In 2012, software development consultancy Pivotal had plenty of developers, but not enough product managers to help clients solve specific issues. Instead of hiring, the consultancy created an internal program called Product Office Hours, a free hour-long consultation where product managers would jump right into challenges brought on by current clients and offer their perspective to fill in gaps in a short amount of time.
Since the product managers were being exposed to different problems across industries, their skills grew alongside clients’ success. The program organically grew more popular within the company’s workforce as a way to gain feedback on side projects; soon, it would become available at most of Pivotal offices around the world.
“We asked ourselves, can we offer the same kind of consulting to a startup and also get even broader experience and see all sorts of product problems?” explains Jennifer Handler, principal product manager in Pivotal’s Atlanta office.
For a startup founder in the idea stage, product roadblocks can feel like carrying a boulder up Everest. Trying to figure out the equation between profitability, customer acquisition and sustainability can be frustrating when you can’t afford a paid outside expert or don’t have access to an advisor.
“When we opened the Atlanta office [two years ago], Product Office Hours were something we could do to start to embed ourselves in the community and introduce ourselves. We knew we wanted the practice and we knew we wanted the relationships. It’s always a good thing for us to get more experience, but the startups and companies that have come to Office Hours here seem to have gotten a lot out of it as well.”
Now the Office Hours program continues as a way for Pivotal to ingrain itself in the local community by supplying expertise and actionable advice to startup founders with specific product or design problems that may be preventing them from moving forward. Issues may include validation, UX, e-commerce conversion, retention, user testing and more.
“We work with these big enterprise clients out of the Atlanta office — the types of products that we tend to see come through Product Office Hours are dramatically different,” says Handler.
“They’re quite different, but we can use the same tools and technique. I think that’s fun and very helpful for us at Pivotal to see those patterns and see how our practices can be applied across industries, across products, across early stage, late stage.”
After reviewing submissions, a product manager conducts a pre-interview call to learn more about the entrepreneur, the product they’re building and the issue at hand. Once the information is gathered, a team that includes a product manager, designer and engineer will go over the problem and prepare for the one-hour consultation. The team meets with a chosen startup once a week, during the lunch hour, to workshop the issue they’re having.
Handler mentions that the startup founder is often working alone, at a very early stage of their company and having a balanced team can help get new perspective on the usability and target audience of the product at hand.
“We see a lot of ‘we built this product and it’s been out there for a little bit of time with some early adopters, we’re seeing some early results, but we think we could do better; what would you do?'” says Handler.
“This leads us to talking about user research and tap into who you are targeting. We can identify what assumptions you’re making in your product and how risky they might be, and then being able to do something about them so that they don’t present risks to your product when you launch.”
Handler says the team looks forward to working on these, as it helps them work on challenges they wouldn’t otherwise with their regular clients and also be exposed to new potential clients, as well as get connected to the local tech community and its trends. Following the one-hour consultation, the team provides follow-up support within the issue discussed.
“We circle back with them with a survey about their experience, but at the end of every Product Office Hour session, we say stay in touch and let us know how things are going. The intent is to help the company get through some challenge and understand a new tool or technique to break through it.”
“We’re casting a wide net. We want to provide help to as many different companies as we can,” says Handler.