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How to Create a Winning Product Strategy: Defining Your ‘Why’ With FirstMark VC Catherine Ulrich

By: brunchwork

How to Create a Winning Product Strategy: Defining Your ‘Why’ With FirstMark VC Catherine Ulrich

Anyone can come up with an idea for a new product. But what determines if that product will be successful? How can you know for sure if anyone will actually want to buy it?

According to Catherine Ulrich, managing director at FirstMark Capital (a top venture capital firm in New York City) you must have a vision for the what, how, and why of your product. As the former chief product officer (CPO) at both Weight Watchers and Shutterstock, Ulrich has unique insight into how to develop a product strategy that will sell.


What is the traditional approach to product strategy?

Everyone usually starts with the “what.” They figure out what their product will do for the customer. Then, they move one level up and figure out how the product’s going to do that. That’s the basis of Clay Christensen’s “Jobs to Be Done” framework, which I’m a big fan of.


How do you approach developing a product strategy?

I took Clay’s framework and added the top level—the “why.” You have to think about the “why” from the beginning. Take a step back and say, “What’s the real ‘why’ driving my product?” It all comes down to core human needs—basic things like social acceptance and feeling significant. When you figure out what human core need you’re driving toward, your result is much more powerful.


How do you find the “why”?

Some “whys” are universal. It could be the scarcest resource your customer has—time, money, or energy. Or, it could relate to one of the six core human needs: certainty, variety, contribution, significance, growth, and love and connection. Another example is the seven deadly sins. For example, by preying on laziness, companies like Instacart are targeting the deadly sin of sloth.

Talk to your customers. Try to get the real human answer, not the corporate one, for why they use a product. What’s their true need for it? What’s missing from it? What changes would make it better for them?


How do you get the real human answer during a customer interview?

My biggest strategy is actually dropping an F-bomb at some point during a customer interview. (And no, I don’t go around swearing all the time.) I’ll be doing the interview, and I can tell by my interviewee’s body language that they’re just kind of answering my questions…so I drop an F-bomb.

Take this example. You’re shadowing someone’s job and you say, “Okay, Sally. What’s the part of your job you f*cking hate?” And she’s like, “Oh, well in my workflow, it takes me six hours to do this and I have to open five tabs. It’s just annoying.” She’ll give you the real answer and you can tell with body language if someone’s talking from their heart versus their head. And that’s how you figure out your why.


At FirstMark, how do you decide which products are worth investing in?

For any product, we first produce a one-page assessment. It includes the target customer, what need you’re solving for them, what the product includes, the revenue model, and so forth. If the product gets past this initial stage, we put it into a product brief where you write it all out and have people read it. Then, you have everyone who read it come to a meeting to debate it and whether or not it should be invested in.

By using Ulrich’s advice to develop a compelling product strategy and vision, you’ll have deeper insight into how to make your product successful—and convince others of that potential, too. And remember: The  “why” behind your product is the most crucial piece of information.


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This interview was conducted by Aastha Jain and condensed by Abby Wolfe.

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