Product Development From Start to Forever

By Stefanos Metaxas, ZX Ventures Global Product Manager

Giving customers what they want isn’t important just in tech, but in industries ranging from consumer goods to hospitality. Product managers must constantly innovate to surprise and satisfy their customers. But how do we actually develop those products from ideation to launch and beyond? The tech industry has created an excellent process for innovative product development, but it’s surprisingly rare to hear a straightforward and helpful description of it. That can be frustrating as a new product manager, when all you want is a step-by-step guide on how to get started.

Below is a high-level outline of what works best for my team at ZX Ventures. This cuts through the fluff often found in tech articles explaining product development.

Identify a hypothesis for a user problem. What problems are people having? I identify problems in a variety of ways. For example, I may have a personal frustration in my daily life that I’m sure other people share. Analyzing disruptable industries and their sticking points can suggest new approaches. To generate ideas, I’ve often interviewed prospective users about product frustrations in their personal or professional lives. One example might be that pet-owners want to know if there are any GMOs in the packaged foods they buy for their furry friends.

Test the user problem hypothesis. Is the problem we identified one that other people care about? I use a combination of continued interviews, larger surveys, analysis of existing market research and data, and a low-cost signup form or landing page to test customer response to my hypothesis. Based on the results, I either go back to step one and try again or continue with the product development. In our pet-owner example, I might post a questionnaire to online communities of pet owners and people in the pet food industry. I can also create a landing page with an email signup explaining what I want to develop and advertise that through Facebook to gauge interest.

Design the minimum viable product (MVP). What is the MVP that will fulfill the user problem I’ve identified? I assemble my entire team as well as trusted advisors to brainstorm features that together will solve the user problem. Our team uses Jeff Patton’s book, User Story Mapping, as a guide for product feature development. All stakeholders should walk away in agreement on what features the MVP will use to solve the user problem. In our example, that might include the ability to scan barcodes and view a warning if the product contains GMOs.

Kick off development sprints. Focusing their efforts in agreed-upon sprint periods (e.g., two weeks), developers work on the back end to support the features identified in the mapping exercise. The design team creates wireframes that lay out those features and surveys potential users for their input. They then develop the full user experience (UX) based on iterative feedback from potential users. Once the UX is working, the developers implement it, and the designers move on to the next features.

Launch, gather feedback, and repeat. As soon as the MVP is ready, we launch it and collect feedback about its functionality. We use feedback to constantly evolve and improve the product with new features and refinements. Before we introduce or update a product or a feature, we always make sure we have metrics in place to measure its success. That way, the development continues, and the product grows! In our example, it could start as a simple scanning app, but could soon become a platform to order non-GMO pet food online or even open physical stores one day.

This process has worked to keep my team at ZX Ventures continually innovating and creating products that meet real customer needs and solve real problems. I hope it helps you as well, regardless of the industry you work in.

The compounding potency of unrelenting urgency

By Lex Solit

Imagine a corporate world where every employee attacked each project and each meeting with the urgency of Jack Bauer in 24.  While I prefer positive zeal to never-ending apocalypse-prevention, there is no denying that sustained urgency is a “top 5” source of competitive advantage.

Weightlifting is a great metaphor for business, in that once you work yourself into a certain condition, what was once an excruciating push can become “light work”.

Allow me to briefly expound on how I define urgency, crystallize the nature of its dividends, and lastly, share some thoughts on how to harness the power of urgency in a positive and engaging way in one’s organization.

What is urgency in a business context?

When people think of “urgency,” they often think of short sprints or fire drills. Every role or team has defined peaks when key outcomes are finalized or deliverables are handed up the chain. Urgency is all about turning on the after-burner when that big report is due for the big boss.

There are two flaws to this mindset. The first is that when you focus your idea of “peak performance” only on “peaks,” you miss optimizing impact on the 85% of non-peak times. Urgency, properly applied, is briskly jogging the whole marathon. The second is that “peak” periods are often cascaded down from more senior levels, meaning the “urgent spike” approach is a reactive response to an extrinsic demand. Urgency, properly applied, is like the joyously furious offense of Allen Iverson decimating the Lakers in Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals – it is an intrinsic desire of an individual team member to make each play count.  

Why is it so important?

The simple math of compounding returns. The results of an organization are a function of the aggregated actions of each employee in each second. Thinking in the speed/quality/cost framework, urgency, properly applied, can directly translate to increased speed with negligible (or limited) offsets. 

In my business (restaurants/retail), one of the biggest barriers to growth is the cycle time of expansion. The time it takes to find locations, negotiate with landlords, get permits, construct a place, and hire people necessitates an almost masochistic passion for the end product (which I fortunately - or unfortunately- have).

The most complex retail format I operate is the brewpub. Think 13K square feet, 250+ seats, a brewery on site. They are knarly but beautiful beasts.  The normal cycle time (end to end) for a project is 18 to 24 months. My team was able to open 4 brewpubs in 4 different countries in 10 months – doubling the speed of established operators while building a team from scratch. I’ll talk more about how we accomplished this in a future post, but just think about the value created by “getting in the game” one year sooner: the money, the learnings, the market presence, the people and infrastructure on which to build the next wave.   

How do you create/harness urgency?

As one of my recent hires astutely told me, “culture is just the way we do things”. Any leader in any organization has the opportunity and responsibility to shape the culture, like when Kanye dropped the Yeezy 2's.

1.)    Crank dat galvanizing mission

Few will stroll downhill to nowhere, many will sprint uphill for a pot of gold. To arm your troops with that “battery in the back”, I suggest framing the mission not just at the company level, but also at the team, project, and “quick sprint” level. There is glory to be had in the gargantuan and in the granular, and shortening cycle times between “accomplished missions” helps create the right dynamic. 

2.)    Grab the loose balls yourself

That leaders need to set the example is widely accepted for a reason. To create high-urgency teams, it is critical to not only expect speed from your teams, but to put pressure on yourself in a way that is visible to them. Set targets for yourself that are stretched. Commit to deadlines for specific items yourself and then show your team that you can consistently meet or exceed them.  

3.)    Coach for offense

Defense = “we have the monthly performance review, scramble and get the numbers and get me some pretty pictures!!”

Offense = “What do you believe you can achieve on this in the next 60 days? Are there any other ways you think we can drive XYZ metric? If you had to what you just said in the next 30 days, what would you need to change?    

In reality there will always be a combination of the two, but it’s all about the skew.

4.)    Remove the blockers, provide the enablers

Urgency is of no value until it turns into speed. Unblocking barriers to execution can sometimes mean streamlining decision-making processes or even re-thinking policies - where the cost exceeds the benefit. When your team sees you unblock barriers, it has both a practical and symbolic effect.

Enabling people in this context means more than autonomy and coaching – when it comes to moving really quickly, great leaders should collaborate upfront with team members to identify project-specific resources or tools that will reduce friction.  

Thanks for reading, and I welcome any thoughts or comments. Unfortunately, I must tend to some urgent business!

Our Culture in Action

Check out some recent videos from our leaders discussing culture at ZX Ventures.

René Paula, Global VP of Legal, explains why joining ZX Ventures gave him multiple opportunities for growth.

Alex Nelson, Global Head of Product, discusses pushing the boundaries with her team.

Alex Nelson, Global Head of Product, discusses the value placed on ownership across all levels at ZX Ventures.

Sergio Esteves, Global VP of Brand Experience, discusses the importance of hiring the best people and keeping our teams diverse.

Sergio Esteves, Global VP of Brand Experience, reflects on accomplishing what was deemed impossible by others.

Using Customer Feedback Loops at ZX Ventures

By Alex Nelson

In an ever-changing market, where technological advances and paradigm shifts happen daily, how do you make sure your products stay relevant? How do you stay on point when your market is an ever-evolving, moving target? At ZX Ventures, we have learned the importance of staying close to our customers and letting them drive our innovations, from the outset of a new product all the way through to its realization. Customer feedback keeps us focused on our most important goal: ensuring that our products are helpful and useful every day.

We start getting customer input at the very beginning of our product-design process. We set up initial face-to-face learning sessions with our end consumers to help us design products that they actually need and want. When we’re first launching a product, that level of in-depth customer access helps us to understand our users’ concerns. Our approach also allows us to observe our users’ current solutions so we can learn about the problems they have and why they’re dissatisfied. We then iteratively use that information to design a better product, observe our users’ trials with the new product, and get immediate user feedback on how well it works.

As we move from initial plan and design into scaling up a new tech product, we use metrics to help us keep a finger on the pulse of our customers’ use experience and to measure their overall satisfaction with our products. Net Promoter Scores are the primary metric for tracking customer satisfaction and potential business virality. We also use other metrics for tracking customer behavior, such as one-click surveys, page view counts, and search term analysis, to develop deeper business insights.

One of the easiest ways we build customer feedback loops is through traditional customer service contacts. Accessibility is the key. Online chat windows are standard practice, but we also ask, in every email or contact with our customers, for their feedback on how we’re doing. Users can respond to all of our business emails so we don’t miss out on these direct means of getting feedback! Social media comments are another straightforward way to monitor how our customers feel about our business and about our competitors. We track consumer sentiment and respond rapidly to complaints or concerns, allowing us to keep a pulse on our users. We also assemble panels of our top customers—our most loyal fans—and rely on their feedback for new business ideas.

We stay involved with customer feedback loops by making our customer service team an integral part of our organization. We want to know that our customers’ top issues are on everyone’s radar. Our product team spends time every week working directly with customer service, reading emails, chat histories, and other comments. Because our team members stay close to the customers and hear about their issues firsthand, they can be responsive to our users’ needs.

What we learn from our customer feedback loops directly influences our product strategy and our development road map. Did our competitor just launch a new feature? What are customers saying about it? How can we offer them something different and stay relevant? Making sure our customers have ways to reach out to us, and that everyone on our team hears what they’re saying and responds to it, is how we evolve with a changing marketplace.

From Clydesdales to Unicorns: Bringing a Startup to Life

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By Sergio Esteves

AB InBev prides itself on being as quick and efficient as a much smaller company. The culture is surprisingly similar to that of a nimble, young startup business—but at a tremendous scale. Still, AB InBev realized that prioritizing creativity and growth—not to mention disrupting existing practices—would be easier in a separate, compact startup. Thus, the genesis of ZX Ventures.

ZX Ventures was created to disrupt AB InBev’s core business by prioritizing different things—creativity, outside-the-box thinking, and rebuilding from the ground up. It’s hard, in a big company, to create a new way of doing things or a new business or service. Those are tasks we can focus on here.

I still think of ZX Ventures as a crazy dream, even though I’ve been working here for almost a year. We bring to life the incredible vision of our founders: to put great people to work in a tiny “think tank” and incubator environment, where we get to pursue wild ideas and experiment with small changes (and sometimes big ones), sailing uncharted waters.

I was always empowered to be creative and innovative at AB InBev, but it’s leveled up at ZX Ventures. We’re so small that we can try out a crazy idea from left-field, and if it works, that’s great. If it doesn’t, we haven’t lost much because implementation was inexpensive.  We can test out ideas without fear of failure and without needing to compete with huge brands. Maybe we’ll find some solutions that will apply to AB InBev’s core businesses, or maybe we’ll expand the market!

I like to say that we’re creating unicorns at ZX Ventures. We’re already creating magical results from our weirdest, most out-there dreams. Even I don’t know what we’ll come up with next—but that’s the advantage of running a small startup company within a large business. 

Culture at ZX Ventures: Working With the Best

By Carol Guerra

At ZX Ventures, we focus on being our best and working with the best people we can. We like to say that we hire people who are better than we are! Working with top talent makes every day exciting, helps us continually think outside the box, and gives us reason to believe that we can achieve the impossible. More concretely, though, the two primary reasons for our focus on working with the best can be described as enhancing our present and building our future.

In the present, we believe that we all learn and achieve more when we are surrounded by diverse people working in a cohesive, thoughtful group. A community of passionate, intelligent, ambitious creators can always achieve more than one individual trying to think through a problem on his or her own. When you bring the best to the table the potential for growth is limitless.

One of the keys to our creative growth is diversity. While we are an equal opportunity employer that appreciates all types of diversity, at ZX Ventures, we seek more than just beer experts but people with backgrounds in design, technology, other beverages, or the business world at large. We are looking for a diversity of personal backgrounds, nontraditional life experiences, and wide-ranging work histories. By continually pushing ourselves to find and hire the best candidates with the best skills, regardless of where they are currently working, we accomplish that diversity of thought organically, bringing us to the next level of teamwork.

And it’s not just the present that benefits from being surrounded by the best: it’s the key to our future too. We at ZX Ventures are here for the long-run and we believe in building long-term careers with our incredible people and promoting them at the pace of their own talent. This is not a short-term experiment or a limited enterprise. Having the best people on board helps us to stay ahead of the curve, predicting and adapting to future demands no matter how global markets may shift. We are here to build a better future for ourselves, for AB InBev, and for everyone the world over.

If you view yourself as one of the best of the best, check out our open positions!

What Makes Our Lawyers Unique at ZX Ventures

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By René Paula

Lawyers are usually specialists. Our profession is so broad, and so complex, that most people graduating from law school get drawn into a specialty early on and stay within that narrow topic most, if not all, of their careers. I was lucky enough to start working for a law firm that emphasized the opposite: learning how to do everything. There I learned to be a generalist, and it’s an approach we continue with our legal staff here at ZX Ventures.

Whether it’s by nature or training, lawyers tend to be conservative people who like to learn everything about a topic before reasoning their way to an answer. At ZX Ventures, we operate a bit differently. I like to find people who are business-oriented, especially those with a background in consumer products, and who can focus on getting things done quickly. Specifically, our attorneys are comfortable operating with incomplete information, can handle any business issue that arises, and can work in the “mosh pit” that is ZX Ventures.

The first key to what sets our attorneys apart is that they are, or learn to be, comfortable with ambiguity. As lawyers, we are trained to solve problems, often through analyzing mountains of data and research. Here at ZX Ventures, though, we operate at such a pace that making decisions with ambiguous information is usually necessary. Of course, details are properly attended to, and decisions aren’t reached recklessly, but we are adept at making quick judgment calls based on solid experience with business operations. This is aided by bringing on attorneys who have worked in similar businesses, particularly with physical products. The physical world is messy—products have expiration dates; they must be produced, packaged, stored, and shipped; and businesses must stock and distribute them safely. We understand the headaches of consumer products and know how to avoid most problems in advance.

Secondly, our attorneys are knowledgeable and flexible enough to handle a huge range of diverse topics. Instead of being specialized, as other attorneys tend to be, our lawyers cover all business units within their market. We handle mergers and acquisitions, product and service development and problem-solving, marketing, and data gathering and storage—if it touches on physical or e-commerce, we do it. This type of work is for adrenaline junkies who can remember reams of information!

Finally, we work in a different space than most attorneys. We don’t have offices with solid doors that we can close when we need to focus on writing a contract or hammering out a negotiation. We work in the same open floor plan as all other ZX Ventures employees. Our team members have to be extroverted and energized by constant human contact. Interruptions aren’t just a daily occurrence; they happen every hour. Everyone has a “quick question” that turns into a half-hour conversation, so multitasking and quick switching are essential work skills.

At ZX Ventures, we’re unique, or, as I like to say, black sheep. But the advantages of our working style are amazing: we get to grow constantly, we never get bored, and we have the confidence that comes from knowing that we actually can handle anything that comes up. It’s a great feeling.

ZX Ventures in China: Working in the Eye of the Hurricane

By Martin Suter

I have had the wonderful fortune to live and work internationally—which I recommend to everyone—my entire life. I am now able to continue that adventure through my work with ZX Ventures. When I moved to China this year to lead our Chinese market eCommerce team, it was actually a bit of a homecoming. I first lived here in the late 1980s, when China was on the front end of its economic development. Today, being in Shanghai and working with eCommerce, I’m living in the eye of the hurricane. Online shopping trends and new explosive growth patterns happen here first. It’s a tremendous opportunity to test out new ideas in a dynamic and active market.

The ZX Ventures office here in China reflects our status as a lean, agile startup. We’re located in an accelerator, surrounded by other startups. The creative energy in this space is ridiculous. We thrive on that growth vibe and encourage our people to take advantage of it—to really participate in the profusion of creative new ideas all around them. I see my role as the head of the eCommerce team largely as getting people infected with the startup virus, and being in this space is critical to that process.

Through my time with numerous startups, I’ve learned that the keys to a successful startup are autonomy, velocity, and agility—values that apply not just to the business and how it operates, but to the individuals working there as well. So, we provide everyone on our team with a degree of autonomy in how they execute on their ideas, giving everyone both responsibility and accountability. As far as velocity, I like to say, if you’re going to fail, fail fast. That way, you can learn the lesson from your failure and move on with that knowledge.

Part of what makes us so successful as a startup here is that the eCommerce market in China is unique. Some characteristics are cultural and unique to this region, such as the infatuation with celebrities and celebrity endorsements, but others are probably going to spread around the world. China’s mobile proliferation, with 80 to 90% of online transactions conducted from mobile devices, is likely to become a global trend. We get to experiment with how to best use that modality here, so we can drive that trend in other markets as it catches on.

I have been lucky to live and work in different countries and different cultures throughout my career. I would encourage anyone, from a professional perspective, to stretch their horizons beyond their home countries. Getting that real-life global perspective, and being taken out of your comfort zone daily, is both a provocation and a challenge, helping us grow as individuals.