Sandy Huang, Head of Product Growth at Alexa Mobile, talks about understanding your customers early on, running individual customer interviews, releasing surveys and doing the customer development in a lean way. We also spoke about how larger companies do that and when a founder needs to hire a professional to do the job.
Sandy's LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sandycook/
How to run customer interviews: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OTkP2JDeGWM&ab_channel=Techstars
And today is a guest speaker. We'll have head of product growth at Alexa and today we'll talk about.
Product growth what it means, what does it look like, who should be doing this? And how founders with no experience that product growth should approach this problem. So, Sandy, let's kick it off by here giving us some background on yourself and on your current position.
Sounds good. 1st of all. Thanks for having me on this podcast. I'm very excited to do this.
Uh, some like background I've had roughly a 20 year career in product management, primarily at startups and mid sized companies. I focused in my career mainly around 3 areas.
1 is E, commerce 1 is community and the other is productivity.
So, in these various spaces, I'm most passionate about.
Building technology that makes people's lives easier and more delightful.
I've had the opportunity to, uh, to build version 1 of products at a number of these startups, you know, back in the day with, uh, with music, going digital. I worked at a startup.
Doing that I've built a new business for Shutterfly in the greeting card space and built multiple apps from ideation to market.
So, currently, I'm at Amazon, I spent the last few years building out the echo show, home screen, customer experience, and focused on Alexa, engagement experiences.
And now I've shifted to leading the product both team for the Alexa, mobile app.
Got it interesting background ends by the way, I forgot that. We'll talk in this episode. We'll talk specifically about running customer injuries because from my experience of very few founders are actual familiar with the process. I've personally being part of.
Interviewee about the product, and usually those injuries were horrible from the founders perspective so we'll cover that as well. So 1st question is what do product managers do so, can you define the roles broadly?
Yeah, there are actually a lot of different answers to this, and you'll get slightly nuanced answers from different product managers, but ultimately it's about as a product manager about understanding the customer.
Essentially you're building product to fulfill the customer's needs. You might have heard of this jobs to be done framework where the.
The customer is hiring you for a job and you either fulfill their needs, or you get fired. So that I would say, sort of the bottom line.
A job of the, the product manager.
Um, other other definitions are.
Related to being sort of the CEO of your product and that means that you have to be pretty versatile.
And be able to deliver in different areas of product, whether it's design engineering business product is really at an intersection of all these different disciplines.
And there are different flavors of of product managers. You'll, you'll find product managers who focus more on data.
Or us, or business, or our technical product manager so there's quite a range there as well. So, depending on on what type of business you're in, in in your needs, that can change as well.
And and product managers are are in this position of needing to influence a lot of things are, of course, done cross, functionally.
So, having this broad base of skills, and being able to influence people that a lot of times you typically as product manager don't manage. So, it really is a catch all type of.
Position and that's why you'll find product people coming from all different kinds of backgrounds. You'll have former engineers and former business people, marketers, designers, becoming product managers.
Interesting so now, let's talk about the customer interviews so from my understanding major role, all of the.
Probably measured, and from your words is just fulfilling the needs of the customer and to understand the needs of the customer you need to talk to customers. So, 1st question when shoot a founder start running those customer interviews.
You can do those as as early as possible. A lot of times.
Founders have a solution in mind, they maybe have come across, seem to see this a lot where.
You personally have some issue that you've worked through and you want to solve that problem. So you go about solving that problem. Well.
That problem, or or that solution, right? May actually.
Uh, be relevant to different cohorts of customers, so you're a customer of 1, right? And your founding team are a small group of the customers.
So, it's something that you should be doing at the very beginning to really understand your customer and sometimes founders are already have deep knowledge in 1 area. Sometimes they don't.
And so so that part will vary.
But understanding your customer from the get go is critical,
because you don't want to get too far down the technology route and then realize, oh,
we built this great technology.
And how do we connect that to what the customer needs.
Right. You don't want to build it and say, oh, well, we think the need is this and that and this will solve X Y, and Z.
Uh, it should really be the reverse of that. 100% total here with you here. And next question is about small surveys versus actual customer interviews.
So, you know, trying to get a customer on the call with you and spend, like, 15 or 20 minutes, just talking about the problem that you're trying to solve and how you should approach it, etc, etc versus creating a 10 or 15 question survey. What do you think is better.
It depends on what you're trying to get out of the customer and there's a. There's a place for each of those, right? So you can do something.
He can do a survey you can do a usability test. You can do a focus group you can do 1 on 1 interviews and depending on what you're trying to.
Get out of the study, you'll want to do 1 of those mechanisms 1 or multiple of those mechanisms.
So, for example, if you have a product, and specifically for founders where you're starting out and that the product is can be pretty nascent. There's not a lot.
There's a lot of ambiguity around it something like 1 on 1 interviews or or focus groups.
Can help with really open ended questions, right? Where where you're really trying to understand, like, the root of the customer's problem and and their needs if you want to get more specific, for example, you have a product.
Out the door, and you're just looking for feedback. I mean, usability tests are great for that typically within, you know, 5 or 6 people that that go through usability tests.
You're gonna get about 80% of what you need a percentage of all the, all the issues that you might might have in the product.
Uh, so it it depends on really what, uh.
What you're trying to get out of out of the customer.
Right speaking of customer interviews I have done pretty much all of those, except for the focus groups I always wanted to have 1, like, in the movies, but I never got a chance. So, can you tell us a little bit more about focus groups?
And when it's actually worth spending your time to gain a group of, like, 10 people bring snacks all this fun stuff and actually do this a big big interview.
Yeah, I mean, focus groups are really handy when you have a product and and it's not fully it's far from being fully baked.
It's probably conceptual and you're you want to ask a group of people sort of, their reactions, their, their interests and and do it at scale because that's.
You get 10 people in a room. I mean, we did this at at Shutterfly when we're.
Looking to launch a new business and it's just a, you know, so when when a product is early stage, that's a very good time.
To do that,
because you will,
you can have those open ended discussions and questions and follow up and usually you would have a train monitor a moderator on that because you don't want to ask leading questions the train monitor moderator
who will know how to ask questions.
That they're not leading the, the group.
You know, to a certain conclusion, but what's nice about that is that it is actually a discussion.
Right and in if you're in a group of 10 people are kind of feeding off each other what they're saying, as opposed to 1 on 1 and as opposed to a survey where you can't really.
You know, it's hard to follow up right with questions. So that's why it's a, it's been mechanism for.
Are really open ended things, right? So 2 full of questions 1st is on the train moderator. So that's 1 thing that I think I never learned to do how to ask a question does not biased.
And how much is it like, how much does it cost to hire training person to run those kind of entries? Actually, you know, it depends on their varying.
Varying cost, depending on, you can hire an individual people who are really consultants on that for much cheaper or you can hire companies.
Right so you're talking about, you know.
Several hundreds of 1000 dollars to 10000 more, depending on your level of complexity and and if they're going to source the people for you.
But you can do it in a very scrappy way.
By gathering people and just hiring a moderator instead of using a company. Right speaking of sourcing people to participate in this kind of customer entries,
how would you recommend founders incentivizing people to participate to take 20 minute of their time to give feedback on something they might not necessarily use in 2 or 3 or 4 or even 6 months coming up
to get participants to participate.
Gift cards work. Well, I've been in a number of focus groups where and same with usability has to get at 255100 dollar gift card.
Those said those seem to work good question or gift cards better than just pure cash. Is it better saying you'll get 50 dollar Amazon gift card versus saying you'll get 40 bucks for presentation. Oh, you can do that too.
It really doesn't matter if you do give a gift card. I think an Amazon gift card is great, because it's broad. You don't want to give a credit card that says specific bad the participants like, oh, I can't.
Is it got it? So cash is cash always works.
Absolutely, absolutely. So going back to the question about making questions there misleading or,
like, bias questions and stuff like that. What other major mistakes do you see, founders making? When approaching customer interviews?
1 of the biggest mistakes I see is asking customers.
If they like a particular solution, or or what they want. So, for example.
Instead of asking a customer, would you use a digital.
Right and most customers may say oh, sure that sounds great. All right so if you ask a question, like, would you use it?
The, there's a delta between someone saying that they would use it to actually using it. So you have to dig a little deeper and understand what.
What is the, what is the ultimate need of the customer?
And in this case, instead of asking, would you use a digital assistant? You would ask things like.
What would help you day to day? Right? The things that the digital assistant does, but instead of asking that saying, what would help you day to day.
Oh, you know, in the morning I'm trying to get ready for work and, um, and I need to figure out what I need to do for the day. I check my calendar that kind of thing where you get to the heart of the customer's problem.
And typically, it's about making the customer's lives easier. Um, or just more delightful.
So that that's where I see a lot of the, the mistakes being made and then sometimes customers will also say, oh, I wish you had a feature that.
That can do this and they'll give you a specific feature again. You have to peel back the layers.
And look at okay, what are you trying to solve there? What was really going on behind the scenes? Because oftentimes the feature request that a customer gives you.
May not meet the need is there may be actually a better solution to it.
And they're giving sort of a, what they think is that is ultimately might just be a band aid. Right. That's very true.
So now, let's talk about, let's address the point pain points of my actual listeners who are mainly early stage startup founders, which means they have very, very, very little money for pretty much anything that they're doing.
So, let's pretend that you have, like, 1000 budget for customer interviews, or customer development in general, how would you approach it?
You can actually, so I'll go through a few layers the scrappy way and I have had teams do this.
At startups is, is go talk to a customer on the street. I mean, depending on what the product is, right? If it's if it's a consumer product, you can actually that's been done the quarter.
I mean, hard to do during Kobe times, but during October times go in and talk to the customer and ask
questions, she can show paper mockups. That is the most basic free way. And it's surprising.
I mean, people I think a lot of people inherently just want to help inferior friendly and approach them nicely. You can get feedback. So that's kind of more for mass.
Mass type of products,
but if you are looking at something that's enterprise or or something more nuanced,
a lot of times you can sort of look at your network or your extended network to have these,
these customer interviews,
friends and family,
although they are in the close circle at least they're beyond to your immediate team.
That works as well, and as there are some online tools, where you can do something scrappy for not that much, right?
If you if you want to do some user testing, usability testing, you can use user testing dot com there you can use Survey Monkey for some surveys.
So there are definitely scrappy ways to to go about.
Getting feedback absolutely speaking of survey monkey. So I know that they have like an option where you pay for people to take into to take your.
Assessment tests with multiple questions, etc. Etc.
So was better a survey monkey where you pay Survey Monkey and then they pay users versus you actually giving out Amazon gift cards or Starbucks gift cards for people completing your survey.
Actually, I, yeah, I haven't used it in a while because an Amazon, we have our internal ways and tools to do this. So I'm not sure what the latest up to date, but when I did use it previously, I was able to set up and.
And give give a gift card, right? Right, right. So. Now,
let's move on to the more current situation so you work a lot with growing community specifically around the products and as you mentioned,
you focus a lot of your professional work around community building what does it even mean to build the community around the product?
It's a good question when you think of community.
Well, when we think of community in real life offline, right? We have a general sense of of what that is. It's, it's centered around people. There are certain things.
Yeah, you kind of know who's who there are people who are sort of leaders in the community um,
there's certain norms and rules of interaction. It's a place where typically you feel safe.
So it's it's like the offline community that we know, but just online. The difference is the mechanism on how you communicate and how things are organized are different.
Right. So you're not doing things face to face and everything is online. So inherently community is about the people and it's something that you.
Um, foster and grow, it's not something that just happens. It grows, it grows over time.
Right, right so for my podcast, so for fundraising really, I've actually tried to grow this community for quite some time and then I was like, you know, what never mind I'm tired I'm done with this stuff.
So, the question is, who should actually try to take a lot of their time building that community and grow in it and making sure it's engaged. It's happy. Like, when is it actually worth the time that is required.
It depends on your business and how inherently you think it'll be a differentiator right? So, communities for different products are.
Are essentially differentiators for example. Linked in, started out as a.
A solution for people, looking for jobs people, searching for jobs, networking, but they really grew their community by having the news feed.
There are people who, you know, constantly post and respond and it's been nurtured over the years.
So, it really depends on on the business of where you find, if you think that will ultimately be a good differentiator for the type of business that you're in an.
E, commerce, for example, is a great place for for communities.
Because people tend to listen to other people in the community more than anyone in the company saying, hey, please buy our product point is Amazon with the reviews.
Um, if you see that, there are a lot of really great reviews for something. You have more trust in, in, in, in, purchasing that product, you get your questions answered.
It's much more effective than then, you know, any company saying, oh, please buy this product. We're going to merchandise it is that social selling is extremely strong.
And then you see other communities where where things are, their idea is actually generated for the company. Um, company.
I worked with had a had external community product where where the E,
commerce company could solicit ideas for their for their clothing clothing line to to get ideas. From.
People who are vested in buying their clothing, right? Like, oh, I wish the pants would fit better and that they were a little bit longer, because I'm tall those sort of things. Right? And that that goes back feeds. Right? Back into the business makes their.
They have a direct line to the customer.
So, there are a lot of different ways that communities can be used and it's really evaluating, like, what, what angle and, you know, how can you use that as a differentiator.
Right. So let's be a little bit more about building this community and specifically when should founder start so, especially in the beginning of the company founders to, like, 10 things every single day, and they work 12 hours per day and.
They have to decide what to do and what to wait for layered for a day later. So, should a community billing be a priority?
Again, it goes back to the business if you're building something that is inherently social, then you'll need to do that from the get go. If it's not inherently social, you build it at a point where you feel pretty good about your product and product.
You're getting close to product market fit where you've you've hashed out and, you know what problems we're solving and you're feeling pretty good organically. You're, you're starting to grow.
So it really depends on the type of business, and how critical it is to, to growing the engagement at that business.
But anywhere from, from the get go, if it's inherently social too, if it's not and it's more of a, hey, we're going to use it to help us understand what our customers want. We'll use it as feedback mechanism.
Or, as I was saying, in linkedin's case, they.
Got to a point where they had their their business, and then they wanted to grow it and and really extend it.
So, there's a whole spectrum and you really just have to evaluate the contribution to your business.
Right, right that's a very accurate answer. I like it. So let's move on to the current situation. A question to you do you do any advising for starts or angel investments?
I have done advising on an ad hoc basis here and there, but, for example, 1 of the companies music, which is at the intersection of music and technology.
Uh, so I haven't done a lot, but I, I am interested in doing more.
Got it, and I will make sure to leave a link in the description of this episode, which is a Super short type form.
You just fill it out and I, if I like your project, I'm going to connect you to the proper active angel investors and advisors, Sandy herself. So moving on to the last question of today's episodes call to action.
So, Sandy, what's the 1 thing you want to waste her to do? As soon as the episode is over?
Well, being at Amazon, I want you to download the Alexa app. If you haven't used Alexa it's great. It's a free way to learn about using a digital.
Assistant, but, but for for founders specifically is to always have a curious mindset.
Mindset make sure you take a step back from constantly asking how you're going to build something and continually.
Continue to ask why why what is this product and ultimately just be very customer obsessed.
100% being customer obsessed is everything you got there and Michael is going to be as usually go to the description of this episode.
I'll follow up with Sandy after this call to check in if she has any interesting articles or videos or anything like that on making customer interviews and I'll make sure to leave those in the description of this episode.
So objective descriptions episodes have a good day and. Yeah, I'll end it on have a good date.