Respecting the Craft

A lot of baseball fans have the knuckleball fantasy--particularly guys like me who are over 30 that realize that this quirky pitch is their last ticket to play in the major leagues.  We never developed the 98mph fastball--and it's unlikely that any amount of pounding a vat full of rice is going to get us there.  Yet, there's always the possibilty that Charlie Hough or Tom Candiotti randomly moves in next door to us and agrees to soft toss some floaters every night for six months until we pick it up.

That's because we like to think of ourselves as just a tiny bit of focus away from greatness--when, in reality, it takes years and years of hard work to become proficient at something.  We underappreciate what it takes to really excel at a craft--especially in areas that we see all the time and others appear to have some natural talent for it.  This happens especially in sales and product design.

It's easy to think that some people are born to be great salespeople.  They're outgoing and present well.  They communicate effectively and seem to have a way with people.  What people don't realize is that sales is a science.  It takes a lot of hard work and serious study.  You have to filter your prospects, know your product, and understand your customer.  There are techniques you can learn and things you can practice.  Even the best salespeople who have been doing it for 15 years work on ways to get better--so to think that because you can speak in front of a room, you can accel at sales, is really delusional. 

It's very much the same thing with product management--and I'm guilty of that myself.  I have the occasional brilliant product insight--usually mixed in with a whole bunch of horrific ones--but that doesn't mean I'm skilled at the discipline of product management.  I was the founder who spent Tuesday afternoons and my rare spare time thinking about product in the midst of 80 other things I had to do and didn't realize how harmful I was to that process.  It's not that I wasn't smart or didn't have good vision.  Product is a fulltime job and a craft people train hard for to be good at.  There's a reason why people use product management processes, go to school for human computer interaction on the UX side, and ways of really getting the most out of your vision.  To not hand this process over to someone with real product and design experience to own it if you can is to disrespect the fact that it is, in fact, a discipline and a craft.

Take this note I got from a recent grad:

"In my senior year I took a class on start ups... We broke up into real life startup groups and learned the importance of knowing our customers' pains and wants, experimenting, pitching, hiring, and met some of the biggest... founders every week. We found that we had an almost innate ability to envision what would be a great design for a site, and how to incentivize users to join it."

Too many people feel like they have this innate ability without ever having been trained in the craft.  Lots of people think they're great product people until they see a real product person work on product management and design.  That's how I felt after having done nextNY's product management school (which we'll definitely do again). 

You're smart and at a startup, you'll have to wear a lot of hats.  If you pick one, just realize how much less experienced you are than the expert who has been doing this.  Strive to learn from them if you can't hire them outright.  Its fine if you have to do a little bit of everything, but the second you think you're good at it or have a knack for it without any training, you're dead.