The art of building your online business like a product manager

Stephen Carrey-Chan

| Dec 21, 2020

There's good reason to get acquainted with the work of product managers a.k.a. PMs. Like a PM managing the end-to-end life cycle of a product in the tech world, creators are solely responsible for the growth and success of their knowledge-based businesses. And, the principles of product management can directly apply to those building a strong online business—whether it's day zero and you just have an idea or you're already busy scaling your offerings with additional contributors.

What’s a PM to do

You may have heard the job title “product manager” thrown around now and then. If you haven’t, that’s understandable. In fact, many PMs have a tricky time explaining what it is they do to family and friends. But, in the software industry, PMs are responsible for: the creation, launch, and evolution of digital products and features that power a business.

They seek to validate solutions based on assumptions as early as possible to avoid wasting resources. PMs serve as the “value maximizers” for cross-functional teams of designers, engineers, and marketers, thus ensuring their time and efforts work towards the most meaningful projects that’ll yield the highest value to customers and returns to the company.

If these responsibilities sound familiar to you as a creator, they should. There are more parallels between creators and product managers than people realize. And, as a creator, you’d be wise to take cue from a product manager when running your online business. Here’s why.

A matter of time and resources

Launching a course from scratch is no small task. To sell your course, you have to set up the foundations of your online school, build marketing pages, design the entire curriculum, create content for each lesson, integrate with supporting tools, determine pricing, and, of course, promote your new course.

A fear of creators everywhere is: What if no one buys my product? Numerous creators and PMs have made the error of investing months into a product that no one would buy, either because they didn’t validate the demand or their customers’ needs changed over time. Luckily, we’ve observed how creators and PMs both actively work to minimize these risks and maximize the likelihood of success.

Work like a PM

1. Define your goal

It all starts with defining the outcomes you’re striving for. Creators make courses for a variety of reasons. The goals vary, as do the reasons that PMs build products. All of these courses and products are outputs designed to achieve specific outcomes.

And the desired outcome can be a moving target—it may change as you gather new information and it makes sense for your business—and that’s perfectly OK.

What’s important is that you have a clear, sensible goal that you use to guide decision-making and measure progress with your business. Without success metrics (e.g. monthly student enrollments), you won’t know which decisions are the right ones for you.

2. Test your hypotheses

You have a course idea in mind: to teach personal finance to freelance artists. Would you enjoy showing freelancers the artful ways of budgeting and investing? Of course you would. Now would freelance artists pay to take your course? Possibly. When you’ve spoken to people in your target audience, they’ve complained about not knowing how to manage their finances, so one would assume they’d be interested in a paid course.

Assumptions are great at getting us moving in a direction because they help frame hypotheses about customers. But instead of running off and building based on assumptions alone, good PMs assess the risks associated with these knowledge gaps and prioritize research and experiments to test these hypotheses out.

The earlier you gather evidence that strengthens your confidence in your hypothesis, the more you minimize the risk of missing the mark with your product. Examples of this for creators include:

  • conducting interviews and surveys with potential customers
  • soliciting peer or mentor feedback
  • studying the market and possible competition

As you accumulate more data prior to launching your course or coaching product, you’ll have either disproved your idea for your product and saved yourself time or you’ll be better-positioned to take your first steps at knowledge sharing with a solid strategy.

3. Keep it lean

Hypothesis validation doesn’t end after your initial research. Putting your ideas into practice is a whole separate ball game. Do you go ahead and spend the next few months head down, creating your course?

More and more PMs work to break down behemoth projects into smaller segments, where they can not only deliver incremental value to customers sooner but also acquire product feedback earlier. Oftentimes, the most valuable feedback comes from your paying customers. You can interview them all you want, but, at the end of the day, behavior trumps opinion.

Creators have organically found a light, incremental solution with one-on-one coaching. Coaching gives you the most flexibility and agility to adapt your service as needed based on incoming data and feedback. One-on-one coaching also comes with lower stakes because you’re only serving one customer compared to a group coaching session or full online course.

You won’t get everything right from the start, so containing your earliest iterations of knowledge sharing keeps business risk low. If you can manage expectations with your coaching customers, you can successfully provide them with a personalized experience while informing future iterations of your business.

4. Stay agile and iterate

There’s no single, unified path to building up your knowledge-based business. Coaching is just one of many great paths to optimizing how you ultimately share your knowledge.

Lead generation tactics such as early sign-up emails are a great way to gauge demand for a course you haven’t finished (or started) yet. Free and inexpensive mini-courses give prospective customers a feel for your content before they sign up for a longer-term, full-fledged course or coaching engagement, which can present a nice path to an enticing upsell.

However, as you adapt your business, be sure to maintain clear success metrics for yourself to keep a pulse on your decision-making and customer experience.

It's perfectly normal not to know what the end result of your business may look like. In fact, it enables you to keep bias low and stay open to new data and feedback. This captures the essence of agile development.

We can’t tell you how many times creators we’ve spoken to have mentioned they had changed their long-term goals with their businesses based on input and feedback. They remained vigilant of their students’ needs and evolved their business based on how it best served their customers.

Bottom line: Successful creators are just like successful PMs. They test out new content and services with their students, get feedback, iterate until they see the outcomes they desire, and then rinse and repeat.

It can be an uneasy process at first. But, once you get the hang of it, it becomes a fun adventure that saves you time and resources, delights your customers, and puts money in the bank.

Recommended reading resources

We definitely encourage you to pick up a product book or two to explore the practice further, but this article is a great start to understanding and possibly shifting how to run your business like a product manager.

Books

The Lean Startup by Eric Ries

Inspired by Marty Cagan

Sprint by Jake Knapp

Articles

“What does a product manager do? Everything you need to know” productboard

“What is the role of a product manager?” Aha!

“Product Manager: The role and how to master it” Atlassian

“When to use Waterfall vs. Agile” Macadamian