Sean Weisbrot: Today’s guest is James Mayes, the CEO and co-founder of a company called Mind The Product, and the world’s largest and brightest community of product managers. After 15 years building high-performance technical teams for banks and startups alike, James decided to found his own startup TweetJobs. After exiting tweet jobs, he worked with a few great companies to learn more about the world of products. During this time, he found that there were meetups and conferences for CEOs, HR managers, and many other career paths, but nothing existed for product managers. So, he embarked on creating a small meetup in the city and people from other companies would gather for a beer and chat about their craft and share stories about their work experience. Over time, some of the people from that group decided to band together more seriously and create what is now Mind The Product. Mind The Product now has five annual conferences, including MTPcon, meetups in over 200 cities and a highly engaged community of over 200,000 product professionals. He is also a jovial British man with such a clean accent that it makes you want to listen carefully to every word he says. So, I hope you enjoy hearing from him as much as I do. Let’s give a warm welcome toJames Mayes. Sean Weisbrot: Welcome to We Live to Build. My name is Sean Weisbrot, and I’m an entrepreneur, investor, and advisor based in Asia for over 12 years. Join us every week to fast-track your personal growth so you can meet the ever-increasing demands of the company [or companies] you are passionately building. Time waits for no one, so let’s get started now.
James Beginnings (2:05)
Sean Weisbrot: Let’s get right into it. When we were talking in the first call, you were, you didn’t really talk too much about TweetJobs. So, I want to talk a little bit more about it because I think TweetJobs is important to your evolution and how Mind The Product came to be? Would you agree? James Mayes: Yeah, absolutely. Um, I mean, TweetJobs was me exiting the recruitment world. I’ve been in it for 15 years and wanted to change, wanted to build a startup. But it became very, very clear during those 18 months, two years that I knew very, very little about the world of product and startups in general. So yeah, it kind of set me on a journey, but it sent me on a journey by demonstrating just exactly how little I knew, which is probably a good thing for most startup founders to get, get a grip on fairly early on in the journey. Sean Weisbrot: So, if you had such a successful career, what happened in your life that made you wake up one day and say to yourself, screw it. I just want to do something different. And then what made you think of social media first, with TweetJobs? James Mayes: The social media side I was exploring anyway, and in my years in the recruiting industry, I always liked to play with the latest tech and see what was out there, see what could be done with it. But after 15 years building teams, I got to the point where with the recruiting side, where I just needed to change, I needed to go do something different. My first exit from the recruiting industry was actually going to work for another software startup XD software. They did a basically reporting software for private banks and wealth management firms. And that was one where I got to grips with it from a, an ops director perspective. They used to be a client of mine and invited me to come work with them and help them out a little bit. It made it very, very clear to me that working in the world of tech and doing something like that was exactly what I did want to be doing. I needed to be doing something different, but I also knew that most of my knowledge was around the recruiting process, the challenges firms faced. So, I started looking for ways that I could link building a startup to the recruiting industry contacts experience that I had and landed on social media, being the thing that was new, that very few people understood. And that to me seemed like an opportunity. Sean Weisbrot: But what made you think I need to make a change? Why did you get that feeling? James Mayes: I get bored. It’s really that simple. I think you see it with a number of people that they’ve gone through a certain amount of time with a particular firm or in a particular industry. And they want to move on. For me, I think a large part of it was at that particular point, I’d spent the previous couple of years working with huge grapes, enterprise class firms like Vodafone and Cap Gemini. And while they’re awesome at what they do, I’d also had enough of being in that environment where decision is made by committee. You spend the best part of three months discussing something that can be implemented in three weeks. The frustration just got the better of me, so bouncing from there out to work with a startup, this is a breath of fresh air. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t really care, but I want to be working in the startup world rather than the enterprise world. I just need that change of flavor for a while. Sean Weisbrot: I was actually having a call earlier today with my COO. And he was talking about how once we’ve finished raising, maybe not the next round, but the round after, that we may have to do something where the C level talks more about decisions rather than kind of me being the one that always has the final say. And the first thing I thought of was, but I don’t want that. I want to be like making the decisions. That’s why I started a company. Um, so I can understand that feeling and I don’t know how to protect myself from that happening, but I think I, I may lose some control over time. I think I don’t have a choice about it. James Mayes: Yeah. Hopefully that leads to you actually making better decisions. Right? You should be more informed. You should never take more points of view. The balance of that is that it takes more time to get it done because you have to involve more people in the discussion. So, there’s kind of, that trade-off takes longer, but you should grow stronger as a result. Sean Weisbrot: Well yeah, I know, definitely from when I brought him on till now, uh, we’ve made generally much better decisions because I’m this kind of person that says, okay, I have an idea. Let’s go. And he’s like, wait, let’s do an analysis and figure out if that’s the best way to do it. Yeah. And I’m like, but let’s go. And he’s like, but wait, but let’s go. And he’s like, just wait, please. Okay. Okay. Okay. James Mayes: That sounds pretty familiar. Sean Weisbrot: Yeah. So, I think without him, I probably would have crashed my company. James Mayes: Oh, Christ yeah, I mean, there’s absolutely no doubt about it, but if Mind The Product had been on me, it would have crashed and burned years ago, I get far too excited about shiny new things and run off and distract people. It’s very much credit to our managing director and Annalisa that that doesn’t happen because she’s the one that very much applies those controls and tries to lay down a certain amount of common-sense process that allows the rest of the team to actually stay sane and deliver on the things that are important. That’s, that’s not a place I can be.
TweetJobs & Remote Work (6:20)
Sean Weisbrot: I was looking at your profile, and it seems like when you started TweetJobs, you were in your mid-thirties, is that Right? James Mayes: Yeah. Mid-thirties, something like that. Sean Weisbrot: Most people that start their first company are in their early twenties these days really. Was it difficult for you to adapt to starting your own company in that stage of your life? James Mayes: No, not at all. If anything, it was the change that I wanted. You know, I’ve been through this period of constantly working, particularly with the major firms. I wanted that change. I was also in the position where we just had our first kid. So that gave me the opportunity to be an awful lot more flexible. So, you know what, I’m going to get up at six in the morning and work for an hour and then have breakfast with kids and then do a school run and do all of those cool, flexible things that being a fully distributed startup allows you to do. So, its kind of really suited my life as well as my desires really well at that time. When Mind The Product got going…Actually, just to step back to the original intro, the first meetup was actually started by Martin Erickson under the product tech brand. So, he kicked that off and then others joined and got involved. And I got involved probably about 18 months in, at the time of the first conference. And that’s when I really got involved.
That idea of the remote style was something that we were kind of put upon us when we started Mind The Product, because everybody involved in this had other day jobs. So, we did this kind of evenings and weekends to get it going. And then as we start to build the team out from there, we all kind of stuck with that ethos of let’s build this around our lives, you know, not build our lives around the business. Since then, as we’ve continued to grow and continue to spread, we’ve had partners right across the world. Some of us have got young kids. So that flexibility has always stayed with the company since. Sean Weisbrot: I think that’s extremely important. And I do think it’s something that a lot of companies are starting to look at now. And I think the virus is really responsible for that because of these long-extended lockdowns. And it’s something that my company has done since day one, you know, we’ve got 10 employees and every single one of them is married. And I think four of them have kids. One of them is about to have kids. So, it’s also really important for them. And I started a remote company because I wanted to have the flexibility to live and work where I wanted and not be held down because living in China for 10 years, I was always kind of stuck to China because my businesses were there, and I needed to make money. I had to be in China to make money. And so, when I left China, I said, whatever I do next, I need to have that flexibility. And I’m going to instill that mindset in all of my employees. That’s been fantastic. I hope that a lot of other people get the idea to do that too and start thinking about their own health and their employees. James Mayes: I think that depends very much on the, the company culture, uh, particularly the leadership team behind them. I mean, one of the things, one of the stories that’s emerged this week in the UK is a massive increase in the usage of those firms who provide homework as surveillance software. There was an interview earlier this week with a couple of companies who were saying, they’ve seen their sales grow four or five-fold over the course of 2020. They provide the kind of software that you have an employee. They work at home, it monitors their keystrokes, or it takes screenshots every 10 minutes. That kind of thing. Those kinds of software firms are seeing huge growth right now. So yes, I think we are seeing a massive increase in remote workers, which is a good thing. It’s not necessarily backed by the culture and the leadership to really get the best out of it. Some of these firms are doing it because they have to, not because they believe in it. And that’s a very different thing. Sean Weisbrot: You know because we’ve had this remote first policy and we use Slack for our communication. I can see with my Gitlab bot feed that they’re actually pushing code. So, I don’t need to see what their keystrokes are. I don’t need to see if they’re online. As long as I see that work’s being done, uh, you know, what matters most is the deliverables. You get your work done. Like I don’t like that, but you know, as you said, everybody has their own way of doing it. And, um, that’s a shame that companies feel that way, but I can understand why they would want to do that. James Mayes: I think it’s fundamentally; it comes down to whether you’re interested in output or outcome. I mean, even at the level of, you know, you’re talking about coders who are generally sort of professional white-collar workers, but even if you go sort of further down pay scales and back into things like call centers, for example, call centers are often staffed by people who are paid by the hour. So, it’s like, did you turn up? Did you work your hours there monitoring the hours that people work? That’s not monitoring the outcome. The interesting outcome is how many customers did we contact? And are they all really happy? Let’s look at the customer satisfaction scores, things like that. That was way more important than digital and do eight hours. Because frankly, if Sean spoke to three times as many customers as anybody else and got high satisfaction scores, that will matter more to me than the number of hours that you put in that day. Sean Weisbrot: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that’s one of the reasons why we don’t do hourly everyone that we hire has a full-time long-term contract and they’re paid a salary. So, we say, you know, look, we expect you to work at least 40 hours a week. If you work more than that, we don’t know, if you work less than that, we don’t know. All we know is, are you getting the work done? We can see it’s being done if you’re doing it. No problem. James Mayes: Yeah. I mean, we’ve got, we’ve got some freelancers that we work with around the world because as an events business, you can be incredibly cyclical. It’s like the month before an event is crazy busy and we bring in some specialists to help us in different cities around the world. So, but those people absolutely, they short-term contracts and they’re on day rates because we might only need them three days a week for a month, something like that. But everybody else on the team, absolutely. It’s a full-time gig and you work your hours. Um, you know, one of the, the ladies for example, manages, um, our partner relationships. She’s constantly dealing with companies from Singapore to San Francisco and she’s got a five, six-year-old kid. She varies her time as needed. As far as she’s concerned, I have this many spots to fill at the next conference. Are my spots full? Do I have all of the right partners in the right places? Are the contracts done? Those are the outcomes that I’m interested in. Not whether she did 40 hours last week or not. That doesn’t make any difference to me whether she made 40 hours or 20 hours. That doesn’t affect my bottom line. What affects my bottom line is did she build the right relationships with the right companies and make them super happy? So, they come back and keep working with us in future, those things are important.
Artificial Intelligence and Automation (12:01)
Sean Weisbrot: When you were saying that I was just thinking about the future of work. A lot of people talk about artificial intelligence and automation destroying jobs in the future. And this is something I’ve thought about for years, uh, quite deeply. I’m curious to know what you think if the way humans work, or the way humans are paid in the future will be different because of AI and automation. You know, there’s talks about universal basic income and people having the ability to work a lot less because an AI is going to do your job, or you just help the AI, or something like that. It will work maybe two days a week instead of five or six. Uh, have you been thinking about this? Is this something that you think will happen soon, or? James Mayes: So go back to the Victorian days, 1900s and look at how much leisure time people had then versus how much leisure time people have. Now you have similar levels of employment, but people have far more leisure time. The working patterns have changed. People don’t need to work 60, 80 hours a week anymore. They can often work 40 hours a week. If you look at the introduction of tools in the modern workplace and particularly the technology workplaces that you and I inhabit you can see over the last couple of years, for example, the massive rise of low-code and no-code platforms. Do you think that’s going to result in engineers and designers the world over going out of work? Of course not. They’ll just be working on more and more complex problems and taking those platforms forward. So, I don’t think you’ll see jobs necessarily disappearing at pace because of it. What you’ll see is jobs changing at pace because of it. Sean Weisbrot: I think a lot of jobs will be lost, but I also think that some jobs will be changed. So, for example, instead of being a programmer of code, you may be programming the platform that allows other people to code without coding. James Mayes: All of these things will continue, absolutely. But it’s, it’s going to be an accelerated pace of change. I mean, the, one of the, one of the lines that I heard at one of our conferences last year that I absolutely love the pace of change right now is the slowest that it will ever be. I think that’s, that’s a wonderful way of summing it up. The pace of change will just continue to increase throughout the rest of your life. So, if you think it’s fast now, come back to me in three years’ time and tell me how it looks then. Sean Weisbrot: It’s a very interesting observation you have there, and I completely agree. What I found is so it’s, it’s actually, I think on two different levels, one on a personal level, as I’ve reached the 30-year mark in my life, I found that on a day-to-day basis and on a long-term basis, time seems to just go a lot faster. Then on a technological, on a professional scale, my dad’s generation went to university. If they went to university, some didn’t a lot of people actually didn’t, but like he’s, he’s a dentist. So, he went to eight years of school, and he knew that that was going to be his career for the rest of his life. For my generation, even though we went to school, I mean, I graduated in 2008, only 12 years ago, but I’ve had to reinvent myself like every year or two, literally going into different industries just to keep pace with all of the different things. And I feel like society isn’t ready for this pace of change of innovation. And I think all of the technology that we’re seeing is enabling this. And I think artificial intelligence and automation are going to be really important and making it a lot faster. On one hand, it’s quite scary because it’s not like we can try to imagine 50 years out. Like we don’t even know what next year looks like. So, does that have any effect on your business, thinking about what kind of technologies you have now that maybe it will be obsolete that you’ve invested in R&D or anything like that? James Mayes: I mean, I think if 2020 has shown us anything, events, business is changing at a pace that nobody expected regardless. I mean the vast majority of people I know in the events world were focused on physical events last year, and they’re all focused on digital events this year. So that’s, there’s quite a pace change right there. But those firms that I see that are cutting jobs, they’re cutting jobs for financial reasons. Not because they want to cut people. It’s quite possible to move a conference online and do a cool thing in the virtual world, but it doesn’t necessarily take any less people to do it because the sheer amount of moving parts involved, most of which are human, your sponsors, your speakers, your design staff, the platforms that you’re running this stuff on, all of that takes human interaction to actually get it right. It’s not stuff that can be automated as yet, nor do I think it can be anytime soon, it’s a question of jobs changing rather than jobs disappearing. Sean Weisbrot: I think what will happen is a lot of the thinking will be offloaded to artificial intelligence, but then the final decision will be made by a human. So, for example, when they were doing these trials with Watson, IBM’s Watson in the medical field, normally a human would be responsible for reading through tons of journals and studies to see what’s going on with these trial medicines and things like that, but they don’t have the time to serve their patients and do all the research. So, Watson was offloading a lot of the diagnosis and research and then giving them suggestions. And then it was up to the doctor, decide whether it agreed with Watson or not. And then, you know, do a treatment based on that. I think some people might be scared of that, you know, trusting this non-thinking, non-seeing, non-feeling being, but I think it’s pretty cool. James Mayes: I think it is. I think there’s, there’s an awful lot there in terms of, you know, what you might call the grunt work plowing through hundreds of thousands of research papers in order to find common threads or interesting things. Absolutely. There’s, there’s a big place for machines to play in that side of things, but we also have to be conscious that these things are originally written by human programmers in the first place who naturally do make errors and naturally do have bias. So, you still got humans building things in the first place, and you’re still going to have humans double-checking output and final case. So, the work is being moved in terms of where it goes, but they’re not eliminating the fact that humans are needed at both ends of that. And one of the pieces of work that we’re doing at the moment that you should see published within the members area of Mind The Product probably tail end of next week is actually a deep dive on the ethical side of AI and the role that product managers play in that, because we’re conscious that, yeah, we know what kind of outcomes we might be looking for, but what kind of bias is inherent in the algorithms that we’re building anything from the way the code is written and the way it processes the material that is being fair to the actual selection of the learning material that is fed in the first place. Bias can be introduced in all kinds of different places. So, we’re doing a piece of deep dive research at the moment. It should be published in the next week or so specifically looking at exactly that and everything that it’s showing us so far is that the machines will play a greater part, but it’s not eliminating the human element at all. It’s, it’s moving it in terms of where it sits in the chain. Sean Weisbrot: How can we prevent our biases or at least limit our biases? James Mayes: To an extent, it goes back to that conversation that we have really early on as your company grows, you’ve now hired an MD or a COO to work alongside you, and you start sharing those decisions. It’s having other people to sense check and say, is this biased? Is this the right decision? Is it my excitement that’s running away with me, but actually I’m missing a serious risk to the business over here? And this is the wrong decision. It’s not that different when you’re looking at the AI side of things, it’s like, I’ll be feeding it the right material. Well, if Sean’s the only one feeding it material, Sean’s got no idea whether or not his own inherent bias is creeping in. So, you need to work with other people in order to balance that. Sean Weisbrot: A lot of people talk about diversity. And I think this is a really important part of it. What if Facebook develops an AI model and says, we’ve checked it, 10 people have checked it, but then if you look at the team it’s all 10, you know, white people, white males in their thirties. James Mayes: It’s pale, male, and stale every time. Um, yeah, I mean, you know, it, it depends on the, the diversity of the team, checking it. And again, something that’s, uh, Martin wrote a ton about on Mind The Product site specifically is the value of having diversity, particularly in product teams, because you have people who’ve come up in different educational backgrounds, different philosophical backgrounds, different religious backgrounds, they’ve experienced different pressures through their lives and growing up. And when you get those different opinions coming together, it results in saying I’ve got an idea. Cool. Well, that sounds good to you. Let me challenge it from the perspectives that I hold. And you end up with that idea being beaten senseless from so many different directions that it emerges far stronger and far more robust, but it’s that diversity underpinning the thing that’s going to be the crucial point in things like AI algorithms. Absolutely.
How Has the Pandemic Affected MTP? (19:40)
Sean Weisbrot: I know that there’s no way to really avoid this, especially because everyone probably wants to hear, but how has the pandemic affected Mind The Product? James Mayes: I mean, that’s the obvious question for someone at an events business, right? Funnily enough, we, we actually started some conversations about this, that where, uh, we started some conversations back in 2019 about the shape and the model of the business that we had that actually proved to be incredibly valuable when facing up to the threat that the pandemic offered. So, for, we started in 2010, obviously back when Martin kicked off that first meetup, um, and then went with the first conference in 2012. And it was always the conference tickets, the sponsorship associated, and then the workshops that we started to run, that’s what drove the revenue for the company.
So, we thought of ourselves as an events business because all of the revenue was attached to running events, kind of seemed obvious, and that’s, that’s the direct route. Right? Um, last year we actually started looking at that, uh, fresh and came to the conclusion that we were probably much more aligned with more of a media and publishing business, great speakers, great content, great videos, great workshop content, great training content. The events just purely happen to be the channel that we monetized the best. They weren’t necessarily the world to our customers. They weren’t necessarily the only channel through which we could deliver. So, we started looking at organizations like the Financial Times, for example, where they put out a certain amount of content on the web that’s freely accessible and that draws in people and gives them a flavor for what the FT does and build some trust and credibility. And then you’d hit the pay wall and you want the deep dive stuff, and you have to pay a little bit more. So, we were thinking last year, there’s definitely more that we can explore in this. And then the pandemic hit, and we fundamentally had no choice. We have to accelerate exploring those options.
The, you know, we were, we were in a position around about end of February. We delivered a conference in Manchester. That one went out, went off pretty much without a hitch. Um, and we had four more planned for this year, Singapore, Hamburg, London, and San Francisco. But one by one, they gradually fell to the pandemic. But you know, we were in a position end of February, where we had 20 people on the payroll, a year’s worth of conferences or workshops panned out. And then March hit, the UK, went into lockdown and it became pretty clear that this was going to stretch for a while, at which point, delegate confidence, sponsor confidence, the whole lot dried up. Company travel bans started to hit. So, our revenue went pretty much to zero overnight. That’s quite a shocker when you got 20 people on the payroll and you’re entirely bootstrapped, no, no rich VCs that you can go call on to help you out or anything like that. You know, that’s not a game we could play.
So fundamentally we went through first, the position of what have you already taken money for in the way of physical events? Because our reputation is everything to us. We want to make sure that we don’t just say, well, sorry, we’ve had to cancel the event, but we’re keeping your money. So, we had to model out what, giving that back looked like, what can we afford to do? How can we mitigate that? What can we offer people that they might value instead? So, they’ll say let’s stick with them and continue to support the business. So, we looked at converting conferences online, we looked at taking training workshops online. We then looked at the actual content that we have on the web and said, now, what does that look like if we invest in deeper content and do those deep dive research projects, like the one I mentioned earlier on, um, bias in AI and things like that.
So gradually emerged over there. And I’ve got to say, my end of things for the firm was looking at what can we do in terms of firstly stemming the bleeding? Can we furlough some staff? Can we get the management team to take cuts, that kind of thing? And then secondly, looking at the available government support and saying, where can we secure short to medium term funding that will buy us time, essentially to find a new business model that really works and does support us and makes us sustainable. So, my end of things was very much there. The real bonus that we have is that we’re by product managers, for product managers, the heart of the team is a beating heart of product. So, people like Martin and Annalisa, who I mentioned earlier, and then Emily Tate, and a bunch of others on the team really got stuck into saying, we do content. That’s the core value that people know and love us for.
So how do we re-purpose that? How do we change that? And they started exploring incredibly quickly what we could take to market that people would find value in and pay us for. So, pretty much the Singapore conference was during March. We pivoted that into our first online event and essentially used that as a, we’re going to price it fairly low. We need to see the people will value it to the extent that they’ll pay for it. That’s the first test…Will people pay for online events? Proved that out, but also prove that we needed to iterate significantly in terms of the difference between running a physical event and running an online event. And there are huge challenges associated in doing so, particularly in the social interaction side of things.
You know, somebody sat on stage versus somebody sat on the screen, you’re watching a talk, you’re not engaging directly with the person on the stage, you’re watching a performance. So yeah, that sort of things that was fairly obvious as to how we might put that on a screen instead of on a stage. But everything around that, like the coffee meetings, the serendipitous corridor conversations meeting with the sponsors and building those relationships, we had to re-engineer and rethink an awful lot of what we were doing there.
So having a whole bunch of product people in the firm was incredibly powerful in terms of addressing those problems and thinking about how we might approach them and how we might resolve them. And the second thing that we started working on incredibly quickly was, as I say, that membership model to say an awful lot of our content will remain free on the web that will bring people to us, build the trust, build the relationships, that kind of thing. But then there’s some deep dive stuff and some super valuable stuff you’re going to pay for that access to that.
We don’t necessarily need you to be paying a lot. In the Western world, product management salaries are pretty damn decent. You can easily be talking 60, 80, a hundred grand a year, those kinds of numbers. So, if we can put a membership model together, there’s maybe $300 bucks a year for a mid-level person and $800 bucks a year for a leadership caliber person. So, somebody who’s a director or VP, there are north of a hundred thousand a year. They can afford $800 a year for ongoing professional development, especially bearing in mind, they’re going to get their company to pay it, or they’re going to write it off against tax. So essentially that’s the model that we look to explore incredibly quickly.
And, you know, we were, I think really blessed with the people that we have on the team that we were able to explore and get something to market incredibly fast on that as with anybody who’s ever built a SaaS platform, acquiring new customers, and building that subscription revenue takes a long time. It doesn’t happen overnight. So, we’re not back at where we were by any stretch, but we’re certainly in a position where we can say the model has proven itself. We think we’re doing things right. There’s still more to learn. There’s more to introduce, but we’ve got most of the team back in now. We’re gradually edging their hours back up to the point where hopefully we’ll get them all back full time by the end of the year at the absolute latest earlier, if we can, it’s safe to say it’s been a hell of a tough year, but we can see the light. Sean Weisbrot: Thank you for sharing that. It’s a very interesting story you share and the experience you’ve been through, but I think it’s, it’s extremely important. Not only to have those challenges, because it, it either makes you realize that the business is done or reinvigorates you and challenges you to make your business better. James Mayes: We will absolutely emerge from this a much, much stronger business because the, the online stuff that we’re building now, uh, the way that we’ve reformatted, the workshops to deliver that training to customers is actually getting better feedback than it did as physical classroom-based workshops. We’ve got smaller class sizes. We’re able to split it into smaller time blocks so people can absorb the material and decompress between sessions and the content side of things. It’s actually allowing us to invest much more heavily in some of the deep dive research than we ever did before. So that’s getting some really great feedback. And the one thing that we know is that conferences in some form will come back at some point, you know, as we discussed earlier, humans are humans. They like to connect with one another.
It’s, it’s the reason why you fundamentally won’t ever eliminate humans from the recruiting chain entirely. They’ll always be in there. And the same is true of conferences. People like to meet. They like to have those conversations. They like to build those relationships. So, it’s not going to be this year. It’s probably not going to be for a chunk of next year, but conferences will return at some point. In the meantime, we’re building a business as a sustainable based on its digital platform offerings. We’re already a fully remote team, we have been some from the start. So that makes us relatively immune to what the pandemic might do from this point forwards. If it lasts for three months, six months, nine months, we can survive. We’ve got a reasonable level of confidence in that. And when the real-world conferences do come back, fantastic, we’ll absolutely get back into that, but they then will be the icing on the cake.
You know, they’ll be the big annual celebrations of our audiences in various different parts of the world. And they’ll be the things that generate the revenue to allow us to go and say, Hey, we’re already sustainable based on our digital revenues. So, these physical conferences provide revenue that we can go invest in new products. And again, it means that we can invest more heavily in what we do in future without having to go and say, let’s go raise a round and give away a chunk of the company. The longer we can maintain control of our own destiny, the better.
Past and Future (27:40)
Sean Weisbrot: You may have covered this in your last answer, but I want to pinpoint something more specifically, like what’s the most important thing you’ve learned in 2020? James Mayes: I’ve always trusted my gut feel more than I have data. And this year working alongside product people and seeing what they’ve really been doing. I’m watching the journey that they’ve been on as they’ve proven out of this membership model. I, I now give a lot more weight to the data than I used to. My gut feel has trusted me well in terms of human interactions and relationship building, which customers we can work with and things like that. But in terms of actually putting a product into the market and launching something on that kind of scale, I have much, much more respect for the data than I ever used to. Sean Weisbrot: What is the next five years look like for Mind The Product? James Mayes: In terms of the content stuff that we’re doing, particularly in workshops and training, we spent the last six months converting from classrooms to online environments. And I think we’ve actually just started to scratch the surface of where we can truly go with that. So, I think we’ve got to be spending an awful lot more time and money building that side of things out. I’m really doing something special there. The initial feedback that we’re getting is just phenomenal. So, I think that’s going to be huge for us over the next few years.
Conferences, the physical conferences for someone like me, particularly the bit of the job that I love most is the evangelizing. It’s like bringing people together and getting them excited. That’s the core of me, which is why, you know, I build teams and I built events and, you know, they were all about bringing people together, getting them excited to go do a thing. Those physical conferences will return at some point. That’s the thing that I’ve always been the most excited about. But I think the, the team as a whole are getting so much better at figuring out where an opportunity lies and how we might test that and go do something interesting with it.
So, I think we’ve had an accelerated period of evolution forced by the pandemic situation, but we’re actually now really, really well-placed to go explore a whole bunch of new things over the next couple of years. I think the remainder of this year, and certainly the first half of next year is going to be around consolidating the things that we’ve done over the last six months and making sure that that content approach, the training approach, the membership approach, all of those things are really, really well bedded in running really smoothly. We’ve now put OKRs in place.
And that, that seems to be helping to focus everybody, particularly me. I tend to be very, very easily distracted by the shiny new things. So having that focus is fantastic. So, then I think six to nine months’ worth of really betting that in and proving out and making sure that everything is stable and consistent, and then starting to explore the new opportunities that come from that footprint. I think also it’s, it’s safe to say that the nature of our audience is changing rapidly, and we don’t yet know what out of that is going to stick. I think I’ve heard some arguments that conferences will return exactly as they used to be. I’ve heard other arguments say, well, actually everybody was traveling far too much. It had an adverse impact on people’s lifestyles.
It had an adverse impact on climate and actually conferences and conference travel in future will be significantly reduced, which may result in a smaller number of conferences with a smaller number of attendees, but actually a much higher touch style of event with a much more premium feel to it. That might well be a possibility, but I don’t think anybody yet knows for certain what that’s going to look like. So, I think as we start to see those patterns emerge over the next year or two, that will probably influence what the next five years looks like for Mind The Product.
James’ Advice (30:30)
Sean Weisbrot: So, what’s the most important piece of advice you could share with everyone listening? James Mayes: Uh, in terms of getting through this pandemic specifically, uh, in fact, just generally building a team is being incredibly transparent with your team. Everybody on the team could see the events, industry collapsing. They all knew that this was going to have an impact for their jokes at some point. So, we came out early, we talked to them, and we said, look, these are the things that we’re investigating is the furlough scheme is the government loan scheme. We don’t know how to survive, but we’re prepared as a management team to dump our salaries. And you know, you guys sit on for life. As soon as we figured out our way through this, we’ll keep talking to you. We’ll do, we’ll do updates every week. We’ll tell you what we’re working on. We’ll tell you when we think we can bring you back to work. Even if it’s two days a week, we built up from there, that level of transparency built a huge level of trust. And people have repaid that tenfold. Sean Weisbrot: It’s really important when we did that in April, it was not an easy conversation. I mean, I’ve always been very open with the team to a point where they probably aren’t used to having anyone be so honest with them, but you know, we broke out the ledger and we told them, this is how much we have. This is how much we’re spending. This is how much runway we have. We had to fire a few people and we had to cut everyone’s salaries. We made promises to them of at what point we raised funds; we can give you your original salaries back. At which point we can give you a raise. And because we’re sorry for you having to go through this, we’re going to give you more equity on your package, you know, as compensation. And they were like “okay, we understand.” James Mayes: And you know, we’ve, we’ve got a reputation of, as we’ve built the team over the last couple of years, there’s been a number of occasions where we’ve gone to people on the team and said, your work the last six months has been fricking awesome. You deserve a raise. This is what we’re putting in your paycheck from next month. And every time people turn around and say, I’ve never worked with a company. That’s done that for me before. I’ve always had to go ask them and tell them I deserve something. And it’s taking action like that. And being transparent about where your challenges lie. That’s the kind of thing that builds loyalty that you just, you, you can’t build anywhere any other way.
How to Follow-up with James (32:23)
Sean Weisbrot: Well, it’s been fun talking with you. How can the audience find you online? What, you know, what’s important for them to see, to follow up with you and Mind The Product. James Mayes: If they care about growth, building great products, then go check out Mind The Product, uh, we’ve got content, videos, workshops, conferences, all kinds of good things going on. Podcasts of our own. Look up the product experience. If you’re a podcast fan for me personally, I tend to spend most of my time interacting with people on Twitter. So, if anybody wants to follow up with me, come find me there. Sean Weisbrot: So, I’ll have the links to all of that in the show notes. So, you can go to our website and just look for James Mayes interviews. So, thanks a lot for your time. Appreciate it. Remember, entrepreneurship is a marathon, not a sprint. So, take care of yourself every day and make sure that you tell everyone in your life that you love them because every day is important.