Percolate’s platform is used by the world’s biggest and fastest growing brands. With enhancements launching several times a day, our company relies on product managers, or PMs, to release features that meet the immediate needs of our customers without losing sight of our long-term mission to build the system of record for marketing. I’ve been a product manager at Percolate for about three months now, and currently manage our Media and Monitoring offerings. This role sits at the intersection of engineering and business, and is exactly what I was looking for as an ex-software developer with an MBA.

The product manager function varies widely among software companies. Today, I’ll share Percolate’s take on the discipline and break down three skills that help me every day: customer empathy, prioritization, and execution.

Customer Empathy: Understanding client needs

At Percolate, a great product delights users while also making financial sense for their business. Getting these two things right means empathizing with the needs of both end-users and buyers.

When thinking about the needs of buyers — the CMOs and other marketing executives empowered to make technology investments — I consider everything from their high-level business challenges to their relationship with their IT department. For example, I know that social + mobile has increased the demand for rich, compelling, and sharable content (a phenomenon Rebecca Lieb colorfully calls “feeding the beast”), which is causing spend to shift away from content distribution and towards content production; this trend is magnifying inefficiencies in the creative sourcing process and dragging down margins. Knowing this, I prioritize media products and features that help marketers maximize their returns on creative spend by, for instance, repurposing existing assets using powerful editing tools or by getting better pricing for high quality content through our Marketplace.

On the other hand, to get closer to our end-users — the community managers, agencies, and other marketers who use our products daily — PMs work closely with designers to research user needs, refine use cases, and ensure the user’s voice is reflected throughout the feature development process.

5S4A9989

Prioritization: Making tough choices

Deciding which features to build is one of the most challenging aspects of product management. PMs regularly make tough tradeoffs between tactical features that can land new accounts, and strategic investments that will pay off in the long term.

One tool we use to manage this process is a “vision doc”, which is a written outlook on a product’s future. When writing these documents, I treat each product as an individual company that I have to pitch to investors (which in this case is really our team and our CEO, Noah Brier). A vision doc has everything you would expect to find in a startup elevator pitch: data-supported insights about the market, current unmet customer needs, the competitive landscape. After framing my world-view in the first half of the document, I write the most important section: Percolate’s opportunity, which highlights the three or four product investments we should make in order to capture it. Finally, the vision doc includes KPIs and milestones that paint a picture of what our business will look like when we succeed.

Looking at features in the context of an overarching mission simplifies the prioritization process and keeps us on track for long term success.

Execution: Shipping products

While PMs define the product roadmap and lead cross-functional teams, the engineers and designers actually report to functional directors. This means product managers have to rely on influence to get things done, not authority.

Let’s walk through the process that product managers at Percolate use to build features. After we identify the broad product opportunity in our vision documents, we break that vision down into specific features. We describe these features in one page “briefs” and work with designers to iron out storyboards, which we ultimately scope into manageable projects (Percolate PMs love to ship small, early, and often). During the scoping process, the product manager partners with engineers to determine technical feasibility (tip: it’s always possible) and timelines. After the scope and timeline are set, PMs must ensure a smooth release; we host status meetings, coordinate deployment with QA + Ops, and buy the occasional late night dinner — whatever it takes.

While feature development is underway, PMs are continually sharing interesting use cases with our Marketing and Client Solutions teams so they can build a compelling story to distribute — internally and externally — with the product launch. Finally, when the new feature is live, we sit in on a weekly sales meeting to explain the release and answer questions to help our sales team refine their pitches.

Since a PM will typically have two or three features in development at any given time, the final step is to congratulate the engineers and designers on their win, and get ready for next week’s release.

Looking to next year’s product roadmap, Percolate has exciting challenges ahead that I can’t wait to tackle. If you’d like to join me in this journey, please reach out: we’re hiring! Either way, stay tuned for more product management blog posts in the future!

If you’d like to connect, you can follow me on Twitter at @nate_stewart.