Two years ago, I walked through the airlock of the Axon office in Seattle to start my first day. After 15 years at Microsoft building a mix of consumer and enterprise products, it was a daunting challenge to build products in a new market for different customers with new unique challenges. I was incredibly excited to add more meaning in my day-to-day work and, more importantly, I was excited to have a larger impact on the world around me and the community in which I live in.
Axon is growing extremely fast in every way you can imagine: customers, revenue, product portfolio and company size. Since joining, we have quadrupled both the company size and the amount of digital evidence we store. We currently have over 1,000 employees world-wide with over 6,000 police agencies and prosecutors on our platform. We store over 12 petabytes of data and see a new piece of evidence uploaded every second.
While my experience building products for consumers and traditional enterprises was immediately applicable to this new problem space, the law enforcement market poses unique challenges unlike anything else I’ve encountered. This has taught me some valuable lessons as well as reinforced the most important fundamentals that apply universally across all markets and customers. Creating successful products is not easy, but grit, determination, teamwork and a long-term view can help ensure you maximize your changes to create radically satisfying products.
Forget the MVP and embrace the MLP
So much is written about the concept of the Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Over time, this has been re-interpreted to mean “what is the least amount we can ship to check the box?” Great product managers remember that MVP should not mean “minimal product.” Instead, the key is identifying the minimum product requirements in order for customers to love your product. I call this the Minimum Loveable Product (MLP).
Creating an MLP requires you to focus on features that have the opportunity to deliver the most value and solve the biggest pain points. It is better to consciously solve fewer problems than to unsatisfactorily solve many. If you are going to try to solve a customer’s problems, then it’s best to aim to not merely satisfy them. Aim to delight them. The delight that customers find in the problems you do solve will make them eager for the additional value you’ll add as your product evolves and grows.
Measure What Matters
Product teams are in the Golden Age of Data right now. It’s commonplace for apps and IoT devices to continuously send usage data to cloud platforms. The challenge modern product teams face now is not one of access to data, it’s the fact that there is too much data to understand and transform into meaningful action. Setting terms like “customer engagement”, “big data” and “KPIs” aside, it is crucial for product teams to measure what matters. Doing so ensures your product’s success beyond the initial launch. Even more important is to recognize that “what matters” depends on the type of product you have and the use cases of your customers.
What does that actually mean?
If you can’t measure it, you have no idea if you’re successful and where you need to improve. By measuring and setting targets, you can hold yourself — and your teams — accountable. For every feature you ship, you need to define what success looks like — which means defining metrics that are unambiguous and practical to measure. If you can’t measure it, don’t set a metric for it.
Coming from a background in consumer products, one metric I’ve historically focused on is increasing user engagement. It is typically a key indicator of a healthy product. Diving deeply into Axon customers’ problems, I had to rapidly adjust my point of view around efficiency and automation being the paramount value we can provide, which is in direct conflict with increasing user engagement. At Axon, our focus has to be centered around getting officers back in the field to help the communities they serve.
While metrics like logins per day or session length may be good for tracking success in consumer products like games, they can be terribly misleading if user engagement isn’t a proxy for the success of your product. For us, focusing on these metrics alone would be misleading and cause us to build product that optimize for the wrong outcomes.
Instead, it is important to look at the core value you want your products to deliver and align your success metrics and targets based on that. At Axon, we measure success in a combination of ways, with much of it based on how much value we provide through automated workflows (which save police officers time, and give them back focus to do the job they are paid to do: protect the community). This is more challenging than it sounds, because measuring efficiency and automation is often quite complex. There are multiple data points not only within the same product, but also across products in your portfolio. While not impossible, measuring across products raises the bar of the investment you need in order to make metrics-driven decisions.
Every product organization wants to be metrics-driven. This boils down to a process that is simple to explain but deceptively difficult to execute if you have complex use cases like we do:
- Define success for your product based on real customer value
- Create metrics that align with your definition
- Analyze and hold yourself accountable
Align Team Accountability and Empowerment
Accountability and decision-making run hand in hand. If your teams have no power but are held accountable when things go wrong, then there will be a negative impact on morale. Nothing is worse than for a team than feeling powerless over an outcome.
With the need to deliver ongoing innovation and value, it’s important that product teams are organized in a way that aligns accountability with empowerment. The best way we have found to organize our product teams is through vertically integrated ownership along product experiences. We align the ownership on our teams in groups that we call “Squads” to mirror the way customers experience our products.
In the case of our upcoming Axon Fleet product, the Squad that works on the product has complete ownership of this in-car software experience, including the firmware that runs on the cameras, the client app that runs on the PCs in the car, and the integration with Evidence.com for video offload and device management.
Compare this to other more traditional team structures where ownership is typically subdivided horizontally along technology lines. One team of embedded engineers would own the firmware, another team would own the client app, and multiple teams would sub-divide the cloud app components. This naturally creates immediate dependencies for the smallest features and doesn’t empower any given team over what a customer experiences. Our Creative Director, Joshua Hepfer, likes to call this the “terror of tiny dependencies”. By aligning product experiences to the way the team’s ownership is structured, we can eliminate that terror and create more empathy for our customers, increase empowerment, and automatically drive team accountability.
Excel in the Edge Cases
When I worked at Microsoft, there was a pervasive saying: “cutting is shipping.” This was meant to remind us that there are always more features than we could ever build in a given release, and the key to shipping product was through ruthless prioritization and cutting.
Creating and shipping products is all about prioritization and focusing on the most common use cases that impact the majority of your customer base. This ensures that the time and effort is spent creating the best possible products for the most customers. Inherently, this means that product teams commonly avoid addressing “edge cases” as they innately follow the 80/20 rule.
At Axon, the importance of this ruthless prioritization still stands. However, I’ve learned that this type of process runs the risk of focusing too narrowly on the most common use cases. Our product scenarios are incredibly complex, with specific customer needs that often do not overlap, or even worse, are in direct conflict with one another. These customers and scenarios range from patrol officers and armorers, to command staff and prosecutors.
Due to the critical role our products possess within public safety, our products are often the most valuable in the edge cases. If we ignore the edge cases we increase the risk of dramatically under-serving our customers. In law enforcement, edge cases can often mean the difference between a guilty and non-guilty verdict in court or the customer being faced with a life or death situation in the field.
A great example of an edge case is in our Axon Body 2 and Axon Flex 2 cameras. Our cameras support what’s known as a pre-event buffer, which is a 30 second (configurable up to 2 minutes) looping buffer that automatically prepends a video once a camera starts recording. The pre-event buffer acts like a time machine for the video, allowing the capture of events that precede the camera activation. Most commonly, this footage is extraneous, and shows unimportant scenes like a vehicle dashboard and steering wheel.
Our body-worn cameras can either record through manual activation by the officer or by one of our Axon Signal products, which use different triggers to alert cameras to begin reporting. However, there are edge cases when a camera is not activated by either and risks missing context that can be invaluable in critical incidents such as a shooting. Our camera’s pre-event buffer can virtually eliminate the risk of this context being lost and can be instrumental in a guilty conviction of a suspect or justly exonerating an officer.
At the same time, trying to account for every single edge case can lead to product failure by a thousand cuts. We can’t address every mainline case and every edge case; it’s simply not realistic. As such, we need to thoughtfully (and carefully) construct and plan our product in a way that does the maximum good for the most number of our users, while still taking care to address the most critical edge cases.
The key for us has been right-sizing our product roadmap and finding the balance between solving the most commonly encountered problems and absolutely nailing the most pressing edge cases.
Balance acquisition and satisfaction
Everyone that has had a mobile phone through one of the major mobile phone carriers in the US has probably noticed the shift away from contracts. This trend has become common in nearly all consumer products, and a growing trend in many enterprise products. Examples:
- Cloud computing has moved to on-demand billing and, in Microsoft’s case, now per minute billing
- Companies like Abode are disrupting the home security space (and companies like ADT) by unbundling the home security hardware and long-term security monitoring contracts; Abode gives options for professional monitoring in on-demand increments as small as 3 days
Despite this larger trend, long contracts still exist in law enforcement. Due to the the elaborate procurement processes — which can make purchasing decisions span months or even years — long contracts exist to offset the lengthy process time it takes for police departments to implement the solution. This landscape has created challenging conditions for Axon in our product planning and strategy.
Long procurement processes with law enforcement agencies can create an unnatural gap between the needs that are identified during the buying decision process and those that emerge after the product gets deployed and used. This chasm can put a wedge between your investments in ongoing new customer acquisition and improvement satisfaction for existing customers.
Ultimately, you want the best of both worlds: grow your market share while creating radically satisfied customers. This is the holy grail for product teams, and it requires you to effectively balance both.
It is easy to rely on long-term contracts for customer retention. However, you can lose sight of your existing customer base and unknowingly sacrifice them in your chase to grow market share through new customer acquisition. Long contracts can give you a false sense of security, causing you to confuse contract lock-in with customer satisfaction. If you aren’t careful, you will not invest enough in product improvements that drive customer satisfaction. This increases the risk of significant customer churn when contracts are up for renewal. Company and product successes that are only measured by market share can create a leaky bucket where you end up churning more customers than you acquire. This is a dangerous — and disastrous — proposition over the long run.
If you are in a market where long-term contracts do exist, the key is to not rely on them for customer retention. Drive your product as if there isn’t a contract and plan your roadmap accordingly.
Treat your product roadmap as a marathon instead of a sprint. Have a longer time frame in mind and aim far, while balancing the needs of new and existing customers. Having a longer time frame allows you to think strategically instead of being in a perpetually reactive state. This job is one of the toughest, and the true measure of great product managers: managing the balancing acts between all these facets to drive product health, usage and ultimately business growth.
The Axon Challenge
At our core, Axon is a product company and our success has been fueled by our ongoing creation of valuable breakthrough products for our customers. Axon operates in a unique space that is significantly different from other companies that target consumers or traditional enterprises. Helping unlock the impossible for law enforcement is not only fulfilling, but also extremely challenging. Are you up for the challenge?