5 lessons I learned with #generalassembly (@GA_LA) about building a #product focused company from the ground up

What's going on dudes? Last month I filled you in on my recent life change: I'm #funemployed. The only thing certain about the next few months is uncertainty: getting bills paid, landing clients, and figuring out if these crazy ideas I have are actually as good as I think that they are.

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The past year of blogging has been a solid creative outlet for me, so I plan on keeping it up. If you're reading this post, I hope you've had a chance to read some of my previous postings and are digging what I'm preaching.

I'm feeling my soapbox right now.

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So I'm keeping it up. Not only has blogging been fun, its also helped me work through some creative pain points I've faced with Food Tribe and California Cannabis Tours

I unofficially launched the "officially #funnemployed" series last month and the response has been pretty incredible: lots of love from friends, family, and strangers, so I'm going to keep them up.

Each post in the "officially #funemployed" series will highlight my experiences launching two start-ups without a day job. 


I launched Food Tribe last year after taking a one-day course at General Assembly with millenial thought leader Smiley Poswolsky.

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That course eventually led to a longer, 3-month Product Management course at General Assembly in Santa Monica.

Strangely enough, my instructor for that class was Chris Graham, a co-worker who worked for my day job's sister company. I liked Chris: he was analytical and logical, two things that I look for in teachers & mentors. 

Product Management, Chris taught, was not to be confused with Project Management. 

Product Management was the art of bringing a product to market: identifying a business problem, understanding your value proposition, researching your end user, and putting together a team to bring your vision to life. 

Product Management at General Assembly had its foundations in business methodology the Lean Startup.

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The business philosophy originates from the Japanese concept of lean manufacturing, which seeks to increase value-creating practices and eliminate wasteful ones. 

If you're an operations nerd like me, you love lean because it's all about efficiency. 

 

The course was broken up into the following sections:

Unit 1: Product Management Fundamentals

Unit 2: Getting to Product/Market Fit

Unit 3: UX Design

Unit 4: Business Fundamentals

Unit 5: Communicating With Stakeholders


While I found a lot of value in the course, in hindsight, it was pretty expensive. A lot of the information we were provided is available on the internet if you know what to look for.

I don't regret taking the course though, because shortly after I founded Food Tribe

Fast forward one year later, and I can see how the lessons I learned at General Assembly have impacted the creation of my business.

Food Tribe is just now getting started, and I know I wouldn't be where I am without the lessons that I learned during my time at General Assembly.


Here are the 5 Lessons I Learned Building a Product Focused Company w/General Assembly

1. Product. Product. Product

 Super Soaker creator Lonnie Johnson, is a nuclear engineer, Tuskegee University Ph.D. and former NASA scientist. He founded his company in 1989. It was the same year he first licensed the Super Soaker, which generated more than $200 million in retail sales two years later

Super Soaker creator Lonnie Johnson, is a nuclear engineer, Tuskegee University Ph.D. and former NASA scientist. He founded his company in 1989. It was the same year he first licensed the Super Soaker, which generated more than $200 million in retail sales two years later

The first (and most important) lesson learned during the course was the Golden Rule:

Your product should be your number one priority.

Oftentimes, startups get too focused on things that don't push their business forward: attending trade shows, watching how-to videos, or focusing on the wrong business metrics.

Getting a product to market should be every startups number one priority. The second, to improve that product. Third, to get feedback on how to improve that product. Four... you get where I'm going here.

90% of startups fail

Your business has a 0% chance of sticking around if you're not creating a product that users care about. 

Remember: The work doesn't end once you create a solid product. It's your job as product owner to continuously make changes that will keep your user coming back for more.


2. RESEARCH

What's the #1 Reason Most Startup's fail?

No market.

Yep. Someone spent a bunch of time, energy, and money creating something that no one cares about. 

A good product owner understands that good ol' research is your best friend, because with research's help, you'll be ready for anything. 

Preparation is a major 🔑. If you're not doing your research....

 If your product owner isn't doing his or research...

If your product owner isn't doing his or research...

Product owners sit at the very center of a company, where external factors meets internal resources.

EXTERNAL FACTORS

  • Market Need 
  • Competitive Landscape
  • Economic / Political Environment

INTERNAL RESOURCES

  • Resources
  • Team
  • Strategy

A good product owner is able to find a unique market with little or no barrier to entry:

Finding the biggest opportunity with the least amount of effort to enter and (hopefully) capture a market. 

Remember: As product owner, your first step to building a product focused company is to use your research to see if internal resources have the ability to meet the external needs of the market.


3. Preparation is Key

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Floyd Mayweather knocked out Victor Ortiz with a controversial finish that left many with a collective, "DAMN!" 

"Ortiz was apologizing, Mayweather was punching!"

That announcer's quote makes me laugh every time... poor Victor Ortiz, never saw it coming. 

A tough lesson, but one I'm sure Victor Ortiz learned from, which leads to my next lesson learned about building a product focused company: preparation is key.

Building a business, like many things, isn't as easy as you'd like to think it is. Outside factors are constantly attacking, looking for cracks in the seams to burst your start-up dreams before they even get off the ground.

Preparation is key: test your assumptions, get user feedback, see what your competitors are doing, explore new product offerings: these are the proactive things a solid product owner will incorporate into their workflows to create a more prepared company.

Remember: You can't plan for everything, but by building good habits and not being afraid to tackle the big problems, the better prepared you'll be. Proactivity is key. 


4. No Ego's

The ego is a tricky beast, and ultimately, can be the downfall of many product managers (and start-ups).

The part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity.

Ego's can be attributed to both people, and culture.

And just like all tools and resources, ego's should be used to help create a better product.  

 

  • Too careful and you don't take advantage of high growth opportunities.
  • Too aggressive and you spend valuable resources building something people don't care about.
  • Too easily satisfied and your company never grows. 

What's a good product owner to do? 

Unfortunately, there's no easy solution to this one. 

My advice is to stay committed to improving: try things that make you nervous, learn, and do it better the next time around. 

Remember: There's a point in product management where art meets form, and managing ego's (your own included) is something the most effective product managers LEARN to do. 


5. Fail Fast

The last, and probably most important lesson I learned with the General Assembly team is probably the most important: Fail Fast.

Anytime you decide to build something, you need a plan.

Create a goal, and work your backwards to get there. 

The problem is, when it comes time to execute, getting there isn't always that easy.

Trouble is always arises.

Failure, when done quickly, can be your best friend. Don't be afraid to start sharing what you're working on while you're working on it. Get feedback early, be open to criticism, and make changes when necessary.

Most importantly, when you know you're going to fail, don't be scared to ask for help: normally, people are willing to give a hand if asked.  


So that's it! The 5 things I learned from General Assembly about building a product focused company. 

I hope you guys found some value in this post! Per usual, feel free to hit me with questions or comments. I'd also appreciate shares!

-TL