Moving the Dial

Are you a product manager or founder?

Take 30 seconds and think about the things that are wrong with your product.

Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Ready? Go!

I bet you came up with a big ol’ list. I know I can.

Did your list include any of the following?

– fixing typos
– improving images
– tweaking css
– adding links
– removing links
– changing CTA colors
– fixing an edge-case bug that a customer wrote you about
– tweaking the logo

(If not, you win!)

My list included some of those things.

But here’s the thing:

Working on those things before you find a set of scalable and repeatable tactics to acquire and keep customers is a waste of time.

(And it’s usually a waste of time after, too).

Last summer, my friend Noah pounded the concept of high-leverage activities into my thick skull.

In other words, is what you’re working right now on really going to move the dial?

Here are some examples of things that move the dial:

– knowing why customers are churning, so you build a feature to keep them from churning
– having a hypothesis about how to acquire new customers, and testing new tactics to do so
– building new tech to reduce operational costs and improve customer happiness
– calling 10 new customers to understand what they like and don’t like about your product, and to understand why they signed up
– calling 10 free trial users to try and convert them to customers

Each of the above could have a significant impact on your business than, say, adding a link to your footer almost certainly won’t.

In the past I’ve found it hard to stay focused on the big things.

Still do.

Why you want to work on the small stuff

First, mentally holding the braying feature requests at bay is exhausting. It’s the little voice in the back of your head, the constant nagging reminder about needing to change copy, fix the logo, improving the spacing around tour images, etc. It would be so much easier if you took a few minutes to fix up this teensy tiny thing and get a hit of seratonin, wouldn’t it?

Second, working on the product is controllable and comfortable. The boundaries around people-problems (positioning, acquisition and retention) are unknown and often complex. You don’t necessarily know when you’ve gotten closer to the solution, and feedback often takes days, weeks, or months.

Code, on the other hand, is knowable and neat. You quickly know when you’ve solved a problem, and you get to play God in your development environment.

And if there’s one thing we humans like, it’s control.

Third, fixing problems is satisfying. When you check items off your list and your site gets “better”, you’re making progress, right?

Not necessarily.

It’s like answering 100 emails – it’s possible that you would have made more progress by answering the 1 email that is a game changer vs the 100 meaningless ones.

Again, high-leverage. Where can you spend your time to have the largest impact?

How I keep the dogs at bay

I’ve noticed that when I’m able to focus on stuff that moves the dial, I see more success in my business. (This skill becomes second nature to good product managers. Disciplined focus and prioritization are key.)

One hack I’ve found to be useful is to set my weekly priorities at the beginning of the week, and my daily ones each morning when I first open my laptop (before I check email).

I keep these in Evernote.

It looks like this:

– goal 1
– goal 2
– goal 3

– Task 1
– Task 2
– Task 3

– Task 1
– Task 2
– Task 3

On Monday, I cut and paste Monday’s tasks to a separate document so I can refer to them quickly without being distracted by the rest of the week.

The daily list helps me focus on what’s important and keeps me from being interrupt-driven. Whenever I’m wasting time when I should be working, I refer back to the list and start plugging away on the next task.

I allocate time to do interrupt-driven tasks and either:
a) deal with it ASAP (usually tasks that sales or customer-service related), or
b) put it on the list for consideration for next week

The last thing I intend is for this post to become productivity porn – the point is not that you should use my “system”.

But I know that learning the following was a hard-won lesson for me, and thought I’d share:

1. realizing that you can have a huge impact if you focus on the big things instead of the little things
2. it’s sometimes difficult to move the dial because of all the nagging little things you are tempted to work on, so
3. exploring ways to keep yourself focused and motivated will have a large payoff

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4 thoughts on “Moving the Dial

  1. Leah Neaderthal

    Great thoughts Kareem. It’s too easy to keep ‘picking at’ these small things.

    I don’t want to underestimate, however, the value of one item: fixing typos.

    Typos in the product and your communications indicate “not ready for primetime,” distract from the actual use and value of your product, and can keep visitors from converting into customers. Take the simple step of having an editor (or someone who’s a typo or grammar nut) read through all copy in your product, website and other communications. You’re right – you shouldn’t be fixing this all the time. Because it’s an easy thing to get right the first time, and well worth it.

    1. kareem Post author

      @Leah – As a spelling and grammar freak, typos give me great pain.

      But my sales figures whilst a particularly prominent typo existed on our home page indicate that prospects are happily willing to overlook typos if you promise to remove a large enough pain for them.

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