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How to build a solid roadmap

Recently, I’ve spent more time mentoring and managing junior PMs and the other day one posed a deceitfully simple question: how do you build a good roadmap?

At first blush, it seems like an easy question to answer. Consider what your current customer base wants, what unmet needs they still have, what your product vision is, how it aligns with company strategy, what new capabilities exist (or will exist) that you can take advantage of, what your engineering team wants to build, your sales team, your UX team, and so on.

You could answer those questions and build a roadmap. In fact, you could just stack rank a list of features you have on your to-do list, team idea wall, hack-a-thon whiteboard, or brainstorming area. That would make a roadmap. But it’s liable to be an ineffective one, and at worst, a train wreck. A roadmap should be a cohesive plan – grounded in data and beliefs – that will take the product forward in building the customer base and delivering more value.

You need a framework to get there.

One way to think about this is in terms of trends and beliefs. Beliefs come in two forms: what you fundamentally believe (read: I believe we need to deliver X) and what your customers believe (read: I need this product to do X). Trends also come in two forms. There are internal trends, which you can tease out from your usage data, statistics, and historical performance. And then there are external trends, like the fact that the usage of tablet computers is growing at X rate YoY (Brad Feld has a good post on identifying external trends here).

If you map this out, it looks like this:

The framework does *not* provide the answer. Rather, it serves as a forcing function to get yourself thinking about the right issues. For example, do you (your team, your company) want to put all the proverbial eggs in one quadrant (see Instagram example below)? Or are you under-representing a quadrant that you do believe to be important? If so, the framework acts as a catalyst for highlighting the trade-offs implicit in any roadmap (eg, Are we too focused on quadrant X to the detriment of quadrant Y?).

The purpose of the framework is *not* to advocate for a standardized pattern across the quadrants (eg, A balanced 4-quad approach is better/worse than an imbalanced 1-quad approach). Rather, the goal is to enforce clarity and alignment around the strategic bets you’re making.

The framework is also helpful for what it doesn’t specifically emphasize: what your manager wants, what your competition is doing, what other internal teams are doing, other startups, etc. Certainly all of these other sources *can* provide roadmap inspiration but they should only do so if they are congruent with your trends and beliefs. If your manager (board, investors, etc) are advocating a feature or project, but you don’t believe in it and your customers don’t need it, why build it?

Here are a few examples and where they fit in the framework (some are bigger than just a feature but help illustrate the concept):

Instagram: Founded as Burbn, an HTML 5 based Foursquare-esque local, social network, Instagram found success when it listened to internal data from customers which suggested all they wanted to do was share photos. (Customers beliefs + Internal trends)

Evernote for Food: Based off Evernote’s mission of being your brain’s external hard drive, Evernote for Food melded this core concept with the growing external trend of sharing food photos, moments, etc.  (Your beliefs + External trends)

The iPad: Jobs held a strong belief in the importance of tablet computing despite no positive external trends (Microsoft’s tablets had failed earlier) and no customers banging down the door. (Your beliefs + Internal trends*)

Twitter’s Hashtag: Started by Twitter power user Chris Messina, the hashtag took off and was eventually “productized” and built into Twitter (Messina’s post on the evolution of the Twitter hashtag). (Customer beliefs + External trends)

*NOTE: The iPad example likely belongs in the very, very upper left quadrant where a visionary like Steve strongly believed in the opportunity and that was the sole driving force (eg, He believed in it and served as his own internal data). The x-axis of trends can be thought of as a continuum from the extremely internal (only 1 person knows it) to the external (everyone knows it).


Square is one-upping Apple (in receipts)

Apple & Amazon should take the time to re-do their digital receipts. The current ones are sub-par at best.

Digital receipts should communicate the two key pieces of information: 1) what did I buy and 2) how much did it cost as clearly as possible. Why not include those in the subject line?

Interested parties can follow a link to get more advanced info.

Despite the fact that I get multiple Apple and Amazon digital receipts per week I always find myself struggling to quickly locate the relevant info as I look quickly scan through them to make sure there aren’t errors.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I get a little worked up about this because I was once burned (somehow accidentally ordered 48 packs of ramen, the Land Before Time DVD and a useless book by the founder of IDEO from Amazon and only caught it by checking the receipt…).

Regardless, I think everyone could benefit if Apple & Amazon took a page out of Square’s book on this one:

Amazon’s digital receipt:

And Apple’s (getting slightly better…)

And finally, Square. Putting the above to shame:

Beauty & the push (thoughts on Path)

Everyone talks about how beautiful Path is. Instead, they should talk about how push-y it is.

Why? Because Path has 1) identified the critical mobile social channel (push notifs) and 2) executed on them like a pro (Dave Morin co-invented FB connect & understands channels well).

Here is why this is critical:

  • Morin wants to build a “slow” company (specifically a “slow” social network)
  • By Morin’s own definition this means “slow” organic install growth driven family, close friends (150 max friend limit)
  • Social networks increase in value as user base grows
  • If emphasis is truly on “slow” growth, extraordinary attention must be given to retaining the users that come in the door
  • Push notifs (PNs) are *the* critical mobile retention driver
Given the above, Path has executed very well:
  • High quantity of PN: nearly every type of user generated content (photo, thought, location, I’m with, I’m listening to) generates a PN to everyone in the user’s network. Basically, if you use Path, you generate PNs.
  • Quality of Path PNs is high. Two reasons for this 1) Path embeds user generated content into each PN (as a result you get personalized PN) and 2) length of PNs are very short
  • PN looping -> Since each user generated action creates a PN, users often create PN loops (Joe posts a thought, which sends a PN to Jill, Jill comments on it, which sends a PN to Joe, Joe comments back, which sends a PN to Jill, etc…)

Why does it matter?

  • A great PN strategy will act as a force multiplier on growth -> by dramatically altering the user retention curve for the better
  • Even low quality PN, sent at higher volume can have a material impact on app retention (think 1,000 basis points all across the retention curve)
  • Given Path’s good execution on PN, it’s likely that they are seeing retention gains in excess of 1,000 -> maybe as high as 2,000 basis points
  • This creates a material difference in daily average users (DAU) -> by D90 Path could be seeing a 500K+ incremental daily users due to their PN strategy (this is even under more conservative assumptions than a 2,000 bps difference throughout the retention curve)
  • As a result, PN strategy is likely driving an incremental ~35%+ increase in DAU

Why FB bought Instagram

Insta-book. $1B! 13 employees! 700K+ a day “salary”! Systrom! Photos! Yay! FB! OMG. LOUD VOICES!

Ok, now that Instagram madness is covered above let’s talk about why FB bought. I’m breaking down my thoughts into 2 categories: 1) Why I think FB bought and 2) how they helped justify the price tag. I should highlight that the thoughts below are mine alone and are simply an exercise in thinking how FB arrived at its 1B conclusion.

Why did fb acquire?

Instagram is a legitimate mobile force, with the results to back it up:

  • Getting mobile right is a strategic imperative for FB. Why? Mobile is where the users are moving (see slide 11 here)
  • FB doesn’t have a track record of getting mobile right (it’s got a 2-star app rating).
  • Instagram is getting mobile right. 30M downloads and a perfect 5-star rating prove that.
  • That Instagram has 13 employees is irrelevant. FB likely has 300+ super-talented people focused on mobile. Has it produced Instagram like results? No. If you’re still arguing that FB should have just hired 13 great mobile developers for 0.1% of their acquisition cost, please read the preceding 3 sentences. The results are what matter.

Photo sharing is critical to FB: 

  • FB is a social network. And by definition benefits from network effects.
  • Engaged users are engaged because user generated content continually draws them back in.
  • A massive component of that UGC is photos (FB became largest photo sharing site all the way back in 2009).
  • All of a sudden, a new photo kid is in town & growing quickly. And he understands how people share photos today (via mobile devices).


  • Google has plenty o’ cash & has signaled their intent to muscle into the social space.
  • FB is understandably concerned about the Google threat. While Google may not “understand” social the way Facebook might not “understand” mobile, big daddy G is still a veritable opponent.
  • Instagram would have given Google+ a menacing shot in the arm (new users, social networking chops, mobile networking stronghold)
  • If you’re FB, that sounds terrifying.

Given the strategic reasons above, how might have FB have justified the price?

If FB wants to monetize Instagram, they can. In a big way.

  • Instagram had roughly 30M installs at time of acquisition.
  • Assume a growth curve like below, with roughly 20% of total installs coming in the last 3 months.
  • This is what avg. daily installs might have looked like for last 2 years (forecasts err on conservative side)

Instagram likely has solid retention

  • We don’t have great data here so we’ll make some assumptions
  • Systrom spoke about “FB levels of engagement” here
  • They have an impeccable 5-star rating on the app store (correlation of app store rankings to retention is very strong)
  • We’ll assume they have D1 retention of 80% and D90 retention of 30% (meaning 90 days after install 30% of the users still use app).
This means awesome daily average user (DAU) base
  • Given their reported installs and our assumed retention patterns, Instagram’s DAU at time of acquisition is around ~2M.
  • 2M is already huge. But potential for further growth is massive.
  • Given the app’s launch on Android and overall mobile trends, it’s possible they’d hit ~7M DAU by March next year
  • (SIDE NOTE: Post acquisition facts have confirmed significant growth, 10M more in 7 days).

Let’s monetize.

But how?

  • You could argue that Zynga is an unfair comparison because games are different.
  • But consumers have an even longer history of paying for photography (digital cameras today, online space today and albums, films, disposables, polaroids in the past).
  • Regardless of the route, it seems highly plausible Instagram would be able to monetize 0.8% of DAU through some combination of added premium filters, special albums, editing features, extra space or other add ons.

What else crossed FB’s mind (the frosting on top)?

  • New data access. Semil Shah has a good explanation of some potential network mapping FB could do.
  • Recruiting top engineering talent in the valley is cutthroat. Instagram is the hip new start-up on the block. FB can sell future talent on the opportunity to work with that team. Nice bonus.
  • “Instragram for video” – I’ll wager good money either Google or FB will scoop up an Instragram for video in the next year.

Education should = Sim City

Today, Sim City 2000 came up in conversation. It is, despite all the high quality education I’ve been fortunate enough to have access to (top 100 public high school, UVA and an Ivy league grad degree), among the most important educational experiences I’ve ever had in my life.

Rounding out the top 5 would be 1) Ken Elzinga’s class on anti-trust economics 2) a 2 week geo-political simulation game I played in 7th grade history 3) Kumon math and 4) charging down the UVA lawn with a 30 ft piece of PVC tubing with 100 classmates in order to understand the heroic level of discipline required to keep a Greek phalanx together while charging at the enemy – thank you Prof Lendon. (I should note that none of these are the typical classroom experiences we routinely jam down students throats day in, day out. The closet would be Elzinga’s class, which was a socratic method class with only 15 students and Elzinga is a 3 sigma professor. So basically it’s an anomaly).

But back to Sim City 2000 and why it’s such a powerful learning device:

Tactile -> Everything was interactive. You raise taxes too high, the citizens leave. Too low, city gets over crowded and crime becomes a problem. It forced you to really think about actions & consequences.

Dynamic -> There are multiple ways to learn each lesson. Unlike a textbook which provides a static limited number of examples (say on the impact of urban development and planning), Sim 2000 would you let you learn the lesson over and over again in completely new ways.

Engaging -> Not much needed here. Sim City 2000 vs. this drab tome. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good book but students deserve better. We want them to learn, not suffer through 90 pages cramming for a mid-term.

Cheap -> $40 bucks vs. $150.

There is no doubt in my mind that Sim City 2000 was a better learning tool than ECON 301 at UVA. Unfortunately, the all in cost of the latter is probably north of $2.5K incremental cost. Sure Sim City didn’t cover everything in macro economics BUT that wasn’t the goal of the product. And even then, it did a superior job to a intermediate level economics course at a top tier university. That is sad.

Among the lessons a few hours of Sim City can hammer home are:

  • role of taxes / city finances & budgeting
  • supply & demand (enough electricity, police force, commercial business etc for citizens)
  • importance of zoning laws (particularly city layout and how proximity of heavy industry next to residential will impact real estate prices, etc)
  • importance of public services and finding the right mix for citizens
  • international trade (represented through neighboring cities)
  • importance & development cost of infrastructure (highways, subways, water, power, etc)

It makes me sad that Sim City bests ECON 301. But more importantly, it makes me hopeful that a better educational future is within our grasps. We have the tools and technology to significantly up level education. Sim City 2000 is a shining example of how we could better teach economics. And it is only scraping the surface.

I’m excited for what’s to come.

The Flipboard I want (in the future)

I love Flipboard. I’m impressed with what they’ve done so far. But I want it to be better. Overall, I want it to be killer at highlighting the best content for me with as little manual work on my part. The key things I’d love to see Flipboard do:

Be my personal shopper & curator. The President gets a daily intelligence brief, why shouldn’t Flipboard users? There is more content on three of my favorite blogs than I will ever have time for. Help me filter. Curate it more for me and tell me what to read first. If it’s a rare day where time is in abundance, I’ll keep going. But on the 99% of days when time is scarce, I’ll thank you dearly for telling me what I need to know and sending me off.

Be the newsboy of the future with push notifs: Remember when they used to shout “Extra! Extra” while clutching a group of freshly printed newspapers? I don’t, actually. But I’d love it if Flipboard took a cue from corner newsboy here. When great content (which they know I like from my browsing history and possibly Pandora style feedback loop) comes out, I want to know about it. Send me a push notification. Seriously. If good content comes out, I want to know. Push notifs, when used right, are a great experience.

Be (even) more visual. Everytime I login to Flipboard, I want an on the fly, awesome looking magazine quality cover highlighting the top stories. How awesome would that be? I know Flipboard will have great content for me but I want it to sell the dream too. If I login each day to find one great article with magnificent visual presentation that would make an indelible impression (as opposed to just being a great way to read blogs).

Nix the photos only: Why is there a “photos only” option? Seems to muddle the picture (no pun intended) of delivering on the vision of a social magazine. I’ve seen magazines with lots of pictures but never one with “only” pictures. I can suffer through my FB timeline (or numerous other apps) if only photos is what I really want. Unless the usage data suggests otherwise, I’d nix it and focus on the true magazine.

Time sensitive (bonus): Detect patterns in readership (eg tech in the morning, economics blogs at night) and use that signal for curation. Doing this well will be really difficult and it’s definitely a P2 at best.

Facebooking healthcare

According to a 2008 National Center for Health Statistics report, 38.4% of physicians report using some type of EHR. Only 4% of the total reported using fully functional systems. 4% – let that sink in. (Source:

Now, maybe I’m being harsh. Maybe I’m jumping the gun. Maybe “fully functional” is so advanced that it’s unreasonable to expect a large user base. Let’s see what “fully functional” is described as:
  • patient demographics (sounds like a facebook profile)
  • problem lists (sounds like facebook profile info)
  • clinical notes (sounds like a facebook friend’s comments)
  • medical history and followup (sounds like a record of facebook friend’s comments)
  • orders for prescriptions (sounds like ordering a virtual good on facebook)
  • orders for tests (sounds like a survey poll on facebook)
  • prescription orders sent electronically (sounds like a message sent on facebook)
  • test orders sent electronically (sounds like a message sent on facebook)
  • viewing laboratory and imaging results (sounds like uploading photos to facebook)
  • electronic images returned (sounds like uploading photos to facebook)
  • warnings of drug interactions or contraindications (sounds like a birthday reminder on facebook)
  • out-of-range test levels (sounds like a fancy term for something you could surely do on facebook)
  • reminders for guideline-based interventions (sounds like a birthday reminder on facebook)
If 99% of EHR functionality seems to be built into facebook in some form and people agree that EHR will improve medical outcomes and reduce costs (which they generally seem to), what is taking us so long?
Google health does some of this – but certainly not at all. And it seems 100% patient focused, rather than provider encouraged. Microsoft HealthVault is probably similar (I’ll post an update later, but it crashed when I tried to create a new account) – sounds like a metaphor to me.