Tales of a Product Manager: From StartUp Client to Employee at FortyAU

As a technologically agnostic company, FortyAU first looks to solve business needs regardless of the technology they are currently using or planning to use. This means providing unbiased guidance to our clients, being great listeners, and always seeking to understand the customer problem first. 

Over the last ten years, FortyAU has gained extensive experience working with both large enterprises and small startups. This well-rounded perspective allows us to cross-pollinate problem solving techniques and understand the needs of businesses at different stages of their digital transformation journey. This depth of experience enables us to provide tailored guidance to each client we work with. 

As we look back at our ten-year anniversary, one of our earliest clients was a small education startup called Skoller.  Back in 2016, Carson Ward was an under-graduate student at Belmont University looking to solve a problem for himself and his classmates. Let’s look at how he started, what he learned, and how he is currently working with FortyAU clients to help them make not only a great product, but also a great business.  

The App Creation

Carson originally wanted to create an app that could help organize his various class assignments from each of his college courses. He started by taking the various hardcopy syllabi and entering the assignments into a spreadsheet based on the due date. Eventually, his friends asked him to create similar spreadsheets for them. Carson soon found himself replicating the process in Excel for different friends and felt there should be a better way.

Eventually he realized he could create an app where he “reverse-engineered” the idea of Blackboard and the Skoller app was born. Skoller now allows students to electronically capture their syllabus and the app organizes their semester for them. The app also uses  crowd-sourcing to allow students to search for and pull information that is already available from a previous classmate’s upload.

From Idea to Production

Taking an app from concept-to-production can be a challenging process for any startup founder. At FortyAU, we have experienced this unique journey many times and bring helpful ideas and processes that allow entrepreneurs to avoid common pitfalls. We understand that having a fresh idea is just a starting point and can help set appropriate expectations at each step of the process.

Often, startup founders have misconceptions about their product, believing that it will organically blow-up and go viral within a few weeks of launching. Very often, founders are surprised at the sales and marketing effort required to generate initial sales. Therefore, it is essential to have healthy expectations about the product’s life cycle and understand the milestones that a business needs to achieve before building their technology.

For example, Carson and his team initially struggled with the appropriate monetization strategy for Skoller.  Their first idea was to run ads on it in order to keep the product free, but it was not generating enough engagement to make money off ads. Next, they tried to pivot to a recruitment model. They quickly realized businesses didn’t want to pay finder’s fees for college kids. Eventually, through this experience, they settled on a subscription business model, offering a free trial and then charging a monthly or annual fee.

By 2020, Carson realized his expertise would be invaluable to guide the many startup clients FortyAU worked with.  He inquired with FortyAU about becoming a consultant who could vet startup concepts and assist them with product management. Eventually, Carson was brought on full time in a product management role, serving as a product manager for both startups and larger, publicly-traded companies.

“Having Carson be our first Product Manager made sense as he had that personal experience of not only being a FortyAU client, but also navigating the real life challenges of a new startup. Since then, he has helped us develop our Product Strategy & Design process that has been essential in getting start-ups off on the right foot,” said Andrew Kerr, CEO at FortyAU.

Discovery, Design, & Realistic Expectations

When setting realistic expectations for startups, it is important to plan for the possibility that the product might not happen exactly as intended.  In fact, it rarely does.  FortyAU is unique in our willingness to guide startups, no matter how developed their vision or business plan is.  We start by asking lots of hard questions and set them up with seasoned experts to discuss their ideas and challenge their initial thinking. We even help them think about initial investors and how to approach funding their business.

“The first step in product discovery is to understand the team and what problem they are solving. You don’t want to jump to the solution without addressing the problem first. During the project kickoff, we also strive to really understand who we are working with. We conduct user interviews to understand what they currently do and what they would like to do, and we map out the current process,” commented Carson Ward.

The graph below is taken from FortyAU’s current Design and Discovery presentation where clients can get a better understanding of what the process and workflow will be like including a rough estimate of a timeline.

It is important to understand the difference between a project manager and a product manager. Project management involves creating tasks and managing them throughout the project, while product management extends much further to understanding key business drivers, marketing strategy, and taking a holistic view of the development lifecycle.  Most of all, a good product manager is obsessed with understanding customer needs and aligning the business to those.

In summary, taking an app from idea to production and personalization is a complex process that requires careful planning, realistic expectations, and an understanding of the difference between product management and project management. At FortyAU, we have plenty of resources and experienced professionals to help startups and business owners navigate this process and achieve their goals. Let’s connect to see how we can help you with your startup needs!

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