Introducing our 5 Minutes With… series where we speak to industry professionals about their views, opinions and predictions.
For our second segment of the series, our Product Talent Partner, Jasmine Bindley caught up with Michael Oszmann about what lies in store for product management in 2021. Michael is the founder and CEO of Buy Britain, a e-commerce platform encouraging people to buy goods produced by local UK businesses.
Here's what he had to say about his journey so far and the future for product:
What has taken you by surprise whilst opening up your own e-commerce business?
I’m consistently amazed by the range of the businesses who are signing-up to sell with us. You’ll hear a lot of people say things like ’nothing is made in the UK anymore’, which couldn’t be further from the truth. There are thousands upon thousands of brilliant small businesses and entrepreneurs up and down the country, all producing amazing products. Just recently we had a business sign-up to our platform who sell a range of teas... What took me completely by surprise was that all of the Tea is grown in Cornwall! I had no idea that was even possible!
I’d say another interesting lesson has been around how many (not all) small businesses struggle to promote themselves online. I think there’s often a perception that e-commerce is ‘easy’ or ‘done’. Of course there are many great tools out there for businesses, like Shopify, which allow them to have a shop up and running in a matter of hours… but then what? how do they make headway and get interested traffic to their website in the big-wide internet? For example, social media platforms are adjusting their algorithms to make it harder and harder for businesses to get organic reach (so that they pay for ads). Paying for ads often doesn't give them the quick Return-on-Investment they expected. So I believe there is real value in platforms like ours which create a network effect and a growing ‘gravitational pull’, to the benefit of all the businesses on the site.
What’s been the toughest part to it all so far?
It’s a real rollercoaster of highs and lows! E-commerce is a really fast-paced and an exciting space to work in. You are constantly improving things and constantly optimising. The to-do lists and ideas lists are almost endless! So i’d say the toughest thing for me, is prioritising ruthlessley. That’s something I thought that I was good at. But it is quite a different ball-game when you are a startup and not a 'start-rich’ (as corporate ventures often are). Nowadays I don’t have the corporate sized budgets and large multi-discipline teams that i’ve been used to in former roles. There’s no comfort blanket. So we simply can’t do everything we want to all of the time. I think it’s Reid Hoffman (Founder of LinkedIn) who says “sometimes you have to let fires burn” - I now understand what that means.
That said, whilst we are restricted in some ways, we are much more free in others. We can release new features - like product personalisation, or subscription payments - onto the site in a matter of hours/days, which might have taken months or more in a big company.
What advise would you give to anyone thinking to do the same?
It depends a bit on the person and what they are trying to launch. But the first thing i’d say is learn what you can from others. I have worked in a number of e-commerce roles before starting out on my own, and I really do lean on those experiences now. I think back to what past mentors might have done in certain situations, or think about how X or Y company might solve a problem. It’s certainly not impossible to start out without prior experience. But personally I find it valuable. Obviously you should be ’stuck in your ways’ and you should build on past experiences, rather than letting them pre-define everything you do. Also it’s not just about past experiences it’s about the network you have and people you can ask for help/advice. People are really willing to help out if you are willing to open up and ask for it.
The other more general piece of advise i’d give before starting out is thinking hard about ‘feasibility’. 'Desirability, viability and feasibility' have become almost cliche in Product Management, Design & Consulting circles. But I think ‘feasibility’ is the one that’s often over-looked. Because with tech, anything is possible right!? Well, yes, but if you don’t have a big team and an unlimited budget, is everything possible? You should really think about a business idea that you are confident about getting from £0 sales to £1 sales whilst running on your own steam. I’ve made the mistake in the past of trying to tackle things that are so blue-sky I could never have delivered them to a ‘minimum-viable’ level. Whereas with Buy Britain, I could see a path to creating it. It seemed possible, albeit challenging, but within my capabilities. Getting that initial traction yourself, seems to make things come to you more easily later on.
Favourite digital product out there at the moment and why?
So many great products out there but i’m going to pick one that i’ve been using a lot recently - Canva - It is such a useful tool for a small business and makes it easy to create almost anything from adverts to videos. I don’t like the phrase ‘democratising X’… but it does democratise design for creative assets. I know some designers might cringe at the thought of the ‘business people’ doing designs… but I think for the less complex design tasks it’s a game changer and saves us hassling designers to help us. I also think Canva have nailed the pricing, as the free tier is incredibly useful but the premium tier also ads lots and lots of real new value - It’s not premium purely based on being ’the same... but without usage limits’
What is in-store for Product, and what you predict for the industry for 2021?
Clearly there will be a lot of re-adjustment throughout the year to new ways of working. Squads have gone to working completely remotely during the pandemic, so will have to re-adjust again as office working returns somewhat. Whilst some may continue with full time working from home, I think the majority of companies will go back to a more ‘hybrid’ approach with some office time and more flexible time working from home. This could lead to challenges with different working styles and days. Do the team align their days in the office? or is it free choice? If it’s the former, are there certain product activities to prioritise whilst in the office and some which are better whilst focused at home?
Outside of the obvious pandemic-driven changes; as it becomes more and more popular, I think that digital-product-management is starting to run into the challenge of how to work well in the ‘mainstream’. Big Tech companies and start-ups are general natural environments for product people as they are already structured in a customer & product focused way. However, this is not the case in many other companies who are trying hard to adopt digital practices. Often where more ‘digital product / customer focused’ squads are working within traditional organisations, it creates a lot of friction between teams. So the product management discipline needs to help organisations to adapt.