Getting people to pay attention to you and like what they see is all part of being a great product manager. How can you ensure you're disruptive in all the right ways?

We caught up with John Fontenot, Product Manager at SwipeClock and Host of the Prodcast Podcast, to talk about his career, product philosophy and how to get people to take notice of what you're doing.

John will be speaking at the Product-Led Festival in November.

Could you take us through your product management journey?

Sure thing. I started my career in Tech as a contractor, managing software partnerships for Intel. In my role, I worked with product managers and product leaders at numerous software companies around the world. Through my interactions with them, I fell in love with what they did in their role and decided that Product is what I wanted to do for a career.

Most recruiters saw my background as more of a Sales background, even though I never sold a thing in my role with Intel. It was quite a challenge to try and change industries and roles, so I shifted gears to pursue a sales role at a software company. Since that's where my background was perceived to be, I took some advice from a mentor to at least get into the industry I wanted to be in.

I was very candid with my employer of my career aspirations, and they were supportive of my goals. I connected with one of the Sr. PMs at the time, and he mentored me for a few months until there was an opening for a UX Research position. Having a customer-facing role already, we positioned my then-current role as a great fit for someone internally who could seamlessly make that transition, especially given my desire to be in Product. From there, I took on some UX design tasks and eventually got my shot to manage my first feature release.

When one of our other PMs left the company, I was given the Associate PM title for a short stint and was able to show a quick ramp in the role. Part of the quick ramp was the two years of study, preparation, and side projects I had worked on in building products with developer friends in my free time, so I could practice applying the PM principles I had been learning in my efforts to break into Product.

After 6 months of being an APM, I was given more responsibility, a full product from our broader product suite to manage, and I was promoted to Product Manager from APM.

Now, I would say that I'm in a transitionary role. My former manager, our Group Product Manager, took on a new role, so I'm becoming more involved in longer-term strategy and owning a broader slice of our product and strategic initiatives.

It has certainly been a wild ride, but it's been an amazing journey so far.

Across your work you’ve stressed the importance of being disruptive, what’s your process for driving intentional disruptive innovation?

The children in school who get the most attention are the disruptive children. They stand out, and people pay attention to them, although it's in a negative context in this case. In the same way, but in a more positive context, when you're disruptive in your career, or when you're disruptive in your market, people pay attention because you're doing something different that makes people take notice.

It starts with that mindset of doing something differently that makes people take notice. Seth Godin said it best when he said, "Being remarkable means that you're doing something worthy of remark."

The process is the same as any other product management framework, whether Jobs-to-be-Done, Design Thinking, or Lean Startup, but to be disruptive and create disruptive innovation, you need to start with the mindset of identifying how to take the customer insights you receive and what to do with them that is different from what has been done before and that will make people stop, take notice, and talk about you.

You'll know you're on the right track when you take those insights and start testing and prototyping to validate desirability and usability. When customers or users start making those "Wow" comments and have that "Aha" moment while using the prototype, then you know you're heading in the right direction.

Sometimes you just have to look up.
Photo by Joshua Sortino / Unsplash

Your session at the Product-Led Festival is on being data-driven whilst customer-inspired. How do you define data-driven vs data-informed vs data-inspired?

Great question. It's super important to define terms.

Data-driven: You intentionally capture data that you've pre-defined as important to help answer questions around pre-defined hypotheses. That's the proactive sense.

In a reactive sense, being data-driven is looking at existing data and using it to ask "why" questions about the "what" you're looking at in the data. For example, you might see higher-than-expected churn happening in user onboarding.

If you've already set a success metric around what the acceptable churn rate should be in onboarding, then when the data shows you're not hitting that mark, it allows you to ask "why" and follow up with generative user interviews/research to figure out why so you can start to understand how to fix it.

What kind of customer feedback mechanisms do you employ at SwipeClock? And how do you determine what feedback to act on?

There are several:

1) We seek feedback from our reseller partners, both proactively and reactively as we seek out insights about the market they are selling into and from ideas or suggestions they submit to us through the tool, Aha.

2) We are starting an early access program for our Direct market so we can build a cohort of customers who can participate in early prototyping, usability tests, research, etc. We still do that, but it's more manual and ad hoc today.

3) We look at qualitative and quantitative insights from usage in our products through various tools such as Amplitude, UserTesting, and looking at using LiveSession

We put everything through a prioritization framework, primarily the RICE framework, but we anchor our prioritization around our Vision, Mission, and Goals.

On your podcast you’ve been looking at why products fail, what do you think are the main pitfalls product managers fall into when trying to launch new products and features?

The biggest takeaway from that series is that even when you think you're doing enough user research, you're not. And often it's because you're stopping the research too soon or you're not going deep enough to understand the customer well-enough or their problem well-enough.

That's why I like the Jobs-to-be-Done framework so much, because it stresses the importance of understanding the context of your customer and their problems so that you broaden your perspective around the problem. A secondary, yet related, problem is not defining the problem correctly or not framing the problem correctly.

The way to mitigate this improper problem framing is to immerse yourself into the day and life of your customer, in that context, as they experience that particular problem. There may be things going on that even the user can't articulate that you see from the outside-looking-in vantage point.

What does Product-Led Growth mean to you?

Product-led Growth, to me, means a shift away from sales-led growth. What I mean by that is there is a transformation in how an organization thinks and aligns around their growth/revenue/business/operations/marketing strategy that centers around the product.

Product-led growth forces you to focus on creating value in and around your product versus focusing on how to get more leads into your funnel and spin your features and functionality to fit the customer's expressed needs, only to see the customer churn because there was misalignment between the marketing message, the sales demo, and the reality of the product.

The user gets reality first and then sales, support, and marketing come alongside the user to guide and aid the user through their journey with your product.

And with that in mind, would you describe SwipeClock as Product-Led?

Not yet. That's the direction we're taking our company though. And we're experiencing first-hand those big, strategic shifts in both how we think and operate.

Busy night in Hanoi
Photo by Florian Wehde / Unsplash

In a previous life you’ve worked in a product marketing role… do you think the lines between product and marketing are blurring?

Absolutely. The percentage of blur depends on your company though. Some organizations don't have a true PMM function, so the Product team has to own product marketing by default. This was the case at SwipeClock for a while.

However, the PMM role also varies from company to company. Some PMMs have to think about topics that may or may not include Positioning, Pricing, Market Research, Branding, Distribution Strategy (or marketing channels), and I strongly feel that Product Managers should be involved in these discussions and there should be a tight collaboration between Product and the PMM function.

Having a marketing competency, in my opinion, is the #1 competency for a Product Manager, unless you're specifically taking on a Technical Product Manager role where an engineering/developer background would probably be more beneficial.

But PMs have to understand a little bit of everything: Marketing, Engineering, Design/UX, Research, Data Analysis, Finance, Sales, etc. The more you understand the other departments in your organization, their objectives, and their challenges, the more effective you'll be.

This year, you launched the Prodcast Podcast to help inform and inspire other PMs… Knowing what you know now what do you wish you’d been told at the start of your career?

At the start of my career in general, I wish I would have been told by someone senior to not let my age hold me back from what I was capable of. If I could add value somewhere, regardless if it was in my role/function/department or not, do it.

Don't be tied to your job description if you could add value outside of it. I still practice that to this day.

In my PM career, always be learning, but be strategic about what you learn. Learn about topics that you can apply right away, as well as topics that prepare you for your next step up in your career and try to apply those as well to show that you're ready for your next step.

Don't wait to become a Senior PM or PM Leader before you start acting like one. What I mean by that is, if you're not a PM leader today, then find out what competencies you need to develop to become one, if that's your career objective.

Then take what you've learned and apply it in a way to where your current PM leader sees you as a partner and someone they can delegate to. Prove it before you have to, in every step of your career.