How a Trip to the Mall Helped Me Launch a New Product

A product manager’s life is never easy.  When you’re running product for a startup, life can be even more tricky.  On one hand, there are likely dozens, if not hundreds, of new features and products that are already queued up which you’d love to launch.  Yet, at the same time, you know in your heart that it’s critical to get real customer input throughout the process.  The reality is that even if you were to get to the very end of your product/feature wish-list queue – the information that you were basing that specific product/feature off of is already outdated.

Currently, I serve as the President of Movable – a B2B platform that inspires groups to move more.  We have our own line of fitness activity trackers (Movband 2 and Movband 3) and our own Dashboard that is designed specifically for groups.  Like many other startups, we run a fairly lean ship.  Everybody is busy, and we all wear many hats. 

Late last winter, we had just received a new batch of prototypes for our newest product, Movband 3.  Yet, we had some critical decisions to make about the product.  What color wristband should be included out of the box?  Did it need to be thinner than the prototype wristband we received?  Would users even want to wear the product on their wrist?  Or would it be more comfortable on their hip?

We could spend tens of thousands of dollars and several months to work with a  research firm to help us answer these questions.  But we’re a startup company.  We have sales forecasts to hit – and a budget to stay within.  Yet, I didn’t feel comfortable just making these decisions at random.  Even our talented Creative Director would be making a guess (albeit, probably a more educated guess than I could make).  Something wasn’t sitting quite right with me.

So I went to the mall.  Sort of.

Employees of large enterprise-organizations represented one of our larger customer segments for Movband 3.  It just so happened that around noon each day, hundreds of these employees congregate in one of the handful of food courts that are spread out within Downtown Cleveland, Ohio – just a short drive from our suburban office.  I had a crazy thought.  What if we were to just “crash the food court” and put our prototypes in the hands of these employees – and simply ask them a few questions? 

No doubt, my suggestion resulted in some eye-rolling and smirks around the office.  More than a couple of my colleagues suggested that if I didn’t get kicked out, most people would surely give me the cold shoulder.  Yet, nobody could find a good reason why we shouldn’t at least try.  So, try we did. 

The result?  Two of us went to that mall during lunch armed with a handful of prototypes and a moleskin notebook.  Within 90 minutes, we had come across over 20 people who fell right in our target customer demographic who were not only willing to talk to us, but seemed excited to provide feedback.  That feedback that we received helped us make the call on a couple of urgent open questions. 

Did we make the right call?  Was the feedback we received quantitative enough to be statistically significant?

Who knows.  But what I do know is that the decisions we made weren’t just pure guesses and “gut feels.”  We took what we learned by talking to real people and combined it with some of our own internal instincts.  It’s yet to be seen whether we made the right call, as we’re early into our launch, but as a product leader, I’m much more confident in the decisions we made as a result.

Do you have some questions that need answered about your product?  Have you been struggling with which route to go?  Depending on your product, perhaps a visit to the mall (or the park, or a café, etc) might help.  

If you’re interested in meeting other like-minded product people and learning from product leaders like Nir Eyal, Trevor Owens, Mina Radhakrishnan and others, you should meet me at Industry 2015.  We’ll be spending 2 days focused on “product” in my hometown and heart of the “Rust Belt Revival”, Cleveland, Ohio.

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Mike Belsito
Mike Belsito is a startup product and business developer who loves creating something from nothing. Mike is the Co-Founder of Product Collective which organizes INDUSTRY, one of the largest product management summits anywhere in the world. For his leadership at Product Collective, Mike was named one of the Top 40 influencers in the field of Product Management. Mike also serves as a Faculty member of Case Western Reserve University in the department of Design and Innovation, and is Co-Host of one of the top startup podcasts online, Rocketship.FM. Prior to Product Collective, Mike spent the past 12 years in startup companies as an early employee, Co-Founder, and Executive. Mike's businesses and products have been featured in national media outlets such as the New York Times, The Atlantic, CNN, NPR, and elsewhere. Mike is also the Author of Startup Seed Funding for the Rest of us, one of the top startup books on Amazon.