The James Mayes Hypothesis: Focus On What Drives the Audience to Curate Great Events

Cofounder of Mind the Product, now Evangelist for Pendo – James spent his first career in recruiting, his second in product and events. He’s still happiest outdoors though!

In this episode of the Product Science Podcast, we cover the story of Mind the Product from concept to acquisition. We also talk about how the pandemic has affected the future of live events, and how to add product principles to event planning.

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Questions We Explore in This Episode

How did James transition from recruiting into product? What other startups has James been a part of? How can you tell when an idea is before its time? How can you tell if a feature is more valuable than the rest of the product? How do you pivot your business off of fewer features? What difficulties are there when finding new talent? How does geography affect hiring talent, even for remote work? How was James able to decide to close his Twitter startup? How did James gain product experience for companies of different sizes?

How did Mind the Product get started? How did Mind the Product grow from meetups to a full conference? How much of Mind the Product’s business was based on live events? What pain points did Mind the Product run into with running events? What preparations should you consider when running events? What can go wrong at an event? How did Mind the Product realize they were successful? How soon did Mind the Product sell out of tickets?

Why are product managers great at running events? What skills are needed behind the scenes to make an event work? Why do product managers thrive in uncertainty? Why do accessibility features benefit more than their intended audiences? How can attention to detail elevate your product to the next level? What’s the difference between meeting a user’s basic needs versus improving their experience? What is the Kano model and how does it help you evaluate a feature? How hard is it for product managers to step away from their projects? Is there a right way to do product?

How did the pandemic affect Mind the Product? Where was Mind the Product at before the pandemic? How much of Mind the Product’s business was affected by the pandemic? How do you transition workshops, conferences, and live events into digital formats? What did Mind the Product learn about what drew their audiences? What aspects of live events did not translate well to the digital space? How was Mind the Product able to journey map their at-home attendees? Why are digital and live audiences not the same? How do you make at-home attendees feel just as valued as in person attendees? Why did Mind the Product need to add a membership page? Why was Mind the Product able to offer free content previously? How did Mind the Product decide which content was behind a paywall and what was freely accessible? What did user research reveal about Mind the Product’s customers and what they valued?

How did Mind the Product get acquired by Pendo? Where does James see the future of live events and the evolution of the hybrid model of event hosting? How was Mind the Product able to start meetups safely around the world again by tapping local organizers? How does product differ as a local and regional practice between regions? What services were missing from Mind the Product that Pendo was able to provide? What will happen to the Mind the Product’s events now that they have been acquired by Pendo?

Where we felt certain other events got it wrong with hybrid was they were saying ‘here's our physical conference for those who can attend it or you can watch the live stream’. What they failed to recognize was fundamentally, you've got two entirely different customer experiences.

 

Quotes from this episode

The James Mayes Hypothesis: Focus On What Drives the Audience to Curate Great Events Click To Tweet The James Mayes Hypothesis: Focus On What Drives the Audience to Curate Great Events Click To Tweet The James Mayes Hypothesis: Focus On What Drives the Audience to Curate Great Events Click To Tweet

Transcription

Holly:
Hi, and welcome to the Product Science Podcast, where we’re helping startup founders and product leaders build high growth products, teams and companies through real conversations with 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, my guest is James Mayes. James is the co-founder of Mind The Product now an evangelist for Pendo and James spent his first career in recruiting, his second in product in events. He’s still happiest outdoors though. Welcome James.

James Mayes:
Thanks for having me on the show. Great to be here.

Holly:
I’m so excited to talk with you today.

James Mayes:
Excellent. Where would you like to go with this?

Holly:
Where would I like to go? So, many places. I’m super curious how you transitioned from recruiting to product. Why don’t we start with that?

James Mayes:
Well, the story there, I fell at university into recruiting, accidental start to recruiting as I think is the case for most people and after 15 odd years or so, I was done with recruiting, wanted out, wanted to go back to playing with something a little bit more technical. Some of my original degree was computer science based and I spent a horribly ill-advised attempt building a Twitter based recruiting service and discovered in no short order, just exactly how much I didn’t know about building product and running startups. And so that got me out of the recruiting world and moved me on from there. And I thought the best thing I could possibly do at this time is go and work for a slightly more established startup that’s filled with people who’ve actually raised money and built things and launched things and see if I can learn some from them and in doing so, I ended up in there as they head of commercial and was working pretty closely with a lady called Janna Bastow head of product. And through Janna, I got to know the ProductTank side of things. This is interesting, this is something I should know more about. Started get involved in the ProductTank meetups, learning a little bit more about it. Jana, Simon and Martin at that point, they were taking ProductTank on this journey and seeing where it could go and they’d started formulating ideas for a London conference, which is the point at which Janna said, “From a product manager’s perspective, I think we understand our users pretty well. We know what problem we’re solving for them in terms of bringing them together and helping to communicate and learn from one another commercial side, could you take a look at some numbers, take a look at the business plan, tell me what you think.” So, I looked at those numbers and thought I can change a few things here I might be able to get involved with and that’s the point at which I got involved in Mind The Product. So, that transition from recruiting into product was very much unintentional, but I suspect that’s also the way most people end up in product.

Holly:
You know, a lot of people end up in product without having intended it. Although these days, my more recent conversations, I’m more often coming across people who are telling me no, I very much intended, this is where I wanted to go. But I’m curious, I’d love to hear more about this Twitter recruiting idea that you had. What were you trying to do?

James Mayes:
Fundamentally, the idea at the time, the thought at the time was that Twitter was a great way of broadcasting messages, job boards, interviews tend to disappear quite quickly and with job boards particularly, you were seeing a mass explosion at the time of those job boards, where you could simply search for a job, I want to be a product manager. The whole list of jobs would come up and you’d tick on each one of them and then apply to all which means as a client, you’re getting just a huge, great list of applicants who haven’t really bothered reading the job spec at all, they know nothing about the company at all, they’re just mass applied. So, we thought with using Twitter, maybe we can do something that’s a little bit more intelligent. We can put some location data in there, we can start to make sure that it’s individual applications by people who are actually engaged on social media maybe some conversations going backwards and forwards, that style of things. I think fundamentally, some of the theories that we had were good, the product itself was not. We were I think probably a couple of years earlier than we actually needed to be.

Holly:
So, tell me a little more about how you learned that. How far did you get? Did you launch the product?

James Mayes:
We got a product launched. The product did technically what we needed it to do. It would take in job feeds from the clients that were working with us and it would then segregate them out and put them out through individual Twitter accounts. So we had, I think at that point, something like 3000 different Twitter accounts. So, as a job seeker, you could say, I just want to follow that account because that’s going to show me accountancy jobs in Birmingham and we would aggregate all the different roles in that area and just share that information. So, we got that core product out there, but I think probably the biggest learning was that most of the clients that we engaged with were more interested in consulting services than they were in actual product. Fundamentally, they had no idea what social media was. They knew it was going to be disruptive in some way, had no idea how to leverage it for recruiting and they wanted to learn, they wanted us to provide services and training more than anything else.

Holly:
Interesting.

James Mayes:
That was our key indicator that actually we are hail way before the market is ready.

Holly:
Interesting. So, it sounds like… The thing that I’m curious about there is, were they hiring you to teach them how to use social media to do recruiting or were they hiring you to find them job applicants?

James Mayes:
Little of both if I’m honest. Mostly it was around, we see social media generally being used for marketing, how should it be used in recruiting and what are the dangers?

Holly:
Got it.

James Mayes:
Particularly being in the UK employment laws can be reasonably stringent in certain areas and people were particularly worried about if I’ve picked up this candidate on Twitter and I can see the things that they’ve been tweeting about in the past, is there a risk that my recruiter might be judged to have discriminated against them for their personal beliefs, things that might not have come across if they just reviewed a resume?

Holly:
That’s a fascinating insight. Did you have any experiences with that or was it mostly just that they were telling you about these worries?

James Mayes:
Not at all. It was mostly just clients being concerned about things that they didn’t understand. When we actually got into it, they started to realize actually, if we are tweeting and we’re putting information out there about who we are hiring, what we’re hiring for and what our company’s about, that actually acts as a really good filter and the applicants that we get will be the people who really understand us and have some values based alignment and do want to work with us.

Holly:
Got it. So, how long was that journey?

James Mayes:
We ran that for about 18 months or so before it all fell apart. Essentially, it got to the point where the investors said, “This product probably isn’t right, you should just focus on doing consulting for the time being.” And at that particular point in time, I was quite happy and able to recognize that consulting on that was not a thing I wanted to spend the next few years doing. I was very much of that mindset that I just wanted to build something, I didn’t want to build services. That was the point where I said, I think that’s probably as far as I want to go with it so we closed it down at that point. I did a little consulting here and there for a few months, mostly just to pay the bills while I was figuring out what I wanted to do, and then ended up working with BraveNewTalent at that point, who was this startup who were a little further along the line they’d been around 18 months or so, raised three million built a team of 15 or so people like, okay, this is definitely a startup that got a level further than I did, this is a place I can go. I can be useful for them in terms of operating as a head of commercial, but also learn an awful lot more about what is actually involved in running and building a startup.

Holly:
And what was their product?

James Mayes:
So, they were an interesting one. Fundamentally, they existed in recruiting space, but they were a community slash education platform and one of the biggest challenges that it’s faced, it never truly documented what that vision was and how it was going to deliver value to clients. I would classify that one as a really great experience in terms of learning from quite a number of ways of how not to do things, but also quite a number of areas of, I just didn’t realize that stuff could be done in that way, stuff could be built that quickly or shipped in that way or tested in that way and it really did open my eyes to building product with a small number of developers moving quickly so fascinating time.

Holly:
Working with a small team is definitely a very fast experience.

James Mayes:
Tony, now having now joined the Pendo family and being part of a company of a thousand people, those faster experiences do exist with larger companies too.

Holly:
They do. So, how did you move on from there?

James Mayes:
So, I was with BraveNewTalent for about a year. We fundamentally came to the conclusion that the product wasn’t fit for markets, it needed an awful lot more actual user research doing. It needed an awful lot more prototyping as some of the ideas, the strategy needed to be an awful lot clearer, so me being head of commercial, go out there and sell stuff that wasn’t really the right use of their resources, that resource needed to go into customer research and good product management and development more so than it did ahead of sales. So, it was a great time for me to move on and again, back to a little bit of consulting for a while, but also talking to Martin, Simon and Janna about what ProductTank was and where the conference might go and what was going to become of it. So, I ended up essentially working basically at my own risk as a consultant for Mind The Product structuring commercial deals and saying you focus on the conference, focus on the curation, the manifesto, the editorial, all of those things that as three great product managers, you really know what needs to be on stage and what doesn’t. And they essentially sat back and said, as product managers, what do we hate about conferences? And if we are going to build our own, what do we want to see? Cool, focused on that, do that, fantastic. And I put my time into building commercial relationships around the side of that with organizations that would support that conference. And then from there, we gradually started to grow the things. The first London conference would’ve been 2012 and we essentially ran it as a passion project. So, stolen hours here and there evenings, weekends meeting up in pubs or coffee shops or wherever we could in between other work. And it wasn’t until I think it’s the end of 2015, that Martin and I actually went full time on it and again, we maintained pretty much that split. Martin focused on editorial, manifesto, curation, design, attendee experience and I focused on building those relationships with the other organizations that would support us on that journey, looking at where we might expand services, what else we might do and then occasionally putting on my old recruiting hat and going to find people to actually join them on the product team and grow what we were doing.

Holly:
And tell me more… I’m not sure how familiar all of our listeners are with Mind The Product I’m sure most of them have probably heard of it, but what services and partnerships were you building?

James Mayes:
So fundamentally, Mind The Product back at that point was a few meetups in different cities, mostly in Europe and we expanded on that and built out single day conference for product managers currently in London, San Francisco, Singapore and Hamburg. Since then, we’ve also layered on product management workshops and training and services in that area. There’s a podcast, so the Mind The Product team is now 16 people, but the core business is conferences, workshops and training and then the membership experience which we released as a result of the pandemic. So, in the pandemic landed, we were I suppose, 99 and a bit percent of our revenue came from real life events, so that worked out pretty quickly and we had to hard pivot at that point, figure out how the hell we were going to stay in the game.

Holly:
That’s really interesting. So, before we go into that hard pivot though, I’d love to hear more about what learnings the team had on running events? What were the pain points that they identified?

James Mayes:
The first is as you might expect, every time you go to a venue something’s changed and we had that experience from our very early days because the original meetup in London back when it was just a few 100 people, we used to rent out the assembly hall at a local school and use that an evening. So, you turn up there once a month and every month, the AV kit is different. Students have been playing with the speakers, playing with the microphones, playing with the cables, playing with the laptop or cups so we learn very early on that whenever you go to a venue, even if you’ve used that venue recently expect something to be different, always. And with the annual conference now, we’ve been going back to the Barbican Centre in London for example, since I think we moved there 2014 and again, something there has changed every year. You learn very early on, don’t assume anything of your venue go back to basics every time recheck everything. That one was painful. You learn very quickly to have backup speakers on hand, because particularly if you’ve got speakers flying in from overseas, it’s just stuff goes wrong. People get delayed or the taxi into town hits traffic or somebody somewhere gets sick, so if you’re running a one day event and you’re thinking, well, we know how many speaking slots we’ve got, we’ve got our speakers lined up, we’re good to go. No, you’re going to need some backups. Something somewhere will go wrong at some point, I think my particular favorite was one year at the Barbican. I don’t know if you know but this is huge concrete structure in the center of London. It is an absolute rabbit warren, you can get lost in there incredibly easily and one particular part of it, they’ve got a huge conservatory and it’s filled with 20, 30 foot tall plants, absolutely gorgeous space and I had a call during the conference one year with somebody saying, hi, I’m supposed to be speaking at your event, but I appear to be lost in a jungle, can you send help? I was like there’s stuff that goes wrong with events that you just can’t predict. We have on one year, a couple of the team were passing by one another. The passing comment was, all seems to be going well so far this year like nothing’s on fire, right? About that, one of our sponsors brought their AV kit over from the US with them plugged it into UK voltage, not so great. Have we got any spare screens hanging around?

Holly:
Boy.

James Mayes:
Small fire just before we opened the doors sparked, smoke the whole nine yards.

Holly:
Boy.

James Mayes:
So, I think probably the single biggest initial learning from events is just expect stuff to go wrong.

Holly:
I like the literal fire story, that’s awesome.

James Mayes:
We’ve literally had people lost in jungles, things set off fire. Is that ability to have people around you that are able to adapt and think quickly and solve problems which frankly, one of the things that’s always been a huge benefit to us, is we run a volunteer crew on the day of the event and 20 odd extra people going behind scenes or helping people through registration or whatnot. And they’re people drawn from the community. These are loyal Mind The Product fans who say, Hey, I’d love to volunteer, that means I can get backstage at the event, have a poke around, wear the t-shirt. Well that means that our volunteer crew is essentially hardened product managers. These are people living in uncertainty as their day job. So, throw them into an event and they are naturally designed to sniff out problems and solve them on the fly. Fantastic best volunteer crew you could ever imagine.

Holly:
That’s awesome. Do you know what challenges Janna and the rest of the team found for the attendees of the conference? What did they face?

James Mayes:
That’s a tough one. For the most part, product managers tend to be very self starting problem solving type people anyway. So, I suspect that attendees generally solved problems as they go fundamentally. There were certainly moments of problem and surprised that we didn’t expect. My favorite one is actually San Francisco. When we first launched the conference there, logged into event to check the tickets, make sure that everything was set up, ready to go. Clock ticked tickets on sale and then you look at it and there’s no tickets on sale. Christ, what have we done? We’ve done something wrong. Why there no tickets on sale? Tickets did go on sale, they just sold out in four seconds.

Holly:
In four seconds?

James Mayes:
The first San Francisco conference, the early bird tickets was put up 200 early birds and thought if we can sell those in a couple of months, that’s a good sign that we’ve got to market. They went in four seconds, we were astonished and thought that we’d done something to break Eventbrite. Again, it’s the unexpected that really catches you by surprising this game. I think in terms of attendee problems, there’s not many that have struck us, but there have been some interesting learnings along the way and I think probably my favorite is few years back, we introduced big screens at the side of the stage and put captions up there. So, I’ve actually got somebody working away, listening to the live feed and typing the captions as they go. We expected that for people with hearing difficulties that would be useful. The feedback that we got after the event was actually the vast majority of the audience found it useful, not just the people with hearing difficulties, but people saying that speaker was going slightly too fast or I just caught a glance at Twitter, I missed what they were saying and having the closed captions up on screen at the side of the stage, something like 80, 85% of the audience said, “That’s really useful, thank you for that we really appreciate it.” That’s the kind of thing that you just don’t expect at all. We expected that to touch a relatively small proportion of the audience.

Holly:
That makes sense. Do you have any other interesting learnings from there?

James Mayes:
Clearly, product managers are internet heavy. We’ve been caught out by the wifi more than once. There’s nothing you can do about it venues are hit and miss with wifi. We try and test it, we try and warn them what’s about to happen and then 1700 product managers descend with two devices each and the venue gets swamped. So, that one’s always fun in games. There’s a couple of things that we did figure out in advance that we planned for and we were pleasantly surprised by how much they did resonate with the audience. So, one thing in particular, and I think credit goes to Martin on this one, recognizing early on that the coffee at most conference centers is, excuse my French, bloody awful and most product people happen to be coffee snobs. So, Martin said, “Look, let’s go the distance, let’s get a couple of barista carts into the conference center and if somebody wants an espresso or somebody wants a flat white, they can actually get good quality coffee.” That’s on the house, that’s just part of what we offer, that’s part of what makes us different and pretty much every time we’ve run the conference and done the feedback forms afterwards, it gets called out by somebody like it was such a nice touch to have a decent coffee on the day. The curation was lovely, the event was lovely, I met loads of great people, thank you, but little touches like that really elevated from just another thing where I go and meet people and have conversations to this feels like you really understood your audience and took care of us. I think the Kano Model is the one that Martin points to from time to time is a great example of figuring out what’s an expected hygiene factor versus what’s a delighter. Well, coffee at a conference, hygiene factor, barista flat whites, delighter.

Holly:
Are you able to say any more about the Kano Model?

James Mayes:
There’s a post up on the side where Martin breaks it down far better than I do, but I think the example that he uses particularly is that one of going to a hotel. You expect your hotel to have hot water, you expect to be able to have a good hot running shower, right? That’s a hygiene factor, but you could keep investing in that, uprating the boilers and making that water even hotter or making that shower pressure even better, but you’re not actually adding too much to the guest experience, they only expect as a hygiene factor. You’re not able to take that into a delight. There’s other places where you could take that money and invest it in the hotel and give people something additional that is a delighter. There’s an important thing in recognizing where you are investing just for the sake of investing versus where it actually adding something significant to the experience.

Holly:
Cool. So, what did the evolution of Mind The Product look like? You told us a couple of dates like 2014, 2015 or so, where was it at before COVID hit?

James Mayes:
So, 2019 was pre COVID 2019. We’d invested hard in the team. We built the team to about 20 people. We’d been investing pretty heavily in the web platform. So previously, the meetup groups had spread around the world under the ProductTank banner they were in, I want to say about 210 cities at that point, so that’s 210 different accounts on meetup.com. So, that was horribly siloed experience and we couldn’t see data which made it really hard to understand the audience itself. So, we started investing in the site to bring some of that meetup experience across to the mindtheproduct.com site. We’d invested hard in the team. The conferences were in London, San Francisco, Singapore, Hamburg and Manchester at that point and we’d also been working hard at that point to develop the workshops side of things. So, the training program we’d started looking at in 2015 running a day of workshops in association with the conference. But then in 2017, we started working with Rosemary King, really investing in that a lot harder, scaling that up. So, we had a mixed model in mind there partially corporate workshops where we’d go to companies and offer them private workshops to train their teams and then partially stuff where we call them public workshops. So, we’d say we’re running a workshop on essentials in New York. Rock up on Eventbrite, buy a ticket and you’d have 30 people in the class all drawn from a variety of different companies. So, we run those two experiences and needless to say all of that was pretty much wiped out in March, 2020.

Holly:
Yep. I had a similar experience as I had transitioned my own business to being more about workshops and less about consulting by the time I hit March, 2020 and then that’s a problem.

James Mayes:
That was a pretty brutal experience for everybody I think.

Holly:
Definitely, especially event organizers. Obviously, it was definitely a brutal experience for everybody, but we had a special breed of challenge.

James Mayes:
I think Amazon and Netflix did okay and pretty much every other business took a pounding.

Holly:
Yep. Except for Zoom. Zoom did pretty well too.

James Mayes:
Zoom, Google Chat, they did well.

Holly:
Yep. So, how did you guys make your decision about what to do next?

James Mayes:
So firstly, we had to cut the conferences, clearly. The first thing that we did was to say, if this is going to be around for a while and it looked like it was, we need to try running a digital conference of some kind, let’s see what we can do. And the first conference that was up on the agenda for us was Singapore, so we canceled the physical version, pivoted that to digital and essentially ran it fairly fast in light the intention being just to do something swiftly so that we can learn. Will the audience turn up for a digital event? Will they pay money for a digital ticket? What things are they interested in? What things that we’ve done previously in a physical event will translate well to a digital event? What do we need to cut? What do we need to invest harder in? So, I started learning about that side of things and thankfully, a couple of the key lessons that we picked up from the previous conferences remained true to form. The biggest number one driver being, it’s got to be quality content. That’s what drives the audience. When we run the meetups for example, we’ve tried doing a summer party one year and for a summer party, a London meetup, we’d usually get a turnout of 300, 350 people. So, one particular time, summer party, the weather’s fantastic, we’ve got an outdoor space, we’ll lay on some free beers and burgers, let’s just have a party. The turnout rate absolutely plummeted and it became very clear that the reason people love Mind The Product and the people reason turnout is because we put great content on stage, that’s it. The core of what we are is bringing people together to learn from one another, but free beers, free burgers, partying the sunshine, not so much. People do that with their friends. People come to Mind The Product and ProductTank for that great content. So, we kept that at the core when we went to digital. So, that was the first thing that we did was to get that online, let’s see what we could do there. Now typically, our conferences previously were one day events so you’re getting great content for about eight hours, but when you’re in a physical conference room, you can walk around and intersperse that with I’m going to go chat to that sponsor and learn about them and I’m going to go and get a flat white over there and I’m going to go to the networking room and meet some new people. You can try replicating that online, you can have digital sponsor booths and you can have digital networking, but fundamentally, you’ve still got everybody just sat at their desk, staring at a window for eight hours straight and that’s not a pleasant experience. So with the digital conferences, we learned that one fairly fast and we started moving things around and saying actually one day conference physically works well. For digital, it needs to be broken up into small and more consumable chunks. People need to be able to get up, move around, go stare at something different for some time. So we had to start breaking up the format and messing around with that for a start that was fun.

Holly:
What format did you end up with?

James Mayes:
We’ve now tested the hybrid events. I last London conference, we returned to physical in London in October, but then also did a digital element to go with that for the folks who weren’t yet comfortable traveling and to keep that online element for people who do want digital events in future. The major learning from that, the real fun point was recognizing in advance, where we felt certain other events that got it wrong with hybrid, and what they were trying to do was to say, here’s our physical conference who can come and attend it, or you could watch the live stream. Well, that’s nice you made the livestream option available, but fundamentally, they were treating it as the same audience. What they failed to recognize was fundamentally, you’ve got two entirely different customer experiences. The customer experience for the person who turns up with a ticket, goes through the registration queue, gets a badge, goes downstairs, meets some sponsors, grabs a coffee, walks into the auditorium, engages with their fellow product managers face to face is very different from somebody who goes through to their kitchen, grabs a cup of Joe, comes back sits down at their desk and then spends the next couple of hours watching on the screen. If you break them apart into two entirely different customer experiences, then both groups get properly looked after. And we recognize that one early on. I think we did a good job of that. We certainly got some great feedback. The bit that I actually had the most fun with, was on that hybrid London conference that we did. We opened the doors to the London event, people started coming into the physical event and we realized that people were starting to log into the online platform for watching that part. So, we thought let’s do a tour. Let’s try and see if we can bring these two audiences together and do something to make the people at-home feel part of what’s going on here at the center. So, our marketing director, Amy grabbed a mobile and it’s like, let’s live stream this, we’ll do a walkthrough. So, we walk through the queue of people, registration grabbing their badges obviously, hat tip to the folks at-home. You don’t need to queue, you’ve already got your badges come right in. A quick walk through the sponsor hall, sneak peek at the sponsor setting up, getting their booths ready and then from there, we were able to wander through to the auditorium, so stage build was just about done. Folks at the live event, you don’t get to see this yet, you’re going to have to wait an hour or so, but the folks that are online, let’s give you a sneak peek. So, this is what the stage looks like, this is the guest entrance and this is where the green room is behind the scenes. Some could do a sneak through there and introduce them to the live streaming crew and things like that. I’ve got a bunch of feedback from the folks watching online, just to say thank you for making them feel that extra bit involved and giving them a few extra bits that the in person audience didn’t get to see, but very much that idea of recognizing they’re two different customer experiences.

Holly:
How did you deal with the one day versus multiple days part when you did the hybrid?

James Mayes:
Personally, I enjoy the real high pressure energy of having one day going at it in the building and knowing that you’re just absolutely on adrenaline all day long. For me, as one of the organizers behind the scenes, it feels a little odd where you’ve got that gap between and you run it over the two days, but the audience feedback from everybody was that they absolutely preferred that format. And I think part of that, is similar to why we get great feedback on running the workshops over two days now, it’s because product managers constantly under pressure. There’s constantly stuff going on, there’s constantly information coming at you and that idea of saying you need to take the whole day completely away from your working environment. On the one hand, it’s a nice thing because you get to step away, you give yourself permission to go focus on this other thing you’re investing in it. On the other hand, it does leave you I think in a lot of cases with that itch at the back of your mind as what’s going on? I’ve just left a bunch of developers unattended for the day. Are they building what I asked them to build? Or is you going somewhere completely different now? And I think there’s certainly a group of product managers who appreciated that ability to say, I’m going to come do this online thing for four hours, but I can also keep an eye on notifications and I’ve got the afternoon to catch up and go back and do those other things and I think there was an element of it where people said, I’ve taken a great chunk of learning from four hours today, I’m going to decompress, I’m going to moodle on it and then I’m going to come back and do it some more tomorrow with extra questions. So, I think that ability to return to that networked environment where they could say, I saw this yesterday, it might be think and now I want to go talk about this with my peers. I think that was incredibly beneficial. But I do think as the world emerges from the pandemic, I know it’s obviously still going on and some people need to be more cautious than other. There are some returning to live events. I think what we’re going to see is the emergence of two distinct groups. There’ll be those who say, I never particularly enjoyed getting on a plane and going, staying in a hotel in order to see a conference, so I’m not doing that again. I’ll take the live stream, that’s fine, but I think the other group of people is those people who’ve really embraced working remotely and saying, I actually now work from home five days a week. So, they appreciate even more the ability to go to a conference center and actually engage with their peers face to face, to be somewhere different and to get that experience. So, I suspect the idea of a hybrid event and having that mixed environment is here to stay.

Holly:
That makes sense. I definitely could see people wanting both versions and if you’ve cracked the code on how to make a good event for both experiences at the same time, then more power to you.

James Mayes:
The feedback seems really positive so far and I think the bit that I’d like to crack, and I think we’ve done some work there, I don’t think we’ve completely cracked it yet, is how you actually enable some engagement between the online and physical audience. They’re both engaging with the content and you can see some of the commentary running backwards and forwards, but the people networking physically in the building or there’s people networking in the digital speed networking area, things like that. I’m not sure there’s a way to actually allow those two to cross over. That could be interesting in future if we can figure out a way to address that, but again, where we’ve been investing in the site and building that out for the membership program, there is a members area where that discussion forum is a little bit more permanent than the slack discussion area that we have. So, I suspect that might come more to the forum in future years.

Holly:
Interesting. Well, why don’t we start talking about the membership experience? So, how did you get started on that project?

James Mayes:
Initially, everything dried up. Revenue goes to zero and you’re placed in a very hard position of saying, well, we don’t want to fold completely so what are we going to do here? It was primarily Martin, Erickson and Emily Tate that led this particular piece of work for us. And what they looked at was what are the big assets? What are the things that we have that are still in play that we can use in some way? The two starting realizations were firstly, we’ve got an audience of about 300,000 people around the world who really love the content that Mind The Product puts out. Cool. We’ve been able to do that for the last few years, making everything freely available on the web because we were able to subsidize it with the conferences revenue, if we’re not making that revenue, that content needs to pay for itself somehow. So, that suggested that we needed to investigate some sort of subscription content model. We’ve always taken a very, I’ll say an ethical stance of looking at content, so you see a lot of speakers for example, they’ll put their speakers on a plane from somewhere, but they don’t actually pay them for the time involved in producing talks. Now, we recognize that for a really topnotch conference session, time goes into building that, time goes into rehearsing that, time goes into honing those slides so when we put somebody in a keynote start on the stage, we pay them a keynote fee. We wanted to take that same approach to the content side of the site. So, the quick conclusion on it was if it’s content that comes to us for free, like it’s a video of one of the meetups or it’s a guest post contribution from somebody in the community who’s got a rant that they’d like to get off the chest. That’s fantastic, but that content’s come to us for free so we shouldn’t be charging people to read it. That stays free. If on the other hand it’s stuff where our editorial team has done some deep dive research, or it’s a video of one of the conference keynotes where we did pay speaker fees and we did pay for video producing services, that’s going behind the pay wall. We paid to produce it, you are going to pay to read it. So, that was pretty much where we come to it. It has to be around the content, we have to go to the audience in some way and say, we’ve been able to subsidize this on conferences in the past, we can’t do that anymore, if you want it to stay online, if you want us to keep doing this, you are going to have to support it in some way. So, the membership model very quickly became this looks like it’s the thing that we should do and then from there, it was straight into, okay, prime managers, what do we do here? We do some research, right? Let’s go talk to people, let’s see what they want, let’s see what they’re prepared to do. It very quickly became clear that there was a core of that audience that were very keen to see Min The Product keep doing what it did best, essentially gathering stories from around the world and sharing them. There’s no right way to do product, there are a lot of right tactics to use, there are a lot of right strategies to deploy, but there’s no single way. So, we’ve always viewed a key part of our mission as being, finding those stories from around the world and exposing them and letting people work through them saying, well, that’s not useful to me in my situation, but that one is, so we wanted to continue doing that. It became apparent that yes, there was a core part of the community that were quite happily paid for that access, they valued it highly enough, cool. Feels like we’ve got a product here. Our lead developer at that time, we had one lead developer, bless him. [inaudible 00:28:20]. Sean was hard up against it to get that MVP out the door in about six weeks flat. So it was dirty frankly, and I know he spent a lot of the 18 months since actually refactoring some of that code and putting more of the con solutions in place. But we got a version of that membership model out the door quick and dirty just to test whether or not people would actually pay for it. That classic thing just because somebody says they will, does it actually mean that they’ll enter their credit card details. So, we got that out pretty quick. I remember we did some stack ranking research as well. It’s like, what are all the things that could go into a membership package? Let’s stack rank that, let’s go ask the community, which of these things do they actually think are really important which are less so, so we learned an awful lot of that and that very much informed what goes into that membership package that you see today.

Holly:
And what are the things that went out in the stack ranking?

James Mayes:
One of the things that we expected to be right at the top of the list was people saying, if I buy membership, I expected to get early access to conference tickets and I expect discounting. That didn’t bother people, people weren’t fuss by that at all, they were much more interested in things like Mind The Product has an amazing network of speakers, could you run an online event once a month for members only to come and do an AMA with industry religions? Well, we can. We didn’t think that would be quite such a thing of interest, but apparently that’s absolutely top of the list. So, let’s put something together there, what can we do? The newsletter side of things, Martin and Emily Tate pretty much taking in turns to curate our weekly newsletter, which is not just Mind The Product content, it’s their view on these are the best things that we’ve seen around the web this week on product management and curated newsletter consistently gets the most amazing feedback. So again, that’s part of the membership program that’s a core thing.

Holly:
Yep. What about the community element? What ended up winning out there?

James Mayes:
On the community side of things, there’s a discussion forum on the site now that’s a little better than Slack. The Slack community we run has 50 or 1000 product managers in there. It gets pretty noisy, which means that the lifespan of a discussion is maybe a week at best before it disappears. So, there’s a discussion forum on the board now which is a good step forwards, but to be honest, we’ve had to take a little step back from that because the community side was largely driven by the ProductTank meetups in the different cities around the world. And as you’ve seen different countries around the world have had different approaches to COVID. So New Zealand for example, cracked down, incredibly hard, incredibly quickly and as a result, actually reemerged into regular social life a lot quicker than a number of other countries. It wouldn’t have been right for us to say, ProductTank should keep doing this or should go here or should do that, we had to be guided by the local organizers in their cities saying, this is what feels right here, this is what local legislation allows for. So, we went to them and said, “Look, here’s the tools that we can use to help keep things going digitally, but we’d like you as the local organizer to lead on what you feel comfortable doing, what’s right for your local community.” I think it would’ve been pretty wrong for us to sit here in London and say, this is the way we should do it, we should go here. We very much wanted to make sure that the individual organizers still had the power to say, this is what’s right in our city.

Holly:
And on that note, how did you provide structure or help for the local organizers to make sure that they were building something in line with the Mind The Product values?

James Mayes:
So for the most part, we offered them the tooling to take those meetups online if they wanted to. Reminded them of the format that we tend to find most useful, which is essentially a little bit of networking, but mostly it’s exposing stories from the community. But then the main thing that we did was actually encourage them to work together with other people from outside their area, because fundamentally, ProductTank in the past has been about exposing stories from the local city. Well, when everything’s digital, you can start exposing your audience from stories elsewhere or you can start bringing those ProductTanks together. Instead of saying it’s just ProductTank Auckland or ProductTank Wellington, it can be ProductTank, New Zealand and the whole New Zealand audience can be online at the same time, which now means you can attract a speaker who perhaps previously might have dodged meetups because some of them can be smaller numbers. Some of the big names in the industry look for a meetup that’s got a couple of 100 attendees to make it worthwhile for them to go do talks. When you get multiple cities working together, suddenly you can assemble much bigger audiences and we have the persistence streaming on YouTube and things like that. It’s a tool called StreamYard, which we found particularly useful during this period. Apparently it was so good, the Hopin chose to acquire it. So, I guess they’ve done pretty well through the pandemic, but we equipped all of the organizers with StreamYard, gave them access to the minor product YouTube account on the basis that if they’re putting the recorded material after that, it’s going to a bigger audience, it’s reaching more eyeballs. So, it becomes more attractive for speakers to get involved and do that sort of thing, but it also raises the visibility of those individual cities all around the world. A lot of reason why they will get involved is they’ll reach out to us and say, there’s no ProductTank in my city, I’d like to start one. I’d like to do so, so that product in my city becomes more established to raise the visibility of my city as a whole on the global tech stage. So, it actually played fairly well to them gave them the opportunity to do that. Some of them have been a little quieter through the pandemic and that’s also because our organizers have had a hard time. Some of them will have had health issues through this, some of them will have had family issues through this, no doubt some have lost jobs. So, we’ve tried to be there to say, these are the tools that we can make available. These are speakers… If you want an introduction to somebody ask us, we’ll see what we can do, we’ll see how we can help, but at the same time, we don’t necessarily want to put pressure on them and drive them in a particular direction, it’s like come to us and tell us what you need for your community, you’re closer to it than we are so guide us. How can we help?

Holly:
Cool. So, before we’ve been out of time, I want to hear a little bit about how you exited? So how did that come about?

James Mayes:
It’s been all right the last six months I can say. Fundamentally, we got to the point toward the back end of last year where we could say, the membership model worked, we have successfully survived the pandemic. Well done again, business, you have done well. There are certainly a number out there who’ve had a significantly tougher time getting a membership program to work, so we were pretty pleased with that. But when we did that, we’d also then sat there and said, so for the last two years, it’s been firefighting trying to stay alive, trying to pilot our way through a pandemic and being able to make bank and pay people. So, we’ve got to the end of last year and said, we’ve successfully done that, but if we cast our mind back over the last 10 years, Mind The Product never really had a vision as to where it wanted to go to. It had a vision for how we serve product people, we’d bring product people together, we share stories, we further the craft, but it didn’t have a plan as to what it wanted to be long term. So, we agreed that the best thing to do would be to just go out and have some open conversations. So, we spoke to some other conference organizers, we spoke to some software vendors, we spoke to some VCs, we spoke to some training providers and it was literally just putting feelers out there to say, what might our future look like? What could be a possibility? And the conversation with Pendo advanced fairly swiftly to the point where we felt that there was an awful lot of alignment there. Pendo fundamentally believe in the value of a product community, people supporting one another, people learning together or exposing great case studies. Pendo itself, obviously builds great software, but they’ve always said they wanted to be more than just software. They have the great product craft publication, they’ve run their own events in the pandemonium style of things, but they looked at minor product and they saw a really great fit. Whereas I think from Mind The Product perspective, it’s been said a number of times, not at least by me, that Mind The Product can provide almost everything a product manager wants except software. We don’t build software, we were never going to go and sell software, but podcasts, training, workshops, conferences, newsletters absolutely, we got you. So, the idea of having a product software partner made an awful lot of sense. And then we started looking at where the crossovers were, things like Pendos pandemonium conference. Now, they’ve run that in the past as being a conference essentially for Pendo users and I think when you look at software firms that acquire communities or acquire events, there’s always this concern of, my God, they just bought it. Are they just going to fill a stage full of their own speakers now and do that kind of thing? It’s like everybody gets a slightly nervous feeling about it. Pendo were very upfront about saying pandemonium is the event for Pendo users. Mind The Product is the open house where the industry comes together as a whole and looks at what’s good for the future of the product craft and they were keen to continue supporting that. So it’s okay. Well, if we’re part of the Pendo family, what do we do? What do we bring? What’s the outcome that we can generate that’s valuable to Pendo? And the sure version was keep doing what you’re doing, make more product managers, make smarter product managers and if we keep doing that, then Pendo’s natural addressable market will quite happily continue to scale. Product managers will need smarter tools to continue doing their jobs in more and more complex environments as the world continues to evolve. So, our mission is largely unchanged. Pendo obviously headquartered over in North Carolina in the US, our team are based here in the UK. So, we are largely an autonomous unit, which is quite frankly, it’s awfully freeing for the team here to be able to say, we can now crack on do what we’re best at, but also know that we have this amazing unicorn behind us. That surety of having Pendo in the background is fabulous.

Holly:
And so has the whole team come along for the journey to join Pendo?

James Mayes:
So Martin stepped back, which is something that’s been planned for a long time anyway. Martin’s been working with EQT Ventures, one of York’s biggest VC firms based out of Sweden. So Martin’s been working with them over the last few years. I’d always wanted to go full time with that and made that plan anyway and then this opportunity came up to join Pendo excellent, everything lines up let’s do that. Otherwise, team continues.

Holly:
Awesome.

James Mayes:
From their perspective, we now have a team where they can say we’ve got all the support of the Pendo infrastructure in the background, and also all of these opportunities with Pendo in future. So, it opens doors and Pendo is a position where they have that corporate infrastructure which we can now lean on a little from time to time, so a fully fledged finance department, legal teams, branding teams, all kinds of things which when you’re a 16 person bootstrap team, you don’t necessarily have all of that infrastructure available to you. So there are certainly benefits to that.

Holly:
Absolutely. Well, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you. Where can people learn more if they want to follow you?

James Mayes:
I’m pretty active on Twitter, LinkedIn or just drop me a note. James@mindtheproduct.com. I’m super easy to find and I’m ridiculously social.

Holly:
Awesome. Well, thank you so much for this conversation. It’s been a pleasure talking to you, James.

James Mayes:
Likewise, thanks for having me.