squirrel in a tree
PHOTO: Joakim Honkasalo

It’s not news that we’re more connected to more devices than ever before and that we’re spending more time on them in every conceivable circumstance. In fact, we might love our connection to social networks and apps too much.

But leaps in technology alone don’t explain how deeply the software industry has changed the relationships between businesses and customers. Customers have come to expect rapid-fire innovation, greater personalization and real-time responsiveness.

Ten years ago, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg famously urged his team to “move fast and break things.” Now that his company has grown up, he has pulled back from the “breaking” part, but the drive to be agile remains essential.

Speed and adaptation are now the keys to success in nearly every corner of every market, not just in tech and software-as-a-service (SaaS). Where better to find inspiration than the same industry that nurtured these new customer expectations in the first place?

The strategic role of product managers — and how they conceive, develop and market products and services — is a great example.

Consider this: Despite the pop culture image of an industry ruled by hotshot developers, the biggest salaries in Silicon Valley don’t go to designers or software engineers. According to the online hiring platform Hired, product managers lead the pack.

Will It Play in Peoria?

Product managers aren’t in demand only at tech firms. Nearly every company is becoming a technology company to some extent. Agile, analytics-driven SaaS-style product management has spread throughout all sorts of businesses, not just those selling software. It’s being driven by a need to implement analytics-based frameworks that help a business align with what customers really desire — or may desire tomorrow.

Fast fashion is one of those fresh new paradigms. The hidebound “rag trade” is being revolutionized by big data and streaming analytics, as the need to analyze real-time data and implement on-the-fly improvements and adjustments is now vital, whether it’s for designing new lines, optimizing a global supply chain or refining the in-store or ecommerce experience.

In the music business, streaming services catering to each user’s tastes, whether eclectic or relentlessly MOR, have replaced physical record sales or direct downloads as the top source of revenue for record labels. One upside is that, thanks to streaming, the music industry is seeing growth for the first time since 1999.

Take a look at this job description for the open position of “product manager, demand management integrated business planning” at Nike Technology, and you’ll see exactly what I mean:

“Nike Technology designs, creates and implements the methods and tools needed to make the world’s largest sports brand run faster, smarter and more securely. Global technology teams aggressively innovate the solutions needed to help employees navigate Nike’s rapidly evolving landscape. From infrastructure to security and supply chain operations, technology specialists drive growth through top-flight hardware, software and enterprise applications. Simply put, without Nike Technology, there are no Nike products.”

And that was only one of 201 U.S.-based product manager jobs Nike had posted on LinkedIn when I last looked.

Related Article: Today's Product Managers Know Who's the Boss: Customers

Driving Disruption — Literally

Another sector where companies are finding there’s profit in disruption — in rapidly testing and polishing product concepts or features, even after the sale? The automobile industry.

Tesla led the way, of course. Over-the-air updates to a car’s operating system and feature set? Nobody in Detroit would have pitched an idea like that, but Tesla made it a point of pride (and public relations) to shrug off the old ways of doing things. The idea has proved practical, giving Tesla a unique leg up on other carmakers, which are now desperately promoting their own abilities to electrify the market.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, teams at the tech industry’s SaaS businesses ought to be blushing. Volvo, for example, was among the earliest to market with a subscription business model, and now carmakers like Mercedes, Porsche and Cadillac are thinking about following suit.

Volvo’s Care by Volvo program bundles the buyer’s car payment along with maintenance, tire and wheel damage protection, wear and tear replacement of wiper blades and brake pads, 24-hour roadside assistance, and even insurance into a single monthly payment, with no upfront money down. Plus, after just one year of ownership, Volvo gives subscribers the option of upgrading to a new car.

Volvo’s offering shows that it understands how its customers’ expectations have changed. The company has embraced Silicon Valley-style product thinking and applied it toward disrupting a traditional business model. A new generation of customers is accustomed to buying or swapping out devices or making upgrades on their terms. That’s why auto execs have pointedly compared the subscription model of car ownership to being “just like getting a smartphone.”

And it doesn’t seem to be a stretch to say that tech-style product management will continue to grow in importance in the auto industry with the rise of driverless cars and so-called smart roads.

Related Article: Agile, Kanban & Scrum, Oh My: Which Product Management Method Is Right For You?

So You Want to Be a Product Manager?

It’s not an exaggeration to say that anyone aspiring to be a product manager has more options than ever before. Enterprises of all types, from widget manufacturers to packaged goods corporations to cities striving to enact digital government, are faced with a need for the right people to implement agile processes.

These three key facets of SaaS product management — strategy, execution and user understanding — are now mission-critical for all of those organizations. The responsibilities that fall to their product managers will be very similar to those of product managers at tech companies, and they will include the following:

  • Taking action to minimize customer acquisition costs (CAC) and retaining customers.
  • Figuring out how to maximize customer lifetime value (CLTV).
  • Optimizing time to market, because competition and customer expectations will never stop escalating.

Businesses aren’t just looking to the tech world for inspiration. They’re using the tech industry’s approach to product management as a template for transformation. And they’re adopting product thinking in hopes of becoming smarter, more transparent and more customer-centric enterprises.

It worked for Silicon Valley. And it looks like it’s going to work in places like Peoria, too.