Your Job Is To Delight Customers In Hard To Copy Margin-Enhancing Ways

Gibson Biddle
Former Product VP of Netflix

  • Mr. Biddle, how did you become a Product Manager?

Oh it's like a wild and winding path, my friend!

I wanted to be involved in a creative industry so I started in the mailroom in an ad agency and then i became a marketing person, went to business school.

I joined Electronic Arts in 1991 as a marketing person, but what I was really interested in is building stuff, so within EA I switched from marketing into product and became an associate producer and I loved it! Electronic arts actually used the term “Producer” because they were borrowing Hollywood industry terms!

Back then “Product Management” was kind of a term from consumer packaged goods like Keebler or General Mills uh and I kind of think that Intuit borrowed that phrase and started experimenting with sort of the way we think about modern product management today.

Now I have a strong notion of what product management means and it's usually within the context of technology products which is really what I've been focused on the last couple of decades.

  • How has your philosophy evolved over the course of your career?

At the beginning, I was just trying to learn how to build stuff, like getting engineers, designers and data scientists working together, but I did some spectacularly wrong things!

I learned about how important it was to carefully sort of market and package and position your ideas so they would be relevant to your customers or folks that use your stuff.

The first successful startup I built was a learning company called Creative Wonders. We sold it to Mattel (a learning company as well), which was a disaster.

The big learning for me was it's not enough just to build products that delight but also products that are hard to copy and back then we had failed to create hard-to-copy advantages.

In Netflix, I used to say “Your job is to delight customers in hard to copy margin-enhancing ways”. There I also learned a lot about what I call Consumer Science. The idea is that you can pretty much A/B test anything!

In the 90s the best you could do was talk to customers and qualitative or focus groups or do surveys. So it was way cool by 2005 to be able to A/B test anything.

“Let's test it and see what works or doesn't!”

  • Do you have any Product Management hacks to share?

I had one hack actually. Didn't realize it until I stopped working.

Last five years I did something called ‘Topic De Cement’, which is my bad French for “topic of the week”. Every Friday morning at nine I would consciously teach something to my team. I love teaching and it turned out that that act of hustling on a Thursday night to figure out what the hell I would say about designing, executing, analyzing or A/B testing for instance, forced me to learn.

Another hack is you have to stay close to the work. I often had to do the job of one of the “Swim Lanes” I call them, because it was a new one and I hadn't hired someone yet or somebody had left, but that kept me closer to the work and understanding. Think of it as almost a player-coach role. You know early in my career somebody gave me bad advice “As you as you grow up the details are less and less important” and you know in the modern era you're expected to be able to both think and to understand the execution so that player-coach role was pretty helpful to me.

  • Was there anything you intentionally decided to keep doing even though it couldn’t scale?

We all have different sorts of superpowers and I relied heavily on qualitative research trying to develop consumer insights by really trying to get the voice of the customer in the head, spending time with customers and focus groups.

They gave me lots of great ideas and that's not scalable, but I kept doing it persistently and consistently. I would even live stream videos of consumer research folks talking to Netflix customers in providence Rhode Island for instance.

I just found it was super important to me to have that constant touchpoint of the voice of the customer.

  • What does the future of Product Management look like?

if I think about the trends in the last 10 or 20 years i mentioned one of those, which is how important and how amazing this notion of Consumer science is, which is you can form a hypothesis, you can figure out ways to experiment with those ideas in an A/B test and then you can analyze the results.

So my guess is it will continue to get much more discipline from a data point of view, but the good news in all of this is we still will require human judgment.

I've looked at lots of A/B test results and there are a number of instances where all of the data says you should choose “A”, but then there are some higher-order things you know that actually cause you to choose “B” and do the right thing.

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