Episode: 442 |
Maureen Sarewitz:
Maureen Sarewitz on Product Management:


Maureen Sarewitz

Maureen Sarewitz on Product Management

Show Notes

Maureen is the founder and managing partner at Acacia Growth & Impact Consulting. She brings 15 years of product management, marketing, and growth experience across the private, non-profit, and public sectors. Data, customer-centricity, and a focus on impact are at the core of the business. Today, she talks about the full range of services her company offers.  If you’d like to learn more about Acacia Growth and Impact Consulting you can reach out to Maureen on LinkedIn and watch out for the launch of her website, www.acaciaimpact.com, or get on the email list at  sunny-v2.netlify.app.

To learn more about topics discussed in today’s episode, visit nexleaf.org and/or 

Key points include:

  • 03:01: Case studies on product development and product management
  • 06:29: The role of the product manager
  • 15:39: How to gain user insights
  • 23:00: Helping to build a design or product design organization.


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442-Maureen Sarewitz


Will Bachman 00:01

Hello, and welcome to Unleashed the show that explores how to thrive as an independent professional. I’m your host Will Bachman and I’m excited to be here today with Maureen Sarewitz who runs Acacia growth and impact consulting. Maureen, welcome to the show.


Maureen Sarewitz 00:19

Thanks so much for having me. Well, I’m thrilled to be here.


Will Bachman 00:22

First, tell me the story about Acacia. Where did you get that term?


Maureen Sarewitz 00:27

Yeah, that’s a great question. So some people might be familiar with an acacia tree. If you aren’t, you can, you can go Google it. But it’s essentially a tree that has a really tall, very wide canopy. I spent a few years living in East Africa after college. And they’re also common in sort of more warm and tropical climates and sort of the symbolism of an acacia tree that grows very wide and is very noticeable, just very much resonated with me. And so I thought why not? There aren’t many businesses named after an acacia tree. And, and so that’s that’s the story is nothing too fancy. But it’s something that really rang true for me.


Will Bachman 01:08

What were you doing in East Africa?


Maureen Sarewitz 01:10

I, I spent a few years there. First, I’m doing work with a local organization that was working on women’s empowerment and education issues. In the Maasai community in Tanzania. The organization was called key to masotti. And it was led by a Maasai warrior. And so I spent time with him and with women and villages, you know, working to build out education, environmental sustainability, and other types of programs. And then I spent some time as a consultant working for an organization that was funded by the US government. And I was working with Ministries of Health, mostly in eastern and southern Africa to on programs to build their health systems strengthening, and then also to help build out the capacity of their health workforces. So my career has taken many pivots. But I was an amazing place to start. And I’ve now come full circle, and some of the clients I work with are sort of touching that space, which has been really exciting.


Will Bachman 02:09

And then following on your career, you have spent time at, you know, three big companies, two of which I’m familiar with. So he spent time at wayfair. And I’m a fan, I got a wayfair couch in the next room, I know that you worked on their housewares area there. And then Starbucks, you worked on the Starbucks app in terms of the personalization. And I’m a pretty devoted customer. And then you worked at rover that and so product development, Product Management, we can probably you can probably weave in some stories there. But I want to talk about, you know, as an independent consultant, running your firm Now, some of the product development product management work you do. And to help me understand that world. It’s not a world I’m too familiar with. So I know that you’ve come up with some case examples to walk us through.


Maureen Sarewitz 03:01

Yeah, absolutely. So to back it up a little bit for people who are less familiar with what product development and product management are all about. You know, it’s it’s all about building, you know, for me and my business is that the goal is to build digital products that solve customer needs are addressed untapped opportunities, and it’s not so easy to do that, because there’s a lot of investigation that has to happen to really unpack problems and opportunities. And then a whole process that you have to go through that you probably have heard the term agile, to really build a solution that is, you know, going to be the right fit, and then to learn and iterate on it. And so the idea around being a product manager is, you know, product managers are very much focused on solving problems. You know, you don’t want to come in with a with a solutions orientation first. The idea is, you know, in order to drive business impact, or whatever type of impact you’re looking to drive, what are the problems that need to be solved, and then tactically, what is the right way to build a product or a service that will solve those problems. And so in my work history, I’ve worked as an individual contributor, Product Manager, and then I’ve worked all the way up to sort of being a director of VP of product management, where I’ve been leading product teams. And in my consulting business, I take on a variety of projects that have very different flavors in the in the product management space, I also do some work in marketing, but I know the focus here is on the product side. You know, one area is really more project based. And so that’s the type of work that an individual contributor Product Manager might do, a client might bring me in and say, Hey, we don’t have enough capacity to build out this product and the need to hire someone to come in and kind of go through that entire iterative process and bring it to market for us. And so that’s one type of product management engagement. Another type that I take on is either being sort of an advisor to, to an organization’s product team or leadership team. And that could be that there is a, you know, they’re just working to sort of build out their product team. And either they have no one and they kind of need guidance on how to approach that, from a strategy, perspective, org design processes all of that, or it could be a product org that already exists. And there’s an opportunity to optimize and to, you know, drive more efficient, effective product development. And so those are the two areas that I’ve really, you know, mostly engaged with clients on is you know, coming in and helping support kind of being an extra set of product hands to bring new products to market. And then to is more of an advisor, sort of fractional head of product line. So happy to chat through, I have a case sort of a case study for each of those that I can that I can share.


Will Bachman 05:54

Fantastic, yeah, let’s go through both of them. Maybe we start with the more so maybe we start with the more individual contributor, type role, I’d love to hear kind of, what does a product manager actually do kind of day to day is it looking at wireframes, or communicating user needs or talking to customers, like, I’d love to walk through some of the different activities of what it actually means to do that role. Because I don’t have a close virtual, you know, I don’t have a physical sense of what, what’s involved in it.


Maureen Sarewitz 06:29

So I would say is all of the above and one of the really important skill sets of being a good product manager is you not only are working to, you know, in the weeds with engineers to get, you know, products built that you’ve already prioritized and decided to work on. But you also at the same time have to be sort of working through and building out a backlog and a prioritized roadmap so that you have new work flowing through once you know, the projects that the engineers are working on, or push to production or go live. And so really, a product manager wears many hats. You know, I like to say that they’re, you know, in my, you know, when I have hired product managers, and when I see really great product managers, there is sort of three different areas that I think that they excel in. One is a really strong user focus, you have to be able to take yourself out of your own mindset and shoes and put yourself in the shoes of your users and be very much to your point in touch with users and interviewing them and talking with them very regularly. And having sort of that empathy and obsession and focus around your users will help you understand what their problems are, and how you can help solve them. So that that’s one another. The second area is analytical thinking and sort of critical thinking skills. There’s a lot you know, in addition to talking to users, you’ve got a lot of organizations, there’s a lot of data that you can analyze, qualitative and quantitative, you have to be able to think through prioritization and trade offs, there’s always more work to do than you have resources to do. And so being able to identify and apply frameworks to to prioritize the right work is a really, really important part of a product managers role. And then the third area is communication and collaboration product, I would like to say the product manager is a little bit like the hub at the center of a wheel where they’re, you know, working with stakeholders, internal and external on a daily, very regular basis. So that’s not only external stakeholders, like customers, or, you know, for example, in some businesses, you know, you know, regular, you know, cut government regulators or, you know, external business development partners, things like that, but also internal. You know, the real key partners for product managers are product designers and engineers, but then there’s stakeholder teams, often throughout an organization, a product manager, who’s focusing on growth might work very closely with the marketing team, or one who’s focusing on, you know, payments or financial systems with the finance team. And so being a very good communicator, and collaborator is, is really key. And so those are some of the asked, like, what I look for in a product manager, when I’m hiring with what I try to sort of be when I’m taking on those types of engagements. And then and then in terms of, you know, the day to day of a product manager, it really is the full product pipeline, you know, what are the things that we are exploring at the top of the funnel and that we’re working to vet and, and prioritize or not prioritize, and then all the way through to, you know, engineering has questions for me, I need to, you know, clarify something in the spec that I wrote for them and, you know, I need to support them so that they can, you know, we can get this feature or product live and so, it’s very much wearing many hats all day you have to be sort of what I call an athlete. Um, but yeah, I think in terms of the the sort of case study that I mentioned, Um, one of the, I think the other, the other piece that I’ll say in product management is they’re different, you know, there’s going to be more different types of product managers that are well defined. And the example that I’ll give is really about bringing a product from what I say from zero to one. And so a product or something didn’t exist before and sort of building a beta product. And that’s where I met so far on that project. But on other projects that might be that, you know, you come on as a product manager in an organization, and there’s a product that exists and it may even, you know, meet the needs of users, but then you’re trying to iterate and sort of figure out the next right thing to build, and you’re working with a more mature product versus bringing a new product to market. So there’s a lot of variation there. But the the case study that I’ll talk through, and I’ve talked my clients very happy for me to sort of share, you know, their name and some of the information here. But it’s a competitive intelligence tool for growth marketers. And it’s called sunny. And I’m my client is a VC that also has a venture studio. So they’re working to build different companies and bring them to market. And so I was hired as sort of a general manager, sort of pre company CEO operating lead to define what this product should be, and then work with an engineer to build the first the beta product, and then more of a designed, minimum viable products that will have sort of more bells and whistles on it. And so that process really started with understand, you know, like I said before, what is the problem we’re trying to solve? The problem we’re trying to solve is it can be very difficult for growth, marketers to access competitive intelligence information across different growth marketing channels. So for example, within the paid social channel, so Facebook, Instagram, etc, you can go to the Facebook ad library, and you can type in, you know the name of a company and see what ads they’ve posted. But there’s no way easy way for you to see a cross. For example, if you have a competitive set that you’re interested in tracking of, you know, five companies, there’s no way to see all those in one place, there’s no way to have to understand if they’ve launched new ads, without, you know, manually going in and checking the Facebook ad marberry and scrolling through it. And so the idea here, after talking with several growth marketers, and myself having a bit of a growth marketing background, as well was, you know, there has to be a better way to do this, there has to be a way to provide that competitive intelligence in a way that is going to take away that pain point. Growth marketing teams have people who spend hours each week biting for competitive intelligence, and is there a way that we can automate that and really give them that time to focus more on sort of the strategy and execution to actually drive growth. So the first stage and all of that was, let’s talk to growth marketers, let’s do user research, let’s put some prototypes and you know, in front of them around, what could this look like and be really focused on that page, social channel first is just, you know, the other sort of lesson in product management is, it’s better to focus on doing a narrower scope really well than to spread yourself too thin, and, you know, don’t execute with excellence across those different areas. And I think that’s not just for product management. But that sort of a philosophy, that philosophy that I have in general. And so we were able to, you know, through that user research, through working with an engineer around technical feasibility, we were able to build out a beta product that every day, we essentially collect all of the ads that have been launched, for companies that our users are tracking for in the Facebook ad library. And we’re able to collect those ads and bring them into one single user interface, and then provide an alert to users that, hey, your competitors have launched new ads. And so we do that via email, or sand or slack. And so we have built that product and have just started the beta about a couple of weeks ago in a beta is essentially, a very, it’s a very rough product that is sort of the concept is there. And we’re looking to see, you know, does this work get feedback from a small subset of users in order to inform building out sort of more more of a fully built out product. So that’s where we’re at with that project right now. Again, it’s called sunning and we’ll be launching a website and having more information on that before too long and we’ll be launching a more designed, you know, fully built out product by the end of the year hopefully. But it’s the feedback so far from beta users has been very strong and you know, they they very much value what this is delivering and I’ve talked to four or five of them this week around the pain points that Sunday is helping to address As well as the pain points that it could address in the future and sort of logging those for future consideration.


Will Bachman 15:07

That’s great. You talked several times about how important it is to have empathy to the users and understand their world and their pain points. What are some of the different tactics that you use to gain that insight? Is it like watching them use the app over their shoulder? Or just interviewing people? Or, you know, watching a day in the life? Or how do you actually get those insights into the world of your users?


Maureen Sarewitz 15:39

Yeah, that’s a great question. And all of those things that you mentioned are ways to do that. So you know, when I have been a product manager, and have led product management teams, I’ve always sort of had, I’ve encouraged very, you know, energetically encouraged my team and myself, to talk to at least a couple of users a week, because that’s how, you know, just having those candid conversations is really how you’re going to stay in touch and get their feedback in real time and understand sort of how things are going. So I think conversations as well as structured interviews, when you’re actually considering sort of a feature or a product to build, those can be very valuable, but it’s hard to sort of scale those because it you know, you can have a one on one interview or even a focus group, but it’s sort of one way to go very deep, but with a smaller number of users. You know, to your point, the other ways that you can kind of go deep with with smaller numbers of users are like a diary study, which is what you said, sort of following what they do on a day to day basis. A lot of you know, product designers and user researchers and Product Manager as well, to your point, watch people using the product and see where their points that they’re struggling, etc. I mean, I’ve had so many times where something has seemed very straightforward to me, probably because I was, you know, involved in specking it out and building it, and then when I watch a user trying to navigate it, it’s not working well for them. And


Will Bachman 17:05

that how do you actually get that interaction to happen? Excuse me? So like, yeah, you know, I mean, do you pay people? Do you invite them to come into your shop? Do you ask to go to their office and watch them use it? Like, how do you find those people? How do you, what’s the arrangement that you get to actually be able to watch them use their tool, use your tool?


Maureen Sarewitz 17:26

Yeah, so um, it really, there are many ways to do that. So there are certain sort of plugins that you can actually have on your website that allow you to track user behavior in real, you know, sort of in real time. So there’s like, a company called full story, for example, that you can actually see how people are using your website, it’s not creepy into the, you know, to the point where it’s like, this person is using it this way. But these are the trends in terms of where people are clicking and how they’re moving for your site, that, for example, and that type of thing. So that’s like one that’s more of an anonymized way, but then, you know, a lot of companies will have like panels of users that they may pay or compensate in some way, you know, for those users to allow, you know, to provide feedback, and to interact with the product team or other teams to get feedback, you can also sort of do one off to your point, say, Hey, you know, can I offer you, you know, a gift card or a credit to our, you know, to whatever service or product we’re offering, you know, in exchange for providing user feedback. So I think it very much depends, and I think, um, you know, especially if you have a big user base, you want to make sure that when you’re doing user research that you’re getting a diverse sort of set of users unless you’re looking to build out a feature for a specific segment of users. But it’s very important not to test, for example, equate the feedback or observations you have from your power users with, that’s how every user is going to interact with our product, and that every user is going to understand our product in that way. And so one of the best practices, you know, that we really push to adopt is let’s talk to new users, let’s do research with new users, let’s look at users who are less frequent. And then those power users and people from you know, depending on the product in the different parts of the world, because there could be sort of differences in their problems and preferences. But yeah, to your point, you know, there’s there’s many ways that you can get people to engage with these things. And some of them are passive where they don’t you know, you’re just kind of tracking user behavior on your website using certain platforms that provide that visibility, all the way to, you know, have informal sort of user panels that give you feedback on your product.


Will Bachman 19:43

Can you think of any stories of times where you got feedback from the user and it just kind of blew your mind like, either the person kind of had no clue like you like what you didn’t understand that this red button does this thing like, they just They were missing something that was super obvious to you, or they had some need that was quite surprising to you in any sort of surprises that you’ve gotten from this sort of user interaction?


Maureen Sarewitz 20:12

Yeah, that’s a great question. Um, it happens all the time, which is why this is so important. I remember, you know, some specific examples, when my team at rover, we were working to redesign the homepage, and we did a ton of user research. We also had recently sort of expanded a lot internationally. And so part of the project was, you know, how, like, how do we make sure that we’re serving the needs of users in different countries as well. And there were things just, you know, where we thought it was very simple to navigate. And, you know, or to sort of put in the the information that we need in order to show you the dog sitters that were available. You know, for example, when you were when you were looking for one, and users would very much struggle with, you know, in some of the prototypes that we had in a way that we were not expecting whatsoever. And, and so we had to essentially go back to the drawing board and say this, clearly, this is not clear to people sort of why we need this information, and you know, how they’re meant to enter it. And so you from going through, you know, multiple conversations and user feedback loops, we were able to identify a way to sort of build the information collection on the homepage, in a way that reduced friction for users, but also gave us the information we needed to, you know, for them to take the next step in locating a dog sitter. So that sort of one example, I think it’s Starbucks in the app, we, one of the big projects that I worked on was bringing games that we were only available on the website for Starbucks rewards members into the app. So those were things like, it was called a star dash, where if you came, you know, three times in five days, you got a certain number of bonus stars, which is the currency for the program. And there were so many different edge cases, which are sort of not necessarily the most common circumstances that would come up. But that would come up, you know, for a decent number of users, that we were able to identify by putting, you know, by putting prototypes and testing in front of users, that were able to sort of address some of the issues that would have prevented users from having sort of the full experience, you know, with with that offer in our app. And so I think, you know, every i can’t i there’s very few times where you roll out a feature that is of even sort of moderate complexity, that you don’t have an aha moment, something you didn’t think of, and that you pick up on when you when you’re talking to customers, and when you’re getting their feedback.


Will Bachman 22:46

Let’s talk through that second case example that you’ve put together, where you’re playing a more kind of senior kind of VP level role of helping to build a design or product design organization.


Maureen Sarewitz 23:00

Yeah, absolutely. So um, you know, a lot of organizations, particularly ones that don’t necessarily start as, like a tech company, you know, will get to a point and scale where they built out a product, maybe the, the code base that’s underlying it isn’t necessarily built in the most efficient way to scale. They are, you know, one of the common things that I see is that they’re, you know, an idea comes up for them. And they say, Okay, let’s go have engineering build that. And, you know, that isn’t necessarily validated by user research is not necessarily the most impactful thing to build for users. But it’s sort of an idea that comes to someone’s head, that’s very common, I feel like in organizations that have either No, or a much less mature product organization. And so what I found, you know, a really a really big channel for my business is organizations that are looking to stand up or optimize their product organizations. And the case study that I can share with you again, I’m the CEO of the company was was really happy for me to share this is one that I’m actually starting to wrap up right now. It’s with an organization called nextleaf analytics. And it’s actually a nonprofit tech company. And they are doing amazing, incredible work. They work on the monitoring of vaccine supply chains. And as you can imagine, that’s become very relevant over the last couple of years. Even before then, one in 10 babies in the world were vaccinated using a vaccine that had been monitored using using their technology. And so it’s a it’s probably one of the most impactful organizations that most people haven’t heard of. And I was brought on because you know, they had built out some amazing products, they had a ton of opportunities, so apply they do to apply their technology in different ways. So to things like clean cooking, and medical devices and what I should say too, is almost all of their customers are in resourcelink setting, so in Eastern and eastern Africa, you know, in India etc. And they mostly work with Ministries of Health in those countries. And they’re the ones who are often purchasing their technology. And, and so I was brought in because they were thinking about hiring a head of product. And they sort of wanted to lay the groundwork for that they had no sort of formal product managers to date at the organization. And so when I was brought in, it really became an engagement that actually, I would say expanded to some degree because, you know, the first step in in forming a product strategy is really making sure that you have a really tight organizational strategy instead of organizational focus areas and priorities. You know, what I was saying earlier around, you know, the importance of focus and executing with excellence on a scope that is reasonable versus, you know, spreading yourself really thin. That, to me, that applies not just to product organizations, but to organizations in general. And so some of the work that I did was working with their leadership team on figuring out what the organizational priorities were going to be in the short to medium to long term. And from there building out sort of, Okay, what does that mean for our, our digital product, if we are focusing, you know, for example, on making the installation of our technology easier, that means that we’re going to have to do, you know, build out a product, a well informed product roadmap that enables that. And so, essentially, the organizational strategy should always feed into the product strategy. And those two should be very strongly linked. And so that was a big area of focus. The second one was really around resourcing on the product team. And so once we had figured out what the organizational strategic priorities were, and how that was going to translate into into product priorities, it was okay, well, what product managers do we need to hire? What do we need to look for in a head of product, that type of thing, and we moved one person who had been sort of a de facto Product Manager, but wearing a bunch of other hats and do a full time product role is sort of the first real product person at the organization. And she took on one scope, you know, one product scope that we had sort of identified. And then we figured out what other product managers might we need to hire as well as, okay, what is the job description? And what is the profile that we need to look for when hiring a full time head of product. And so I actually was involved in helping lead the recruitment of the head of product who just started a couple of weeks ago, so I’ve been sort of transitioning things to him. And then the last part, so there’s the organizational and product strategy, there’s the organizational product or design. And then finally, there’s sort of the product, like operations and execution. And so by that, I mean, kind of what we talked about earlier, that full lifecycle of, you know, what are the ideas that we have? What are the problems we’re trying to solve? What ideas do we have, you know, that could solve those problems are addressed those opportunities? How do we validate them with our users, etc, all the way down to specking them out for engineering to you know, figuring out sort of the design and the UI and UX work to partnering with engineering to get them built, and then to actually going to market sort of with those features or products. And so I worked with the team to build out an end to end an initial sort of product development process. And I also worked very closely with their engineering org to implement or optimize some of the Agile processes that you know, allow the engineering team to be more efficient, and effective in sort of its its approach to product development as well. And so that was the third prong of the work that I’ve done with nextleaf it’s you know, they’re like I said, there are an incredibly impressive organization, there’s been a lot of work around change management as well, because it can be a real shift for an organization to not have a product team, to having a product team. And so you know, working with the different members of the leadership team and cross functional team members to you know, help build their relationship with product and sort of help set those off on the right foot, you know, has also been a really important part of that project.


Will Bachman 29:24

Fantastic. Well, Marine, if people listeners wanted to follow up with you and find out more about your firm or get in touch, where would you point them online?


Maureen Sarewitz 29:34

Yeah, so they are welcome to email me at Maureen at Acacia impact.com. And I am shortly about to launch a website that is Acacia impact calm. But they can also find me on LinkedIn and send me a message there and so either email LinkedIn or in very short time also on my website would be would be great to get in touch.


Will Bachman 30:00

Fantastic. Well Maureen, thank you so much for joining us today.


Maureen Sarewitz 30:04

Thank you so much for having me. It’s been fun well appreciate it.

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