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Focused leadership is the Key to Create Killer Products for Global Markets
Ram Narayanan
Thursday, December 9, 2010
As I look out of my car and see a sleek and compact Tata Nano driving through buzzing roads of Bangalore, it is one of the prime examples of innovation led through exemplary leadership with an objective – start local with global approach. This product has triggered a race among global car-makers to develop cheaper and efficient cars. This innovation would not have been possible but for a visionary leader, who can guide the teams to align the company’s goals with the customer needs.

Exemplary leadership within teams, projects, product groups is gaining importance among companies with global aspirations. Start-ups have to look at leadership models of companies, which have developed successful global products. The importance of strong leadership is growing in India across sectors, including IT, Healthcare, FMCG and others, which are witnessing strong entrepreneurial activities.

With internet reach expanding rapidly, the focus of product companies in the IT sector has shifted to ‘start local and build globally-scalable products’ to widen the customer base. If an Indian company or the Indian arm of an MNC has to take advantage of this paradigm shift, strong leadership is essential.

Organizations in India have to develop the ability to analyze new markets, build globally-acceptable products and then market them effectively. The leadership required to guide these organizations has to ensure that a rock-star team is put together. We are already seeing examples of this phenomenon.

Product Manager – the leader of the product team
While there are very important roles in a product organization across the functions of Engineering, Quality Assurance, User Design and more, I would like to focus on the role of a product manager in the leadership team and his/her role in the development of a successful product.
A great product manager starts with the customer, figuring out who they are, understanding their environment; what they find valuable; what problems they have and so on. The product manager pulls together the rest of the team around these insights and defines needs of the customer. The product manager always manages by influence and not by direct authority, thereby making the leadership capabilities stand out.

A few key characteristics of successful Product Managers:
Customer is at the center of the universe.

Keen sense of the market window of opportunity.
Prioritizing – important and urgent vs important and not-urgent.
Very good at honest measurements of the success of their products.
Biggest evangelist and cheerleader of the team.

A product manager faces several leadership challenges, some of which are critical to the success of a product. The greatest challenge is to pull together all the team members and make them focus on the problem, which they are trying to solve. The product manager should have a sense of the talent available in the team across all functions and help bring the right talent into the team.

In the Indian context, this role is relatively nascent given that technology product companies are just starting to emerge. Some companies with focus on this role have introduced successful products. But there is a tremendous interest among people considering product management as a career option.

Product Development & Management
Once the right product development team headed by an efficient leader is in place, the next task is to identify the product for the relevant market.

Many start-ups go wrong in their approach to build globally scalable products. An insight has to be gained into the customer through market reports, customer & market visits, by engaging others who service the same market, and conducting primary research among the customers. These insights help derive unstated needs, which may be driven by local conditions, cultural context or socio-economic criteria, which are the key to a successful product.

Let’s take the example of 3G-enabled video service. Bangalore has one of the highest two-wheeler populations; and many well-paid professionals commute on bikes, but are unable to use the services during their commute time.

Perhaps such applications will be suitable for Mumbai where people commute long distances in public transportation where they need entertainment and have the downtime to use the services.

Understanding Customers’ Requirements
When developing a product, we lay emphasis on understanding the customer and the requirements from all perspectives though our offices are spread across the globe.

Recently, we developed a property for Indonesia, which is culturally diverse and forward. During our research, we found out that people searched the internet for entertainment and celebrity-related content. Such users even visited US sites, which unfortunately, did not have content on Indonesian celebrities.

It gave us an insight into the mind of the customer. We launched the Indonesian property only after thoroughly understanding the customers’ requirements. We continue to research the requirements of customers to maintain our competitive edge. While we were exploring the Indonesian opportunity, we found the needs were the same in other markets, including India. This resulted in the product being rapidly deployed in other countries where we were able to hit a market window of opportunity.

Our cricket property is extremely popular in India. A pre-launch survey revealed that cricket fans wanted a reliable score-card. Once we launched the score-card and users became familiar with it, they wanted to read news about matches played around the world; a discussion forum, games and so on. Now, we have over 5 million visitors to Yahoo! Cricket every month. Constant feedback from customer and innovation based on it helps create a successful global product.

Multi-pronged strategy
A product manager should have a multi-pronged approach to develop a top class product. The foremost mantra should be to build global but implement local, that is, be able to use the same platform to develop global products. A product, which has global validity, enables any company to explore international opportunities. Organizations have to learn from experiences to expand their footprint and focus on their core competencies.

The next wave of internet growth in India will be driven by the local language speakers. Internet usage among the English-speaking population has almost reached the saturation point. So, ideally, the next set of products should be targeted at the local language speakers and many companies are developing interesting solutions. The challenges of a product manager are not only growing externally, but internally in terms of identifying and capturing niche markets with the best product.

Sharing leadership practices of successful product managers
Successful companies have to share best leadership practices of their product managers in view of the changing business environment; and in the process extend benefit to start-ups.
To that end, Yahoo recently sponsored a first of its kind Product Camp (called P-Camp), which was very well attended by practicing and aspiring product managers. One of our product managers is creating an industry platform to exchange the views and ideas relating to leadership. He is laying the foundation of the Indian Product Managers Association (IPMA), and launching new chapters in different cities of the country.

To sum it up, an organization has to nurture strong leadership skills to develop world-class products. While it takes a team to conceive and deliver such products, the Product Manager has to keep the team focused on the customer thereby putting the organization in a position to succeed in the market.
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