Christian Beck: We talk to a lot of companies who only have one product, but this week we're talking with Amy Reitz, general manager of the Intersect product line at Hobsons, which offers a recruitment optimization platform for higher ed admissions offices. Amy shares how they reached a point as a company where they had 80 plus products, and they had to take a step back, because their portfolio of products was in conflict, and the story no longer made sene.
Amy Reitz: Among those products there were a lot of conflicts. The story didn't make sense. The positioning was in conflict. Some of those products were winners, some of them were not, but they kept continuing on. We realized as a company that it was time to really take a hard look at this expansive product portfolio we had, and determine where can we be differentiated in the market place, and how do we optimize our portfolio that tells a common story.
Anna Eaglin: From what Amy shares there wasn't just one reason why they decided to examine their portfolio. Part of the reasoning was that the education landscape was changing, but also ...
Amy Reitz: Whenever you're operating that many products, maintaining that many products. The cost of some of those products really outweigh the impact that you're having. The third was competition, that some markets that previously for us had been very differentiated, in which we'd been the first mover in the market had become commoditized. The question really became, does it make sense for us to be spending our energies there, or are there are better ways for us to move forward.
Christian Beck: When you think about optimizing your products it's completely different when you have one versus 81, which is a challenge she had to overcome. Going beyond the financial drivers for pairing down, she shares how they had to ask themselves what their story envision was, and how they could differentiate. As a company they approached this as a cross functional endeavor, and formed these tiger teams.
Amy Reitz: It's where you're trying to take your best people with the most expertise, the creative thinking, and they're putting them together. I mean you think of it is like a working group, or a SWAT team.
Anna Eaglin: Now they've got three clean product line, but there wasn't a clear brand architecture, which is often an issue you find in a lot of scale ups. A lot gets created, whether it's features, or in this case products, and if you're not clear on the brand architecture, or even the brand strategy across all the pieces, you end up with just having a patch work, instead of a frame work.
Amy Reitz: There is some value in thinking a little bit top down of what is your North Star vision? Where is it that you are heading, and making sure that as you're building incrementally, you're building towards that, and that's a big pivot that we had to make as a company is really defining what is that North Star vision, and how do we start to move everything in that singular direction?
Christian Beck: Amy talks about this North Star vision, which she defines as the plan for the company's future, based on the customer's challenges, and what's happening in the market.
Anna Eaglin: This mission, or North Star vision isn't something that happened overnight. It took time for them to decide what products to keep, and which to exit. In our roles here at Innovatemap we talk to a lot of companies who have gone through some kind of pivot, specifically as it relates to their original product fit. What's interesting about our conversation with Amy is that, they have a mature business line with a lot of legacy product lines.
Christian Beck: For Hobsons they started higher ed as an educational publishing business focused on admissions back in 1974. While their focus is still on the admissions market today, they've had to reshape their products by trying to understand what the future of higher ed could look like.
Anna Eaglin: The opportunity for Amy really boiled down to one thing. A mature product with an end user who's landscape is changing. How did they balance the old with the new, and more importantly the future?
Amy Reitz: The biggest challenge in that for us has been ... There's a bit of a fortune telling that you're doing with your client base, where you're saying, "Hey I know that these techniques that you're using are working right now." But I'm looking at how the demographics are changing in this country, and they're not going to work in five years. When the enrollment pool kept getting bigger, and you had more, and more college going students marketing really worked. Now the enrollment pool is shrinking. The growth in our population is mostly an underrepresented groups, and those underrepresented groups need more than what we're doing now in order to help them on their pathway. But that can be kind of hard sell.
Amy Reitz: You're having to get people to think outside of their box of what's working today, versus what could actually work tomorrow.
Christian Beck: What do you think is your product's role in leading that? How do you actually work through that fortune telling, through the product to your customers?
Amy Reitz: Yeah, I think product can be consultative in a sense. One of the advantages that we have, I won't say versus our customers, but compared to our customers is we are looking across hundreds, and thousands of institutions at a time, and seeing what's working for some, what's not working for others. The collection of best practice, and expertise that we've been able to take from that allows us to use product, not just to react to the needs of what customers are asking for, but to help guide them in their decision making process, and help them find more effective ways to reach their goals.
Christian Beck: How does that actually make it into product?
Amy Reitz: I think it's a really cross functional approach that you have to take. It's not just about building it into the product, it's about building it into your culture. Everyone needs to understand that from support, to sales, to marketing, so that everything that we are doing has those best practices, and in gendered in them. But I think when it comes specifically to then product, it is really important that when you're going through the roadmap, planing, and then RND and concepting, and some of your proof of concept work. Everybody that's involved in that needs to understand what it is you're trying to accomplish, and what those best practices are. If I look at the times when we've been most successful it's when everybody really has that full understanding.
Amy Reitz: It's when we get in a hurry to try and get something out the door, and you treat development for example as a task taker where you say, "Hey just go and build this." Versus as really a true design partner in the process, that's when we've been successful.
Christian Beck: When you take that leadership you're talking about and the knowledge at [inaudible 00:06:52], and you get it out to your customers. How do you know whether you're successful, or not?
Amy Reitz: It's a hard question to answer. I have always been someone in my career who's been really metrics driven, and working in professional service, it was really easy to measure client satisfaction, and utilization, and to have targets that you are hitting. There's certain a number of things that we look to accomplish, and that we measure. The thing I struggle the most with is balancing the direct ROI that I can show immediately, versus that long term ROI, especially when what you're trying to do is create kind of that horizon of where things are going.
Amy Reitz: I will say I think our biggest challenge is doing that balance, that if I'm an admissions office I need to make my class this year. We certain are helping admissions offices to connect to students who will be enrolling next year, but a big benefit of our solutions that is also really starting to be able to create awareness early on in freshman, and sophomore year. There is a time horizon to that. What I'm really interested to see is that we as a business have really ... Intersect is two years old, not quite two years old, it will be in March. I want to see that long term time horizon, and I'm not there yet.
Amy Reitz: The other thing for me is that I have this belief that what we are doing is so much about match, and fit, and that there are studies that show that a student who attends a college that's an academic match for them, but also is a fit for their interests, and what they're looking for are more likely to complete a degree. Something that we're looking at is this long term impact of, these students that we're helping connect to institutions that are the right fit for their interest. Do they generally retain longer? Do they complete their degree that they set out to complete.
Amy Reitz: What's difficult is that takes time. It's going to take them four years to go through that process. You're having to try and balance like, what immediate KPIs can I look at to show success, while also waiting to see those long term results.
Christian Beck: What do you think you will do? The long term results, what will be your means of doing that? Do you go out in the field, and talk to your customers? Do you have them do surveys? Do you have a team that's out there getting input? What would that process look like in a few years?
Amy Reitz: I think as much possible we try to build that into the product, and our ability to collect that information, so that we're able to do that in mass. I'm a big fan of surveys, and getting input directly from clients, but that can be a little bit spotty, and it can be a little bit bias. Generally the people that are engaging in our focus groups, and advisory boards are the clients who are the happiest, who are the most engaged. Sometimes reaching those that are not happy, or that are struggling can give you more valuable feedback.
Amy Reitz: If you're not collecting some sort of metrics within the products to look at ROI across all of your clients, it's hard to uncover that through user surveys alone.
Anna Eaglin: What keeps you up at night?
Amy Reitz: I came to product management, less via this love of building products, although I do love that, and it's something that I've really come to enjoy about my job, but more as a passion for education. When I think about the work that I do as a product leader, for me it's much more about what is the impact that I could have, and what's my personal story, and how I get there. The thing that I worry the most about are the things that I think are the greatest advantages in my life, and making sure that everybody else has them. By the greatest advantage [inaudible 00:10:43], having this expectation that education should be a part of your life, and this expectation that I could go to college, and that it could be a good option for me.
Amy Reitz: One of the things that I see happening as a country as we've had a bit of back lash against higher education. We've stopped dreaming about higher education. It used to be seen as this beacon of social mobility that would help people advance to greater heights in their life, and because there have been a lot of challenges around higher education. It's not perfect by any means. Affordability is a huge issue for a lot of folks with higher education.
Amy Reitz: Instead of really focusing on how do we address affordability? How do we make sure that underrepresented populations like low income students. Students of color. First generation students. How do we ensure that they have access to higher education. We've started saying college isn't for everyone. I'm not one that thinks that college is for everyone, but we shouldn't be telling someone that college isn't for them. That's a very individual decision to make.
Amy Reitz: What I see the most is that the people that we say college isn't for everyone to are students of color. They're immigrants, they're first generation students, they're low income students. We're disadvantaging them right out of the gate by saying, "Well college isn't an option for everyone." As I think through products that we're building, and what I want to do with my professional career. Thing that I constantly worry about is, how do we really as a country kind of shift that mindset back to college as something that we should be aspiring to, and that we should be making available to all students.
Anna Eaglin: Why is product a good medium for you to do that?
Amy Reitz: I think there are ways that you can reach people through product that you can't reach them in person. Something that I think a lot about with students who struggle with college access, so those underrepresented groups that I talked about, is this idea of shame, that students don't often understand that the adversity they faced is actually what makes stronger, and what makes them capable of doing more. When you have that, when you're ashamed about something in your past, or your background, you don't proactively seek out help. I think something that we have seen with technology is there is an openness, and an honesty when I'm interacting with a technology product where I don't feel judged.
Amy Reitz: I'm more willing to seek out answers that I wouldn't ask of somebody else. I think there's this really unique way that we can use product, and technology to reach students who historically have not raised their hand, and said I need help, and to be able to connect them to other students, and to be able to say, "You're not alone in this." This is something that other people are going through.
Christian Beck: A lot of times when we talk to people and product, a lot of the questions that we ask about what keeps you up at night are product, and business oriented. But you're thinking a lot about the higher mission. I'd love to hear your thoughts on how you sort of see products roll in managing the business, versus sort of making sure that your mission oriented.
Amy Reitz: When I think about the product management profession there are so many things that we have focused on over the years of how we have better processes. How we do better user research. I think there is absolutely something to be said for the functional excellence of product management, and how you continue to improve it. But when I look at products that have really had the most impact. Those products are born from passion. That passion, and that mission is what are your users trying to accomplish? What are their needs? You have to be passionate about that.
Amy Reitz: You have to want to help people accomplish what it is that they set out to accomplish. Because if you don't have that as a foundation, it's easy to get lost along the way.
Anna Eaglin: What do you mean lost?
Amy Reitz: We talk a lot amongst out product management, and UX teams around this idea of where we prioritize, and focus our efforts, and are we doing something that's truly going to help people reach their goals? It's really easy to go down for example a rabbit role of how beautiful something looks, but if it doesn't serve a functional purpose that really helps someone do their job better, or helps them make an impact, or make their own life better. Whatever it is your users are trying to accomplish, it may not be worth doing.
Amy Reitz: If you don't have that guiding passion for really helping your users whoever they may be, and accomplishing what their mission. If you don't feel a common, and shared mission with them, I think you can make good products, but you can't make truly great products.
Anna Eaglin: What does Better Product mean to you?
Amy Reitz: I think to me Better Product is impact.
Christian Beck: That was Amy Reitz with Hobsons. Check out what they're up to at hobsons.com. That's H-O-B-S-O-N-S.com, or connect with Amy on LinkedIn. Now Anna and I are going to break down what we just heard. You ready Anna?
Anna Eaglin: Let's do it.
Christian Beck: Amy covered a lot of ground with her work at Hobsons. I'd like to start with one of the things that I personally took away from it was her focus on the mission of Hobsons, and how that's sort of driving what they're doing today. Specifically I contrasted with what I see a lot of legacy 10 plus year old software companies. They have what they might say a old clunky product that they want to modernize, or just refresh the UI. They seem like that type of company, except that she's not just comfortable like refreshing the UI, cool here's a new product. It seems to be very mission driven. Did you get that same thing?
Anna Eaglin: Oh definitely. I mean I think that you can't spend any time around Amy, and not see how she's incredibly mission driven. But I think when it comes to Hobsons too, it's not just that they are thinking about how are we updating our tech? Or how are we unifying our stack, or whatever? But they're really looking at future demographic trends, how things are changing, how education itself is changing. I mean my gosh, there's so many huge issues affecting education right now. They're not just saying we need to keep doing exactly what we've been doing, just better, or faster, or whatever.
Anna Eaglin: They're literally saying, "How is the world changing, and how can we change with it, or support it, or think differently about how we are serving students? How we are thinking about higher education, or even just thinking how people achieve success in their lives?" Whether it be via higher education, or just some other big shift.
Christian Beck: A lot of companies this size start with user testing, and just think we need to test our product, and see where it falls short, and all that. But I don't feel like she talked about any of that. I don't think that's what you're saying either.
Anna Eaglin: Yeah, yeah.
Christian Beck: It's different than that. What type of research do you think is appropriate for a company like this that has a lot of products, a lot of history, but needs to change? Where would you start there if not for user testing?
Anna Eaglin: I think one thing that Amy said that really stuck out to me is that she mentioned that she's not necessarily product passionate. She's education passionate. Therefore everything she does that's product oriented supports her passion for education. In that way I think really a lot of, again understanding trends, understanding demographics, how the world is changing, how education is changing. I think that's a really good place to start with is to say, "What is the world like that we want to operate in?" And kind of moving backwards from there.
Anna Eaglin: A lot of times those big ... When it comes to just user research we don't think about those macro trends, because we're operating in next quarter, getting our MPS scores up. But they have these I don't know bigger fish to fry, and bigger things to think about.
Christian Beck: Yeah.
Anna Eaglin: I think that yeah it's really those bigger macro trends, and how they are affecting just the industry use it inside of.
Christian Beck: She's almost mission oriented, and the product is the best way to help her complete the mission. That's that hand. Do you think that this sort of mission driven approach can work for any other like the B to B software companies that we've had so far on the show?
Anna Eaglin: Definitely. People can be passionate about anything. I think that there are people who are really passionate about marketing software. I think that people are really passionate about connecting sales people. We know Rod [Foyer 00:19:47] is very passionate about making sure that sales people are enabled in the best way they are. I think you can be really passionate about ensuring that people are able to do the best work that they can do.
Anna Eaglin: If you build B to B software you might think oh well I'm just whatever, enabling marketing automation. But at the same time you enable someone to do a job well, and we know that we can do our jobs well. It's part of us as people, as a bigger ... I'm going really off the rail [crosstalk 00:20:15] ...
Christian Beck: No I think ... Actually I think bringing up ... You brought up Rod Foyer, it's actually a really good one. If we contrast that in a traditional sense. You say on one hand there's somebody who's doing ... Is building software to help education get better.
Anna Eaglin: Of course.
Christian Beck: On the other end there's a guy building software to help sales people. Now we know Rod. It's all good. But the point is that what we brought up with Rod is that, there's noble missions in everything. It's funny that you brought up Rod, because he's also very mission driven what he was doing with Costello. He had a vision for how sales people could get better, and do their jobs better. Yes it's not education K through college, or anything like that. But he still was mission driven what he was doing, and he was talking about getting out, learning how sales people want to sell, and having a clear vision for what the best way is to sell.
Christian Beck: Amy is doing the same thing in the education space. You mentioned before about the overlook populations, or the first generation Amy talked about. Those changing demographics, she's paying attention to those things. Now she's got this new vision for what something can be, and she's got to start leading the product down there to sort of execute on that mission. It doesn't really matter that it's education, and there's something sort of moral about that. It just matters that Amy is mission first, and from there kind of cascades down throughout the product.
Anna Eaglin: Yeah I think you're exactly right. I think that's the thing we can all take from the way that Amy is doing this, is that she is looking at this bigger trends, and saying, "How are we a part of that? How are we fitting in with that?" I think we've seen lots of companies that are left behind by not thinking about that, not seeing those trends. But also the fact that her team is so rallied around that as well. I mean I think not only is she thinking about it, but her team is also very focused, her RND team very focused on working on that mission, and being very mission driven.
Anna Eaglin: I think that she talked about how that really kind of helps them stay in line with what they're doing.
Christian Beck: I'm glad you brought that up, because we don't talk about aspects on team growth, and company building a lot, because we're focused on product here. But you're right you have to focus on the mission with everybody internally, because until you have the product to support it, all you have is that mission. Even in their case they might have the older legacy products, and if she goes to them with the vision of, okay we're going to fix 20 defects, or we're going to increase, or decrease the amount of time it takes to do these. That's not really a ... Even if those things happen, and that's a story that they have to execute in. That's not exactly something people can rally behind, and it doesn't get everybody going towards the same way towards sort of revolutionizing education in the way that they're trying to.
Anna Eaglin: I mean we've worked with Amy's team, and I think we've seen that. They are just as passionate as she is about education. I think it's not only ... Maybe a company where you don't have product yeah, or you're passionate about getting that into the world, and making the world better. Also a bigger, older company where you're saying we have this legacy product that we are now shifting. I think that that passion can keep onboard while you turn the cruise ship if you will.
Christian Beck: I'm thinking about again Rod, the contrast between ... We talk about a legacy product, but I don't know that anything that we're hearing from Amy is any less relevant to a startup.
Anna Eaglin: Oh definitely.
Christian Beck: You said you have a mission. You may not have a product. That's a start up life here. I think we hear the buzz word of disrupting, or we hear about big companies need to get innovative, and disrupt themselves. She's kind of doing that, but doesn't really even speak of it that way. She's going, and doing all the things you should do which is, pretend you've got nothing, get out in the field. See what the needs are, see where the market is shifting, and then come back, and sort of make sense of it with what you already have, and create a roadmap from there.
Anna Eaglin: Thanks so much for listening to the show this week. If you haven't yet, be sure to subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. Until then visit innovatemap.com/podcast and subscribe to learn how you could take your products to the next level. As always we're curious, what does better product mean to you? It's up on Twitter at @innovatemap, or shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christian Beck: I'm Christian.
Anna Eaglin: I'm Anna, and you've been listening to Better Product.
Christian Beck: Better Product.
Anna Eaglin: Drop mic.