Three Fundamentals of a Winning B2B SaaS Offering

For a new SaaS product, it is important to have a robust MVP (minimum viable product). To create the MVP, you need to make sure that there is good coverage of a few areas, and reasonable coverage of fundamental user or buyer needs. The product team has to make several critical decisions to prioritize features in the MVP.

However, all great SaaS products cover the following three areas very well.
Three fundamentals of a winning SaaS offering

The business features to be monetized

A client will buy your product for their employees or users. To buy the product, a minimum set of business features are a must. These are the features that either offer parity with existing products or differentiate your offering from other products. Occasionally, certain CX or integrations capabilities are also described as differentiating business features. Salesforce Lightning Platform is one such example.
 Clients use this as the first basis of comparison (in different packages or payment models) with other products when buying a subscription.

 A robust cloud platform 

The platform is the key to supporting business, regulatory and user needs. A good cloud platform is infrastructure agnostic, and can support security and compliance needs, data movements and user life cycle at scale. It offers easy integration with existing IT infrastructure and simplifies the life of the application administrator. Architects and product owners must work with business product managers to ensure that the cloud platform can be built quickly and in increments.

Vertical or department specific features or rules

These are the domain specific business features that impact the usage of the SaaS offering in a vertical. Offering such features out of the box, is a distinct advantage compared to products that require significant configuration.
For example, a business may require configuration to prevent store employees from logging in outside working hours. If your application has a configuration screen to enable this, and easily set working hours, then that is a big plus for your user experience.

If your SaaS offering covers these 3 areas, then you can be confident that your clients are getting value from the MVP as it is enhanced.

SaaS Product Management – 5 Key Changes

(This post is intended for senior audiences)

There is a well known diagram of a software stack that describes the differences between SaaS, PaaS, IaaS and on-premise deployments. Among other places, you can see it on Microsoft's Azure Learning site and on BMC's blog site. I have modified it a bit to show the role of business product managers in SaaS applications.

Looking at the diagram below from left to right, you can see how business cost and value for the customer is shifted from owning to renting, or Cap-ex to Op-ex. Additionally, in SaaS, the only experience layer the client's users interact with is the application layer. And given the tiny footprint of the rented SaaS application, clients can no longer access the remaining layers.

However, every client still has business requirements that must be addressed, including Security, Standards Compliance, Availability and Business Capability. So, for product managers and directors looking to deliver business value from features and capabilities, here are 5 changes to keep in mind:

  • Customer Journey and User Experience(UX) is paramount

 The user experience of your SaaS application is bench-marked against every other web property. It is no longer possible to have navigation that is broken, or clicks that go nowhere. For a consistent user experience, use UX templates. Customer journeys must be created and designed for the smoothest user experience assuming that every touch point is accessible in real time.
  • Real time interactions are key

Because user engagement must be similar to the web or mobile app experience, it is important to have real-time feedback for every action. A wizard or widget must actively engage a user, let him complete his task and show feedback. At the same time,features related to real time user to user interaction, such as a chat widget or an IM become important even for SaaS applications. These are in turn managed either by the application support team, by the service provider, or by a 3rd party vendor. Product managers must consider how to handle and prioritize such features.
  • User privacy and security require new features or extra efforts

With SaaS, you are essentially handing over all data and meta-data about your company and employees, vendors and users to the service provider. Consequently, system architects managing the complete stack will figure out a solution to meet business and compliance requirements. This depends on the application's security posture, and time and investment planned for compliance and risk management. This activity either leads to backlog requests for adding new features related to privacy and security to your bucket, or it leads to investing time and resources to make sure that your features are compliant with the final architecture.
  • Internal teams are critical to deliver high application C-SAT

As a PM, you are pretty much looking at the top layer of the cloud stack. However, internal teams such as delivery, support, training, pre-sales, marketing will also have their own application stacks, without or without access to a live customer deployment. If as a PM you do not include features to make their work life easier (e.g. delegate access to customer environment) it will impact their capabilities on the application, which will hit your C-SAT objectives.
  • Agile development is commonplace, so are Product Owners

So you talked to dozens of key clients, identified all top features and prioritized the business requirements. This is no longer the end of the product specifications handover to engineering. 
You must breakdown the requirements into technical specifications and continuously track their delivery into the cloud application. With a CI/CD pipeline, the Product Owner takes care of this aspect of inward product management. However, the product manager still owns the UX and customer feedback. Net result, it is common place to find both roles in a cloud organization, with the PO reporting to a PM or a Director.

Strategic Business Unit - On-premise or Traditional vs. Cloud Based

Here are two organizational charts that indicate how product business units have evolved in line with business strategy. [These organizational charts are based on conversations with clients and people in the industry, but do not represent any actual business unit]

The cloud business unit is mainly about the product

The traditional business unit was about the complete Marketing Mix, including the 4 Ps or sometimes the 7Ps.

This change has also impacted the way other departments now engage with the new SBU structure. Some points to note:

1. Finance, HR, Ops are usually centralized functions in a cloud SBU
2. Service delivery, configuration, customization, support, integration and other monetization possibilities have changed dramatically in the cloud. It is no longer possible to have year long delays in installation and configuration contracts, which did occur in on-premise installations. These teams now get fixed contracts and upgrades occur automatically.

3. Subscription pricing is very different from pricing for on-premise or app type products. Unless you are very careful in your pricing models, it is easy to occur losses. In fact, pricing is also getting centralized and moved under finance or corporate strategy teams.
4. Marketing is another function impacted significantly, with SEO/SEM gaining a big share of marketing spend.

In my next post, we will see how these, and other changes, have impacted the role of Product Manager and the Director, PM.

Happy New Year 2019

Happy New Year to everyone.
Last year saw a lot of changes in the Indian product space. If you have been following the news sites, you will know about many of them.

Some big highlights from the e-commerce space
  • The government has finally tightened norms on various practices followed by e-commerce firms.
  • Multi-billion dollar valued Ola has actually invested in another mobility startup Vogo. This is surprising considering that Ola is actually large enough and capable enough to launch their own business unit in this space.
  • And the online delivery space has seen a lot of action from investors, which included Swiggy's $1 billion funding.
Accordingly, hiring in the technology industry has also picked up, with a lot of movement at both senior and junior levels. Bangalore remains a perennial favorite, but Pune, Hyderabad and Gurgaon are not far behind when it comes to people's preferences.

In addition, the B2B software space has finally matured, with a lot of new firms focusing only on the cloud based services, for all departments in an enterprise, from finance to sales to marketing to HR and customer service. It is not difficult to find many new ventures or existing firms that have done well in this space. And I cannot recall many firms that are still doing packaged on-premise software for clients.

The consumer internet space has also exploded, there are a lot of exciting new ventures. These startups are exploring business models, technologies (IoT, Blockchain, Gaming, Reality TV) delivery mechanisms (app only) without losing the focus from a scalable revenue model. India has become an exciting destination for new ventures and finally there is some focus on innovation as well, rather than the traditional IT outsourcing (which has also matured significantly).

Here's hoping for a fantastic 2019!!

Engaging the Cloud Organization for Successful B2B Application Delivery

[In this post, I identify various cloud stakeholders vital for successful application deployments]

A product manager/owner is typically responsible for the functional specifications developed by the engineering teams. However, for cloud deployments, one should also consider the non-functional requirements (scale, security, data confidentiality & isolation etc.) that can impact the use cases offered, as well as the business, financial and legal requirements of offering the product and services in different environments globally.

For an organization running its own cloud operations, there will be someone covering the following functions:
  • Cloud architecture (the people who define what containers, servers and API contracts are available for any application)
  • Cloud ops (the team that runs the cloud, including storage, network and compute)
  • Cloud security (the team that defines the standardized security offered within the cloud)
  • Cloud application support (the team that interacts with customers and users who face problems)
  • Cloud delivery (the team that configures multiple applications within the cloud for a specific enterprise customer)
  • App customization and development (the team that creates plug-ins, extensions and enhancements specific to a customer)
  • App integration (the team that makes sure data flow is managed as per requirements and for compliance needs, between various applications)

Sometimes the last 3 capabilities may be covered by service delivery teams via paid engagements. And in smaller firms, these teams can be outsourced, distributed or merged with other cloud teams.

For the success of your application, it is important to make sure that these customer-facing and operational teams are successful in their tasks. So apart from regular engineering interactions, you may also have to allocate time and resources to engage these stakeholders.

Always keep the following points in mind:
  1. These cloud teams are supporting your application, and there is a symbiotic relationship between development and cloud teams. Do not underestimate their significance.
  2. Application architecture is very different from cloud-based deployment architecture. Listen to your cloud architects and mediate between architect teams as required. If the cloud supports multiple products, your cloud architects may rule.
  3. If you have a team of product owners reporting to you, keep at least one PO focused on cloud platform requirements. From time to time, these requirements can impact your backlog, leading to delays in delivery.
  4. Keep demoing your application to all these stakeholders. Sometimes it can be via hands-on access in a sandbox, but you can also hold a brown bag session to explain new features or enhancements.
  5. Whenever possible, keep sharing customer feedback with the cloud teams. With their focus on ops, up-time, performance etc. they sometimes miss the point of why the cloud exists in the first place.

Building A Product Timeline - Useful slides available for download

As a product manager, you will have to make presentations that indicate timelines, progress, status, resource utilization etc. Unless your firm has a standardized template for these, making such slides gets tiresome.

While there is never a perfect timeline slide for all occasions, I have created the attached template, that can be useful on many occasions. There are 3 slides in this template, that can be used in different ways. Feel free to modify or use them in any way. Tip: The long term monthly slide is useful for communicating with senior management, to show the big picture.

Annual slide with months

This slide is useful when you want to show a long term roadmap with key milestones called out. This is typically used for marketing, or for summary presentations to senior management. For example, you can use this slide to show when the product concept will be defined, engineering specs delivered, marketing tasks completed and the new version released over 18 months. If you want to add more details, then you would add rows indicating different people or departments where these milestones will occur.

Monthly slide with weeks

Sometimes, you have to show the weekly progress being made towards internal milestones. This slide is typically used when you want to show when each feature is being released. The attached slide shows a timeline over 3 months, and is formatted for the 52 week calendar year. Again, if you want to provide more details, add rows of data for the audience.

Daily progress in a month

This slide is useful for showing tasks to be completed within a month. You can show each day, and exclude weekdays, while indicating when each task is to be completed, using icons from slide1. I have used such slides to show the cross-functional deliverables for a product, when there is a tight deadline to be met. Apart from this, you can also color holidays or internal "dead" days.

So will you ever use all these slides in a single presentation? Unlikely, as these are meant for different audience.