The Birth of a Product Community
You will be pleased to hear that this is not another post about COVID-19. It has no tips for working remotely. I have no idea how to entertain your kids while their school is closed. I don’t know why people are panic-buying toilet paper.
Instead, and as part of Mind the Product APAC, I want to talk about leveling up product culture in your region – wherever you are in the world and regardless of the product community you find already to be in place. I’ve based it on my experience of seeing ProductTank, and the wider product community in Wellington, New Zealand, grow from two to 1,600 people.
My hope is that you’ll find something in our story to inspire you as you grow your own product community.
Of course, it’s impossible not to be thinking about the new world forming before our eyes. Everything is changing, from our priorities and the way we travel, to who we touch and how we stay connected. And I’m very proud to see our community is continuing to reach out to each other, to share stories and to meet virtually, all while in complete lockdown. It’s a reminder of how important our communities are and that we should reflect on how to nurture and continue to grow them. My hope is that you’ll find something in our story to inspire you as you grow your own product community.
In the Beginning
In September 2015, about the time I left Xero, a friend of mine, Trent Mankelow, asked me if I wanted to join him and start a new meetup for product people. By then I was fully on the product train and was all-in! Trent had come across Mind the Product and its growing ProductTank Meetups around the world and we thought it could be good to form our meetup under this banner. It felt pretty cool being the first ProductTank in New Zealand.
Trent and I both recognised a growing awareness of product management in New Zealand but saw an even greater lack of understanding about what product managers actually did. People in product roles had very few people to learn from and share ideas with either.
Trent and I were lucky enough to have both worked for Wellington’s two largest employers of product people, TradeMe and Xero, so we had learned a lot on the job and had great buy-in from our managers. But most other product people were working in smaller organisations, often as the only product leader outside the CEO, and with very little support.
Just like a successful startup, we knew our customers, we knew there was an untapped need and that our ProductTank was going to make a difference to a lot of people.
We had a really good handle on the local product community already, and, just like a successful startup, we knew our customers, we knew there was an untapped need and that our ProductTank was going to make a difference to a lot of people. Sure enough, within a few days, we had over 100 new members and four and a half years later we have grown to almost 1,600 members. Not bad for a city of only about 350,000 people.
Starting a new community is one thing, but how have we kept it going?
Spread the Word
I take every opportunity to introduce ProductTank to anyone who will listen! I get to talk to a lot of product people in the course of my business so it’s a perfect excuse to rave about it and get people to come along to our next event. In fact, I’m kind of a data nerd and track how many non-client coffee/catch-ups I have with product people as a business metric (I know, tragic, right?!). In the last year, I’ve had over 140 connections. If these people tell their people, who tell their friends then the word spreads super quick.
I also post meetup events on LinkedIn as a way to connect with people in adjacent communities and roles. I love it when a CEO or founder joins us as they’re often the primary product leaders in their organisation, even if not by title.
Make it Personal
Over the years, I’ve received some really great feedback that people love coming to our meetups. A common theme is the “vibe”, which I love! I’m not big on formalities. I think of a meetup more like a dinner party with a special guest rather than a presentation and name tags. In fact, I’ve stopped even doing name tags! Instead, we spend a lot more time mingling and having Q&As than listening to presentations. For me it’s all about human connection – that means you have to create a space where people can talk, where you might bump into a familiar face, or join a conversation with someone you’ve never met before.
The key is to create an atmosphere where people feel comfortable shouting out a question midway through a slideshow, where we can disagree and still raise a glass afterwards, where there’s as much laughter as there is deep and earnest learning.
Keep the Rhythm
In our first year, it would be fair to say that we were pretty slack about keeping a regular meetup schedule. Months could go by between events and we quickly learned that if you want word of mouth to spread then the more times you meet the better.
Over the last couple of years we’ve (mostly) maintained a monthly rhythm and have seen the average number of new members increase from 25 a month in year 1, to 43 in year 4.
Recognise What Works… and What Doesn’t
Our most popular events have been with product leaders of local success stories (Hnry, Sharesies, Hatch). People love going beyond theory and hearing real-life stories from the trenches, learning what worked and what didn’t, especially from local brands they’ve heard about and admire.
The few overseas speakers we get can also help get our numbers up, but interestingly not as much as local stories and experience. Unless you’re Marty Cagan or Bruce McCarthy (yes, both of them have graced our stage) there aren’t that many product heroes that people know about who can act as a draw.
If I reflect on the talks I’ve most enjoyed I recognise that they all share a common theme – talking from the heart. It’s something I ask of anyone who’d like to come along and share something. Whether they’re talking about something they’ve read or heard, or about what they think and feel, I always ask that it comes from the heart.
I ask people to talk from the heart, not only about what they’ve read or heard but about what they think and feel.
It’s also helpful to look at the meetups that don’t work so well. For us, that’s meant free-form events with participation! For example, we ran a ProductTank event called Ask the Community where we invited people to come along and ask the group about something they were struggling with. The turnout was low but those who came loved it. The Best Product Resources to Inspire Product People was also great. It even resulted in this amazing list of resources (books, podcasts and articles). However, both only attracted about 50 responses compared to our usual 100+.
We know we need to do more research and experimentation to understand why this happened. Perhaps it was the way we promoted the events, or the timing, rather than the content itself, for example. However, seeing the results is a great reminder that you need to continually experiment with content ideas and adapt your understanding of your audience’s appetite to get the best outcomes.
To Wrap up
At the end of the day, almost everything in life that matters comes down to how one human connects with another.
Communities like your own ProductTank and the broader product community that the team at Mind the Product has nurtured, create opportunities for people to share and learn, and ultimately enable us all to increase our impact as product leaders.
Wishing you all the best as you build your own communities.
Would you like to start a ProductTank?
ProductTank is a trademarked brand owned by Mind the Product which means you’ll need permission from the team to start one in your city. We do this to protect the amazing reputation ProductTank has built, and to ensure a consistently great experience for all of our members around the world.
If you’re ready to take on the work of starting a ProductTank meetup in your city (be mindful that you’ll have to find venues, speakers and sponsors etc) get in touch. Tell us why you’d make a great ProductTank organiser and we’ll help you get started!