The Jim Morris Hypothesis: Product Teams Do Best When They Build Just Enough to Learn
We talk to Jim Morris, founder of Product Discovery Group about how he's implemented a continuous discovery process at multiple organizations.
Jim Morris coaches product teams and leaders at startups and corporate clients. Previously, he co-founded PowerReviews (sold for $168 million) and was an early employee at Fogdog.com ($66 million IPO). Since graduating in Computer Science from Stanford University, he’s held a variety of roles in tech startups, most recently CTO.
In this episode of the Product Science Podcast, we talk about how Jim’s approach to product management and development has evolved and what he’s learned from implementing a continuous discovery process at multiple organizations.
Questions We Explore in This Episode
What was it like coding without anyone in the product manager role? Why did Amazon start with books, and what did Jim learn working in the sporting goods market? Why did people come to Jim to solve problems instead of the other engineers, and what are the benefits of being business-minded? How did they become the first online retailer to sell Nike? What was it like to be bought by a competitor?
How did Jim find partners to create a new startup? What legal change enabled his product review company to do business online? How did they bootstrap working out of friends’ conference rooms? How did their earlier work in sporting goods give them an intrinsic understanding of product market fit and their customers’ pain points? How did they pivot when Google changed their algorithms and they lost significant traffic to their website?
How did Jim end up managing product managers before actually working in the role himself? What mistakes did he make along the way and how did he learn from them? Why does the usage of PowerReviews’ Facebook integration feature haunt him to this day? What realizations did that give him about sustainability? What happened when they were acquired by their competitor and then became the target of a government antitrust investigation?
How did a Marty Cagan seminar change Jim’s thinking about product? What were the challenges of adopting those techniques while working at a company that already does things a certain way? How did a year of weekly product discovery teach him more about reviews than he had learned in the previous nine years? How did Jim learn to listen and what was the pivotal moment for him?
Why is Jim so insistent that MVPs should always have full analytics? What was the difference between releasing something with very little product discovery research and releasing something that had research backing it up? How does our siloed business environment contribute to a misunderstanding of research-backed product development? How has Jim’s job moved into change management? What kind of engagement has resulted in the kind of change that his clients are looking for?
Quotes From Jim Morris in This Episode
I realized there's a different way to solve problems that's faster than coding...figure things out with your customer before you make it.
I want to build that prototype in as few screens as possible…just enough to get the reaction from someone.
You have to believe that your colleagues can make the product better and that you're going to save a ton of time by including everybody right away.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Hi and welcome to the Product Science Podcast where we’re helping startup founders and products leaders build high growth products, teams and companies through real conversations with people who have tried it and aren’t afraid to share lessons learned from their failures along the way. I’m your host Holly Hester-Reilly, founder and CEO of H2R Product Science.
Holly Hester-Reilly: So this week on the Product Science podcast, I’m excited to talk with Jim Morris. Jim coaches product teams and leaders at startups and corporate clients. Previously he cofounded Power Reviews, which was sold and he was an early employee fogdog.com which IPO’d. Since graduating in computer science from Stanford, he’s held a variety of roles in tech startups, most recently a CTO. And now Jim leads the product discovery group and he and I have gotten to know each other a little bit and I’m very excited to talk with him today about his journey to this place and what he’s learned along the way. So welcome Jim.
Jim Morris: Awesome. Thanks Holly. Great to be here.
Holly Hester-Reilly: So why don’t we start with how you got into tech in the first place? Really, you actually studied computer science, which is not true for every product manager everywhere. But I’m curious like how did you first get into computers?
Jim Morris: Yeah, when I graduated from college it certainly was not cool or hot to be in computer science. And people said to me, “Oh, you’re going to spend the rest of your life in front of a computer. I would never do that.” And then fast forward 25 years or so and everybody else is sort of spending their life in front of a computer. So strange things happen. Right?
Holly Hester-Reilly: That’s actually-
Jim Morris: So I think I got into it because I loved building things. And when I took electrical engineering, mechanical engineering classes, they didn’t click. And I took a computer science class and it was like love at first sight, love at first all nighter. Literally I woke up the final project in my first computer science class and I’m like, “This is what I want to do.” And then slogged through the rest of the major. All the really talented students went and got PhDs and the rest of us went into a business.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yes. I know how that goes. And so what were your first forays into the business world?
Jim Morris: Yeah, I signed up with Autodesk right away and there weren’t really startups recruiting on campus, and worked there for three months. Some friends got funding and I just jumped ship because I wanted to program right away. Autodesk had me writing installers and install code and said that I might be able to program in AutoCAD, the software in two years. And so I went for the startup and within 30 days of joining them, I published my first web app. And then that was just addiction from there. Immediate gratification through writing software. And there were no product manager types back then. So the engineers, we just interfaced directly with clients and directly with … We were like a little bit of an agency serving sporting goods clients and we ended up turning into a company that sold sporting goods online. So when Amazon only sold books, we were selling sporting goods and that was back when eBay could only add one item to basket, right?
Jim Morris: So there were a lot of complexities in sporting goods and there was a reason why Amazon started with books. They had a built in distributor network and it was easy to kind of hook up one distributor ship. And so we spent a lot of time hooking up distributors and manufacturers to our network to put products on our site. So did all the backend tech for that fogdog.com sporting goods website, billing credit cards, customer service, merchandising, which I sort of called filling and emptying the warehouse. It was basically eCommerce. But it was a lot of fun because you got to sort of learn everything on your own and I loved doing that. And I was a business minded person, so I just kept getting … people kept coming to me instead of the other engineers. In my first startup, I went by the name Jimbo.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Oh yeah?
Jim Morris: So if you meet any of the people from that startup, they just know me as Jimbo.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Mm-hmm (affirmative). You’re just Jimbo.
Jim Morris: So that was, yeah.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Do you know the Jimbo character in Baby Boss?
Jim Morris: No. I’ve seen it, but I don’t know. I don’t remember.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I don’t think you’re like that for Jimbo. But that’s what comes to mind for me when I hear Jimbo. He’s like this big stocky baby who’s like, just like the muscle man of the baby group.
Jim Morris: That works. Fair enough.
Holly Hester-Reilly: And so it sounds like that was at a time when being involved in eCommerce was very different from where it’s like today, right?
Jim Morris: Yeah. Yeah. It was very wild West and we had to kind of figure it out all on our own which meant that the learnings are deep in me. But it was a really painful time. I think my now wife almost, my then girlfriend probably broke up with me several times and wanted to breakup with me several times. And I remember going to movie theaters or concerts and just falling asleep when the lights went out. I was just sleep deprived and so yeah, it was different in that respect. And then in sporting goods, it was a dealing with a lot of folks who just weren’t comfortable selling online. Like a lot of brands didn’t want to sell online. Nike didn’t want to sell. So we convinced Nike to sell online by giving them a 10% stake in our company.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Oh wow.
Jim Morris: So were the first retailer to open Nike. I remember flying up there as the engineer that linked up the Nike ACG. It’s a sandal brand, outdoor brand and to our website, and that was sort of the … We spent two or three days and I met Phil Knight and I was there for the announcement.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Wow. That must’ve been very exciting.
Jim Morris: It was. It was this great campus, Nike campus. And then you go to the Nike store and everything’s like 10 bucks. It was, I just like a kid in the candy store. Everybody gets sweatpants, everybody gets sweatshirts.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Wow. How cool. And so you were there, how long were you there for?
Jim Morris: Six years. So we IPO’d in December of 99. And the stock market crash happened during our lockout. So none of us really made a ton of money from that IPO. But we were bought by a company called Global Sports who had chosen a different business model. They bought the brand name and the URL, the online presence for about a dozen sporting goods companies like the Sports Authority, Dick’s Sporting Goods. And it was brilliant because they piggybacked on all the marketing. All that these companies had to do was put the URL on everything they published, newspaper ads, TV ads, instant marketing. And then there was just a revenue sharing deal when they ran the website. And of course they could share the warehouse because all the SKUs were basically the same in sporting goods and they could share the customer service center and share the architecture and the website. And so I worked for them for two years and learned kind of how they did that. And it was run by a guy named Michael Ruben who’d been very successful. And Global Sports turned into GSI, which turned into GSI Commerce which turned into eBay Enterprise.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Oh wow. Okay.
Jim Morris: Got to work on a variety of websites with them and really taking our drop ship network of sporting goods and tying it into their system. They’d been primarily a warehousing system. And I think that was the first time I was bought by my competitor.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. You mentioned there that it turned into eBay Enterprise, but tell us more about what that means. What is eBay Enterprise?
Jim Morris: It was just an eBay, I guess wanted to get into this market. It was after I’d left. And eBay is just a consumer facing site obviously, and they have business products on there, but this was sort of services to businesses like building websites for them. Amazon used to run the website for ToysRUs. Amazon used to run the website for Target. And so it was like that. It was like eBay was getting into running the website of other companies. And I think it’s really hard for these consumer facing companies to do this because one, there can be some competitive issues because they’re selling the same product on both sites and that’s eventually what led ToysRUs and Target to leave. And I think it’s also just hard to run these two really totally different businesses. So I don’t actually know that much about eBay enterprise, but I know that’s kind of how they ended up in working-
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. Yeah. Wait, so do you mean ToysRUs was on eBay Enterprise or-
Jim Morris: No, ToysRUs was on the Amazon platform originally.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Which was a competitor of eBay enterprise or?
Jim Morris: No, no, it was just sharing. There was just a model, similar entity, though not related.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Got it. Sorry. I got a little confused there. I remember I worked with ToysRUs as a client in the year that they … in the year of their death. And I remember them talking about some technologies that they were, it was traced back to a long time ago. And I was like, “Wait, what company are you building on?” But I don’t remember the details anymore. I let that go because I didn’t need to remember. So what happened after that?
Jim Morris: After that I commuted back to Pennsylvania for this company, every six weeks. And then that eventually-
Holly Hester-Reilly: In California?
Jim Morris: Yeah, just for a week. We go a week at a time. We had about, we were 180 people at Fogdog and we did what I call merge and purge. So we got bought by Global Sports and went from 180 down to 20. There were 20 of us in an engineering office and another individual and I were kind of tech leaders in the office. And so we would fly back to the mothership and work with our colleagues in Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia area. And then I actually spent the weekend in New York because back then business travel was $2,000 a trip unless you stayed the weekend.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Oh wow.
Jim Morris: You know, and so nowadays you can travel midweek without a $2,000 penalty. But so we would go to New York and stay in the lower East side at my friend’s sister’s place.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Oh nice.
Jim Morris: So it was great to visit them. So yeah, so finished that out. Got married, traveled the world. I actually did eight months traveling central South America, Thailand, New Zealand, just backpacking, 60 bucks a day and came back and did some consulting and then started the company with three others called Power Reviews. And we had provided a product review ability on Fogdog and our, we had enthusiasts and they loved the reviews and they would write reviews about everything. And we patterned it after Amazon’s reviews and we added a small twist, which was this followup email that you would get after you purchased. Because we knew who bought the product and we know that reviews are better from people who own it. And so we did that for Fogdog and then we did it as Power Reviews. That’s one of our early kind of game changer features.
Jim Morris: And Amazon didn’t actually build that particular feature until many years later. And one interesting story is that Jeff Bezos actually sat on the couch at Fogdog at one point. We had this really ugly green couch that we’d gotten for our engineering area, just free from some grad student nearby and yeah that was one of our … We told him about all of our features that were fun and interesting and yeah, it took them a long time to build it.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Wait a minute.
Jim Morris: So it never came of anything. It never came of anything.
Holly Hester-Reilly: So he sat on the couch and what was he doing there? Like-
Jim Morris: That’s a great question. I was really an underling, so I’m not quite sure I knew exactly what he was doing there. But I mean, he wasn’t there to visit a friend. Nothing ever came of it.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Wow. Wow. So wait, did you talk to him?
Jim Morris: I must’ve. Yeah. It’s, yeah, he sat like four feet from the data engineers.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Wow. Oh my God. That’s, yeah, that’s like just incredible. So yeah. So you started Power Reviews with some partners. So tell me a little bit about how you did that. Like what, because I’m always curious. Some of our listeners are thinking about whether they want to start their own startup. And some of the logistics of starting a startup, like those of us who’ve done it forget that a lot of people don’t know. But I think a lot of people don’t know. So how did you find these partners and what did it mean to have them as partners? Did you find funding? Was it bootstrapped? What did that look like?
Jim Morris: So Rob and Andy were founders of Fogdog and executives. So they had basically said, had this idea like, hey, let’s take product reviews and let’s democratize it to all other retailers. Product reviews has the one sticky feature for outsourcing that I realized many years later, which is that when people submit raw content to a website, the owners of the website are terrified that there are swear words or copyrighted content or all kinds of things. And so what had happened was the digital millennium copyright act, the DMCA was passed in the late 1990s or early two thousands, which allowed for content to be placed on the internet as long as there was a process to take it down. And that particular law is what has enabled YouTube and just thousands of companies to really thrive on the internet. The idea that if you put something up and it was offensive, that you would be immediately fined, would put most companies out of business. But the idea that there’s a take down policy is the sole reason that most of these content companies survive.
Jim Morris: So it was a great piece of legislation that allowed us as an outsourcing company whose only job was to do this, to take on all this risk. So there was a legal change at that time or just before then that we were familiar with. Rob and Andy approached me and another engineer named [Kalthoum 00:14:19], and we would be the two sort of starting engineers and that would be the two kind of starting business folks. And we basically gathered, we didn’t gather in a garage or a cafe. We actually just called all of our former Fogdog friends and basically sat in their conference rooms. So we own bootstrap, we all lived in these apartments with other people. We didn’t want to work in each other’s apartments. There’s no room.
Jim Morris: And so we had a box and in that box was a router. And of course as most people know, wireless networks are kind of a pain to get on. But if you can get into the ethernet network, you’re basically on their network. It’s this weird thing about security on networks. And so we just, this is 15, 20 years ago. So we would plug into, it was 15 years ago. We would plug into the wall and we would have instantly our own network and we would work out of friends’ conference rooms all over the peninsula for, and we did that for about six months. And I would say we knew product reviews was a winner.
Jim Morris: We didn’t have to sweat product market fit like a lot of my clients do because we’d seen it. And we’d seen it on Amazon and we’d seen it firsthand. And we knew the marketplace of retailers. We would just … when you’re in retail for six years, you end up knowing not how sporting has worked, but you know how books work. You know how selling garden supplies, garden.com, pets.com and we were all staring at all these startups for so many years, so intensely. And we knew that they all needed reviews and yeah.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I was just going to say, it sounds like you also knew the mindset of the people who were involved. Like you knew a little bit about why, what it took to get a company to put their stuff online and what they were scared of when it came to online. And at this point in 2020, we might not remember, but 15 years ago there was a lot more fear about just going online in the first place as a store. Right. But you guys knew that. You knew how to overcome that already too.
Jim Morris: Yeah. And we’d also done a lot of work in credit card fraud. So one of my roles at Fogdog was processing the $25 million a year on credit card transactions. And that was, I mean, and that was just me and a couple of other engineers. We’re not talking about a large group. And we had a customer service team that dealt with all of the issues, but we process them and we knew … So we applied a lot of those learnings to just review fraud. Right? So fraud, content, there’s a lot of these gotchas that meant that a lot of companies who sold fashion, who sold sporting goods didn’t want to deal with it. So I think we … I mean, so we knew that mindset. So we knew the value to users and we knew the pain to the buyers.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. That’s really, no wonder you were so confident to start the business.
Jim Morris: Yeah. And Andy and Rob thought they could kind of bankroll it. They’d made more of the money from the Fogdog transaction. They thought they could kind of bankroll it. And we realized to grow we needed to get some money. So we had three signed and live clients, approached an investor, Menlo Ventures. We approached a lot of investors but it was a quick turnaround because we found an investor who believed in what we wanted to do, who believed in the power of reviews and the change of reviews. That’s really cheesy, the power of reviews. He believed in what reviews did. And so yeah, John Jarvey at Menlo ventures signed us up and we took a $6 million in funding within, at the end of our five or six months.
Jim Morris: And I remember going to dinner and there were three checks that added up to $6 million, because apparently in venture capital they have these different funds on their side. It’s not just like one big bank account. It feels like it from the side. But there were three separate checks and we just laid the checks on the table and just stared at them going, “Oh my goodness, how did this happen?” It was amazing. We were very happy and lucky.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. Yeah. That does sound like very worthy of staring at and wondering.
Jim Morris: And we were the cheek types. So we actually got real estate. We got an office space in like a real estate and insurance building. You know, what’s like really old carpet and right on the train tracks. So when we did conference calls and the train was coming, we would steer the conversation around, we would be talking, talking, talking, talking, talking, talking, mute. Oh, really? That’s great. That’s great. That’s good to know.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Oh my God. That’s hilarious. Wow. So tell me the story of what happened there. How did Power Reviews go?
Jim Morris: Yeah. So we slogged it through for about seven years. We built a multitenet platform that served like refrigeratorfilters.net, added like $1 million a year all the way up to staples.com at $1 billion a year. So it was one platform. And we in the middle of that had a business model that was to make a consumer website and have the rights to all the review content that was being submitted on our platform and make basically a reviews website. And that was called bazillions.com, like you had bazillions of reviews. We got most of our traffic from Google. In 2010 Google changed their algorithm and we went from five and a half million visitors a month to about a million and a half visitors three months later.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Oh boy.
Jim Morris: And that was the beginning of just thousands of companies that. And we were in there figuring out all the browser incompatibilities and all that kind of stuff. And so that was about seven years of growth and intense competition. Really intense competition where it taught me to be paranoid. I bring the paranoia to all my clients because our competitor was fierce. They were incredibly good at sales. They were incredibly good at, they signed, Walmart and Best Buy. They grew faster than we did. They ended up going public in 2012 and then quickly bought us which being bought by a competitor, especially one who was really competitive with you is good and bad. It’s good because it’s an exit and an exit is great. Well, I don’t know if it was bad actually. It was challenging mentally because you have to turn into friend after being foe for seven years.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. And in that path you performed, were you CTO the whole time?
Jim Morris: I started as just hands on keyboard engineer for a couple of years and again, there were no product managers. So I was the business minded engineer playing the product manager role. That’s how I sort of ended up in this area. And then I ran a consumer facing website as like a GM. And that was the first time I’d managed a product manager. I’d always managed engineers and I’d just say managing product manager was really difficult. I had really no idea what I was doing. With engineers it’s, we’re going to code something. Are you coding it? Is it bug free? Is this secure? Is it reliable? Like did it launch? We’re onto the next thing. You know, I had an interview style that I knew worked because I had interviewed and hired and let go more engineers than I had any other position.
Jim Morris: But for product managers for qualitative position, I was really lost. So I ended up really managing product managers before I was one. And so I ran that consumer website for many years, became an expert in SEO. I would track down the sky map cuts at conferences. He was the voice of Google natural search because he would go to conferences and speak and he was like the Alan but Greenspan of search. He would say things like, “Well we don’t really like aggregation sites.” Google didn’t have the technology to actually push the aggregation sites like shopping.com and others out of their listings yet, to do it algorithmically because they were obsessive about doing things algorithmically, not manually. And so I would go find him. I’d wait in the parking lot. I’d wait up front because I know after his speech, he was going to leave. Right?
Jim Morris: He wasn’t going to hang around or he was going to talk to some folks and then because he’s a really busy person and I would get five or 10 minutes every three to six months. And yeah, I could tell the change in the algorithm was coming. That they wanted to disintermediate aggregation sites, shopping sites, review sites, you name it. And to this day, all the sites are going out of the listings.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Wow. So and that’s the change that made your traffic tank.
Jim Morris: Yeah. And so then after that I moved into the CTO role over the other parts of the business. And then kind of managed all the product management, the design, the engineering, the dev ops, the data scientists, the database, that kind [crosstalk 00:24:09].
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. How many people worked at the company by the time it was bought by the competitor?
Jim Morris: About 120.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Okay. Yeah, that’s a good sign. I mean, congratulations. Like having your startup grow to that size is awesome. I mean, being part of, such an early part of the other one is awesome too. So it sounds like you must have learned a lot of, you learned a lot of product thinking along the way before you took on the product hat, like officially, right? You took the [inaudible] before you took on the title. What was it like to learn kind of on the fly?
Jim Morris: Well, when you’re able to build things as they kind of come to mind and no one’s telling you not to do it, it’s very freeing. Right. And so I got to learn in a very open environment that I’m just, I’m very thankful for because what that allowed me to do was make a lot of mistakes. And the mistakes were sort of very bare right in front of me. And some of them were obvious, meaning we’d launch code and traffic and revenue would go down, some things we could actually sell, but never were that valuable. We sold a connect your review to Facebook. So you write a review and you link over to Facebook. We’d actually put the like button on your product page for you because as it turns out, these retailers actually had a hard time just getting things built on their own site. So the more things that we could sort of pump in for them and the like button was really hot and new back then.
Jim Morris: I mean, it must’ve been like five people in a month. We had 100 million people going through our network. We had tens of thousands of, hundreds of thousands of reviews coming through and like you have less than 10 people linking it to Facebook. And I felt really embarrassed and telling this new person that this we’d sold all this money for was actually not performing. And it was that point where I had this kind of inverted reality of, okay, I guess I can sell things that aren’t valuable, but I also realized that it’s not sustainable. And of course this product didn’t end up getting renewed.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Right. Yeah. I love that. I think that’s something a lot of earlier career product people or startup founders forget, right? They’re just like, “Well, I can sell it. Let’s sell it.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but you want to be able to sell it next year too and the year after that.”
Jim Morris: Yeah. So I’m constantly thinking 13 months, are you going to get through this renewal cycle? Do you know how this product’s doing? Do you know how your clients are doing with your products?
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, definitely. So what a journey already, but then I know that there’s a different kind of fun after that. So tell us more about happened. What happens after you get acquired?
Jim Morris: Yeah. So Bazaarvoice an Austin Texas based company bought us after they went public and there’s various criteria and they were number one in the market, we were number two. And there was effectively, there wasn’t a number three at that time. And someone contacted the US government and basically an antitrust investigation was started very shortly after we got acquired in 2012. And that continued and ended with a trial in like January of 2014 ish. And no, maybe 2013. Anyways, there was a trial and all the emails were pulled out from all the executives and it was sort of an open and shut trial where Bazaarvoice was basically found guilty of creating a monopoly by buying the number two in the market.
Jim Morris: And it was on monopoly of the product ratings and reviews platform market. In antitrust you have to define the market. I should say before the trial ended, we were actually all integrated as Bizaarvoice employees. I spent two years every month commuting for three or four days to Austin, which is an amazing talent and lots of very smart people at Bazaarvoice and it was amazing to see how another company did exactly the same thing that we did, but almost totally differently.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I can only imagine. What was that like?
Jim Morris: Well, you have this experiment. I think when you’re an engineer and you’re in your start up, you’re the first engineer. You have to choose the stack. You have to choose the language and these things stick with you forever. I used to think architecture was a function of the smartness of the employee who dreamed it up, I chose React because it was better than Angular. I can basically tell what architecture you’re using by the year you started your company. It’s a function of the year. It’s not a function of you. I always thought I was so smart. This is one of the things that comes, that is found to be true almost to every client I talk to. Do you have APIs or not? What year were you founded? No, that was an older thing. API’s become super popular at about 2012 ish.
Jim Morris: But if you were started before then, I know you’ve got some troubles because you’re not eating your own dog food, you’re not using your own APIs. So companies that had been around that long, I know that they have some development issues in that regard. But so we joined them. I learned about how they did things differently. They ran their teams differently. So it was a really, it was an educational opportunity. It was educational on the product side because that’s when I went to my first really only Marty Cagan seminar. And that was the moment I realized I had been doing everything the hard way. Because I was building all the software. I was an engineer, I hired engineers. My tool of choice was engineering. You gave me a problem, I just wrote software. I wrote software, I had teams write software. I didn’t know how to solve it.
Jim Morris: Remember I didn’t know how to manage product managers. And so at that moment, that aha moment, which many people have at these seminars, I realized, okay, there’s a different way to do this that’s faster than coding. And you basically use design and what we now call product discovery to figure these things out with consumers, with your customer, yeah, before you make it. And to me it became really viable actually about a year or so later. Because it’s hard to actually adopt these techniques when you’re in a company that has its own way of doing things. Right. One of the challenges of being a product discovery coach as you can [inaudible 00:31:11].
Jim Morris: And so having gone through that myself, it was interesting. And what happened was when we split out, so let me fast forward again to losing the antitrust suit. We’re all Bizaarvoice employees at that point. We are now splitting the company out. We found an acquirer, a private equity in another company combined to buy Power Reviews out. And when you split companies up, you can say where the software and the contracts go, but you can’t say where people go. Because apparently this is America and you can’t do that. So some sort of interesting slice of the original 120 people spun out to become the new Power Reviews. So about 35 of us and there were no PMs. And there were no designers. The company who bought us, the 12 person company who bought us, with the backing of a private equity company had one designer.
Jim Morris: And so he and I were the product team for, I don’t know, eight months until I could hire people in Chicago and San Francisco. And we built the company back up to it’s over 120 now. But I was there for a year post acquisition, post spin out and that’s when I implemented all of these techniques of product discovery of … I met with a hundred clients in a year, two a week on average. I had met more clients in that one and the previous nine years in Power Reviews. I learned more about reviews in that one year that I did in the previous nine years. Because I did consumer testing. I learned why people use TripAdvisor. I learned why people use Yelp. I learned why they used my competitor sites, why they used my sites. I talked to my business customers, we were B2B2C, which was also very lucky in my career to have two types of users that I had to please at the same time.
Jim Morris: And I traveled. We traveled to LA, to New York, I was in Lord and Taylor. You walk through the Lord and Taylor’s store and they like push a secret wall aside and then you’re walking … It feels like the back of Saturday Night Live. You know with these weird hallways. And then you get to the conference rooms. And all the conference rooms in retail have padded, carpeted walls.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Oh wow.
Jim Morris: You’re like, “What is this room?” That’s for hanging all the examples.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Oh yeah.
Jim Morris: Right. So they have buyers. Buyers are always looking at new stuff coming in. So we met with the clients and we were there to tell them how awesome we were and that we were a new company coming out of our spin-out and we were there to figure out what was going on with them. And it was part of that process of learning to listen. Not my strong point.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. Because I’m sure that’s not quite what you teach now. Right? Not there to tell them how awesome we are.
Jim Morris: Yeah. And so that moment was the transition moment because we had an agenda, we had a roadmap and we would show the roadmap and then we started realizing that we were too far ahead of our clients. They were struggling with the transition to mobile. And at that point every month you could basically add, let’s see, every year mobile traffic was doubling. So it went from 5% to 10%, 10% to 20%, 20% to 40%. It hit 50%, more than 50% in retail page views around 2014, 2015. People were still not buying on their phone, but they were consuming content and they were web rooming, reading about it and then going into the stores.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Oh, I love that. That’s awesome. Yeah. It is a totally different experience, right? When you’re launching software and you’ve already been doing tons of research, like you must have gone through both versions of like a launch date. I’m curious to hear if that’s changed for you.
Jim Morris: I still have the spreadsheet. Well I have the template that I used, not the content, but the template and down the template is like would you be a pilot program participant? And I didn’t like the word beta because people have bad alpha-beta that just associated with a Microsoft or someone non-working stuff. And so I created a work with the business people and I said, “Look, I need to get software out in the market. Not only do I have to do discovery on it before it’s built, I want to have some safety when I launch it to my 1200 clients. So I want to launch it to 10.” And we had always had a feature flag system. We had 250 feature flags that made up our 15 features. But-
Holly Hester-Reilly: Wow, that’s a lot.
Jim Morris: Well, you know 10 year company, right? You don’t start with 250. But like we were lazy engineers. We didn’t want to be involved in the turning on and off of features. So everything we did had a feature flag. Don’t talk to us, you marketing people, you want to take five features and turn them into seven? We’ll just remix the feature flags. Right. So that was one of the ways we did that. But from a launch point of view, it was a big deal to switch people over, but we did it. I’d convinced, I found aligned, clients that were aligned to our vision. I found clients that liked us and I found clients that were okay with me launching pilot program software, beta software, whatever you want to call it to their clients. Right?
Jim Morris: So like Duluth Trading Company, not a well known name. They have these crazy underwear commercials, but very, very good at doing the web. And they were very comfortable. And it required them, I believe it required them to do a slight update, which was a very challenging thing to get on the roadmap of our clients. Hence the tag manager revolution. So I kind of felt … I managed us through that launch and the other part was, were we going to take more or less reviews? Right. Because it was such a big change, we didn’t know if it would affect that. And so what we did was our MVP always had analytics, and this is the thing that it seems to be missing from MVP literature. I hate the definition, I hate talking about it, but MVP always has 100% analytics in my mind.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yes. How could you, it just bogs my mind that people cut it and it’s like how could you learn whether the things are working if you don’t have measurement? Yeah.
Jim Morris: Yeah. So what I did was we measured the reviews and we actually got a boost because the page was slightly faster actually. And we went to our whole client base with this new feature to get them to do this adoption because it required a little bit of work, but we could tell them it did like 15% more reviews. I went to market with a new feature that I had done discovery on and then I had launched prematurely, not prematurely, really in this pilot program early. And I collected data and then I used that data. I gave it to the marketing people and yeah, it was like a totally different way to launch. And it was exact opposite of my Facebook integration feature, which had very little analytics, very little discovery, very little value impact. I didn’t raise reviews. Content.
Jim Morris: So I’d gone in like a four year period from old to new and so I was hooked. Right. I was just hooked on there’s a better way to do this. There’s an easier way to, there are more moving pieces. I mean, when you just make stuff up and build it, there’s less to do I guess. But you just won’t get that success.
Holly Hester-Reilly: That’s exactly it. Right. I mean, it’s the continuous product discovery paired with continuous delivery. Like it’s not easy to do. I don’t think any of us should pretend it’s easy to do. Right. Like it’s hard work, but it works. And that’s the point. That’s what we’re all for. And when you can do a release and you, like I said, when we were releasing Shutterstock Editor and someone asked me how I thought the release went. I was like, “Well, I knew what to expect people would say, because I’d talked to them constantly before it, relaunched it.” And they asked me, they said the people I thought were going to love it, loved it. The people I thought weren’t going to be happy yet weren’t happy yet. And the thing they asked for next was what I thought they were going to ask for next. And that’s what you want. You know, you’re just like, great. That’s a …
Holly Hester-Reilly: I don’t know if my boss thought that was a good … you know what I mean? Like I don’t know if that’s what the business thought was a good release. That’s what I thought was a good release because it’s there’s no anxiety there about whether it’s hitting its goals and you just keep going with the plan. And like once you start experiencing that that can really happen, because so many people in our industry don’t realize it can really happen, I think. I don’t know about you. I’m curious if you come across that. But I feel like I still talk people who are like, “Ah, you’re just like selling something that you’ve just been making this up.”
Jim Morris: Yeah, I mean I think it’s because we have a business environment that’s very siloed, right? And salespeople, they want to sell something and the product people don’t adopt the sales problem, right? They think it’s like the sales people’s job to sell the software or the product or the feature or the service. And this is the whole thing like a business owner, right? Like you don’t necessarily need to be the CEO of your product, because again, that’s another discussion that goes down the rabbit hole in product. And so I’ve used the term business owner to avoid the baggage of this think like a CEO conversation. Because whether you’re CEO or not, you should think like, well, is this money that I would spend if it was my own money in terms of expenses? If I’m using this engineering time, is this … If I was paying this engineer’s salary, would I have spent this engineer’s time on this?
Jim Morris: So the business owner style, I think it’s something that helps people break through the silos and I don’t know, make friends across the business and also take on some of their burdens. But again, I’ve come from a lot of really agile grounds up organizations and so I would say my native understanding of this style of business is low. But I’m getting better at helping people bridge the gap. And that’s I guess generally one of the things that I do.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. So let’s jump forward then. Tell us more about what you do now. So you’re doing something different. I mean the same thing but in a different form.
Jim Morris: Yeah. So I left Power Reviews after a year. It was kind of burned out, after 10 years in a startup with all of those kinds of ups and downs. And there was a company, dictionary.com that didn’t have a head of product at the time and they just wanted somebody to mentor their product managers. And so I jumped in. I did that, found that I could really help these individuals with their career and also with their, the project they were on. And I just fell in love with it. And so really from there, tried to … and I have built a business that’s based on working at that product team level. Now as I moved into larger clients, I mentor product leaders and also all my engagements. They’re typically like three month engagements end with, or start or during the middle of a healthy amount of change management.
Jim Morris: Because I want people to change their behaviors by the time I’m gone. And I’ve been studying behavioral science on the side and trying to figure out how to integrate it into product management because in this attention economy, nobody cares about what you’re doing. And so behavioral science is about changing behavior and getting people to adopt what you want them to do. And I don’t want to be sort of cynical and unethical about it. But I want to appreciate that it’s a thing. And so behavioral science says that you make change by doing small things over long periods of time. It also says that you can change folks who are interested in change. It’s very hard, if not impossible, to change the mind of people who don’t want to change. Yeah.
Jim Morris: And so for people, I work with people who want to change and I work with them over a period of time. And we work on product discovery and other techniques to get them in this mindset of qualitative and quantitative research, delivering based on outcomes and more revenue, less costs, whatever that outcome is not just delivering software. Because with agile delivering software is a known thing. 20 years ago we didn’t have agile. We just kind of fumbled our way through and delivering software and software quality, these were all problems of the 1990s. Agile solved all of these problems. We just don’t have an agile for product. We just still just make stuff up and give it to people. Hey, build this. I thought of it. I’m a smart person.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I know.
Jim Morris: And it’s not … I mean this is something I did. Right. It’s natural I think. And I think what I want to do is raise the probability of success with techniques and mindset changes. And then when I had that process with Power Reviews, with launching the mobile transition, I had confidence I could represent to my CEO, to my clients, to my marketing and customer success staff. They loved it because they had that confidence. And if you look at all the prioritization schemes in the world, RICE is a common example. Reach, oh shoot, confidence, effort, something, impact, reach, impact, confidence and effort. Well reach is knowing like we know how many people go to my website. There’s a thousand people on the website.
Jim Morris: But the impact and the confidence of success and the effort from the engineers without discovery they’re largely invented numbers. And with discovery, we basically help people to understand the impact of what they’re doing, get them more confident. And then when engineers are in the room the whole time, they’re not surprised, the business people know how long things will take. And I throw out a bunch of other kinds of things where long projects can be broken into small projects. I take some stuff from agile and throw it in because that’s just the engineer in me.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. And I’m sure you’re meeting people who need more help with the agile too, right? Like I was surprised when I first left startup topia and found how many people were still not doing real agile. And I’m there trying to teach them how to do continuous product discovery and then I realized that they can’t do continuous product delivery. And so I’m sure that a little bit of that comes around too, but yeah, that sounds really awesome. So how do people get started with you? Like is it, and what does that look like? Is it typically like weekly coaching or how do you structure that?
Jim Morris: Sure. I think the ideal engagement that ends with the change my clients want is a three month engagement. Typically, my companies are doing where from one to four teams in a given company, and I only take a certain amount of teams at a time. And we try to get through what I call three discovery cycles in that time period. And I want them … these are what we would call larger cycles. I certainly want them to be doing smaller cycles. But in that three month period, we’re going to do weekly coaching at the individual level for the PM and at the team level. The PM has a special role in product management, leveraging their colleagues, designers and engineers and data analysts and data scientists, and also kind of managing stakeholders. And then as a team, we do discovery together.
Jim Morris: We work through all the problems together. So we do that. In the middle of the engagement I do a one week sprint where we do an entire discovery process in one week, ending with user interviews, very similar to what you see in a sprint book. But I put the Marty Cagan twist on it, which is, it’s value oriented, right? You can do the usability testing without me. There’s a lot of information on the internet about puristics where buttons should go, task completion, how long did it take the person to do this, were they confused? I’m there to have the teams focus on whether they should be building this thing at all, this product, feature or service. Do people want it, do they care, will they pay you money for it? And we hypothesize on experiments. And so I do that week and then we kind of finish with another cycle at the end.
Jim Morris: And I’m kind of leaving them with the tools and the techniques and assets and resources for thought leaders out of … I would say much better thought leaders than your typical nine ways to write a good roadmap. Because we don’t write road maps in my style of product management. But the goal there is that change. And I think that the biggest change that I’ve recently seen happen is getting people to think about building experiments early on rather than whole user experiences. All of us in product from product managers, designers, engineers, we’re kind of completionists, right? We’re drawn into building a whole set of mock ups or clickable prototype screens, like 20 screens. And I like to play the game, name that tune. And this is a real throwback, but people would name a song in as few notes as possible. And so I want them to build that prototype in as few screens as possible.
Jim Morris: And that’s all the sort of fake it until you make it type stuff that you see out there but also just do less work. People are working really hard and they’re spending way too much time on stuff that nobody cares about. If you iterate multiple times during the week or multiple weeks in a row, you just build small parts of it and then it’s choose your own adventure. If they like A, keep going down the A route. If they like B, go down the B route. If they don’t like C, D and E, great. You just saved yourself a bunch of time. And you didn’t build a whole user experience that no one cared about. And so it’s getting them to build that wild West town in the movie set is just facades. That’s one of the biggest challenges, to get their mindset that in the beginning of the process you’ve got to be cutting corners and only making just enough to get the reaction from someone. And then in the end, yeah, do the usability thing where you build all the buttons and you build all the escape hatches and whatnot.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. So what’s it like teaching a team who’s not done that? Is it hard to get them over for you?
Jim Morris: It is. And especially in the beginning. And I recently videoed people at the beginning and the end of a sprint. And at this point I try to use my persuasion and personality and just say, “Trust me. I’m not going to take a lot of your time. But as we go through these steps, you will be able to compare and contrast about how you normally do things versus this product discovery style. You can make a decision at the end.” And always at the end, people understand, okay, this is how I can save time. This is how I can learn more. And they realize that there’s more to this than just finishing the software project. Now I have to convince their bosses there’s more to it than finishing the software project.
Jim Morris: So yeah, I’d say in the beginning it’s hard to convince people. Now and that works at startups and corporations, and I don’t know what you call companies in between that have like grown from startup and going public that are still thought of as startups. But there’s those like, anyways, there’s big tech companies. Those companies, they’re really successful at building software fast and they’re also just successful companies. But what I do find is they’re still very internally focused, and they’re not … They might do some research in the front and then the whole development process of six to eight to nine weeks is without customer involvement. And then they do a reveal. Reveal is like a four letter word in our business. Like you need to iterate in discovery, you need iterate while you’re building it and make these course corrections so that you’re not so far off when you deliver.
Jim Morris: So I think it’s hard to convince them, but then when they see that they can make these changes and we get permission from their bosses to make changes when they see users have reactions. They feel super empowered. And I would say the designers already know this, the user experience people. And so I tell them like, “Look, the PMs and the engineers, the other folks, they’re all going to come around to understanding this. But it also means that they’re going to be as part of this discovery process, they actually do user interviews, they’re involved. So they actually kind of take on some of the work of the user experience person.” So I have to tell them like, “Hey, they’re going to get into your area.” You know, we don’t get into the engineering area. PM’s don’t become engineers, but PM’s do become user interviewers. Engineers become prototype makers.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. So that’s a tough adjustment for some designers for sure. I’ve seen that too. So do you have any sort of final thoughts that you would want to share particularly to somebody who’s been building software but is on this transition road to doing better product discovery and getting smarter about what they should be building?
Jim Morris: Yeah, I would say make sure at every step you’re doing things with a cross functional team. I found in multiple clients, waterfall within a product team, right, the business owner and the product manager. You know in Silicon Valley there’s difference. Product managers are the business owners at Facebook and Google. But in most businesses, there’s some sort of a, there’s often a business owner and a product manager. They dream up a concept, pass it to the designer to make it look nice, pass it to the engineer to build it, pass it to the launch team to launch it, move on to the next thing. And someone in data analysis reports the results somewhere. And so now I’m starting to cancel meetings when one of these important individuals has to show up because we often spend the next meeting recapping that person. Right. And so attendance is crucial. And Jeff Patton is the one who coined this phrase and it’s in my brain all the time. It’s like an ear worm. It’s shared understanding is the most important thing, not shared documents.
Jim Morris: You can’t possibly write down what we’re learning when we build useful software. Can’t write, as a user I’d like to do this so that I do this. That was my first … that was my gym 1.0 version of becoming a product manager. And it was really unsatisfying because that statement structure didn’t do it because it was hollow. So I would say get that cross functional team together and make them all work on everything at the same time. And the engineer is going to say, “Hey, I’m not coding. This is not a good use of my time.” And the designer is going to say, “Well isn’t this my silo, my swim lane?” And to all of them and to the product manager who might’ve had more control without a cross functional team, because I myself went on the listing journey from control oriented to listening oriented.
Jim Morris: You have to believe that your colleagues can make it better and you have to believe that you’re going to save a ton of time by including everybody right away. So everyone gets the full context of the business problem because they’re in the messy part where the business owner and the product manager are hashing out why they’re doing something. They want to make money. They want to save money, they want to please clients. They want to sign clients. They have churn. Our customers are leaving us. I mean if your engineer and your designer and your data analyst or data scientist know that customers are leaving you, they’re not going to leave the company. Like people love their company. People want their company to be successful. I think a lot of leaders think it’s demoralizing to be exposed to negative news.
Jim Morris: I think for high quality employees is exactly the opposite. You band together and you want to be involved in the hard problems. That’s why we all get into these businesses. We want that challenge from the darkest corner of every corporation to the brightest spot of every little startup like … And that’s an unfair categorization of those types of companies. But I would say that the cross functional team, it just has so many fringe benefits that it solves a lot of problems like agile. So basically breaking things down and launching things fast, solves every problem in software. The cross functional team might be one of those things that solves most of our ideation problems.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, no, you’re a good, passionate advocate for it. And you’re right. One thing I was thinking, I don’t know if you’ve been through as I was listening to that is the first period on a newly cross functional team can be really awkward for all the people, right? Like they’ve got to have a coach or an experienced person on the team there who’s saying, “You know what, this weird feeling you’re having it’s normal. We need to sit with it. We’re going to have a better product in the end. You know, it’s worth this awkwardness of not being sure why we’re doing these things that we thought we’re in everybody’s role, that we weren’t all supposed to be a part of it, but we’re now next to that. Like no, it’s okay. Be here anyways.”
Jim Morris: Yeah. It’s those moments when I wish I was a sociology major or got the sociology graduate major when I thought, okay, the getting a group to function, getting them to respect each other, there’s a lot of male female dynamics going on in groups where males are over-talking females, that’s sort of the stereotype. But so I need to move people to that kind of like safe, respectful conversation. And also there’s [inaudible] conversation. People are really nice to each other. And when you’re doing a design review, and that’s why I give them a framework to talk about. Right.
Jim Morris: So one of those things that makes it easier is if you’ve identified the problem, if you’ve identified a metric you’re going to, I want to increase revenue by a certain amount. I want to make sure that people aren’t waiting around long periods of time. It all serves as corporate objective. And we know our target customer is this type of user. I basically, if I can get … I won’t start on the project without these four ingredients because it allows us to have a discussion. It’s not about me versus you. Because me versus you is awful.
Jim Morris: It’s awful in gender and race and who’s in the power position and who’s been in the company longer. There’s so many aspects of me versus you that you can’t really sociology your way out of it, almost. You have to talk about something else. Well, the user feedback, right, that’s a great way to break through our opinions, and then the goals. Like, well that’s an interesting idea. Does it solve this customer problem? I probably say that twice a session, every session. And it’s a broken record and by the time I’m gone, they say it to themselves. They say it to each other and it’s really healthy because if you’re the … it’s just a healthy way to interact because it’s not me versus you.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Awesome. Well, I think we should probably wrap up. I feel like we’re probably out of time. But where can people find you if they want to follow you or learn more or reach out?
Jim Morris: Sure. So productdiscoverygroup.com is my website and there’s a contact form there, or firstname.lastname@example.org. And then Twitter is SFJMorris. Yeah, those are great places.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Awesome. Great. Well, thank you so much. This was such a pleasure. I’m glad to get to you, get over all this with you.
Jim Morris: Yeah. Thank you Holly. You’re an awesome host.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Product Science podcast is brought to you by H2R Product Science. We teach startup founders and product leaders how to use the product science method to discover the strongest product oportunities and lay the foundations for high growth products teams and businesses. Learn more at h2rproductscience.com. Enjoy the [inaudible] and don’t forget to subscribe [inaudible 01:01:26]. If you love the show, a rating and review will be greatly appreciated. Thank you.
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