Product Inertia Large and Small

In our second of Boston Product’s new series, the PM Spotlight, we spoke with Vesa Tormanen, CEO at Attriboost. We covered lessons from launching products into a crowded market, contrasts between start ups and mega corps, early roadmap rerouting, and how to walk the line between freemium and paid products.

Fun facts about Vesa:

  • Hails from Finland and studied computer science and his MBA there.
  • Led early product teams Nokia even pre-dotcom bubble.
  • Worked across the globe in India, Finland, and the US East and West Coast.

What it’s like at Attriboost:

  • Born out of the awesome tech at Fiksu
  • Small but growing team; 1 product manager, 5 developers, everything else borrowed and bootstrapped

Vesa has unique experience on product teams in the mid-90s at a powerhouse telecommunications company. Getting an early start on product management for software products. Let’s dive in:

Vesa Tormanen: Nokia was a pure product company which made it a really good school for product managers.

Jenny Miller: What about it made it such a good learning experience? Was the team structure different?

Vesa: It was a great product organization. Starting with the development team and a product team; we also had some people doing business development, and a support and deliveries organization. As an example: we created the first version of the product, a mobile TV app, many carriers wanted to try it out. We set up a trial and in no time we were able to distribute 50 of them all over the world. That’s the great thing about a huge company — you can perfect your pitch very quickly. You have a template on how to describe a product and you give that to the sales team, then you start getting customers all over the globe willing to try your product and give really good feedback. Trade show booths are another great place to hone your pitch.

That’s the polar opposite of what we’re doing now here at Attriboost. Here we’re starting ground up trying to build all those relationships. At a startup, there’s few meetings where you could get that much insight so quickly.

Jenny: What was one thing you could take advantage of at Nokia that is most different here at a smaller company?

Vesa: At a larger company, you don’t have to invent almost anything. There’s already a department that has defined a process for everything; hiring, building, everything. When we needed to divest a business there was already an M&A team with their own HR, legal, personnel to help get things done. There was always a group of leading experts who have already identified and defined for you a state of the art way of doing anything you need.

Jenny: Do you think you were able to move faster in that environment compared to a startup? Which is more agile?

Vesa: Inertia is different. In a big company, what inevitably happens is there are several organizations who start doing things which may appear to be very similar, and this creates organizational friction. One org might suggest another shouldn’t be working on a project because it falls in or outside of their domain. That can make things slow.

On the other hand, if you’re a startup with something new, the problem is that you may have a great new thing but no way to tell the world about it. In a big company there are always customers who are hungry to see the next thing from you.

Jenny: Traction versus growth then.

That’s a necessary precondition to being able to start new things; we’d observe for a while how our idea grows and if it doesn’t reach the necessary level then we’d kill it to make way for something with a bigger potential.

Vesa: Right. As a product company Nokia was always good at killing products too. That’s a necessary precondition to being able to start new things; we’d observe for a while how our idea grows and if it doesn’t reach the necessary level then we’d kill it to make way for something with a bigger potential. Not having resources tied up in sunset products made the company very fast at starting new.

Jenny: Killing off underperforming products or features is definitely a skill to learn. Let’s dig into Attriboost a little bit, tell me what it’s like here.

Vesa: We do mobile app ad tracking, a niche of a niche. There are a few million companies developing apps who need ways to get users by online marketing. With most mobile apps people are not spending thousands of dollars to use it, it’s maybe only a dollar here or there. Therefore you need a huge audience. You want to target very carefully and then measure immediately. That has given birth to this market for analytics solutions such as ours.

Jenny: Would you say Attriboost helps marketers learn how to target better or is it itself a way of finding the right customers to target?

Vesa: We tell our customers how well their advertising is doing in detail. Not just in terms of how many installs you’re getting but also how long users are staying in the app, whether they spend money. Then you’d look at traffic sources and targeting options, and compare which brings the best users and increase spending there.

Jenny: You mentioned a few data points there: installs, time in app, money spent. Those are important for your customers, what are some metrics that Attriboost measures? How do know if a particular product is successful, if a feature is working or not; when might you, as you said earlier, choose to kill a feature?

Vesa: We have just started, coming out of Fiksu. Fiksu already had the core technology but it was only available to its own customers using the service. When Fiksu was acquired by a private equity firm they wanted to see how this tech could be used individually. So, myself, Greg, and a small development team were tasked with making a business from our tracking and attribution analytics tech. This was just last summer. We started by looking at the competition, making an MVP, which we launched in December.

There are a few pretty big players doing a similar thing, but we’re going for low-end disruption. Offering a small set of features for free then, add some freemium features while trying to earn some revenue from things like also trading the anonymized application data.

Jenny: So what has it been like launching in a very saturated market?

Vesa: It’s just as hard as we thought. We have developed a self-serve platform, the only way you can really compete with a free offering is to stay really lean. We have run into many little issues around how to begin gaining traction; simple things like keeping your messaging out of spam folders, for example. We’re adding new users every day and already starting to think about wholesale opportunities, partnerships to access a lot of apps. While at the same time still trying to get one customer at a time.

I’ve never had a free offering before, I would have thought that when customers sign up for a free service they would understand it’s free; I underestimated how much people would still want to have discussions like those you would usually have about a paid product. What features they need, different options available, requirements.

Jenny: So how do you have these types of discussions with customers today? Are you communicating things like the roadmap or new features?

Vesa: We must communicate the roadmap and new directions. While I found it surprising that people would require features in order to sign up, it’s of course valuable because it tells us what the people want.

With a freemium model you have to think about where to put the line for paid features versus the free package. That’s a tough balance to strike because you can’t move everything to the paid service, because that is not what we’re marketing to users. We need to have our free service attractive enough without cannibalizing your paid market. It’s core on our value promise that whatever is free today will always be.

Jenny: Understanding what you do about launching in a crowded space, is there one lesson you’ve learned or an idea you can share?

Vesa: One thing we’ve done quite well is not just launch in a crowded space, we went into this to test a value proposition. Which is a different approach than what our competitors are doing. It lets us learn more about what customers want and what competitors can (or cannot) provide. It’s very important to not start by looking for your business case, but test an idea. Because even if your assumption turns out to be not correct, it’s still worth testing.

People who are serious about the product take time to ask a lot of questions.

One thing that would have been great to know was how critical every detail in our onboarding process is. Initially when we launched we were happy to see lots of people sign up but we soon began to see the same problem many apps have with abandonment. I thought that was mostly a consumer product issue, but it clearly also affects B2B as well. I thought if we made the barrier of entry as low as possible we could grow fast, turns out that the people who are serious about the product take time to ask a lot of questions.Those who aren’t sign up then abandon quickly. We’ve tried to send questionnaires to these users but they often don’t reply, so we need to work on how to get in touch, more feedback from these users.

We very quickly came to understand it was important to have dummy analytics data in the system for newly signed up users to communicate the value to the new users to better sell the product idea to the user — help them decide to go through the integration process.

The amount of motivation required to get a B2B customer to use a free tool after they signed up was surprising.

Jenny: Right, give customers a taste of what the product can do.

Vesa: The amount of motivation required to get a B2B customer to use a free tool after they signed up was surprising. So now we’re totally focused on doing improvements there. We had thought our roadmap was going to be new top line features, but we’ve spent a lot of time perfecting our ramp up to both activate and keep a larger portion of users.

Jenny: One more question, since you’re so familiar with Nokia. Are you going to buy the new 3310 with Snake?

Vesa: When they bring it to the US! I think that was brilliant marketing for them.

Boston Product’s new series, the PM Spotlight, we’ll be chatting with inspiring product managers in the Boston community to learn more about what it’s like being in product, how the role varies across industries and specialties, and hear stories from the road.