The 3 Step Process to Create an Outstanding Product Creation Framework

Aaron Mitchell & Jeff Whitlock
Founder & CEO at Freeplay (Aaron) Founder & CEO at PingPong (Jeff)
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Speaker 1 (00:00:15):

You're listening to the TechTables Podcast, a weekly Q and A podcast dedicated to interviewing industry leaders from across the world, ranging from startups to Fortune 500 companies, mixing it up each week with topics ranging from design and product innovation to IoT and industry 4.0. Let's do this.

Joe Toste (00:00:33):

We're back for another week in the world of TechTables, making the best in design and tech innovations with me, Joe Toste. I'd love to connect with you behind the scenes on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram. There you can even message me questions for future guests coming on the show. But today I'm very excited. We're going to shift our focus to product creation and the startup world with Freeplay, a fitness membership for friends, and Unbird, a company that aggregates and analyzes customer feedback. Huge thank you to Aaron and Jeff for taking time to come on the show today. Without further ado, I'm thrilled to welcome Aaron Mitchell, Founder and CEO at Freeplay, and Jeff Whitlock, Founder and CEO at Unbird. Welcome to the show, Aaron and Jeff. Super stoked you guys are here today.

Aaron Mitchell (00:01:09):

Great to be here, Joe. Thanks for having us.

Jeff Whitlock (00:01:11):

Yeah, we're really excited to be here.

Joe Toste (00:01:13):

Let's kick off today, a little bit about the both of you guys and your entrepreneurial spirits over the years and of course your background in product. Aaron, let's start with you there.

Aaron Mitchell (00:01:23):

Yeah, I graduated in 2012, and I immediately jumped into the product management space. I worked for a high-tech company out of Utah. It was called Landesk at the time. It's not called Ivanti. And they built really old, boring software. I thought it was kind of boring, but it was very valuable for IT departments. And so I cut my teeth on some pretty complex IT products that we were building for clients at the time. And then I got the opportunity to work on a project under the direction of the CEO. And it was this new cutting-edge SaaS platform that we were building. It was really, really exciting, and I was kind of leading the initiative from the product management perspective and with a killer set of engineers and designers. And that's when I really fell in love with product management.

Aaron Mitchell (00:02:17):

And then I hoped over to Cloud BI. I was a startup at the time called Domo. They've since IPOed and have been, in my opinion, one of the greatest intelligence platforms that there is as far as product goes. So I led a couple product teams there and [crosstalk 00:02:34].

Jeff Whitlock (00:02:34):

Would you recommend buying their stock when it's $10 or whatever.

Aaron Mitchell (00:02:41):

I have some options in Domo, so we'll see how that all plays out in the long run. I'm holding onto them, but we'll see. But it was actually while I was at Domo that I started my company, Freeplay, and I've been going at that ever since and meanwhile also doing a lot of consulting work on the side with Mokriya to working with Twitter and Sony and a bunch of other clients on product strategy, product management.

Joe Toste (00:03:09):

Love it. Quickly, before we head over to Jeff, what is Freeplay?

Aaron Mitchell (00:03:15):

Yeah, so Freeplay is essentially ... You can think of it as a fitness membership that's made for groups of people. So you get your friends, your family together to purchase a membership, and then it gets you access to hundreds of different gyms and studios in your areas. And we also make it really easy for you to team up with the friends that you're on the platform with and go and play a game of basketball together at the gym or go rock climb or take a yoga class or whatever you're into.

Joe Toste (00:03:47):

Love it, yeah. I'm looking forward to having Freeplay come to Santa Barbara. That's my small, little pitch for that. And Jeff, what about you?

Jeff Whitlock (00:03:55):

I started my career in management consulting at McKinsey and company pretty actually far away from, quote, unquote, tech. I started at McKinsey. I worked in mining and manufacturing and corporate strategy, healthcare, government and learned some really amazing things there, I think built a toolkit to think analytically. But I knew that those industries weren't ones that I wanted to stay in for a long time. I was pretty excited to try and pivot into tech. So I was able to move to a company called Vivint Smart Home as a chief of staff to one of the executives there. And while I was an executive chief of staff with the executive, I really wanted to get into product. That was my kind of end game. So I was lucky enough to finagle my way into product management and worked in a number of different product roles at that smart home company, eventually led development of their mobile application. After that I decided to go join a startup as a very early team member internationally in East Africa. It was a ride-sharing company for motorcycle taxis called SafeBoda. The thing it's probably more similar to is Gojek, if anyone has heard of that company. It's a big multi-billion dollar company out of Indonesia. So I did that. I was their head of product there, built the first version of that product, launched it and grew it.

Jeff Whitlock (00:05:18):

And then my wife got pregnant when we were living in Uganda, and so we made the tough personal decision to come back to the US, where I started Unbird. And I've been working on my startup since coming back to the US for the last couple years.

Joe Toste (00:05:32):

Awesome, I love it. I love it. That's great. And just give it a little bit of context on Unbird.

Jeff Whitlock (00:05:39):

Yeah, so the basic idea of Unbird is that you want to build things that people love and want to use. You need to understand them, and that responsibility kind of falls on ... In tech it falls on the shoulders of everyone. But functionally a lot of times it's product managers and user researchers. And so we build a tool for them that helps them manage their qualitative research. So think about aggregating user interview notes, customer feedback and then categorizing it and visualizing it in a way that you can draw conclusions about your customers.

Joe Toste (00:06:15):

Yeah, I'm going to dive in a little bit later in the questions, so I don't want to jump too far ahead. But yeah, I think that's also really, really interesting. So Aaron, let's swing back to you. You wrote an article back on Medium back in the day, three big mistakes that you made as an early-stage entrepreneur, where you tell the story of your first high school varsity football game. Which when I was reading this, I saw the photo. And I never pictured you as a football player, and I got to see it. And I think you're almost getting sacked, is the photo. And I coach basketball, high school basketball, so I definitely resonated with the coaching style in the story and the advice that your coach gave you. Can you just walk us through that first game on the gridiron?

Aaron Mitchell (00:07:00):

Yeah, it was, looking back it's kind of funny to think about now, but it was my very first start at quarterback. It was my senior year, and I was probably the nervous, the most nervous I've ever been. And we went out, we were playing this team that was about an hour away from my high school. And we got out there, and I'm just furiously shaking with nervousness. And we run a few plays, and we drive the football all the way down to ... I think it was the 10-yard line or so. And then coach calls this play action play, where I basically fake the handoff up the middle, and then I roll out to my right. And while I'm running to my right, I'm supposed to through it to the tight end. And he's supposed to be in the end zone, and we score a touchdown. So I remember I was on that exact play, I rolled out, and I was getting chased from behind. I could feel the guy behind me, and so I threw the ball. And when I threw it, I remember thinking that was a beautiful ball. This is touchdown, undoubtedly. And so right as I threw it, I got tackled, so my face was in the ground. And all I remember hearing was the cheer of the crowd, and I just thought my gosh, my very first touchdown as a starting quarterback. What a great moment.

Aaron Mitchell (00:08:24):

And then I looked up, and it was actually the other team had intercepted the ball, and that was why the crowd was cheering.

Joe Toste (00:08:34):

That's not what you want, by the way. That's not what you want, by the way, right?

Aaron Mitchell (00:08:37):

No, yeah, that was a bummer. But I think what was really interesting about that game was I just felt like I was making a lot of mistakes. And you put in all this practice, and you just got out of daily doubles. And you want to be successful, and so you feel like these mistakes just shouldn't be happening. And to really put the cherry on top of it all, my coach was just in my ear the whole game, just calling me things that I can't utter in public spaces anymore. But he was really getting after me. And I remember leaving that game, we ended up winning. We killed them. But I remember leaving that game just feeling like I don't know if I want to play football anymore. That wasn't a fun experience for me at all. And so I rolled into the locker room Monday morning, and my coached pulled me in his office. And he asked me a really interesting question. He sat me down, he says, "Hey, Aaron, I yelled at you quite a bit on Friday night."

Aaron Mitchell (00:09:39):

And I kind of nodded and smiled. I said, "Yeah, you did."

Aaron Mitchell (00:09:45):

And then he asked me a really interesting question. He said, "Why do you think I did that?" And I'd never really considered his reasoning other than just he was really mad that I wasn't playing up to my potential.

Aaron Mitchell (00:09:58):

And so I said, "Well, because you were mad at me, probably."

Aaron Mitchell (00:10:01):

And he said, "No, I was actually ... I wanted you to have the most intense, difficult experience your first part of the season so that, as we go through the rest of the season, you can look back on that game and think well, I got through that game, and we won. So I can make it through this adverse scenario now. And that really stuck with me.

Aaron Mitchell (00:10:26):

I think it was a great lesson that my coach taught me and something that I frequently look back at, that whenever there is a difficult circumstance or a difficult challenge in front of you, I see it as a big opportunity to learn and to grown and to really take some knowledge and understanding of those high pressure situations and that you can build up your toughness and look back and say, "I learned from that. I got through that. I can get through this one too."

Joe Toste (00:10:55):

Yeah, I love that. Especially on the coaches side, I remember this year, and I was an assistant coach on the JV basketball team. And we took some of our JV guys who are freshman, who are really, really good. And they're going to play varsity next year, and we took them up to the varsity level, and they got to play. And the difference between a freshman and a senior is pretty big, and so these kids are ... They haven't really grown at all. They're just tiny kids, and they're just getting bullied and pushed around. But they loved it and kind of explaining the same process to them. And just taking them to a different level was really good. So you listed three mistakes in this article that are pretty great as far as on the startup side. So your first big mistake was waiting on the product. Mistake number two, fundraising except when you're not. Mistake number three, building for vision, not customers. Let's transition from football to the startup world and these mistakes and how they go together.

Aaron Mitchell (00:11:58):

Yeah, I think if you're not making mistakes, you're not learning and growing. And so these are three big mistakes that, in hindsight, I wish I wouldn't have made them but also am grateful that I did, so I could learn from them. The first one, waiting on the product, I think what I learned out of this is I always, having just grown up in product management in my career, I always thought that the first thing you had to do was get a product out there and get it into the market in order to really start the business. But what I've learned since then that's just as important if not more important is the distribution and figuring out, okay, I have this product that I'm working on right now, but I'm not going to ... When we released Freeplay for the first time, that launch, basically I just looked. I thought we're going to build this thing, and then I'll post about it on my social media accounts. And maybe we'll run some preliminary ads, and people will just be downloading it left and right. And so it was kind of a hard realization when we had put all this work into the product, and we had put all this time and effort and money into creating it, that when we went to launch, it was crickets.

Aaron Mitchell (00:13:16):

A few of my friends went and downloaded it and left reviews. And they didn't even know what we were doing with the product, but they were just doing it out of the kindness of their hearts. And so looking back, I wish I would've spent more time figuring out the distribution channels and figuring out, okay, what's our growth plan? Once this product is ready, how do we get it into the market as quickly as possible? And what do we think our strategy needs to look like for that? So that was the first big mistake that I made. The second thing that I learned is I remember in the early years, people would say, "Well are you going to going to go raise money?"

Aaron Mitchell (00:13:52):

And I would say, "Well yeah, actually we're raising right now." But I didn't realize that fundraising is a full-time job. You can't just sort of dip your toe in the fundraising waters. In order to finance a company, you have to get really aggressive at being proactive, reaching out to investors, getting on their radar and just kind of building the excitement level around your company. And so for a long time, I just sort of dabbled in the fundraising area. And we just weren't very successful, and we raised from kind of friends and family. But I ended up extending that timeline for me to go raise money far longer than it needed to be extended, just because it wasn't my primary focus. And so it was once I really started to dig in and focus on fundraising and getting meetings, and that was my full-time job, that's when we started getting term sheets. So that was my second big mistake that I don't want to make again. And then the last one, the third one, building for vision, not customers. I think what this is, this is a mistake that I think a lot of people make, is you have this big, grandiose vision of what you think this company needs to be and what you want it to be. In fact, when I was at Domo, I think we suffered from this quite a bit on the product team.

Aaron Mitchell (00:15:23):

And so what you end up doing is you build a product that goes, and it tries to achieve that vision. But you forget that, in order to get there, you have to have customers along the way. And so what I learned, I think after we built the product and got it out there and realized that it wasn't getting the adoption that we wanted it to is that we needed to go figure out how to get customers first and then let them be the north star for to take us into where we needed to go. So looking back, I think being very tactical about getting your first customers in and then being very having great relationships with them so that you can gather candid feedback and use that customer feedback very quickly and iteratively in the beginning to make sure that you're taking the company in the right direction, where people are going to buy it.

Joe Toste (00:16:18):

Man, everything you said there was so good. I mean two of the things, first one, the distribution is something that's just so huge. I mean you don't even think forward. The podcast, it's not a startup or anything, but just for the podcast, shooting the podcast and researching questions, that's actually pretty much the easy stuff. The distribution, actually getting people to listen to the podcast and making noise in the marketplace, that's really the heavy lifting. So I definitely get the distribution piece there. Yeah, go for it, Jeff.

Jeff Whitlock (00:16:50):

And I think in many ways, building a great product is the table stakes. And then your strategy and your distribution is what really differentiates and makes something from a good company to a great company. This podcast can be amazing and a great product, and if it's not, it doesn't matter how you distribute it. It probably wouldn't be successful and hit your goals. But once it's great, then it's down. It's like now you got to figure out, how do you actually get this ... How do you build a strategy around differentiating it and defending it and getting in people's ... on their radar?

Aaron Mitchell (00:17:27):

Yeah, and I think too, software, podcasts, any kind of content on the internet today is so commoditized and that everyone is competing for eyeballs. So I think maybe an interesting strategy for my next startup would be to figure out the distribution completely before you do any work on the product and go start, go create a website that doesn't have a product or a service behind it. And just build a wait list, and see how many people you can get to join the wait list. I don't know, I think in today's market, what you said is exactly right, Jeff. Product is the table stakes, and so even if you can create a great product, but you don't have distribution, then it's kind of all for naught. So if you figure out the distribution first, then you can kind of hack at that. Then the product probably becomes a lot more clear, and you have evidence to show that the thing that you're making is actually ... There's a demand for it, and you can sell it and make money off of it.

Jeff Whitlock (00:18:30):

Yeah, I'd add brand to that also. It's something I'm not great at, but there's something around having a great, compelling story as a brand and helping people feel good about what you're doing and your product and the essence of who you are. And the overall experience is also a really critical point these days, because it's like you said. Pick a product, and there's five or six things that do something like it, or more.

Joe Toste (00:18:59):

Yeah, I love that. And then your last point that I also really, really like on the customer front, for me, I have guests, not customers. But if you go listen to some of the beginning episodes, I shot them in January. And it was people who were willing to do the podcast with me, but I actually didn't have a name for the podcast yet. So the podcast name was something else, and I was like I'm just going to shoot the content. And before there was a podcast, before it got approved, before all of these other things happened, I was like I'm just going to go shoot the content, and I know something good is going to happen. But I was building these relationships and shooting the content. And I didn't have a name, so if you go back to episodes one and two, it's like a whole different name. It's not actually TechTables. So I'm not going to tell you what the name is. You'll have to go listen in detail, for those who are listening.

Jeff Whitlock (00:19:48):

Cliffhanger, I love it.

Joe Toste (00:19:51):

Yeah, it's pretty funny. So Jeff, let's swing on back to you. You founded Unbird to help product teams build better products by making it easier to understand their customers at scale. This is hard to do, especially with product teams having their own vision of what they want to build versus marketplace feedback, really what customers want to buy. Unbird helps in three distinct ways, collecting your freeform text feedback from multiple sources, through integrations, synthesize the data with significantly less effort than existing means, using freeform text analysis and tools and visualize three, visualize and share insights through dynamic, shareable charts. Can you walk us through a case study of what this is looking like and how Unbird is helping product managers accelerate insights in today's marketplace?

Jeff Whitlock (00:20:40):

Yeah, I will underscore what you said about it being very hard. If it was super easy to understand your customers, you'd see a lot more success in startups and businesses. So this is something that's really hard, and it's been humbling in my journey to sometimes fail at what my product tries to help our customers do. So this is definitely something that I'm always learning at. But to walk you through a use case, essentially whether you have an existing product, or you're building a new product, or maybe you're doing a large upgrade to your product, launching some new feature or big redesign. You want, in today's ... The way you want to do it is you want to put the customer at the center of that effort. Obviously it's good to have a vision, but the way I ... So a lot of people, one of my least favorite phrases in product management is this idea that you hear it said. There's two kind of things you hear quite a lot in just discussions. One, you hear this idea that I don't even know if he ever said it. It might even be apocryphal. But Henry Ford, if I had asked people what they wanted, they would've said they wanted a faster horse. And the other idea is this idea that Steve Jobs didn't do user research. And so you have all these product managers.

Jeff Whitlock (00:21:58):

And I shouldn't say all these. You have some product managers. I don't want to insult my customer base. But you have some product managers that sort of think they're mini Steve Jobs running around and just have a perfect vision of what the customer wants. And I think, first of all, the Henry Ford quote is a super paternalistic. It sort of assumes that your users are stupid and can't articulate what they want. And then secondly, the idea that you can just imagine a fully formed solution from your mind is typically arrogant. And I think the more experience you have, the more you realize you're wrong quite often in product management. And so the real key to build something great is to really understand your users, and you do that by talking to them. And yes, there are instances where you don't necessarily want your users to develop the solution for you, but you at least need to understand who they are. What do they care about? What are their performances? What are their problems? In what circumstances did they experience those problems? And the way to do that is to talk to customers, but in talking to customers, it's the data is really unstructured. It's messy. It's long-form sentences either through interview notes, or it's emails and reviews. And it's very unstructured data. And with that unstructured data, there's a lot of opportunity for bias to creep into the process.

Jeff Whitlock (00:23:15):

So what our product attempts to do is to help people understand and learn from their customers in an unbiased way and tell a data story, help you understand. What problem are you solving? What preferences do customers have? What do they want, and then how do you solve that?

Joe Toste (00:23:31):

Yeah, that's really great. I kind of got a first-hand experience. I worked as a technical account manager at a property management software company. And basically I'm helping my customers, and one of the things that I noticed, that was really fascinating is when I would go on site. I would sit behind them and see how the user would use the property management software for whatever module. And I'd give them, they'd have the notes, they'd have everything. And then to see how they actually moved the mouse and how they actually interacted with the software was often different and then just being able to see that live and then even get it recorded was really, really great, great product feedback to be able to take back. So that was just something I learned.

Jeff Whitlock (00:24:18):

Yeah, and I think one kind of just thing I'll say is that watching people use the product like usability testing, there's a lot of great stuff out there, like FullStory, that solves that problem. We kind of focus on one step more abstract, which is user needs jobs preferences before you are getting into usability. And also just general product feedback on the why and the what customers want, not necessarily what they do and how they interact with it.

Joe Toste (00:24:48):

Yeah, no, that's really good.

Aaron Mitchell (00:24:50):

Jeff, I'm so glad you brought that up about the Henry Ford quote, because that quote has bugged me so much. And whenever someone uses it against, no, uses it in an argument, I'm like, "First of all, Henry Ford never said that. Someone totally made that up. And then secondly, that's not true. He would've said, 'Hey, customer.'"

Aaron Mitchell (00:25:13):

If you're really good at customer research, you say, "Tell me about the problems that you're having with your horse." And the first problem is I need to get from point A to point B faster. And the second problem is my horse poops everywhere. So you got to deal with that.

Jeff Whitlock (00:25:30):

Yeah, and it gets sick and dies and has babies that I have to take care of.

Joe Toste (00:25:33):

You got to feed it too. Just remember that.

Aaron Mitchell (00:25:40):

Yeah, I think honestly it's kind of offensive to Henry Ford probably, because it assumes that he's just really bad at user research. That's not what his users would've said. I don't think so.

Jeff Whitlock (00:25:51):

Yeah, agreed.

Joe Toste (00:25:51):

I love that. I love that insight. So at Mokriya, you guys both consultant for us there. It's out product creation studio at Nagarro. And the product team that you guys are a huge part of, you guys have created an awesome framework for product creation. AKA, we call it obviously product creation framework, nothing too genius. And so we just break it down. We've got phase one discovery and POC concept, phase two, validate and design. Phase three is build. Aaron and Jeff, here we'll go with Aaron. Aaron first, why don't you walk us through this framework. And then Jeff, any insights that you have, you can kind of jump on in.

Aaron Mitchell (00:26:31):

Yeah, I think what Jeff said is exactly right. And when we think about product development, there are definitely phases. If your first thing, if the first action that you're taking is your AB testing buttons on a website or button placement or what forms you're going to put on a website, I think you're going to miss the bigger picture of what are we actually trying to build. And so this first discovery phase is really aimed to answer that question. What is it that we need to build, that customers are going to enjoy and that they're going to pay for? So that phase, we use a bunch of different tactics. But we like to get in and first kind of understand the domain knowledge that we have in the problem area. So we'll go in and do a workshop, and we try to get a bunch of smart people into the workshop. And usually it's the founders or the head of the business unit that's kicking off this initiative. And we'll just say, "Tell us everything you know about your customers. Who are they? What are the problems that they have? What does their day-to-day looking like? What does the market landscape look like? What are they thinking about, and what are they worried about?"

Aaron Mitchell (00:27:50):

And we just want to dive into that really, really deep to really try and empathize with the people that we're building this product with. And out of that first day in the workshop, we're really aiming to feel like we're actually in the customer's shoes. And that gives us a good perspective on what we need to go build that's going to solve their most poignant problems. So after that first day in the workshop, we go. We spend basically all night designing out our first version of what we think could be a product. And then the next morning, we come in, and we present that with the rest of the group. And we say, "Hey, this is kind of what we're thinking. Now let's just beat it to death, and let's pick it apart and figure out all the flaws." And we end up coming out of that first initial workshop with a really good set of hypotheses and assumptions that we've formed. And then we're still in the discovery phase here, but we'll take those designs, and we'll take those assumptions, and then we go start to test it with individual customers and users. And when you put the designs in front of them, we say, "Hey, what do you think about this? What would you change? What other problems are we not thinking about?" And we conduct these contextual inquiries with these customers.

Aaron Mitchell (00:29:14):

And then the key deliverable out of that first phase is we want to come away with what we call a foundational prototype. And this is basically saying, "Okay, where from a 10,000-foot view, these are the areas that we think this product needs to focus on. And so we're going to build out this very broad prototype that tries to capture all these areas." And then we jump into the next phase, which is this validation and design phase. And that's really when we then take this foundational prototype, and we hone in on one individual problem. And then we go and get really deep on that specific problem with the customer. We put it back in front of them. We say, "Okay, here's an actual experience. Now help us create the perfect experience to help solve one of the problems that you told us about in that phase one." And so we do that for, there's usually three or four or five or sometimes more initiatives that we're looking at and we're validating with each of the customers. Out of that phase two, we come away with a full set of product mock-ups, high-fidelity product mock-ups that are then ready to get worked on by the engineering team. And the reason we do it that way is because engineering is the most expensive part of this whole process.

Aaron Mitchell (00:30:45):

And so if we were to put the engineers on n say, "Go build this and try to prototype it out really fast," then it's just going to slow us down. And it's going to be much more expensive to do it that way. So we like to use the design as a way to get to those answers quickly. And then last is the build phase, and that's kind of the part that everyone loves. So it's pretty straightforward, but we've got our designs in front of us. And then we kick off the engineering effort to go and actually build it. And while we're doing that, we're looking at what are our methods of customer acquisition. What's the business model behind this product that's going to help us be successful? So it's a really slick process, and we've been able to role this out to huge success with a lot of our clients. And it's just a great way to get everyone thinking on the same page, everyone working together and making sure that we're putting that customer as our north star.

Joe Toste (00:31:47):

Great. Hey Jeff, anything you want to add?

Jeff Whitlock (00:31:51):

Yeah, I think the only thing I'll add, Aaron gave a great overview. Is in phase two, in the validate design phase, not only do we end that phase with a fully designed prototype that's really to be built, designed and validated, so we feel like we have nailed the solution. We also work on monetization strategy and then attraction strategy. And this goes back to our comments earlier, which is you can have a great product. But if it's not enmeshed in a great traction, go-to-market approach and strategy and also a way that a business theory around how to monetize it, then you're not going to build a successful company. And ultimately our engagement in this initiative will not be successful, so those are really important to us. And so when we do our monetization strategy, we make sure that the business is viable. We have an idea how we're going to hit revenue targets. We have an idea of how we're going to monetize it and that those monetization strategies are validated and will help you or our customers meet their business aspirations.

Joe Toste (00:32:58):

That's great. We're actually going to link, for everyone who's listening, we're actually going to link our product creation framework to the post on the website, on TechTablesPodcast.com so super excited to be able to share that to the product team. Just moving on, the product team that include you and Aaron and Jeff, you guys play a huge role in crafting the strategy and execution on the product side, obviously like Aaron said, with great success. One piece of reluctance from our customers has always been starting work remotely, which now I find to be really funny. But we've been doing this for years, and now with COVID-19, it's turned into a tremendous strain.

Jeff Whitlock (00:33:35):

It's forced upon everyone.

Joe Toste (00:33:36):

Yeah, and so with Zoom and Slack and just working quickly, Aaron why don't you start off? Kick off, just talk about the remote culture on the product side both in the work you do at Mokriya and with Freeplay.

Aaron Mitchell (00:33:49):

Yeah, I think we're in an economy now that is more distributed than ever and more connected than ever digitally. And so we can definitely ... I would hunch that there are a lot of companies that are learning right now just how good remote work can be. And there's probably also some other companies that are like man, this is awful. I can't wait to get back into the office, because I don't know how to do this. I would say having been working, Mokriya as a hole has been working remotely for 10 years. That's the whole model, has been remote. And what we've found is it's just like when you're in the office, you have those chances to interface with each other and to have the little one-off meetings. And those can be very helpful, but they can also be very distracting, where it's hard to get in an really focus in on the problems that you're trying to solve, because there's just people that are demanding your attention all the time when you are in an office. And so with the product strategy and design and engineering, probably mostly on the design and engineering side, I think it's actually very beneficial to have a remote culture, because you give people the chance to really focus in and think deeply about their work and to get into flow.

Aaron Mitchell (00:35:15):

I don't know if you're familiar with that concept, but I think from what I've seen, there's not really one size fits all with how to do remote work correctly. But from what I've seen is when you can give your design team and your engineering team that ability and that flexibility to get in, be able to work from home and really focus in and dive into a problem deeply, that's when you end up getting phenomenal results. And with Freeplay, we're actually seeing this. We were all in an office together, and now we are a fully remote team. And our engineering velocity for the last three weeks, since this whole COVID-19 thing has started happening, has been the highest it's ever been. So there is a lot of value in being able to do with it, and then you just have to make sure that you have the tools to stay in touch with each other and to make sure that everyone is being very collaborative and open with each other about their progress. And any time they get stuck, they know they can reach over the fence and ask for help.

Joe Toste (00:36:19):

That's awesome. Jeff, why don't you dive in and talk about just kind of the remote side and your world?

Jeff Whitlock (00:36:26):

I've been actually running a remote team. Unbird has been remote since March of last year so a little over a year. And I would actually fall into ... Originally we fell into the category that Aaron mentioned, where we really struggled with it. We were remote more or less of necessity just because of some personal situations with our early team members needing to be in different places. And so we kind of were forced to go remote, and initially it was very difficult for us. And looking back, as we've learned how to work remotely, I've learned a lot of lessons. And I think one of the biggest problems initially for us was so I'm a big extrovert. And I had always, up until that point, this was before I had joined Mokriya, had worked collocated. And I tried to run the company, although it was remote. Actually, I'm going to stop saying the word, remote. I'm going to switch to the term, distributed, and this might seem like I'm splitting hairs here. But I think it's actually really important. We need to change the lexicon to use the term, distributed, not remote. And the reason why is because remote sort of implies that there's a locus of power or a locus of activity. And then people are away from it, whereas distributed sort of implies that the whole company is a network distributed evenly, if that kind of makes sense.

Jeff Whitlock (00:37:48):

So anyway, I'm just going to use that term from here on out, so I'm going to say distributed instead of remote. But basically the problem I made was our company was distributed. We were all over, and I tried to run it like a collocated company, meaning we had certain hours that we were all supposed to be on board. We were on calls all the time. And honestly I think when you're doing that, basically when you try to take the same processes of a collocated company and try to make it remote, you basically find yourself ... Or make it distributed, you basically find yourself in work purgatory. It's the worst of both worlds, in my opinion. You're just exhausted on Zoom calls all day. You're trying to micromanage. It's just terrible. And so kind of some lessons I've learned to get out of that is, one, you have to ... I shouldn't say you have to, but I think for many teams, they'll find that as they work more towards an asynchronous model from the synchronous model, and what I mean by that is asynchronous means you're doing less things in meetings, less things realtime chat and more at different points in time. So you have more long-form written communication or screen recordings et cetera, so that people can take advantage of working from home, work on their own schedule and have that flexibility.

Jeff Whitlock (00:38:58):

And a lot of things happen when you move to asynchronous work. And I can talk a lot more about that, but that's something that I think is a huge key, is to optimize around being asynchronous and not synchronous. Another one is you have to be really careful to promote human connections. People can be, as an extrovert, you can feel isolated really quickly working remotely. And so you need to find a way to make it a priority to build connection rituals. So some teams do things like Friday happy hour, where it's just literally like the only purpose of the meeting is to get on a Zoom call and just chat about whatever, starting normal business meetings with personal check-ins. We did ready all green, where we just around. Everyone says, just say, are you read, yellow, green, and why? And just kind of how you're doing, so that's another we're doing. I could talk more about these lessons, but I think the third point I'll make is that you need to also just build a culture of incredible candor.

Jeff Whitlock (00:39:56):

The reason is, I would say candor is always important in a culture, but I think it's even more important when you're remote. Because when you're in an office, you can kind of sense the people dynamics. You can read people's body languages. You just get a feel as a leader. When you're remote, you lose that and so I think for a lot of leaders, that is very uncomfortable, that they just don't have a pulse on things. And so I think the way you counteract that is by just building a culture of incredible openness. And you do that by modeling it as a leader, by just being vulnerable and incredibly open, almost to an uncomfortable degree. You have a thought, you share it. You're feeling this way, you share it. You're concerned about something, you share it. And I think that's a better way to do it, especially when you're remote, to counteract that feeling of not understanding the dynamics, because you're not in the room with people.

Aaron Mitchell (00:40:49):

Jeff, I don't know about you, but one thing I've noticed too is you have to do one or the other. I have yet to see a hybrid approach work, where you have part of your team is in an office, and then part is distributed.

Jeff Whitlock (00:41:04):

I totally agree with that.

Aaron Mitchell (00:41:06):

Because the people that are all in the office together tend to ... You just kind of tend to forget about the people that are working remotely. And so you follow the path of least resistance to communication and collaboration, which is I turn to my neighbor. And you end up leaving the distributed workforce out, kind of out in the dry, where they just don't know what's going on because of that dynamic.

Jeff Whitlock (00:41:32):

Yeah, you create a really bad in group, out group dynamic. Yeah, I mean the sort of ... I don't know, for people who have worked at big companies, I don't know. At least in my experience, there's almost always, even at the floor level, there's different cliques. There's like the third floor clique and the fourth floor clique. And communication breaks down between the third and fourth floor. And so I feel like when you have a group that's collocated and a group that's distributed, the distributed team just feels like the ultimate, like the 37th floor. They're way out of it. But if you actually optimize completely for distributed teams, you can solve that. Basically everyone is on the same page. And I think the reason why that's the case is because in collocated environments, they're high-contact situations, meaning everyone goes into every conversation assuming people have a lot of context. But if you work distributed and especially distributed asynchronous, you move away from that a little bit, and you start to document context more. So people can get up to speed and understand context without having to rely on the 15 water cooler conversations that just kind of happen ephemerally.

Joe Toste (00:42:38):

Yeah, that's really good. So I love how you used the word, purgatory, because I'm witnessing that right now with my wife. And she's a teacher at Santa Barbara City College, and what's so painful for me to watch, and I've been doing remote for the last five years, what's so painful for me to watch is she's got to be on Zoom for eight hours a day. And it just kills me, because there's just no purpose in that. And you're right. I mean everything you just said, Jeff, just puts it in this picture of purgatory and really just hell, of being on eight hours a day. It defeats the purpose. You just choose one or the other, and right now obviously no one can be in a classroom or anything like that. And these kids are 18, 19 years old, so they should have the ability to make it happen, having a distributed classroom, to use that world.

Joe Toste (00:43:36):

So I think there's a lot of ... It's just painful for me, but I really love the distributed model. I think it works really well. And I'm trying to picture myself going to an office again. I can't do it. The coworking spots that I love, just because I am an extrovert also so love to talk, love to hang, love to grab coffee but also love to sit down in the office and focus. But yeah, I don't ever see myself back in an office. And maybe that'll be something positive that comes out of the whole COVID-19 situation.

Jeff Whitlock (00:44:07):

Yeah, that's a great story. Could I use that as just a quick pitch for the new product that we're launching?

Joe Toste (00:44:14):

Yeah go for it. Yeah, go for it.

Jeff Whitlock (00:44:14):

At Unbird, yeah, so essentially I mentioned to you, Joe, that I was hesitant to talk a little bit about Unbird, because we're launching a new product that might become our focus. But like I said, I've been running a remote team for a year. And this problem has been a huge problem, and it just felt strange to me that no one has really nailed it. All of the asynchronous, so basically you have video, which is a really rich way of connecting with people. I mean it's not quite as rich as in person, but it's great. You get to see their faces. You feel like you're making a connection, but that's only happening synchronously on Zoom cools, which for many reasons is just not the way to do it, like your story you just articulated. So we looked into why is text really the only way that businesses are communicating asynchronously. And so we're launching a product that enables voice and video as a way for teams to collaborate asynchronously.

Joe Toste (00:45:03):

That's awesome. Well I won't ask you too many deep questions on that, because it sounds like it's in build mode right now.

Jeff Whitlock (00:45:09):

Well we just launched out beta today, so if anyone, maybe you could put a link to joining our early access on the podcast.

Joe Toste (00:45:16):

Yeah, what is the link? Shout it out right now, and then we can always update it on the page.

Jeff Whitlock (00:45:19):

Yeah, you can just go to Girbil.com, but it's misspelled Girbil, so G-I-R-B-I-L .com.

Joe Toste (00:45:26):

Love it, I'm going to do that. I'm going to go get my free trial.

Jeff Whitlock (00:45:30):


Joe Toste (00:45:31):

Aaron, let's talk about a few of the case studies that we've done on the product creation side. We started to hint at it, but let's talk about Twitter, Sony. Why don't you just unpack those?

Aaron Mitchell (00:45:41):

Yeah, I think that the common thread with every client that we work with is they're all coming to us with a new product that they want to create. And some of them are further along in the process than others. So with Sony, as an example, they had a projector device that would basically project an Android tablet onto a surface. And then it would use infrared technology to detect where you had tapped on that surface. And then it would act and behave just like a tablet. So it's pretty cool, like if you have a coffee table or something. You could just project a tablet onto it with this projector and then play Fruit Ninja or whatever you wanted to do. But they were looking at a way to integrate a bunch of their different wearable technology into this platform. And so we really started from the ground up at looking at, okay, first of all, what do people and users want to get out of their wearable technology? And specifically, if I have a husband and wife and maybe a kid or two that have this wearable technology, these watches that they're running around with, is there a way to actually create a product that has strong network effects and can add value through this centralized family activity platform?

Aaron Mitchell (00:47:14):

So we went through our whole framework with them. We ended up showing the work that we did. I think it was about ... It's been a little while, but I think it was about three months of work. And then we had a working product that they showed off at CES and got really, really good reviews and was a really fun project to work with him on. So that was Sony. Twitter was another one where they were a little bit further along. They said, "We want to be able to make a product that works for our VITs, our very important tweeters." And if you think about it, you and I, when we send out and awesome tweet, we probably get 10 to 20 likes or something and maybe a retweet or two. But if you're like Steph Curry or somebody, then you send out a tweet, and you can't go into your notifications area, because it's just a nightmare. And if somebody, you're having to go through thousands of comments to see what you want to respond to and what you don't want to respond to. And so that was the problem that they presented to us with. And they said, "How do we solve it?"

Aaron Mitchell (00:48:25):

And so we worked with the Twitter team to say, "What's a great way to curate this kind of content and make it really easy to respond to other VITs but also give VITs the ability and the feeling that they could post really interesting and rich content?" And so we designed a whole new camera that the VITs could use. And they could add stickers and animations and stuff to the content that they were creating. We built a Q and A module, where if you wanted to do an ask me anything session on Twitter, you could post that. And then there'd be a really slick way for you to answer questions and stuff. If you were promoting a concert or an event or something where there's a special tweet that you could use, that we built, so that was also a really fun, interesting project that we worked on with Twitter. And at the end of it we had ... Steph Curry was one of our users. Apple was using us, Jennifer Lopez. A lot of sportscasters were using the product that we had built. So that was pretty fun, to get your product into the hands of some of the biggest names in the celebrity world. So those are a couple that you mentioned, that come to mind. But we've done tons and tons of work for other companies like ADT, Keller Williams, Verizon.

Aaron Mitchell (00:49:48):

And then we also work with a lot of startups too that are just getting going. And they need help in getting the product off the ground. And we come in, and we partner up with them and help them launch their new products to much success.

Joe Toste (00:50:02):

Love it, that's so great. Yeah, we do really a lot of awesome work. And we'll link to some of the case studies in the show notes too. Jeff, you've written about the state of product management on Medium before, which I can link to. What's the state looking like right now? How are you thinking about it in 2020 with COVID-19?

Jeff Whitlock (00:50:21):

Yeah, great question. So I wrote that Medium post or that post based on conversations with almost 100 product managers. So there was a lot of data in that post. Answering this question, there's no data. I haven't really done, I mean obviously we've talked to our customers at Unbird, but it's really within the context of them engaging with our product. Lately it wasn't as much of an open discovery. So I don't have a great answer, but I could just pontificate a little bit. I like to mostly give answers based on data, but I guess I could infer a few things. So one, as I thought about this question, I imagine that a lot of PMs are really learning and struggling to do their job remotely. There's a thing that they say a lot in product management, which is get outside of the office. And good product managers will get outside of the office, get out of the four walls of the conference room and go be with their customers in their native habitat. And for obviously reasons, project managers can't do that right now. So I imagine they're trying to figure out, how do you do your job when you can't go do customer visits, when you can't go to their offices. And I'm sure there's probably a lot of Zoom calls, a lot of maybe Zoom interviews happening.

Jeff Whitlock (00:51:37):

And so it's probably figuring out a new way to do that work remotely, which probably is opening up a lot of opportunities but probably a lot of challenges also. And then the other thing that I think is interesting and something that, when you asked this question, I haven't thought about too much. But it's an interesting line of thinking, is I wonder, I bet your product managers are having to deal with how do you balance being responsive to the new needs of your customers. Whenever there's a major shift in the market like this, I imagine regardless of your product, there's going to be new demands. As all of your customers essentially are in an entirely different context and environment, they're probably, their needs and their preferences are shifting.

Jeff Whitlock (00:52:17):

And so I think it's a hard position to be in right now as a product manager, to kind of say, "Okay, what do we respond to, versus what do we think this is just a temporary shift, and it'll return to a new normal?" And trying to understand where that falls out based on your industry, is the new normal forever shifted like this, or will it eventually go back, and you need to maybe just do the bare minimum to get your customers through this period but then still focus on your old strategy and your old vision? Because you believe your market will return eventually or return shortly to that normal, I imagine those are some pretty difficult questions to answer right now.

Joe Toste (00:52:55):

Awesome, thank you for pontificating. I appreciate that.

Jeff Whitlock (00:52:58):

Any time.

Joe Toste (00:52:59):

I appreciate the honest answer. I love it. Okay, so we're going to wrap up. We're going to head into what I call the 60-second TechTables and three quick questions under 60 seconds. I've never done this with two people, so maybe it's 120 seconds. I don't know, but we're going to-

Jeff Whitlock (00:53:14):

Be extra succinct.

Joe Toste (00:53:16):

Exactly. We'll go Aaron first, Jeff second. Question one, what do you know now that you wish you had known at the beginning of your entrepreneurial journey? Aaron, go.

Aaron Mitchell (00:53:26):

I think the CEO that I was working under at my first job gave me some great advice after I had started my company. He said, "Just know that this is a roller coaster, and you're going to have the highest of highs. And then you're going to be in the lowest of lows, and it might even be on the same day. So don't give up. Don't get down. Just keep going." And I think just knowing that from the very outset of building a company is so crucial, because it's hard. There's probably nothing harder that I've ever done in my life. Starting a company is very emotionally taxing. The outcome of what you're doing is very uncertain, but it's also very thrilling. And so just keep going forward. Keep moving forward. Don't let anything stop you or slow you down. Keep your head up and just keep running.

Joe Toste (00:54:21):

Love it. Jeff?

Jeff Whitlock (00:54:22):

Aaron and I did not coordinate our answers to this, but my answer is pretty similar. I would say that everything is a lot harder and takes a lot longer than you think it will before you start, and that's okay. I think one of the few universal truths in startups is that every journey is unique, and it's challenging. So every team, market, problem, idea, situation is different, so try not to compare yourself too much to others, because your context is different. And also what you're seeing from others is typically only a tip of a heavily marketed iceberg.

Joe Toste (00:55:00):

Love it. Number two, Aaron, what are the three most important priorities of a killer product manager?

Aaron Mitchell (00:55:07):

Man, important priorities, maybe I'll give you important characteristics. Is that better? Does that work for you?

Joe Toste (00:55:14):

Yeah, that works for me. I'll take whatever you're giving me.

Aaron Mitchell (00:55:18):

Okay, man, this is going to sound maybe a little cliché. I think the first one is probably just humility. If you are a product manager with an ego, then you cannot be effective in your job, because by definition you are in the middle of every business unit in the company, every department in the company. And so you have to be able to work with and take input, take feedback from every department. And if you have any kind of an ego, it will be quickly smashed. And you'll be unsuccessful in your job, or you'll just hate what you're doing. So yeah, just be humble. The second one I think is just relentless.

Aaron Mitchell (00:56:01):

Well relentless I think is probably the right word, relentless about understanding your customers and your market that you're in and then relentless about prioritizing what you're having the design and engineering team working on. And those should go hand in hand with each other. And the third on, I think probably this goes back to maybe the first one a little bit, but just be a team player. I think product management in general is a fairly thankless job. The people that build the product get the credit for being built, and then if something goes wrong, then the fingers tend to get pointed at you. So just be a great team player in rejoice in the success of the collective team effort. And I think you'll be very effective as a product manager.

Joe Toste (00:56:52):

Love it. Jeff, three most important priorities or characteristics for a product mgr.

Jeff Whitlock (00:56:57):

Yeah, I actually took notes for both, because I saw the ambiguity of the question. Which one do you want to hear?

Joe Toste (00:57:04):

I want to hear priorities.

Jeff Whitlock (00:57:07):

Okay, so I think the three most important priorities would first make sure you've clearly defined ... And this is cliché, because they're the most important. So I'm not going to say anything too earth shattering. But first, make sure you've clearly defined your customer segment and their problem/needs. Two, make sure the solution you're building nails that problem or those problems for that segment. And then three is make sure you have a really clear business theory. And I think three is where a lot of product managers fall down. A lot of product managers get really focused on building things, and that's the base level of product management, how good you are. And then slightly better product managers focus on the customer and their problem and solving it. And then great product managers, in my opinion, think about how does that fit into broader business context. And how do you make a business work?

Joe Toste (00:58:01):

Love it, awesome. Number three, so I'm big on planning the day and the week in advance. It's just kind of how I think through and process information. One of my favorite tools is obviously just the digital calendar and just allocating the time on the calendar in advance. And then I actually write it out in a journal call the BestSelf Journal. It's one of my favorites. What's some of you guys's favorites planning ... Maybe you just have one tool or tools you guys use to manage your startup, consulting, family life. I think we all have kids. How do you guys balance all that? What tool you guys using? Aaron, why don't you kick it off first?

Aaron Mitchell (00:58:36):

I'm old school, man. I just have an old fashioned paper and pencil planner, and I get in there map out my priorities, my to-do lists. And yeah, I've just found any other place where I keep my planner, if it's on my computer or my phone, there are just too many things that can pop up on your screen or interrupt you. And I think it's really important to just take 15 to 20 minutes a day and just focus on what your plan is, what your goals are and write those down in a place where you can't be interrupted, so that's me.

Joe Toste (00:59:15):

Love it, love it. Jeff?

Jeff Whitlock (00:59:18):

It's funny, because I used to be just a maniac when it came to digital planning tools. I've tried everything under the sun. I love just experimenting with a new tool and getting it set up and using it for five or six months or something like that. Maybe the longest one I used was probably a year and a half, and then I'd figure out a new one. And what's funny is I've actually come to where Aaron is at, where I'm actually back now on paper. I mean obviously I use a calendar, but I have my moleskin notebook, where I have a left page that says tasks and a right page that says goals and projects. And then I have a whiteboard where I write down my daily goals, and that's basically it. And the thing I like about the paper, like Aaron kind of mentioned, is that first of all, it forces my head to get out of digital and away from notifications and distractions. And actually I can pause and say, "What's the next most important thing to get done on my to-do list?"

Jeff Whitlock (01:00:13):

And the other thing like about it is it forces me to constantly copy and paste. Not copy and paste, that's the problem with digital. It forced me to constantly rewrite my list. And so that sort of extra effort of having to rewrite something forces me to ask the question, does this really need to be one here? If I'm going to spend five seconds writing this, is it worth doing? And that's just been really great for me to sort of constantly, basically, every couple days I'm recreating my backlog, which has just been really helpful for me. Whereas when I was using other tools like Wunderlist or Trello, et cetera, et cetera, there was just this never-ending backlog that always was growing. And I was never, ever getting close to finishing it.

Joe Toste (01:00:54):

Love it, I feel like we're all on the same page. Yeah, the BestSelf Journal is ... I love sitting down. It used to be at a coffee shop, but now those are closed, and just thinking about the day and the week on paper. Well thanks, you guys, for coming on. Where can people find you guys, hang out on LinkedIn, Twitter? Where can people find you, Aaron, Jeff?

Aaron Mitchell (01:01:13):

I'm on TikTok.

Joe Toste (01:01:13):

No you're not.

Aaron Mitchell (01:01:19):

No, LinkedIn, Twitter is probably the best one. Or if you want to shoot me an email, Aaron@FreeplayApp.com, I would love to answer any questions or connect with anybody, love talking technology, love talking new ideas or just sharing war stories with other founders.

Joe Toste (01:01:38):

Love it. Jeff?

Jeff Whitlock (01:01:39):

Yeah, and I'm on LinkedIn. You could probably just search for Jeff Whitlock and find me. I'm also on Twitter @JefferyWhitlock. And then also I'm happy to take email. I love connecting with anyone who wants to talk about business strategy, product management, startups, even politics. I'm happy to go for it, so shoot me an email at Jeff@Unbird.com. That's Jeff@Unbird.com. Also I do weekly office hours, where I just ... It's been kind of a cool practice I've been doing for the past several months, where I just block out two hours on a Saturday. And anyone can book time on my calendar, and so I've been able to meet some really amazing people and just talk about all sorts of call topics that way. So I'd be happy to book an office hour chat too.

Joe Toste (01:02:21):

Awesome, thank you, guys.

Jeff Whitlock (01:02:23):

Thank you, was great to be here.

Aaron Mitchell (01:02:24):

Thanks, Joe.

Speaker 1 (01:02:26):

If you're interested in seeing what Nagarro, a high-end technology solutions company to some of the world's leading organizations, can do for your business, you can email Joe at Joe.Toste@Nagarro.com. J-O-E-.-T-O-S-T-E @Nagarro.com, or message Joe on LinkedIn. For all information on Nagarro, check out Nagarro.com. That's N-A-G-A-R-R-O .com. You've been listening to the TechTables Podcast. So make sure you never miss an episode, subscribe to the show on your favorite podcast player. If you have an iPhone, we'd love for you to open the Apple Podcast App and leave a review. Thank you so much for listening to catch more TechTables episodes, you can go to TechTablesPodcast.com. And to learn more about our sponsor, please visit Nagarro.com. That's N-A-G-A-R-R-O .com. And of course you can find Joe Toste, your podcast host on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram. That's Joe Toste, T-O-S-T-E. Thanks for listening.

Joe Toste
Joe Toste
Host of TechTables Podcast

Host of TechTables 🎙- Conversations with Top Technology Leaders