Mike Ohanian is the Vice President of Product Management at TravelNet Solutions, a provider of software solutions for short-term rental management companies. Mike is a big proponent of product strategies that empower features and improvement ideas to come organically — rather than from what sales hears from customers.
In our conversation with Mike, he shares insights into the shift in product strategy from an early-stage startup to a more mature company, how he blends qualitative and quantitative data to uncover insights about products, and how he increases company awareness around the product management function.
Pull from the front means you’ve built and enabled your product so well that you don’t rely much on sales to come to you with ideas. Often, you’ll hear that a company has a sales-driven strategy. And that implies that the company is not product-strategic, they just build based on what sales hears from customers.
My biggest objective is to make it so that when sales are in their sales motions, there are very few of those instances. Because we’re already strategically ahead of sales looking in the marketplace for problems to solve and gaps to fill.
Pulling from the front means we want to get ahead of these gap considerations that are preventing easy sales cycles and build strategically and globally, not just ones-offs that a customer needs to close the contract.
You typically see where things are “sales-driven” or product strategy-absent in the early startup stages of a company. Companies are relatively blended and people are wearing a lot of hats, and you’re just trying to get your product-market fit and then build on it.
Typically, you start to see that maturing right around when you look to make your first exit or you’re about to get the next set of rounds of funding. The operating motion was good to go from idea to stage one, but we want to scale and we have to be a lot more strategic.
Typically, I start to look at the allocation of capacity spent. Essentially, I want to determine what percentage of our capacity we are building to fulfill existing sales contracts versus looking forward and saying, “We’re building that because we’ve scoped the market and looked for the next place that we want to ultimately go to.”
Taking those kinds of litmus tests is a good way to see where the strategy is really falling and who’s really pulling the strategy.
It’s definitely a challenge. One thing you don’t want to do is start making this transition to product at scale and cut off avenues that are bringing in revenue.
Sometimes, not everyone can be your customer. In the emerging or startup stage, everyone’s pretty much your customer, but it takes some bold moves to say, “Well, that might not be a fit right now.” The balance between being innovative and still doing things that keep revenue flowing is very tight.
Typically, the way to justify that bold action is when you start looking at the overall outcomes and focusing more on those versus the outputs. The outputs, in the early stage, are what close the sale. Now it’s an argument of focusing on this global feature, and predicting that it’s going to solve X, Y, and Z customer problems and reduce churn by X percent. It starts becoming less about the output and more about the outcome.
TravelNet is in that exact phase. In early 2023, we saw a lot of customers looking for a very specific communication feature called a unified inbox, which wasn’t coming through in a lot of the contract work we saw at that time.
We started doing some market analysis and realized that one of the top three reasons our customers were churning was because some of our competitors were really marketing the unified inbox. We were so focused on the contractual work that we weren’t looking forward to the marketplace.
Between 74 and 76 percent of our inbound pipe in the sales cycle were seeing this as a top criterion, and we would potentially lose them if we didn’t have this in the product or on the roadmap. We realized it would be a significant mover of revenue vis-à-vis reducing current churn and closing more deals.
Ultimately, inside the house, we wanted to put some resources into this new communications project, and that worked. A lot of customers are delighted by it.
The joke I always make is that we have a great bench of type-A product managers. I call it product aggressiveness — we want to be out on the front lines gathering feedback. I’m big on bringing product very close to the organization instead of being behind the curtain.
Putting product at the forefront meant not really focusing so much on the developmental cycle and the production cycle, but more on customer feedback — having product managers be household names within the organization. That helps us attain a lot of the information that we have.
At previous companies, we would do actual field trips and literally walk the halls. We’d organize sessions with customers and users, whether that was at conferences or visiting their properties. This serves as a hyper-concentration for much of the information you want to gather.
There is no magic secret sauce. Product management is not a science. There’s no formula that we follow. It’s more of an art. We are always defining our strategy and product, usually for a six to 12-month term, and then comparing it to how well we fit within that strategy. That tends to make things rise to the top.
I don’t like to just prioritize and work on a hodgepodge of things. I like to identify some key themes and then compare each project or objective to those. That’s what starts to become a priority. And typically, they’ll align pretty well.
A couple of years ago, back in the cybersecurity days, there was this cybersecurity framework called the MITRE ATT&CK framework. The company I was working for actually wanted to integrate that into an easy-to-use dashboard. We wanted to create the Staples easy button — something lights up and you know there’s a problem.
Behind the scenes, there’s a lot of stuff going on, a lot of indicators. At the same time, we were getting very, very close with marketing and sales ahead of a major conference. We had decided that this would be used ultimately to close a lot of new business without charging it as a separate feature. It leveled up what our platform did to a significant level. We made a specific decision, and I think it was a very effective decision.
I think everyone’s probably familiar with NPS. We see NPS as more of a holistic measure. Even if the software’s great, we can find out things that may not be working so great. We use these tools and talk to customers directly as well to see how they’re feeling. Blending it together, we evaluate charts and numbers but also dig in to look at that context overall, what’s behind it.
For example, we’ve noticed a little bit of a depression through the summer via our NPS. Naturally, there’s a slight panic. Using customer comments through NPS, I noticed that there was a trend that all the negative ones typically had a very particular flavor: service and customer success reaction is very slow.
Digging deeper, there’s a strong association that, during the summer, we (in the short-term rental business) are seeing the seasonality of our customers’ operating motions. Their tolerances are tight, the leeway they have is tight, they need quicker answers, they have more bookings, and we maintain the same support staff. Since we’re getting more inquiries because our customers have more bookings, they’re going to feel that we’re not as attentive with the same number of support staff.
I believe it’s about bringing product action to the forefront. Behind a curtain, a product manager doesn’t do anything. But to be holistic and collaborative, PMs have to bring a lot of people together. That means being involved in a lot of discussions and decisions.
When I arrived at one of my previous companies, the head of HR was like, “Well, your first challenge is that the product team has a -60 eNPS, which is the lowest at the company. They hate their lives and everything stinks.” One year later, we were at positive-55.
How did I manage that turnaround? Well, I didn’t make a team; I made a cult.
I developed this little, close-knit following where we live, eat, and breathe product management. A little over a year after that, the head of HR came to me and said, “We’ve got a little bit of a problem at this company: everyone wants to be a product manager now!” Because you used to have us locked in the basement, and now we’re at the forefront!
Well, things can go a little crazy when people don’t understand what you do. So, about two weeks ago at TravelNet, I ran a product management 101 as a refresher to walk other departments through what we do and what we don’t do. Product management is a craft. It’s not a dead science; it needs continuous nurturing and maturing.
My team also does product podcasts. We could probably call it “Storytelling with Mike,” but we create 20-minute videos of a random subject where I play the dumb guy interviewing the product manager. All unscripted. Then, I put them on the company’s general Slack channel for everyone to see. And slowly, the tide starts to rise, and it helps the general culture — the proselytization of what we do at the company.
Learn everything that you can, as quickly as you can. It’s OK as a product person to want to learn before making decisions. Don’t only be a sponge to learn as much as you can, but actually push back. It’s OK to push back to really, really sink in before you start making decisions.
Another big one is to maintain that vested interest. I have worked in a lot of different verticals and made those maneuvers on purpose. I worked in virtual education, so my users were often kindergartners or teachers. I loved it because I got to understand the human-computer interaction side of it and how people feel fulfilled when they complete tasks. But then I realized I was light on the data sides of things that aren’t user-focused. So, I intentionally left for cybersecurity, where the user experience is like if nothing happens, the world is happy.
The biggest point is that you have to have the interest when you step into doing it or else it just becomes stale. You have to wake up and think, I want to affect that person’s life. You’re creating experiences, you’re creating memories. If I didn’t have that, it would be a job, not a career, and I don’t think that’s fun.
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