How a Print Editor became a Product Manager

This post was originally published on the AOP website on 6 March 2012.

From marketing to QA testing or even business development, the career paths into product are many, though editorial rarely seems to be one of them. 

One exception is Alex Watson, who went from editor of Custom PC Magazine at Dennis, to a mobile product manager working on the Viz iPhone app and more recently the Week on iPad.

Going on secondment to co-write a report on Dennis’ tablet strategy was the first step.

The report concluded that to rely entirely on external developers would be expensive, and mean a lack of knowledge internally. More important was to try and learn as much as possible, both by hiring its own developers (and eventually, product managers), producing its own products as well as working with small agencies who would be prepared to work in a highly integrated fashion.

Alex suggested putting together a team around mobile product development.

This was when he officially became a product manager – working on the Viz Profanisaurus app, which somehow made it through the App Store’s strict ts&cs.

He was starting with a small project, with proven commercial potential – an earlier, externally-producedViz app had made money.

Despite this, he still faced skepticism on growing a mobile team based on his recommendations.
The new Viz app broke even within 2 months, and led Alex to work on the Week’s iPad app – a much larger project, with a far bigger budget.

How important is having a product manager for mobile in particular?

If anything, apps clarify the need for product managers. They can get very expensive, and aren’t like a site you can fix and tweak as you go – you really have just one chance to get it right. So you really need to understand what the user wants, and you can’t base that on Google searches.

What are the parallels between being a print editor and a product manager?

Publishers aren’t tech businesses, and the apps we make aren’t technically complicated, compared to say, Google, Foursquare or Facebook. The important choices are around content and how people experience that.

You need to understand what your choices should be around a product, similar to the way an editor makes choices. Another parallel is that both editors and PMs are always trying to make something readers want to pick up.

Coming from a print background helps – in the sense that you’re used to dealing with restrictions – like having one cover per month.

Another parallel between mobile product development and print is the focus on big launches (whether apps or new features) as opposed to the gradual release cycle websites typically follow.

And an editor approving a feature for a mag is the exact same thing PMs go through for their products. Being a product manager for me is all about making hard decisions - choices where you can’t have the best of both worlds. But where you're also trying to get maximum bang for buck in terms of impact for the user.

With websites, you have SEO telling you what you should or shouldn’t write, but with print (as in product management) you’re forever divining what your readers want from a wide range of sources.

Apps are not the web, as Google’s lack of success in apps shows – they don’t get the emotive elements.

Publisher websites are also quite free of emotion, while print magazines are made with passion and flair – we need to rediscover that emotional spark with our apps.

There seem to be relatively few editorial people who’ve made the shift to product like you, how would you advise others who want to make the same change?

For a print editor to become a product manager, I’d say you must love devices, and do your best to learn about the technologies that drive the experience, but above all, be very focused on delivering what users want.

To others making the same transition, I’d say that in your favour it’s a young field - even the designer of the iPhone only has 5 years’ experience.

There isn’t loads of accumulated knowledge out there – and the top apps for 2011 will look outdated by the end of this year (unless they keep moving.)

If you want to make the transition to becoming a product manager, focus on what the user wants, and find something small that can be done in 4-6 weeks – with a reason why the company should do it.

With the Viz app, we knew there was a market. And it's a brand where spin-offs from the core product have a long and successful history.

My only advice around keeping development costs low are beg, borrow, steal and call in favours. Don’t underestimate the learning aspect though – it won’t be as expensive as you think if you can learn from the people you bring in.

  • There are affordable solutions out there – Phonegap, which is cross-platform, or Adobe DPS which Dennis uses
  • Pitch it at a bold level – see Future’s $1m in 1 month on Newsstand, or Dennis’ 3.9m downloads and approx. $500k in revenue since Newsstand’s launch
  • Advertisers on iPad can be more creative, you have more control.
  • Look at your competitors and see what they’re doing – publishers are more open to sharing these days
  • Look at what you already publish successfully, and make the business case for an app which enhances that offering and appeals to the same needs of the audience around it
  • For example, the main reason for cancelled subscriptions is around a perceived lack of value - so an app for the Week that added value for subs ended up being a case of ‘can we afford not to do this.'