To create a successful product or a product company, we need product managers to handle the project. It’s an intensive and complicated task. At one end where every department has some sort of assistance, product managers often lag behind in this.

Adrienne Tan, Co-Founder & CEO of Brainmates took the plunge to solve this problem and provide a platform ‘Brainmates’ that aids the product managers. Recently, we got into a chat with Adrienne and learned about her entire journey of building this product. What her life experiences have been like? How she came up with the idea? How did she lead the company to the place it is?

It was an amazing experience learning about her compelling journey. She is a true inspiration, especially for all the budding female entrepreneurs, and if you’d like to know more about her, read through our interview with her.

Who is Adrienne Tan?

Adrienne Tan is a visionary with over 20 years of experience. She is the co-founder and CEO of Brainmates which is a leading product management consultancy. With her career spanning since 2000, she has been instrumental in fostering product excellence. Adrienne established her first Product Management Community in 2007 and curated the renowned Leading the Product conference in 2015. It is a community that attracts global Product Managers for invaluable insights and best practices.
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1) Could you briefly introduce yourself to our audience and tell us a little bit about your professional journey as well as how has it been from its very inception to now?

I started my professional career actually in education. I was a researcher. I really enjoyed speaking to people understanding their problems and learning more about them. It led me to product management. I used to work for a large telecommunications company in Australia called Telstra and moved on to create products for a company called Austar.

The products, I initially created were you know dial-up internet services, broadband services, and broadcast TV services. It was a wide range of products and I absolutely loved working on the product. 

At that time when I was working at Austar, I looked around and saw that every Department in the organization had some external professional support. They had strategists and Consultants to assist them in their work. Marketers had agencies and engineers had external developers. One area in the organization that didn't have any support was product management.

Now it was in the 2000s, a fledgling time for product management. In any case, not many people knew or understood about product management, and was always likened to project management. I thought there was an opportunity here to start my own business because I had crazy ideas about starting a business and offering a place or offering a range of services for product managers. Product managers needed support and so Brainmates were born in 2004 just over 18 and a half years ago. 

2) So could you tell me a little bit about Brainmates and how that inception story, the Brainmates' inception has led you to where it is now?

Brainmates initially was offering on-tap product management services. It meant that if you needed help, identify Solutions to develop. Going through the design process, we were available to step in and help organizations do that.

It started off primarily with my background in the industries of telecommunications and media. Over the years, we had created I guess a framework. How should we as product people think about you know what ideas to pursue, how do we validate those ideas, and how do we turn those ideas into workable solutions that essentially we can launch in the market and over time grow and scale?

We with this framework broaden our scope, our target market, and segments moving you know but certainly including other Industries. Our brain mates consult for a whole bunch of different Industries. They're so diverse, this framework is so usable and practical, and it's you know it offers a way of thinking about good product management.

We are able to consult in Industries such as mining construction software as a service, healthcare, non-profit, e-commerce, you name it, and We have worked in a whole bunch of different Industries. 

We go into organizations and do several things we either help them build their product or we help them develop capability in the organization to build a product which means we go in and help structure product teams. We define roles and responsibilities, we train them, we coach their people, we support them through the machinations of you know products so they needed to do a product strategy.

We would work with them, we would co-design the product strategy, and we would facilitate the outcomes of you know various workshops. So there are two or three aspects really to our organization which is that kind of on-tap doing building the capability and training people within the organization. I love how diverse the client pool is.

3) So how would you define a strong product-building product culture given your expertise in a wide range of companies that you worked with and then build that sort of product culture for different companies, is there some sort of fundamental definition to how you would define product culture?

I have an opinion and hopefully, my opinion is you know from back in the 20s of what good product culture looks like. Product culture is I guess, there are two aspects to it. one there's the product team itself.  It has to operate cohesively, it has to have a seat at the table, and it should be able to decide what problems to be solved for customers which is a line obviously to the company you know the strategy. 

It needs to have a voice on top of that or besides that really is the fact that strong product culture means that the rest of the organization also really understands what a good product is. It provides the product team with the opportunity the space the trust to be able to make decisions on which problems to solve. It's not just about the product team. It's actually the whole entire company making a product. 

These days don't just involve one team. It involves multiple teams across the organization and we should as multiple teams get together. We should know how to interact with each other. We should know which activities we should be doing to support one another. Therefore, good product culture is not only having a great product team but it's also having a business, things like a product manager working with different product managers.

4) Working with different product managers in different industries have you identified any similarities that they all share in terms of great product leaders that have that X factor that you would be able to pinpoint?

We work across diverse industries. Some of the underlying kind of problems that each of these industries share are the same. It's all some of the problems that we experience are all around human factors, therefore, great product leaders know how to engage their organization. How to align various teams. It's a very hard job aligning different teams. A great product leader knows how to tell a cohesive consistent story that brings people along the journey. Some of the same, as you know you look across the different industries. You'll see that these are the common problems that we face. We sometimes don't do that well enough and that becomes a problem.

5) What exactly is it that the product opportunities for improvement for product managers that are perhaps not excelling at their profile are doing wrong?

I won't say that they're doing wrong because wrong is you know such a harsh word. I would say that there's an opportunity to improve and what happens for product people is that we're so focused on the doing of the activity. For example, we're focused on creating a product roadmap and we put a lot of effort and attention into creating that product roadmap. 

It does take you to know a whole bunch of people and research to create a great roadmap. What we often fail to do is that once we have this artifact, we don't really communicate it and share it well enough. We think that we finish our job once we've created it and perhaps only share it once. However, what we have to do is, we have to share it more than once. 

We have to share it in different ways. We have to repeat ourselves constantly about you know the story of the roadmap. On top of that when it comes to alignment, if we see people that are building products features, or functions that do not align with the roadmap, our job then is to step in and go hey you know what's the problem? Do we not agree to do this piece of work? why is there a change? how do we know? Am I misunderstood? what we're meant to do?

This constant of realignment and adjustment is super important not only internally but externally which makes sense. It's cool being a human right. We love to do all the work and we're probably really great at it. It’s just how we share it and communicate it and make use of the work that we've produced. 

I think I covered this already but I would like to reiterate that are there any challenges that you've identified that are specific to product managers. Firstly, a product manager is a kin who's likened to an investment manager. Most of the time, we're given teams of people to work to build you know great products. 

We can create value for our customers and deliver a return on investment to our business. That's a really tough job and as product people, we have a set of practices that helps us do that job. Some of the challenges, we face is that our executives and our senior managers may not trust us to invest wisely in our product. What happens is that instead of saying, hey you solved this particular customer problem, they come to us with features. They'll say, hey why don't you build this? You know this widget, when are you building this widget have you built this widget? Well in fact that widget may not be necessarily important or useful for the customer. 

Our job as product people is to figure out who our customers are, what problems they might have, and how might we want to solve those problems. The biggest challenge that we have is others throwing their ideas across to us and expecting us to make things right. It is because they've seen it, they've heard it, and they believe that's the right thing to do.

Yeah, there's a trust issue so in order for product managers to be able to solve these problems, we need to demonstrate our executives. It's not, it's never one, or the other you can never point the finger at one group. It's both parties so as product people we have to demonstrate that we're commercially Savvy enough to choose the right problem to solve. 

We can keep you know our executives, satisfied deliveries,  you know the company strategy and the whole bunch of returns that we promise are more and that's the main challenge. 

6) You know, you've also been a serial co-founder of various organizations and rising above Co-Founding challenges, I know so tapping into that wealth of knowledge that you get from that experience, what have been the hardest sort of challenges that you've had to navigate as a co-founder?

There are so many you're faced with tons of challenges. I've been doing this for 18 and a half years. You know being a co-founder and being an entrepreneur is about being brave enough to continue pushing the boundaries.

When you don't know, what's on the other side and it's having enough belief in yourself even though I failed many many times. Also, many many times and it's painful but know that even if you failed that there are different ways to relaunch to create a different business to create a different product, and have that confidence in yourself to be able to continue. 

Doing that trust, it's a painful job there is so much to do. There are so many people with so many different kinds of priorities to manage. About not knowing, you know what the future holds is a scary concept and so being able to be comfortable in the gray zone. 

Being comfortable in ambiguity and operating within those parameters is probably you know one of the most difficult things for me personally to do.

7) Recovering from Business Failure sort of you know tend to lean towards now as you have had more experience, where say you meet a failure and then to recover out of that there some sort of strategy perhaps a personal one or even professionally to come out of that and then jump once again into the Adventure?

Sure that’s a great question. I think one of the strategies that I've used is to try and look at the problem differently. You know when I first failed at like I think it was 2013, Brainmates had a massive failure point. 

There were no sales coming in. There was you know, we had to make most of our consultants redundant. We had to walk away from our office. We had you know start to work back home. I was covered but not quite so you know I moved our office back into my apartment. 

During that time, you know I was looking at why we got ourselves into this situation. What I found was that I was trying to be better at solving the problem. The problem at that stage was that there was a lack of sales. So how do I become better at sales? Well, I was always trying to go okay if there were no sales, it means that logically, I'm really bad at sales. 

I need to personally improve sales but what got me out of this situation was when I thought okay it's not about me personally. Being better at sales, it's not about having better sales processes, it's actually about trying to solve the problem differently. As a result of that, because primarily in the first few years the brainmates, we were Consultants, I was trying to think well you know the Consulting pipeline is long and it requires a lot of cash to fuel the people on the desks. What's something else that we can sell that people understand has a budget?

Will you bring some cash into the business? At that point around 2013 or 2014, when we thought, well, I think instead of leading with Consulting as a primary product, I'm gonna put that down. Consulting will come and we've got to start selling training, and training is consumable right?

If people have a budget for training and product management training so we rebuilt our business by selling training. Funny enough, as we sold our training with our framework people understood what we were talking about. We really wanted our Consultants to come in and implement what they've learned in the classroom. If sometimes you have to look at the problems differently and try & solve them differently, it's all done. 

It's interesting that you started doing that way before the trend actually picked on. Taking this opportunity for our audience that's listening perhaps product managers. Are there any specific resume tips that you would like to give them?

For me when I look at a resume a short resume works. Five pages do not work for people who are looking through so many different resumes. I like to have, you know a maximum of two pages very clearly stated, the role that you had, your responsibilities, and I guess the outcomes that you delivered while you were in the role for product people.

For people moving into a product, we generally like products. You know not a special kind of profession. It's really common sense. It's about doing good business and creating great products that customers love. Building great businesses so you want to make sure that you understand product management, and how people Converse about it in the language. Make sure that you describe the work that you've done previously in a way that you know the recruiter can understand and can relate to.

8) Transition into product management back then in the industry was rather nascent, it was an untapped territory. However, now that the roles are clearly defined, would the transition to product management be more difficult or perhaps even easier in comparison to the early 2000s

I think it would be more difficult now because there were less constraints before. There were, you know people who didn't have as many expectations of a product manager. They have you know product manager needs to understand to speak three different kinds of languages. 

You need to understand commercial reality, you need to understand your customers and speak to customers, and you need to understand technical. You may not have technical jobs but you certainly need to understand the technicalities of the product. So you need to be fluent in all of those three languages. If I was a researcher moving into a product now, I know the three languages, I speak to the customer because I understand I've done the research. I have to find a way to lift my technical proficiency and lift my commercial acumen to be able to get a job in products. 

Therefore remember that a product is like an investment manager. They give you the money, you invested in your product. You have to make good decisions um so that you deliver a return for your organization.

9) Is there some sort of benchmark when its customer-centricity: The key to building successful products comes to good decisions given your expertise as of now, if someone were to approach product management for the first time, is there some sort of Bible sermons that they should be looking you know they should keep in mind?

Absolutely, there is a lot of literature and great frameworks out there. This is why we started the association of product professionals we wanted to bring this great literature that's been you know created over the last decade to highlight, to showcase, some of the best kinds of frameworks available. 

We've created our own kind of framework. A competency framework for product managers and for people who want to know how good or poor they are or the areas of improvement. They can certainly join the association professionals and take the competency test. 

There are some fundamental principles that you cannot violate in a product. The first one is that if you don't understand who your customers are you don't understand their problems. Do not invest in building solutions for the sake of it. This is why products fail because we never do enough research, we don't understand the opportunity, we don't understand the size, we don't understand the pain that customers have to put up with and how much they're willing to pay for. This is why products fail because we get enamored with the things that we're building yeah so research is the key, I think is the message.

10) This would be a personal question of sorts, however, I am presuming considering the fact product management requires a certain level of command, and women sort of struggle in that department. So my question would be how did you build your confidence in terms of leading a team and being a product manager over the years? Are there any lessons you got from the experience and have those lessons turned into trends you follow?

Creating a business is one way to build confidence but look I might face brick walls in my career as well. It's also one of the main reasons why I decided to carve out my own path and create my own adventure because I didn't want to be restrained or constrained by my gender. 

I left so I actually put my toys and found my own playground. Essentially, one of the reasons why I created brainmates. You have no choice but to if you create your own business you're taking on this leadership role. 

In order to succeed, you have to push yourself beyond your comfort level to make sure that you not only grow the business. You support all your employees in the organization because you know I have a very real responsibility to my people. If I fail they fail and I don't want that for them. I take that seriously and if it means that I have to push myself beyond my comfort zone and there have been so many times where I've had to do that um it's it's a choice that you have to make. 

I choose to push myself and put myself in uncomfortable positions rather than making sure that I know that I fail my people. You build your confidence over time it doesn't happen. You know immediately you go out and you do a talk. Yes, it's really scary at first but once you've done the first one, the next one isn't as scary and so you continually push yourself to do these things.

By the time, you know your confidence builds because you see yourself do it you've given yourself the opportunity to do it once. As you progress your confidence will grow. Also, I think you should surround yourself with your supporters. I have a bunch of advice and when you're feeling vulnerable it's always good to have that conversation with them. To make sure that they can see your vulnerabilities and can guide you. 

I mean I've had an advisor you know. I used to hate sales. I used to hate getting on the phone and speaking to people and telling them about our business. You know one of the blockers for me aiding cells is because I didn't want people to dislike me. I was like, oh my God, what are they to hate me? I know then my whole world will blow up but having advice tell you well that's so ridiculous, that's silly nobody can dislike you. 

If they don't really matter, it's just having those people really put some reality check into what goes on in our own heads. This starts to build your confidence too so having the right people around you to help you, to give you that guidance. 

11) When it comes to work do you know in terms of like because you brought it up in terms of striking that work-life balance are there certain like nuggets of you know wisdom that you have perhaps accumulated over time that you implement in your day-to-day routine to create that work-life balance?

I don't know whether I believe in work-life balance to me. It's just all about life. Work is a very huge part of my life. I do carve out time for myself so I'm a big believer in exercise. I exercise most days. I have a set of good friends. 

I take time out except for covert at the end of the year to recharge. You know for six to eight weeks to recharge. Sorry, there are certain things that I do but I'm not sure that there's this whole concept of work-life balance especially now that you know we work from home. Yeah, certainly it's a blend. Life is a blend of work and personal time, and, family time, and relationships.

Like to stay connected with the amazing journey of Adrienne Tan, connect with her on Linkedin. Also to read such exciting interviews, subscribe to MobileAppDaily.

Key Takeaways

  • Brainmates was founded in the year 2004 to provide support and services for product managers filling a gap in the market.
  • Overtime, Brainmates has developed a practical framework for product management applicable across diverse industries.
  • Emphasize collaboration amongst multiple teams knowing how to interact and support each other in achieving product goals.
  • Product managers often focus on creating artifacts like product roadmaps but might fall short in effective communication and alignment.
  • Emphasize on the fundamental principle of understanding customers and their problems before investing in solutions.

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