Think Tank

Interview with Product Doctor Julia Shalet: “Test before you invest”

Julia Shalet is an acclaimed innovator helping people to move forward with their ideas, as well as the award-winning author of The Really Good Idea Test (Pearson). She is a lecturer at the University College, and a Course Director with the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM).

Ioana StraeterYou call yourself a product doctor? Where does this name come from?

Julia Shalet – I really like this question because I started out my career really solving problems. I started out with a big mobile network that had just launched the first big consumer mobile offering in the UK. Before that it was only businesspeople who had mobiles. There were so many problems with this massive, big launch that they needed troubleshooting. And because I had a law degree, I ended up sourcing all these problems out, which meant that I became a process improver. I was fixing and finding the source of problems and trying to improve the situation. From there, in the same organization, I moved into products. I think my first product was mobile voicemail, and I sort of moved on from there. I was always a product person. And someone said to me the other day: “Oh, you did product when it wasn’t cool to be in product.” I look around me now, particularly in the media industry as well, and I see that everybody has been renamed as a product person. I was product person before it was cool, so it is quite fun. I ended up managing a large product portfolio. It was hundreds of million pounds annual revenue at the mobile corporates. I left and went on my own and started doing some other stuff. And somebody I used to work with said to me: “So what do you do?” I tried to explain that I was obsessed with problems and trying to find solutions to problems, not wasting time. This wasted energy setting up processes that do not work and all these things – this was what bugged me at the time and still does. I tried to explain, and it was so long winded, so I said, oh, look, if you gave me a permanent job, I would be a product director. She said: “Sorry, a product doctor?” It is brilliant because products people, they are obsessed with the product lifecycle. So, the life cycle does this: you have an idea, you take it through introduction, it grows, you manage it while it’s at the top and then you think: “What should I do? It is kind of coming down. Do I kill it, or do I launch a new product? That is the product lifecycle. It feels like a life, Lifecycle, the doctor seems a great analogy. This is where the name came from.

IS – Wonderful story. Would you like to tell us a little bit more about your book and where did the idea come from to write a book?

JS – Over the years I have worked with many new ideas. From bringing an old sort of market in South London back to life, a beautiful art deco indoor market which was struggling to working for a Web 2.0 Start-Up, trying to help them make their first million. All these new ideas coming up. I am working with other people and I am working with start-ups and students with ideas and corporate product managers with ideas. All the time I find myself kind of creating a process. My process is always to go and speak to people and make sure the problem exists and make sure that there is a solution opportunity. I look at the market, at what they’re already doing to solve the problem. Is it good enough or not? Because it is not good enough, there is an opportunity for you to play. The biggest mistakes people make are:

1. The problem does not exist. That is so typical: I had the problem so there must be a problem. No, you have got to find enough people with the problem.

2. They think their existing solutions already do the job for them.

3. The problem is not big enough for the people to take your action that you need. It is not something they pay for, or it is not something they download or it’s not something they can integrate into their business because they’ve got to change the way they work. They have got to change the system. That is not going to happen.

This just keeps coming up and kept coming up. I thought the first thing we have got to do is go and talk to customers or target users and go and check those three issues. Go and check whether they exist. If they do not exist, you’ve built something that nobody wants. The book came about because I have written this in practice. I have lots of tips and techniques for going and speaking to people and trying to find out if that situation, if those answers, are presenting an opportunity to you or not. That is how the book came about. I was lucky enough to have a fantastic sponsor at Pearson, who suggested that they would be very interested in publishing the book. That was that was fantastic. But I call it “the book that wrote itself” – twenty-five years of experience of doing this stuff and helping other people – it kind of writes itself.

“One of the biggest issues organizations have is that they’re trying to keep their existing business going. (…) They also know that they need to innovate, and they know they need to stay ahead of the game, but they find it difficult to balance the two actions.”

Julia Shalet

IS – What I love about your book, it is not only the practical examples that you give, but also the templates. People can use templates for all the steps in the process. Would you like to describe a little bit of the method that you use and the seven steps you describe in the book?

JS – It has seven steps, and it takes you from the very first step, which is making sure that you have a hypothesis to test. Any idea you have, anything you think, that you might be wasting time or money when – you turn into what they call a testable hypothesis?

To my mind, there are four elements to that hypothesis.

The first thing is, what is your goal? What are you trying to achieve? And you would be surprised how many people are not clear on the goal. Is it revenue? Is it sort of market position? Is it some media coverage? What is the actual goal? You must be clear on that up upfront.

Then you ask yourself, who are you solving the problem for? You must be able to find a problem or maybe a need or desire. You have got to find that and find who are the beneficiaries?

Who are the people you think are going to take the action, which is the next phase of it? What is the action? Step one is so important and actually could take the longest time. You have got to work out that there is value for you to create. If you are not creating any value, you’re going to produce something that people don’t want or need.

Axiom Business Book Award Wonner 2021 – The Really Good Idea Test by Julia Shalet

From there, we go through seven steps. You are understanding the biggest risks. You turn your risks into a set of questions that you want to ask in step one, step two, step three, that you want to ask and step four to a specific group of people/ to every one of these stages. By the way, there are many pitfalls and many potential mistakes you can make. Even in recruiting the right people, you can find the wrong people. Your whole process could be a waste of time. Then you want to work out how you are going to measure what they tell you. Then you go and interview them finally. You start with five people, carefully recruited. You stop and ask yourself the question: Should I carry on and make changes? Maybe I have heard things I did not realize. Or should I stop? It is so important to allow yourself to stop and at this point spend very little! You might have paid five or ten people for the time and 30, 40 pounds, euros, whatever, just to speak to me, have a video conversation, for example. It is as simple as that. That is really the onset of your time. Think about the amount of people who spend those two, three weeks giving money to developers and really trying to develop that brand. People love to develop their brand before they have tested their idea. It can be incredibly expensive. You take these little simple steps. It is just customer interviews, but it is written from the point of view of knowing how you can get the wrong answers if you are not very careful and you have to strive for neutrality throughout.

Example of templates for the testing process.

ISSounds like a good plan, Julia. Which are the main pain points organizations have when they start working with product development?

JS – One of the biggest issues organizations have is that they’re trying to keep their existing business going. They have existing products, existing product lines, they have got to keep it going. They also know that they need to innovate, and they know they need to stay ahead of the game, but they find it difficult to balance the two actions. We talk about having a portfolio within your product suite. You have your core product, which is the daily business, this is the stuff that is paying wages now. That is your core business. And you might spend 70 percent of your time, 80 percent of your time managing your core business. Then you have adjacent opportunities to making an existing product into a new market or you are taking an existing market into new product. You can have it either way, you are opening a new market or you are opening a new product. This is not what they call transformational innovation. Because you are working with something you have already got. You are just pushing the boundary.

Then you have transformation, completely new ideas. These are the biggest risk. This is where you really want to be careful about where you put your resources. With all those areas, you need to test your ideas before you invest. With transformational, it is really the unknown and it is important for businesses. I help businesses to get that balance right and then to make sure that they resource appropriately. You know that 80 percent of your resource goes on your core business. Let us say you put 15 percent into your adjacent opportunities and then on your transformational. Like this you are not overloading yourself in the wrong area. That is one of the most difficult things organizations have to deal with. I have a whole raft of ways which I teach also at the Chartered Institute of Marketing CIM. I am working with product managers there and helping them from the inside to change the culture and the decision-making processes in their organizations.

ISWhat would be your advice to companies that are new to product development and want to start with it? How should they start?

JS – I would probably answer this in terms of a mindset. I suppose the first thing I would say is You’re going to fail. Jeff Bezos said that recently: If you are not failing, then you are not trying enough. Given you are going to fail, do it quickly! Do it cheaply! What underpins that is making sure that you test before you invest. Be prepared to test out quickly, cheaply and look very carefully at what you are trying to achieve. Really test those things, those assumptions that you are carrying with you before you start investing money. Be prepared to start kind of quite broad. You might want to have several things that you are testing and then you’ll see which ones to take forward. I’m always about anti waste. That is an approach to stop wasting time, money, and effort.

IS – Thank you, Julia, that was very insightful: test before you invest – our mantra for product development. Thank you so much for your time. It was a pleasure having you here.

JS – Thank you.

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