s being adopted globally based on the value it delivers. WCPM has also made its way into the culture to a number of companies (mainly startups) in new tech hotbeds such as New York City (Trello), Israel (Waze), and London (Lyst).

Understanding and implementing WCPM is a key success driver for most “traditional” companies. Adoption of a modern digital product management philosophy is important in industries such as retail, media, and healthcare where “technology-first” companies are making significant inroads or have already captured the hearts, minds, and pocketbooks of their consumers.

“Traditional” non-technology companies are reluctant to explore the idea of behaving like technology companies who live and breathe WCPM (while openly admiring Google and Amazon), despite the fact that digital products are becoming or are already the growth engine of their business. The bottom-line is this: for most industry verticals, companies that operate like technology or software companies are already pulling ahead of their competitors and gaining market share. Companies that are not adapting these strategies have adopted a dangerous “defend our market share” mentality, or are being forced into the desperation of a full-blown end-game strategy.

WCPM can be summed up with a set of ten principles. These operate as “tenets” that are used as tiebreakers when a product decision has to be made.

  1. The Product is the Business: Empower technology teams to create value by holding them accountable to measurable business goals. Encourage a culture of ownership by encouraging stakeholders to offer input to the digital product teams to define business goals instead of coming up with digital feature ideas and “throwing them over the fence” to a technology group.
  2. Advocate for the Customer: Customer empathy is key. Know, or better yet, be the voice of the customer. Make decisions based on what benefits the customer.  Build products that provide the best possible customer experience.
  3. Lead or Fail: Move beyond parity with competitors; find new, innovative ways to delight your customers. Simply defending a position against competitors sets up eventual defeat.
  4. Say No: Go digital where it makes sense. Do not build digital products for the sake of building digital products. Quantify value (even expected value). Use technology to delight the customer and solve a legitimate problem.
  5. Start Small and Iterate: Quantify value, prioritize, execute, pivot. Define goals and KPI, estimate value for different products / features, take big bets on the needle-movers.  Deliver small bits incrementally, use data to iterate. Learn from data and pivot fast. Create an environment where it’s safe to fail. No “big bang” projects.
  6. Be Awesome: Become indispensable to the customer. Develop digital products that are so useful, customers cannot imagine life without them. Essential tools do not have to look pretty or operate smoothly in their first iteration, but should solve an actual problem and do it well.
  7. Automation is Progress: Technology doesn’t make jobs redundant, it automates repetitive activities to free up creative energy and innovative thinking. Use technology to automate functions where it improves the customer experience.
  8. Love the 80/20 Rule: Figure out what’s most important to customers and focus energy delivering a solid product that covers the majority of the use cases. Don’t waste time and money chasing the long tail of digital functionality.
  9. Understand Effective Process: Keep governance lightweight and effective. Processes exist to empower teams to operate at maximum efficiency while maintaining consistency and quality across the organization. Governance accelerates productivity, it does not create obstacles.
  10. Keep it Simple: Delight the customer with simplicity. Simple, usable, functional digital products that add value and solve a customer’s problem delight the user and deliver significant, measurable value to the business.  

This description of WCPM gives you a starting point from which you can explore whether these principles of digital product management will delight your customers and ultimately, create significant value within your organization.  

If you’re interested in testing this strategy, it’s easy to implement. Start small! Choose a tiny segment of your business (such as a single customer-facing product), identify a hypothesis to test, build an MVP (Minimum Viable Product), and let the data indicate whether WCPM drives results in your organization. It’s even possible to bring in an agency or outside consultancy to test this strategy.

I could write a book on West Coast Product Management and the advantages it has across companies and industries, but let’s instead have this post serve as a starting point for a broader conversation about effective digital product management strategies. I’d be thrilled to put together a group to publish a “West Coast Product Management Manifesto” to compliment the Agile Manifesto published in 2001.

Feel free to send me your thoughts or questions at chriss@l4digital.com.

Chris Styduhar

Chris began developing software at the age of six; writing BASIC code on a (then) state-of-the-art Apple IIGS. After getting his computer science degree and working as a software engineer for a few startups, Chris spent nearly a decade globetrotting with a large management consulting firm. Lured by its proximity to Whistler and temperate climate, Chris moved to Seattle in 2012 and has since experienced the great, good, bad and the ugly in digital product management across multiple industry verticals. Chris joined L4 as a Senior Product Manager in early 2017 to work with great people and build great products. On weekends, he can be found seeking out the twisties on his motorbike, hurling himself down a mountain on skis or a bicycle or BBQing on his roof.

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