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Crossing the Chasm Between Value and ROI

Managing Expectations
Product
Career Path

15 July, 2021

Ryan Luu
Ryan Luu

Group Product Manager at The Washington Post

Ryan Luu, Senior Product Manager at the Washington Post, taps into his experience to explain how not every product that brings value to users can be made profitable.

Problem

In the early entrepreneurial days of my career, I identified an opportunity to discover online videos faster. It was back in the days, long before auto-playing videos or moving thumbnails became popular. I found a way to create brief previews of videos to inform and entice users that would resemble a short trailer played before a video. Since it was evident that this product had clear value for users, we started to build a technical solution -- a web app that would pull videos and create previews for them.

However, I knew little of the difference between creating a good product and creating a profitable business at that time. A good product is something that offers value to users, but there is no guarantee that the same product would be profitable. I had a hard time transitioning from building something that would offer users value while ensuring ROI. But failing to cross that chasm served as a learning opportunity that ultimately drove me to the PM career.

Actions taken

The problem that troubled us from the start was that we didn’t own content that we pulled from YouTube, Vimeo, and other video sources. Fascinated by our own solution, we disregarded that all of those companies had strict rules about putting up advertising or any monetization mechanism in front of content they own. We went ahead and integrated our viewing mechanism with Reddit, which enabled us to surface all the best online videos from different Reddit communities. Though we created spaces for users to go, view content, and interact, we were unable to monetize any of it.

We spent significant time trying to workaround monetization. We got looped into perplexing legal and compliance issues and eventually gave up. But the whole process of understanding the difference between a product and business was life-changing. If I could go back, I would frame it as a project and a learning opportunity that got me to participate in a full product development life cycle. I got to do it all: user research, interviews, design work, creation of a prototype, front- and back-end development, launching, user feedback collection, etc.

It was a product that was bringing a lot of value to users. People on Reddit adored it, and we had 500,000 users at one point. Our recurring users would spend 20 minutes on the service, which is an exceedingly high session duration, and on top of that, we also had decent user retention. So, in terms of developing a valuable product, we reached a mark, but the business side of it just wasn’t there. Our product ended up being a feature of services that now exist -- such as autoplaying video or the ability to hover and preview YouTube thumbnails --, but rather than being the core of their business, it's a feature that enables a better user experience.

Lessons learned

  • Understand the role you want to play in a product life cycle. I was still confused if I wanted to be a front-end developer, designer, or if I wanted to be on the business and marketing side of things. Ultimately I wanted to be at the center of it all. That meant creating the vision, defining priorities, leading a product team, which in the end brought me to product management. The whole process helped me identify what role I wanted to play in building tech products.
  • It is worth pursuing projects that fall under your area of interest and where you’re energized. Multimedia is something I am passionate about, which led me to become a senior product manager at the Washington Post. I get to lead multimedia development at such a renowned organization, but it all stemmed from my failed startup experience, where I found my passion. My failed experience helped me understand what type of products I want to build, and creating those projects was the most valuable exercise.

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