How great products start with milk and cookies

It’s that time of year when the Internet is rife with lists of inspiring heroes, up-and-coming entrepreneurs, and, crucially, classic Christmas cookies. And certainly, tech titans are a perennial favorite of the form, but there’s someone conspicuously missing from most shortlists of technology leaders.

I’m talking about Saint Nick. He’s got a gift for entrepreneurship and logistics nobody else can touch.

Every year, his team answers countless customer requests from every corner of the globe by manufacturing and delivering millions, maybe billions of items. Exactly how many is hard to say, since his enterprise’s financials are a closely guarded secret.

What do we know about his operation? Santa Claus never does interviews, yet the media obsesses over tracking his every movement. He never has to answer to investors or regulators, has global reach and distribution, and enjoys almost universal acclaim and goodwill. Even though nobody has ever seen his P&L, it’s clear he’s banking several million (at least!) free servings of milk and cookies per year.  This describes a unicorn-class enterprise if ever there was one.

Let’s face it: Larry and Sergey may have their own private company airport, Elon has rockets and a bunch of tunnel contraptions, but nobody else has a red-nosed flying reindeer on call as chief pilot.

So what’s the secret of his success? It’s actually obvious. Santa Claus is, first and foremost, the world’s greatest product visionary.

By following each and every best practice of great SaaS product management to the letter, he’s built a business empire. But if you’ve got difficulty believing in the customer engagement magic of “SaaSta” Claus (ahem), here’s the proof.

He’s focused on superior user experience

Does Santa harness his corporate sleigh to any single product? Or suite of products? Absolutely not. He knows that being too locked into the success of specific products or features is an unsteady foundation for building your business.

What is he actually providing? It’s holiday cheer, joyousness, and happiness. Or, as a marketing psychologist might describe it, Santa supplies memorable and engaging user experiences that satisfy an authentic human need state. That experience is delivered every time one of his end users finds a hand-carved hobby horse, an Xbox Elite, or a pair of Prada pumps under the tree.

Each of these gifts can be safely compared to a SaaS feature: It may be innovative and engaging, but it’s also got to reinforce the customer’s feeling that they’re receiving real value in the form of solutions to real needs.

Santa avoids feature fixation

As Andrew Chen of Andreessen Horowitz observed a few years ago, app makers fall into the trap of the Feature Fallacy, where they invest all hopes (and budget) in trying to launch the Next Great Feature that will solve their drop-off in user engagement.

That loss of engagement, though, is usually due to the fact they’re so enamored of product, product, product! that they failed to understand their audience and didn’t build enduring usefulness into their app in the first place. So adding a new feature won’t solve the problem, as that’s coming from the same product-centric, rather than user-centric, way of thinking.

The result? Apps are doomed from the start to end up discarded and forgotten, inhabitants of a SaaS version of the Island of Misfit Toys.

Santa plans for the very long term

In my last post, I talked about the advice of Ken Norton of GV, who points out how technologies and feature evolve with such speed and frequency that a Product Manager needs to step back and take a long-view look at the market. What forces will shape it? How can you stay in front of those changes by forecasting and responding to future trends, without getting immersed in feature-think? Where do you want your enterprise to be in 10, 20, or 30 years?

Others make the case that making annual plans can hamper growth in a variety of ways, and a three-year plan should be a Product Manager’s real planning window.

Santa, as explained above, long ago began his strategic product planning by identifying a basic need state – the desire for joy and reward. It’s practically wired into our human DNA, and won’t vanish as time goes by. The trappings around it may change, as will the products needed to gratify the user.

But his team’s fundamental mission? That’ll endure, though the product mix will be fine-tuned to stay relevant. That’s possible because Santa, like any great Product Manager, has built his entire enterprise on superb customer feedback and analytics architecture.

Santa really does his research

Great product design and development invariably starts out based on the first tenet of design thinking and growth hacking: Gaining empathy for the audience.

Santa, obviously, has a sophisticated behavioral research apparatus in place whose exact operations are extremely hush-hush. How else would he be able to generate the oft-rumored “naughty or nice” list(s)?  Yet to grow true empathy for his target customers, he has even better tools on hand:

  • First, he’s aided by a global panel of end users who provide him with countless yearly reports about their behaviors and desires. By crunching the data provided by the deluge of “letters to Santa” he receives, he can track customer sentiment, discern the vital trends and demands of the marketplace, yet also target individual customers with an uncanny degree of personalization.
  • Second, there’s his field research staff, acting as user community advocates, who are able to gather firsthand feedback from prospective customers. Here, though, it’s important to recruit individuals with proper interpersonal skills, or things can get off on the wrong foot.

He nurtures customer evangelism

All that goodwill I mentioned earlier? By maintaining consistent engagement and responsiveness to customer needs over the years, Product Manager Kringle grows each user’s lifetime value.

Even better? Owing to their positive experiences, his user base conducts intergenerational brand evangelism on behalf of Claus, Inc., constantly bringing new customers into the fold.

For a SaaS Product Manager working anywhere south of the North Pole, then, these are all solid reasons why Santa Claus is a perfect example of great product management in action.

And if you still don’t believe? Go watch Miracle on 34th Street, you Grinch.

– Brent