A day with Gibson Biddle: product strategy tips from the master

20 Sep 2022   •  6 minute read

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Josef Lapka

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The Mews Blog  >  A day with Gibson Biddle: product strategy tips from the master

Last month, I was fortunate enough to be invited to a workshop with Gibson Biddle, former VP of Product at Netflix between 2005 and 2010, and it did not disappoint. While I’d read Gib’s teachings before, the delivery of his content was even more engaging, stimulating, and inspiring. 

Just like all good product leaders, Gib reflects on his past successes and failures and delivers them with clarity to his audience. And what’s more, he does this primarily to underpin the importance of strategic thinking. In my opinion, a degree of strategic thinking applies to all the different levels of product management, from CPO/VP level strategies all the way to team ones. 

I catapulted myself back into my career and thought about all the successes and failures I’ve had as a product leader, using retrospective analysis to evaluate what I used to work on. Most, if not all, of my successes, have come from tackling problems head-on. Problems that when solved would ultimately create delight for the user, were hard to copy, and increased both the company’s and our customer’s margins. This is exactly where Gib was going.  

All my failures, on the other hand, were around products that were short-sighted and fulfilled only specific needs without looking at the underlying problems or economics. I just never spotted the pattern before. Instead, I put it down to intuition and gut feeling. This, of course, is flattering, because one is regarded as a special person, a forward thinker, but it’s definitely not scalable. Thought leaders are the ones that spot the pattern, apply it repeatedly with success, and ultimately share it. 

  

DHM model

Following a short intro, Gib jumped right into the DHM model. This is highlighted in his Medium article and essentially asks three questions in order to brainstorm ideas: 

1) How will the product delight customers? [Delight] 

2) What will make the product hard to copy? [Hard to copy] 

3) What are the business model experiments required to build a profitable business? [Margin enhancing] 

 

With an imminent 15-minute working session upon us, we were preparing to go, our minds racing through the potential problems we’d need to solve to enhance our product with those questions in mind. It’s not easy, certainly not when you also know that you’re going to be presenting to another group before the end of the day.  

But I can’t recommend this exercise enough. Looking at the larger problem space allows you to set your sights on something bigger and strategic, quickly moving you away from tactical thinking and towards a laser focus approach to what’s important. Some examples of this strategic thinking are again shared in Gib’s article. 

Don’t get me wrong, this exercise is not for everybody. This approach is for product teams, not feature teams. If your organization is purely looking at competitor gap analyses and high-level customer forums and workgroups to determine your destiny, then this exercise is not for you. 

  

GEM model

So, what next? Following a short break, we tackled the GEM model. This model allows us to think about three major aspects of business metrics: Growth, Engagement, and Monetization. The exercise is designed purely to align the entire organization around the right priorities. Are we, as an organization, going to prioritize Growth, Engagement, or Monetization?  

  • Growth: as measured by the year-over-year member growth rate. 
  • Engagement: as measured by a specific engagement metric. Think of this as a proxy for product quality which is different for every organization. 
  • Monetization: as measured by Lifetime Value (LTV) and gross margin.

  

This approach allows the product teams, as well as the commercial, marketing, finance, and operations units, to rally behind the same priorities. It does not mean that we can’t contribute to all three, but should a decision be needed between them, this forced-rank prioritization helps maintain alignment across the company and aids prioritization for all teams. In this section, we were given only a few minutes to think about our prioritization. 

A key prerequisite for being able to rank these is to define your primary engagement metric. For some groups, this was more difficult than for others. For example, one group reported that success actually meant fewer active daily users because their software made it possible to automate large aspects of the operations, so they didn’t need to return as often.  

An example would be something likeZapier, where a user connects when they want to set up a new Zap, only returning to the software to create, fix, report, or enhance another Zap. In this instance, it is reasonable to argue that the number of Zaps or number of steps in a Zap is a good indicator of engagement metrics, retaining your customers because they rely on this automation. In other examples, it was much easier, especially on B2C products, where engagement is often driven by the number of active or acquired users. 

In our examples for Mews as a hospitality platform, the engagement metric is a little more complicated. As it is a central system for all our customers, the engagement metric can’t be the number of active daily users, because that’s everyone. The first step is to identify who you want to engage the most and how you can measure their behavior.  

In the world of complex and central B2B products, product success can be measured through NPS, but it still does not guarantee commercial success. It might be an indicator of it, but not the measurement. So ultimately when it comes to B2B products in our sector, it would be the decision maker that you’d want to focus on because they will decide whether to stick with your product or move on. They will also decide whether to move your product to other locations in their portfolio or other departments, i.e., expansion.  

This was a metric I was skeptical of on the day, but that our competitor team, also from Mews, came up with: Net Revenue Retention. Given the thought process above, it started to make sense to me. 

  

Strategy, Metric and Tactic 

The next item on the menu was SMT: Strategy, Metric and Tactic. Here, we were tasked to align success metrics to strategies and determine what tactics we felt were needed in order to fulfill them.  

In any organization that has a product mindset and therefore their teams are product-focused rather than feature-focused, this exercise is very easy and comes as second nature. For any teams working in organizations where the teams are feature-focused, this switch is really hard. Because ultimately your metric is that you delivered the feature. You do not care about what outcomes these features deliver. All that is important to your success is that you’ve ticked off that feature from your list. This approach is valid for companies that want to stay competitive, but never branch out and push for true innovation.  

Again, this method is already outlined in Gib’s Medium article that I’ve shared a few times in this post. But it was the delivery of the content, and the direct questioning around the metrics, that was the most inspiring. Simple questions like what does this metric mean, why did you choose these metrics, and where are you heading with this metric, were all very thought-provoking and, of course, highlighted the importance of knowing where you’ve started and where you’re destined to go. These high-level metrics must then be passed onto the teams to tackle. 

The teams can then choose what and how they build towards these with the guidance of the different tactics they could apply. It is also important for the teams to have their own proxy metrics to measure the severity of the problem they are solving but also to be able to measure their successes in trying to reach the solution. I say ‘trying to’ because truly complex problems, that are ultimately designed to change user behavior for the benefit of the business, are difficult to predict from the start.  

My opinion on this is that every product manager should know what point A is and what this starting point means to their users, as well as aspire to get towards some sort of point B. The emphasis here is ‘towards’. Product management is the journey towards the outcome, not necessarily arriving at the destination.  

Sometimes, you might see that you get 50% towards your objective and it’s already driving an impact on user behavior and generating the predicted business results. However, the ultimate goal of the proxy metric has not yet been reached. Here, a good product manager should ask themselves: do I want to continue investing in this, or is this good enough? That is why it’s so important to have these success metrics. 

The final point here is the tactic, which I mentioned previously. Tactics are there to guide the teams through the journey towards fulfilling the strategy. Each product team member should be asking themselves: how are we going to deliver the strategic aim that will help improve the specific metric? And this ultimately leads us to the roadmap. At Mews we don’t prescribe roadmaps from a strategic director level, but instead allow our product teams to prepare their own quarterly roadmaps. 

  

If you don’t already know of Gib’s teachings, then I would highly recommend this article and collection of short essays

Of course, all of this in isolation from other best practices will not work. There are some prerequisites that you need to embrace in order to fine-tune your product organization. Here are some further themes that I will be writing about in the near future that I believe are very much complementary to the approach above: 

  1. Empowered teams 
  2. An organizational structure that fits your product needs 
  3. Strong focus on quality and UX 
  4. Continuous discovery methods 
  5. A clear understanding of product value 

 

Feel free to reach out on LinkedIn if you’d like to talk more about this.

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Josef Lapka

Josef is a product management leader with a passion for hotel tech. As well as having buckets of experience in public and private sectors across multiple industries, he's also a really lovely guy.