The Rajesh Nerlikar Hypothesis: Vision-Led Product Teams Are Focused on Customer Outcomes

Rajesh Nerlikar has more than 15 years of product management experience. Prior to becoming Chief Product Advisor at Prodify, he was a consultant at Accenture, an entrepreneur, a product manager at 2 DC startups that exited, and a director of product at Morningstar. He is also currently serving as Vice President of Product at Savonix, a Prodify client.

In this episode of the Product Science Podcast, we talk about how to maintain focus on a vision of how you deliver long-term value to customers.

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Questions We Explore in This Episode

The Rajesh Nerlikar Hypothesis: Vision-Led Product Teams Are Focused on Customer OutcomesHow did Rajesh’s curiosity about how his clients were using the software he was building transform him into a business analyst and later a product manager? What did he get from going to business school, and how did it help him transition into entrepreneurship? What courses did Rajesh find most helpful from business school? How did business school get him into the energy efficiency space? How did he end up working with Ben Foster?

What was it like working at Opower as they ramping up to go public? What did he learn from his userbase working on internal tools, and why is it a good training ground for product managers? Why did Rajesh move on to a Senior Product Management role at HelloWallet? What does the research in the financial wellness space tell us about how we can get users to go against their instincts and care about saving for retirement? How did they apply this research? What did Rajesh learn from Dr. Stephen Wendel about how to apply behavioral science in product design? What did they learn from running an experiment on their loading screens?

What was the genesis for writing Build What Matters? How did advising companies on the side turn into Prodify? What patterns did Ben and Rajesh identify in the companies they were advising and working for? What are the four major components of the vision-lead product management framework? How do they realign focus on the customer’s value proposition? How do you turn that vision into a strategic plan? What’s the biggest lesson from the book that Rajesh wants people to come away with? Why is it so important to realize that revenue is a trailing indicator of the value you’re delivering to customers?

What are some real life examples of how value metrics can impact a product process? What was the one question Rajesh would ask on sales calls and demos? How did he turn that into a metric they could measure and use to demonstrate the value of their product? Why are qualitative metrics sometimes more important than quantitative ones? What were the differences pivoting from B2C to B2B2C?

How do you know if you need to change how you’re implementing a vision-lead framework? Why did Ben and Rajesh add roadmap balancing as a key step in their framework? What are the rules they outline in their book to help you figure out your priorities? How do they help you keep your focus on the long term even as you’re iterating and developing new features? How do they think about the customer journey and what are the six steps they’ve identified for it?

Quotes From This Episode

Working on internal products and tools is the perfect training ground for product managers, because you have such easy access to your users. Click To Tweet The first component of the vision-led product management framework is to pick a metric that your customer would use to measure the success of your product to realign focus on the customer's value prop. Click To Tweet It’s important to think about the qualitative and emotional side of the value that your product delivers, as opposed to just the hardcore numbers and the numerical side. Click To Tweet If you're not intentional about how you want to allocate your capacity, it becomes so easy to just respond to the things that feel urgent in the moment that you'll never make progress towards long term goals. Click To Tweet


Holly Hester-Reilly: Hi and welcome to the Product Science Podcast, where we’re helping start-up founders and product leaders build high growth products, teams and companies through real conversations with the people who have tried it and aren’t afraid to share lessons learned from their failures along the way. I’m your host, Holly Hester-Reilly, founder and CEO of H2R Product Science.
This week on the Product Science Podcast I’m excited to share a conversation with Rajesh Nerlikar. Rajesh has more than 15 years of product management experience. Prior to becoming chief product advisor at Prodify, he was a consultant at Accenture, an entrepreneur, a product manager at two DC start-ups that exited and a director of product at Morningstar. He’s also currently serving as vice president of product at Savonix, a Prodify client. Welcome, Rajesh.
Rajesh Nerlikar: Thank you. I’m excited to be here.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I’m so glad to have you. Why don’t we start way back 15 years ago or so? How did you first get into product? Tell me about your journey.
Rajesh Nerlikar: Yeah, sure. I started as a software engineer and architect at Accenture. I had done electrical engineering in my undergrad, did not want to design chips, so I got a minor in business, went to go work at Accenture, figured I’d get a little bit of technical experience, a little bit of business experience and I ended up exactly doing that. I was working with our government clients. We built eligibility, welfare eligibility systems to see if people were eligible for programs like Food Stamps and Medicaid.
I’d always been kind of interested in the consumer space, so I just thought of myself more interested in understanding how our government agency clients were actually using the software to serve their citizens. After about two-and-a-half years of actually building the software and architecting it, I transitioned into a business analyst role, kind of old school waterfall, did a functional design document for six months and that was my first step into product. I’ve been doing it in some flavor of that ever since. After Accenture I ended up going to business school, transitioned into the world of start-ups and then mostly did start-up product management for about eight or nine years after that.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Awesome. We actually don’t talk to so many guests who went to business school, so I’m curious, after your time at Accenture and before going into product, what do you think you got out of that? What was that like for you?
Rajesh Nerlikar: Yeah. I had a great experience. I went up to school at Michigan Ross and obviously met a lot of really great folks, some of whom I still keep in touch with. For me, it was about the transition to entrepreneurship. My Dad started a company when I was graduating high school. I helped him out a little bit and I kind of saw how exciting it was. I thought I might want to do it. I tried a few things on my own in college and I just felt like I wanted some more experience and maybe some actual foundational education on how to start a company. The Zell Lurie Institute up at Michigan is kind of their center for entrepreneurship and they do a great job of connecting people, students across campus. They have programs between business school and law schools where the law students help you write, create the legal documents to form a company and a great partnership with the engineering school where the pitchathons were often cross campus and you could recruit engineers to help you with the business idea.
For me, looking back, I probably might have been able to make a transition into the world of start-ups without that, but it just really helped build my confidence and provided a strong community and support network to help make that transition and get a lot of coaching and guidance along the way.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. That’s awesome. Did you find that there were many classes that were helpful with moving into start-ups, or was it more the center that was helpful?
Rajesh Nerlikar: The center had a lot of great programs, so there were a few classes as well. Probably the most pivotal for me was VC finance. I learned a lot about how to term sheets work and how VCs think about investments. That was really helpful for me in thinking about the fundraising process and the collaboration with investors.
Another great thing about the program up at Michigan is there’s … a bunch of my classmates, I didn’t know about this program when I joined, but they basically got an MBA in sustainability and they did a dual degree program with the school of natural resources. That was where I really got interested in clean tech. There was a clean tech ventures class that I ended up taking as well, where you could kind of see what types of innovations were happening and the way people create energy, energy efficiency and all those things. I actually went on to start an energy efficiency start-up coming out of school. We won some money in the business competitions, got into an accelerator up in Grand Rapids, so that was another really … there was definitely a good curriculum that went along with the entrepreneurship programs and that was a really helpful foundational learning for me.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. That sounds awesome. I’m actually really interested in environmental as well. That’s what I did before I moved into start-ups too. What was the company about? How did it work?
Rajesh Nerlikar: Like every start-up, it was a journey. Basically our mission was to encourage people to make sustainable decisions on a daily basis. We transitioned, the business plan was really about creating a rewards marketplace where you could get … kind of like the way you might cash in your American Express points for rewards, it’d be you’d do sustainable things and then you could buy sustainable products as a result of it. We realized how complex that was going to be within the first few months of [inaudible] the accelerator, so we pivoted really fast and we ended up building a Facebook app that lets you compare your energy usage to friends and family. I spent about a year-and-a-half trying to sell that to utility companies and then home energy professionals, after realizing that selling to utility as a start-up with no historical financial records or anything was complicated. I had a really great experience. I learned a lot about how do you demonstrate value in the B2B2C business model.
I got engaged after about a year-and-a-half of doing that and that was when I decided a salary would be nice, so I joined Ben’s team as a product manager at Opower, which was a company that was doing, effectively, the same thing, encouraging residential energy efficiency at scale with utilities. I worked with him for about a year-and-a-half before that company went public. It was about six years ago now.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. Yeah. When you say Ben, for any listeners who haven’t listened, you mean Ben Foster.
Rajesh Nerlikar: I meant Ben Foster, yeah. He’s my co-founder at Prodify, which is our product advisory firm. He’s also the co-author of the book that we just put out, Build What Matters. He was the first product executive I worked for. He was VP of product design when I joined Opower. I didn’t know it at the time, but just struck gold, because Ben had worked for Marty Cagan at eBay and he brought the Marty Cagan school of thought over to the east coast and he brought it to the Opower product team. I cut my teeth. It was kind of funny, I didn’t even know the role of product manager existed until I started looking for jobs after business school. I was like, oh, this is all the stuff I’ve been doing for years and now it’s captured in this role.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, that’s awesome. What was it like working at Opower? How big was the team when you joined? What was that experience like?
Rajesh Nerlikar: It was great. Let me see, I think I joined somewhere around 100 employees and by the time I left a year-and-a-half later we were four, maybe 500.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Wow.
Rajesh Nerlikar: This was very much getting ready for the IPO and we had built out the San Francisco office. For me what was interesting, I ended up working on some internal products and tools. Our mission was really to help improve our margins before we went public to get a better valuation. There were a lot of things that our colleagues had been doing manually for years and that’s how start-ups go. You do a lot of things that are un-scalable and then, at that point, we kind of got to that realization of hey, now’s probably the right time to make that investment and build some scalable processes and some tools to help with those things.
To be perfectly honest, I loved it. I feel like it’s the perfect training ground for product managers, because you have such easy access to your users. I talked to my users, who were my colleagues, on a daily basis. It was so easy for me to go to their desk and watch them use our product and our internal tools and do usability testing. They’re kind of a friendly user base, right? We’re all in it together and I learned a ton from them about just understanding their needs. I ended up watching how they did things today for the first month or two and just observing how that worked. I feel like that was a great start for me. I had a lot of really great product mentors along the way, managers who really coached me and stuff. Obviously a really great experience at Opower.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. It’s really interesting, I find I’ve also spent some time working on internal tools earlier on and I agree, it’s so awesome when your users are so easy to access and you can really just sit down and watch them. I find it fascinating, because I feel like it’s not, it doesn’t get the same level of respect in the product world, or it’s not as sexy, I think. People aren’t like, “Yeah, I’m the internal tools product manager,” you know? But it actually is such a great way to learn how to do product, because once you’re used to that, then when you go to work with external customers, it becomes so hard to imagine doing it without talking to the customers regularly, right?
Rajesh Nerlikar: Yeah, yeah. You know the value you can get out of being able to talk to a user directly. You push a little bit harder to figure out how to make it happen in an external world, right?
Holly Hester-Reilly: Exactly. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. What did you do after Opower?
Rajesh Nerlikar: It’s funny, you kind of talked about internal product management. I kind of hit a little bit of that wall myself. There were two things that kind of happened. As I mentioned, I’d kind of always been interested in more the consumer facing product space, but also I kind of realized after listening to enough user research from our design and research team that most people were responding to our message around trying to save energy, not really because of the sustainability aspect, that was a small percentage of the people, but mostly because of the cost savings of how they could actually lower their energy bills. I started doing a little bit of research on the financial wellness crisis that was brewing in America and how people were managing their money and realized there was a really interesting space.
I saw an opportunity open up at a fintech start-up called HelloWallet in the DC area as a senior product manager. I went to go work for them for a couple of years and we made web and mobile apps that help people reach their financial goals, whether it’s pay down debt, building savings, saving for retirement and those were sold as an employee benefit. I joined the team as a senior product manager and then we got acquired by one of our investors about a year later. I ran product for a year after the acquisition and then the company that bought us, Morningstar, asked me to come out to Chicago and take over a couple of robo-advisor platforms in addition to the financial wellness product suite, so I did that for a couple of years.
Holly Hester-Reilly: That’s awesome. You’ve definitely spent a lot of time trying to get people to work against their instincts for the short term and do good things for the long term.
Rajesh Nerlikar: 100%. I consider myself so lucky. Obviously Opower was a company that basically started on a giant behavioral science experiment and then at HelloWallet we had a chief behavioral scientist, so I learned a lot about how the human mind works and how we are not designed to think long term. There’s a lot of really great research in the retirement space about how, if you show a picture, if you morph a picture of a person to show what they might look like in 30 years and then ask them how much they want to save for retirement, they’re much more likely to save more because there’s a concrete visual in their head of what they’re going to look like. A lot of great behavioral research around how, if you ask them to write down what they think their life is going to look like during retirement, when that vision becomes more concrete and real, you start making more rational decisions and thinking about what that life is going to look like.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, that’s so fascinating. How did you use that knowledge as the product was built and designed?
Rajesh Nerlikar: Yeah. We didn’t end up doing the face morphing thing. There was a couple of other financial institutions that had done it. There were a couple of other behavioral techniques that we used. One of them, to me … we were talking a little bit about story telling, one of the more interesting ones for me in the robo-advisor space was we had a web app and basically it was another employee benefit at Morningstar. If you weren’t sure how to invest your 401k savings or just didn’t have the time or interest in doing it, you could sign up for a robo-advisor through your employer.
You would go through an application process in our web app and confirm your choices. Our product we were re-platforming, it was built on a legacy tech stack that was 15 years, 18 years old or something like that. There’s a moment where we’re actually trying to show you what specifically the investments would be that we would make for you if you opted into this robo-advisor and that call to the API ended up taking somewhere like 20 seconds, or 25 seconds or something. We realized that was really a long time, obviously, for a user to sit there and wait.
We partnered with our behavioral science team and our design team and we ran an experiment where we built a little animation that kind of explained what was happening in the background and it was really funny, I wish I had a screenshot, but it was like a guy on a laptop drinking coffee and then there was a bunch of gears spinning next to him or something like that. It basically said, “Hey, we’re trying to optimize your social security income. We’re looking at your situation and your retirement income goal. We’re trying to pick the right investment portfolio for you. We’re double checking all our numbers.”
What we found, just even through a simple qualitative usability test, we put both flavors in front of folks, the current one that just had a spinner that spun for 25 seconds and then this other one that had an animation explaining and being really transparent about what was happening in the background and almost everyone said that they trusted the version that had the animation and the explanation a lot more. When we put it into the product we saw much better conversion rates as well. Just an example where the behavioral science piece is so powerful and so great.
I had a chance to work with Dr. Steve Wendell, who wrote a book on how to apply behavioral science in software design. In fact I think he just released a second version of that book over the summer or earlier this year. I think it’s just a powerful tool for product managers to think about, just understanding that not everyone, no-one responds in a rational manner as much as we think they will when we design our products.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Absolutely. Absolutely. I love that story. I don’t know about you, but it just reminds me of many game loading screens that I’ve been through, particularly The Sims where it was always, “reticulating splines.”
Rajesh Nerlikar: Yeah, exactly.
Holly Hester-Reilly: These are the things we’re doing right now.
Rajesh Nerlikar: Yeah. Totally.
Holly Hester-Reilly: You’ve recently written a book. Tell us more about it.
Rajesh Nerlikar: Yeah, for sure. The book is called Build What Matters. In it we basically explain our vision-led product management framework. Let me back up and talk a little bit about the genesis of the book. I got to Morningstar about five years ago and I kind of missed the start-up world, so I started advising companies on the side. I really enjoyed doing that. We moved to Austin about three years ago to be closer to friends and family. I reached back out to Ben Foster, who kind of had retired the day of the IPO, our IPO six years ago and started doing some advisory coaching work with different product teams around the DC area. I just was interested in how he got started and wanted to see if he might have some time, if I might be able to help out. It turned out it was really good timing, he was thinking about joining one of his clients as chief product officer, so I took over the advisory practice about three years ago.
Over the past six years Ben and I have worked with about 70 companies across different industries and lifecycle stages and then, when we combined that with our own product management experiences, we started to identify a lot of patterns in what these companies were experiencing, as well as codifying some of our best practices of what we had been talking to them about what they should do, given those challenges they were facing. Last year we got together and we put together the vision-led product management framework.
The framework really has four major components. The first one is to pick a metric that your customer would use to measure the success of your product. It becomes really easy to kind of get focused on everything that has a dollar sign, or NPS, or usage. No customer cares about any of those individual metrics, even though your business does. We always start with that to realign focus on the customer’s value prop.
Then the second step is to basically envision an experience where your customers, call it two or three years down the road, that would 10x that metric for them. How do you deliver just game changing value to them? To do so, looking forward into the future and thinking not just about the product experience, but the holistic end-to-end journey. What is the triggering moment where they realize their current solution isn’t working? How do they discover your product? What evaluation criteria did they use to decide whether your product was even worth trying? How did the trial go? Why do they keep using it? Why did they stick with you, especially come contract renewal time in the enterprise space? Just to think about that holistic chapter as the vision. It’s a very customer-centric vision and we have a few techniques that we use that we recommend for how to express it.
The third big component is, now you have that vision, work backwards from that. That’s two or three years down the road, we need a strategic plan which is over the next two years, three years. If we were to pick one or two really big things that the product does not have today but that we would need in order for that vision to come to life, what would those be? That’s what we call the product strategy, or the strategic plan. It’s a multi-year roadmap effectively, right?
Then the fourth component of the framework is recognizing that you can’t just dedicate 100% of your time to making the vision a reality. You’ve got existing customers, you’ve got a tech stack that’s aging, you’ve got all these other things you’re dealing with as the product team. We created this roadmap categorization framework that splits time between innovation, iteration and operation. Innovation is all the things on your strategic plan, how do you make your vision come to life? Iteration is optimizing conversion funnels or feature usage or all those things that have already been released, or responding to customer feedback. Then operation is effectively the cost of operating modern SaaS platforms. It’s performance security uptime, cloud migrations, maybe bugs, internal tooling, those types of things. The general concept there is to do a top-down allocation of how you want to spend your time from a product development capacity and that’s largely dependent on the company lifecycle or product lifecycle and a few other factors. Those are the key factors of the framework.
We launched that last year and then this year we decided that it would be helpful to just have all of that information in one place, so we spent most of this year writing the book, which just came out a couple of weeks ago.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. Congratulations. It’s so exciting to see the book come out and be real.
Rajesh Nerlikar: Thank you. Yes, it is.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. Yeah. I’m so glad that you’re able to share the things that you’ve learned across all of your own experience in the companies you’ve worked with and that Ben’s worked with. I think this is a real contribution. What do you think, if you could pick one thing in the book that you really want someone to come away with, what would be the overarching message?
Rajesh Nerlikar: Yeah. I think the framework is all about customer centricity. I think the one that we found resonates really well with folks is the first step of picking a metric of how your customers are going to measure the value of your product. I think it just is so easy to get focused on optimizing your internal business metrics that you totally lose sight of where the actual value lies with your customers. Your revenue is a trailing indicator of whether you’re delivering value to your users and your customers, so rather than just thinking about how to optimize that from a business perspective, get one step further and say, “How do we increase the value we can deliver to our customers?” As long as we have good pricing and packaging, all of the business outcomes should follow suit.
I think that creating a focus on those metrics … we also use a pyramid visualization structure, which is to establish the relationship between leading indicators and lagging indicators. Typically for a B2B product, for example, the key outcome for a customer is obviously ROI when they’re measuring the benefits against the cost. Benefits for most companies typically comes in the form of either, “Hey, I’m helping you grow top line revenue or reduce costs inside of your business through some mechanism.” You kind of have those mid layer leading indicators and then you can connect the dots between product usage as the true leading indicator and that key outcome metric. That way, there’s always a visualization of, if we can get more people using this feature, this is why it actually matters to our customers. It doesn’t matter that they’re just using the feature, which is the metric that we’re measuring, it matters because that feature is delivering a value in this way, it’s helping them save time, it’s helping them close more deals. Those types of thing.
That, to me, has been the number one takeaway that I feel like has resonated really well with our clients and the initial folks who read the book. We got a lot of feedback from folks along the way.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, I think-
Rajesh Nerlikar: It orients you around the right outcome metrics, you know?
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, absolutely. That’s fantastic and very well aligned with what we teach as well in product science. I think finding that key user outcome and measuring the growth of the value you’re delivering to the user is so key. Can you share any specific stories about maybe one where you actually say this is what the metric was and how this focused the team?
Rajesh Nerlikar: Yeah, for sure. For me, this lesson came to life at HelloWallet, the financial wellness product that I worked on, the start-up. When I joined we had actually just made a pivot from being this D2C or B2C company that charged nine dollars a month for our financial wellness product to being distributed through employers. Obviously as a product person I would join a lot of sales calls, I would do demos and then I would kind of … it was a great chance for me to hear what questions came up and what the customers or the sales team were talking to these prospects about. As you know, the sales team wants to keep those discussions focused on sales things that are going to help close the deal, but I managed a way to get them to let me ask one question at the end of each of those demos when I joined those sales calls. I had to think really hard about what’s the one question that would be most insightful for me as a product person to ask. What I landed on was basically asking them about their success metric.
The question was something along the lines of, “If you piloted this product with your employees for a year with us and we came back to you in one year, what metric would you use to decide whether you were going to renew with us and roll it out to all of your employees?” We had a kind of typical pilot and full roll out model. What ended up happening was a couple of things. The biggest thing was I heard a lot of different answers and every prospect had a different answer. Sometimes it was, “I really want my employees to build emergency savings because I’m worrying that they’re living paycheck to paycheck and they need a buffer. I really want student load debt pay down to occur because I know that is crippling their ability to buy houses and settle down,” those types of things. “I really want our employees to consider our new high deductible health plan because we’re trying to cut healthcare costs,” that’s a thing.
All of those are great, but when I thought about the product that you would need to build to deliver on any one of those things and I looked at the competitive landscape, we had competitors that were zoomed in on just one of those outcomes, student loan debt being a classic example. There were a ton of start-ups at the time that were kind of launching student loan pay down programs and things. The realization was, hey, we have to choose what message we want to deliver in these sales calls of what is the key outcome that our product delivers. I think that insight, after going through a few of those sales calls, helped us pick that focus area. That’s kind of one story.
The other one I’ll share, because this is a really common question we get when we say, “You need to pick and document what’s the number one more important metric from a customer’s metric,” that’s at the top of the pyramid, we call it the key outcome. Oftentimes, and this happened to us at HelloWallet as well, it’s really hard to quantify. What we learned about the value that our product was delivering to our employees is it helped people feel more confident that their finances were in order, or that their financial wellness was in a good spot. That’s a very subjective thing. At HelloWallet what we ended up doing was measuring that metric in a qualitative way on a regular basis and using that as a way of demonstrating the value of the product, because yes, we might have built emergency savings, or helped people pay down debt, but that actually wasn’t the true reason that they were coming to the product. They just wanted to feel good that they had a plan and it was in motion and that their finances were in order.
I think when you … I guess the key takeaway from that story is just think about some of the qualitative and emotional side of the value that your product delivers, as opposed to just the hardcore numbers and the numerical side.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, I love that. That’s really great. How did you design a way to qualitatively measure that?
Rajesh Nerlikar: Yeah. This was happening just as I was leaving HelloWallet, but I think, if I remember right we basically ended up with quarterly surveys that went out to the users that asked that question and then maybe one or two other ones. I think we still had NPS questions and things like that in there, but we decided we were going to add that and then we started reporting on that with customers. It becomes a lot harder to take a benefit away from your employees when you can see that it’s helping them feel better about their financial situation, even if we didn’t have all the hard metrics around their retirement readiness and debt pay down and emergency savings and those things.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. There’s another thing you mentioned in there that I’m curious about, which is the pivot from direct to consumer to selling into companies. Do you have any insight into that? That’s, I feel like, a dilemma that a lot of companies face.
Rajesh Nerlikar: Yeah. Like I said, it actually happened right before I got to HelloWallet, so I don’t know a lot of the details around the impetus. What I gathered was we literally were competing with at the time and our product had a lot of the same features around helping you budget and track your spending and then set goals and those types of things and Mint is a free product. However, we knew that people did not really like the ads that showed up in Mint. They felt like they were kind of overbearing. My takeaway, or what I gathered was I think we were something like nine dollars a month and we saw a lot of churn. We heard a lot of people saying, “Well it was similar to Mint, or close enough to Mint that I felt like it would be better to just stick with Mint.”
I think we did a lot of analysis, our founder came out of the Brookings Institute and he knew a lot about what was happening in the financial wellness space and the challenges that the consumer side was facing and rightfully identified that employers had a vested interest in improving the financial wellness of their employees. This was a new concept of financial wellness. In fact what ended up happening is it grew in popularity as an employee benefit and it became one of many pillars in an overall wellness program. We were put as a pillar with financial wellness, physical wellness, mental wellness and so we became part of a holistic wellness benefit program that a lot of our customers started rolling out to their employees.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. That’s really great. It resonates well for me, because I’ve been a part of projects before that were in the physical wellness for employees. It’s fascinating and saddening how much easier it is to sell these wellness products to employers than it is to sell them directly to consumers.
Rajesh Nerlikar: Yeah, it really is. I guess for me the key lesson learned in this B2B2C business model, Opower had it as well and I sometimes refer to it as a paid behavior change. At Opower the utilities wanted us to make sure that people turned down their thermostats and turned off their lights at scale and it was our job to encourage millions of consumers to do that so that, come renewal time, the utility looked at the ROI math and was like, “Yeah, totally worth paying Opower this much money to get this much in energy savings.” The same thing happened for us at HelloWallet with the employee benefits.
Where I’ve landed on this business model is, I think as soon as you introduce the customer into the product management realm, it becomes so easy to be focused on all of their requests and keeping the customer happy that you have a finite capacity, especially as a start-up, you might be spending less time on the consumer experience at that time and that’s problematic because, come renewal time, if the consumer experience wasn’t good, then you might not drive the behavior change, which is the whole reason the customer bought the product in the first place. I guess my best practice here is, if you think this is a model that’s how you’re going to scale a business, go knock the consumer experience out of the park before you introduce a customer into the picture, because as soon as they do, it’s going to be single sign-on and reporting and all the enterprise requirements that come with product development and selling into large Fortune 500 companies. You’re going to get overwhelmed.
To me, that was a benefit of HelloWallet. We had been to the consumer space, the product was in a pretty good spot, because we were trying to sell it direct to consumers and it had to be a consumer great experience in order to get them to pay nine dollars a month. It was a challenge, just thinking about how to balance engineering capacity across the customer needs and the consumer needs. I think that was kind of my key takeaway on the product management side and lesson learned at HelloWallet.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, absolutely. You mentioned among the steps, going back to the steps of vision-led product, the fourth step was interesting to me as well about how you divide up time. What are some of the things that you guys recommend and how do people figure out … I guess how do you know if you need to change how you’re doing it and how do you help people make that change?
Rajesh Nerlikar: Yeah. I guess the easiest way I would say you know is, think back to what you’ve shipped in the last year or two and do a little gut check exercise of whether you feel like there was a lot of ground breaking things that got shipped and what the impact was to users and customers of all of those things collectively, versus what you might have wanted to ship during that time period. The reason that we built this roadmap balancing technique or framework was, we had gone through the exact same thing. It is so easy to have your head down, responding to stakeholder requests, customer feedback and bugs and usability issues that you look up one or two years later and you’re like, “Everything we’ve done has been incremental changes to the product. We tweaked this button, we optimized this one conversion funnel.” If you’re not intentional about how you want to allocate your capacity, it becomes so easy to just respond to the things that feel urgent and burning in the moment that you’ll never make progress towards long term goals.
That’s really the reason we created the framework to say, “You spent all this time thinking about what the right vision is and the right experience to deliver for your customers two or three years down the road. That should be unlocking exponential business growth. Now don’t just throw that away or put it up on a shelf and let it collect dust,” which actually I’ve seen at a lot of companies. They have the vision and it literally just sits somewhere and people forget about it eventually. Now it’s like, as soon as the rubber hits the road, how do I make that vision come to life? We have these three swim lanes or categories and the innovation one is, “Hey, what percentage of our time are we willing to invest to make that vision a reality?”
Like I said, there’s a lot of factors for how you might decide on those ratios. I think the number one is really product lifecycle stage, right? In the book we kind of talk about some rules of thumb and we have a table that’s like, if you’re about to launch the NBP, or you’re pre-alpha, you haven’t even launched the product, then vision is 100% of what you’re doing. There’s no customer feedback that you can iterate on yet. But as soon as you launch, you might flip that drastically and say, “I’m in learning mode, therefore I’m going to listen to and capture all the feedback I can get and address a lot of it so that these customers feel like they’re having a good experience with our product. Through that I can learn whether those customers are representative of other customers in the market that we could get to down the road. They’re our first customers, but I need to verify that other customers look like them so we can build the right product for everyone.”
Then, as you find that product market fit, the operational piece, you start scaling the user base and the customer base, the operational piece kind of takes over, because then engineering raises their hand like, “Our product is about to fall over. It was never designed for this amount of load and there’s all these database issues,” or whatever it is. Then you kind of shift into scale mode and most of your time is probably spent on the operational side of getting your platform to scale properly as your business scales. Those are the lifecycle stages and the real intent is, as a part of the road mapping process, before you just start slotting things in, think about this allocation. One of the other things we talk about in the book is it’s really hard to compare a user story to a bug, to a new feature, to a tech deck thing that engineering is asking about. It’s like apples to oranges. If you have the categorization first, it becomes much easier to compare apples to apples.
Within innovation we should be able to look at our strategic plan and say, “Yeah, this is the number one feature we need to add to the product that doesn’t exist today.” Pretty straightforward. Within iteration you might be able to say, “Hey, there’s four different usability issues we need to prioritize against each other,” but they’re all usability issues and it becomes a lot more straightforward to prioritize those against each other. Then similarly, for platform health and those types of things, uptime security performance, it’s much easier to compare performance versus security requirements from the enterpriser space or whatever against each other. That was another reason where the categorization becomes helpful, so that you can do more apples to apples comparison and not the individual items within there.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, that’s great. It really resonates well. The thing, to me, that is super meta about what you just said is that I feel like there’s an element to it that’s you applying the long term thinking that you had to coach for financial wellness to the software development, product development decisions. It’s like, oh, but you can’t just keep focusing on the short term, because in the long term you’re going to suffer. That’s a beautiful meta story there.
Rajesh Nerlikar: Yeah, you’re right. I didn’t even think about it that way, but you’re right. We’re not designed to think in the long term, so therefore you have to have these tactics that force you to think about the long term to really get there.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. I mean it literally maps, you should have a bucket, the different financial buckets and things that you’re putting into the fun stuff and the long term retirement and the day-to-day. It’s so perfect. It’s beautiful.
Rajesh Nerlikar: 100%. Great analogy.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I love it. Is there anything else that you feel is something you really want our listeners to hear from you that we haven’t gotten to cover today?
Rajesh Nerlikar: Yeah. I think the thing that might be helpful, just obviously our framework in the book is about vision-led product management. I think the one thing that might be helpful to kind of explain a little bit more is just what does it mean to have a product vision? We’ve got a blog post, I can send you a link in case it’s easier to put in the episode notes or whatever, but-
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. Of course.
Rajesh Nerlikar: It’s the eight different ways to express a product vision. We’ve seen a lot of different ones, right? Like a good consulting firm we’ve got the two by two matrix, right? The dimensions are really around how written versus verbal is it, sorry, how written versus visual is it and how detailed is it. You see everything from the product positioning statement, which is one sentence that has four or five blanks that you fill in. This is a product for these people and it delivers this value and, unlike these other products, it’s this.
What we’ve found over the years in working with a lot of teams in helping set the vision and strategy for their product is that the visual artifacts tend to resonate a lot more. I think it comes back into a little bit of product story telling and how do you communicate in a very customer centric way what the experience is going to look like. You see a lot of great design artifacts like wireflows that show the flow chart plus a little mock up of what the screen is going to look like. You can look at that in 30 seconds and be like, “Oh, I generally know what this experience is going to look like from a user’s perspective.” I can nod my head and say I understand it, versus sometimes we see the bulleted list of features that represents the product vision, or some giant document that no-one reads that talks about the market and the trends and then gets in the solution space.
We have a couple of recommendations and hopefully they won’t be surprising, but one of the ones that I think has resonated really well with our clients and the folks that have read the book so far is we think about that customer journey vision in six chapters of the journey, or stages. There’s the triggering moment, where someone realizes the existing solution is not working and they’re banging their head against the wall. There’s that discovery stage where they’re trying to research alternatives and see if there’s a better way of doing this, or a better way of achieving the outcome they care about. There’s an evaluation phase, where they’re trying to decide whether it’s even worth trying a new product, then there’s a trial phase where you give it a shot and hopefully you feel like it’s valuable enough to then move into the long term usage stage, which is where most product teams focus. Now I want to engage this person and ensure they’re using the product forever.
Then the last one is that retention and we almost think of these as a loop. If you think about the jobs to be done switch framework, which is, at some point, you fall out of love with the product and if you haven’t been intentional about knowing how do I know who’s at risk of stopping to use my product and have an experience designed for them to re-engage them or get them back on track, you might lose a lot of customers and then they’re going to go into that trigger mode and try to find, they’re going to switch to a competitor, potentially, right?
Using those six stages, we have a comic strip template that we use where you literally sketch out in three by three little boxes what’s going on in that person’s life. You can do thought bubbles, or you might just have a little sentence underneath it that describes what they’re doing. The reason that I think it’s so powerful is you’re communicating a vision for what you want the end-to-end experience to look like for your customers two or three years down the road, but all of your stakeholders should be able to look at a comic strip that has 10 or 15 boxes in one minute and say, “I think I understand exactly what you’re talking about. I think our users or our customers would really like … this is our users, 100% I can see this happening to them.” It’s just such a powerful way of simply communicating that experience in a very customer centric way. Then we often recommend supplementing those comic strip boxes with vision types of some mock ups of what the actual screen could look like.
Purely from a directional perspective I think you have to create a little bit of flexibility and say this is not exactly what we have to build, however it is very much directional and notional. We might iterate as we learn more things about this, but this helps us plant a stake in the ground of this is what the experience needs to look like in two or three years, now let’s work backwards from that and say, okay, let’s do the gap analysis. Our product doesn’t have feature A, B and C today, therefore we have to think about how to add those. The product strategy piece is complicated because there are so many factors that might dictate why you sequence feature B before feature A, whether it’s we need to get this data set that then allows us to go reach this other customer base and we can unlock insane value, or there’s a technical reason why this has to be built before that.
The product strategy piece is not easy, but I think the key thing I just wanted to reiterate is that, when we talk about a product vision, we mean two things. One, it’s very customer centric. Two, it’s a very visual artifact that someone can digest in 30 seconds, a minute and it’s great for telling the story and inspiring your team about that direction. Having the key outcome as the metric of progress is helpful there too. Hey, this is how we’re going to generate explosive value for our users and our customers and here’s the experience that can do so. That was the one other thing that I felt was probably worth calling out from the book.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, I think that’s a really great point. I’m curious, just tactically, because I’ve worked in some companies that have regularly created the comic strip type of here’s the story of what this user experience is and I’ve worked in other companies that almost never do that, do you have any tips on people getting started if they haven’t ever done that before?
Rajesh Nerlikar: Yeah, sure. If you have designers, they’ll be your best friends in this process. If you don’t, I think even some napkin sketches are great. We created a ton of resources, digital resources that supplement the book, so if listeners want to go to, they can download a free set of resources. One of the major resources obviously in there is a template for the comic strip, there’s two or three examples of actual comic strips and then there’s a set of helpful hints for how to actually go about crafting that comic strip story. There are some resources available from us on that site.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Fantastic. That was, right?
Rajesh Nerlikar: That’s right.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Awesome. All right. This has been so awesome. I really have enjoyed talking with you today, Rajesh. Where can people find you?
Rajesh Nerlikar: Yeah, sure. LinkedIn is probably the best place, Rajesh Nerlikar. They can also find this, or more about Prodify at and those are probably the two best ways to find us.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Wonderful. Thank you so much. If you haven’t yet, go check out their book and check out the Prodify group. Thank you.
Rajesh Nerlikar: Yeah. Holly, can I do a shout out real quick?
Holly Hester-Reilly: Sure.
Rajesh Nerlikar: I also just wanted to thank Holly. She does have a quote in our book and it’s in the chapter all about user research. I think Holly brings up a really great point around how you really need to be intentional about the goals of that research before you set out to do it, what are you trying to learn? That dictates a lot of where you’re going to go, so obviously we talk about how research is so important in being able to craft a vision and understand your customer’s needs. I just wanted to thank Holly also for the support in the book and for helping us illustrate the point.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you. It’s my pleasure to be a part of it and I’m so excited to see it’s alive now.
Rajesh Nerlikar: That’s right, that’s right.
Holly Hester-Reilly: It’s around, you can get it. It’s fantastic. All right, thanks so much, Rajesh.
Rajesh Nerlikar: Yeah, no problem. Thank you.
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