SaaS Platform Growth with Toppan Merrill Principal Product Manager

Chase Bongirno is the Principal Product Manager for Toppan Merrill. Toppan Merrill delivers solutions in the fields of Capital Markets Transactions, Regulatory Disclosure for Corporations and Investment Management Companies and Marketing and Communications for Financial Services and Health Insurance; plus Election Services. In short, it is a SaaS company.

Working in B2B is decidedly different from mass-market operations. Challenges include business acumen, technical requirements, differences between customers and users… Product Managers in this area often have experience in one particular sector: there is simply no time to learn as much as necessary about every industry. Of course, SaaS has its own growth dynamics, which is something extremely challenging for PMs making the transition from other fields. Learn from Chase how to effectively deliver SaaS Platform growth.

SaaS Platform Growth Secrets: Value and Feedback

“My job is simple; set the strategy for the product and then sale that both inside and outside the organization.”

Sounds like something every Product Manager would be able to say about their daily responsibilities, right? However, look closer at the term sale: this is something very connected to Chase’s B2B background.

While many B2C PMs prefer to use other terms, like “influence” or “promote”, Product Managers dealing with corporate requirements are extremely aware of market dynamics. First, there are closer, internal teams, who must be led through a product vision: crafted, at least partially, in groups. Then, there are more independent internal teams, like sales or marketing. They must be brought on board. The next logical step is the user-consumer, right? Well, for B2B PMs, it is way more complex. The buyer of SaaS products is often not its final user, and vice versa.

Thus, “selling” acquires a higher meaning: in addition to the usual stakeholder management activities, in B2B you need some extra business acumen.

What are the other things that, for Chase, make a SaaS Product Manager effective?

In nearly every job, we are using and interacting with tech. It can either be an asset or a liability depending on how well it was designed and built.”

This is a reality many B2C PMs ignore. While lots of apps and mobile services are used in our spare time, B2B product people design applications that are meant to increase productivity. Almost every single profession today involves the use of particular software. And the Product Managers’ job is to make sure that business concerns (and not just “usability”) are included in product and feature development.

“Shortly after college I had the opportunity to leave public accounting and joined a reg-tech start-up that was at the forefront of the burgeoning XBRL industry. XBRL combined my background in business and accounting with my interest in tech. After a few years running an XBRL client services team I came to the realization that the best way to help my clients was to improve the product they use.”

As it often happens, professionals of all sorts are drawn to Product Management from very different disciplines. In Chase’s case, his experience with accounting and XBRL led him to wonder about how users approached systems as complex as those which deal with transnational finance.

“Working in public accounting taught me the basics of business; how to read and P/L statement, produce a detailed budget, and how to talk with clients. Those skills are invaluable for a PM, especially if you are managing a SaaS platform. One of the most important skills a PM can have is the ability to work with and learn from the users of the platforms that we are managing, and frankly, I learned how to do that in public.”

If you are building features for the wider public, you are seeing signs all the time. Your users give you real-time feedback and your massive data sources help you understand what works and what could be dropped. But how do you know if you are taking the right approach in a B2B context?

“When you are building or managing a SaaS platform through its lifecycle your strategy has to be focused around creating value. Businesses don’t want to spend their resources on something new if it doesn’t add tremendous value. In many cases companies don’t want another vendor, and are looking to partner with a software provider in order to alleviate pain points and support their workflow over the long term. Understanding what your customer wants is critical to ensuring a successful SaaS platform.”

There are a lot of other issues to consider. For example, metrics. In this case, Chase’s team relies on surveys to build a data-led strategy around user preferences.

“I like to keep a close eye on the feedback which is getting through our Net Promoter Score (NPS) survey. It’s a great way to keep your finger on the pulse of your users and an easy way to gauge if you are taking the platform in the right direction. We do track a myriad of other platform specifics metrics but NPS is a great way to communicate how we’re doing to our stakeholders.”

The common factor here seems to be emphasizing worthwhile interactions with your team, stakeholders and users. Communication is very important; listening, simply fundamental.

“I would argue that the most important skill when managing a team or a suite of products is the ability to listen. Internal and external customers have the answers, PMs have to be willing to listen (even if it means hosting a call at 5 AM to catch someone in London before they leave the office for the day). The other key trait is a data-driven decision-making strategy; it can be easy to make decisions based on emotion but you need to quantify what you are trying to accomplish. If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”

Keeping Up with Change in the Product World

Why keep learning?

If you are in tech, this question is almost as wondering “why keep working?”. Product Management emerged as a discipline because of the limitations of previous approaches. The software pioneers who began developing methodologies like Agile were concerned with the way work had been organized since the beginning of the industrial revolution.

In short, during most of the 20-century operations were structured around projects. Project Management emerged as a discipline to make sure that only the best approaches were applied across companies and countries. In time, however, the emergence of digital products demanded a new way of working. Rather than relying on structured, tried-and-tested ways of doing things, Silicon Valley innovators preferred iterating frequently and shipping products as soon as they were viable. This is precisely why, if you are in product, you must be ready to learn and adopt techniques as soon as they appear.

“The marketplace for Product people evolves so quickly, that staying current with industry best practices requires continuous training and development. You just have to do it in order to keep up. I would recommend individuals to refresh their skill sets every five years or so. It can be tough to find the time when you are working and balancing other commitments, however, I would encourage everyone to make it a priority.”

Of course, teaching this entirely new approach is not easy in itself. Most people think that attending traditionally successful business schools is a sure bet to make it in product. However, as Chase notes, they might not fit everyone’s commitments.

“Traditional educational institutions (think colleges and universities) often require years of work in order to get credentialed. Mid-career professionals (including myself) need a more efficient model, this is where Product School comes in. The model is simple: add value week after week by focusing on the core competencies required to be successful as a Product Manager.”

Product School is the world’s first digital business school. It has no ties to previous teaching models: it was hands-on, practitioner-led and constantly changing from the start. The emphasis on developing a project while you unveil the key perspectives behind product thinking helps you understand concepts, in practice.

Product School taught me to think like a Product Manager. I came into the job with tons of domain knowledge, and the course helped to translate that into a more clearly defined product strategy. The final project is really a product pitch, you build up to it over the entire course that pitch was really a lot of fun- it helped distill what was covered into an easy-to-understand experience.”

Our alumni always have advice for future students. This is what Chase suggests for those who seek a Product Management Certification from Product School. Community, community, community (and some homework)!

“Network with your classmates! These folks are your future friends and colleagues, so engage with them. It doesn’t matter if you are online or in person, be sure to chat them up and connect on LinkedIn. Also, you should do the homework, it really does help!”

Finally, what can you do to stay up to date, outside the classroom?

“I should disclose—I love Podcasts. It’s a great medium with little to no barrier to entry so there are a lot of really creative individuals putting really great content out right now. If you’re just getting started, check out How I Built This from NPR, the Product Podcast from Product School or the Pitch from Gimlet. Personally, I can’t get enough of the Indicator from Planet Money; it’s billed as an economics podcast but covers a wide range of topics and trends, I highly recommend you to check it out! If podcasts aren’t your thing there is a great book called Beautiful Evidence by Ed Tufte that I really enjoyed and it’s a helpful guide for those of us in need of product management.”

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This post was adapted from content summarized by Varsha Jayaraj

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