Don’t be a product person, be a merchant

Founders and product managers alike wear this proudly on their sleeves (or twitter bios)

The Ultimate Product Person – who loves products, building products and sweating the details.

Skim through any of the many valley job postings for product managers – the one mandatory requirement is love for products.

Makes sense? Why would you hire someone who does not say they are a product person to build products? Let us keep things simple and not talk all those products that are insanely great and making friction less something or other. How about coffee? Say your business is running a coffee shop, as founder and CEP, don’t you think you should be a coffee person?

Here is what someone who knows a thing or two about coffee, Howard Schultz founder and CEO of Starbucks, describes himself,

CEO Howard Schultz says he’s never been a “coffee person.” Sitting in his sprawling Seattle office overlooking Puget Sound, he says that what he’s always been is a merchant.

Schultz is right in describing himself as a merchant. The dictionary meaning does not seem to carry the intent of Schultz,

mer·chant  (mûrchnt) n.

1. One whose occupation is the wholesale purchase and retail sale of goods for profit.
2. One who runs a retail business; a shopkeeper.

Literally yes he owns the shops, buys beans on wholesale and sells grande lattes for profit. But a more apt definition for the term should be

mer·chant  (mûrchnt) n.

3. One who figures out what customers value and willing to pay a premium for and finds a way to deliver it to them at lower cost

You can obsess over the product, about its velvety finish, beveled edges, etc., but if you fail to understand how and why those features add value to customers that compels them to pay a premium price for it, being a product person is pointless.

When you are a product person you start with features, think of your product as a bundle of features, speak about features, obsess about features, throw a tantrum when engineering wants to drop a feature because of resource constraints, use words like ‘awesome’, ‘uniquely positioned, ‘award winning, and ‘remarkable’ without explaining what that means and finally price your product as a sum of its parts.

When you are a merchant you start with customers, those you want as your customers over others, find out what they value and deliver it at a price that matches the value perception and at a cost that makes you a handsome profit.

A product person keeps iterating on what is at hand, moving along the same curve and failing to jump to another curve.

A merchant is laser focused on the customer and what job they are hiring the product for. They keep adding many different  curves that are relevant to that customer.

An ultimate product person is not one who has products in their blood. The ultimate product person is really a ‘merchant‘ who understands that a product is simply a value delivery mechanism.

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