We are beyond thrilled to have Mehrad Karamlou with us. Mehrad is the director of product at Viafoura. Viafoura is a Toronto-base company that sparks the power of digital communities, supporting thriving conversations across 600 media brands worldwide. Tune into our chat as we learn more about Mehrad’s career path, product development, and other tips.
Can you tell us a bit about your career path?
I’m happy that you guys are thinking about starting new companies out there and even getting into Product Management, I hope that things we discuss here would be of help.
I got my bachelor’s degree in Systems Design Engineering from University of Waterloo. If any of you is in the process of picking a university, I highly recommend University of Waterloo.
The co-op program facilitated my early exposure into different jobs.. It helped me learn what I like to do as much as what I don’t like to do.I did everything from Software Development, to Quality Assurance to Project Management. It was a great learning experience.
Additionally, as part of the engineering curriculum, we had to do a design project in the last year of our degree. So myself and few of my classmates worked on a platform which would provide personalized, constructive feedback to physiotherapy patients. This was more valuable for patients with mobility issues, since they wouldn’t need to commute to see a physiotherapist as often. We got some industry interest but eventually decided to wound the company down and figure out what to do with the IP.
Once that was over, I wanted to gain experience with web development and had a personal problem of figuring out things to do around town. I started this platform where as a user you’d be able to create personalized itineraries of interesting things to do around town for locals.
The unique value prop of the platform was the ability to design multi destination plans. We worked on that for a couple of years and grew the team to 10 people. We had about 20,000 active users at some point. The path to revenue was not necessarily straightforward, or easy. Eventually we had to make a decision on how much time and energy we want to spend on the company and decided not to continue that effort.
It was around the same time that we made that decision when I was approached by yet another startup called Focal Healthcare, a medical device company focused on improving prostate cancer diagnosis. I joined Focal Healthcare as a User Experience Architect. At the time there was a wide gap between the quality of medical device user interfaces and other commonly used devices doctors interact with, i.e. their smartphones. Most of the medical devices have very rigid and ugly interfaces. I realised that this is an opportunity to have an impact.
We really focused on simplicity of the design so that the doctors can focus on the patient and the procedure, not the device and it paid off.
Working at a small company allows you to wear different hats. I worked as UX Architect, Software Engineer, Corporate Strategy Manager, and landed in Product Management.
I realized Product Management is what I most like to do. I also really wanted to work with large data. I wanted to be able to look at user behavior and measure the impact of product decisions on them. It’s difficult to do that with medical devices since the user base is small. That’s why I joined Viafoura about three years ago.
I was responsible for a single product at the beginning and that number grew. Now I oversee all of our products (engagement, data and moderation). We’re growing the team so reach out to me if you are interested.
What does your daily work look like?
I can break it down into 3 major categories:
With focus on product delivery. That is defining features and prioritising them based on available resources.
It’s very important to really understand the problems that you’re trying to solve. And you can only do that by interacting with users all the time. I believe that is the most important part of any product managers job and I tend to spend a lot of time on it.
Product Strategy Planning:
Third biggest part is planning for longer term product strategy, product roadmapping and markets to go after. Developing value proposition canvases and business model canvases.
What tips do you have for those breaking into product careers?
That’s probably one of the most commonly asked questions which indicates that the path is not clear. There are many ways where you can get into a PM role: from Clients Success, Software development, Marketing and Business development. The reason is that PMs are essentially nodes many stakeholders connect to. So if you have experience with any of those stakeholders, you have a subset of the skills that makes you a good PM.
In general there are three main components to a good PM:
- Knowledge of the industry – PM should know the ins and outs of the industry.
- Knowledge of the company – PM’s should know the history of the company, goals and objectives, and intricacies of inter department departments interactions
- Knowledge of PM principles – PMs should know the basic principles and terminologies.
So if you want to get into a PM position, you need to have at least one (3 is better). That means you can go into a product position within your industry at a different company, to a product position within your company (from other positions mentioned before) or to an entry level PM role given you are well versed in principles of Product Management.
It is possible to go from having a startup to a PM position, it is one way of doing it. I wouldn’t recommend it as that is a very way of accomplishing that objective.
What tips do you have for product validation?
The most important part in my view is to really understand the problem. You need to really understand what the underlying issue is. Being organized on the problem discovery side makes everything else a lot easier.
One way of root cause analysis is the famous “5 why” method. With proper root cause analysis you can get to the core problems and have simple solutions that are easy to deliver.
Then you build hypotheses around the solutions you have in mind or the root cause itself. Your MVP is the means by which you test those hypotheses. It couple be research, mockups, low or high fidelity prototypes.
You have to fight the urge to test your hypothesis with fully built and scalable products as much as possible.
What makes a great MVP?
I think a great MVP is something that is very clear on the exact hypotheses it is testing.
If you need to build a functional prototype to get feedback, there are different categories of features that you need to keep in mind. These are: must haves, performance improvers and delighters. Must haves are things like authentication, password reset, avatar image, etc. Performance improvers are things like better filtered search, etc. And delighter are things that are unique to your product and audience. The mistake most PMs make is that they include 90% of the must haves, 10% of the performance improvements and none of the delighters in their MVPs. It is important to test something from all the mentioned categories, specially the delighters as they will have the most impact on your product adoption.
What makes a great product? Favorite products?
I’m a product person so I’m a bit more forgiving when it comes to things like usability issues or UI improvements. I know they are somewhere in the backlog and will get looked at. What I do care about most is the problem that the product is solving and how well it’s doing it. One of my favorite products which I use often is the Flash Food app. It’s a very simple but well made app that helps with reducing waste and reducing carbon emissions while saving money. Obviously, there are things that I would like to improve about the app but they really got a good cause behind their product so I don’t mind waiting.
How do you stay motivated?
What motivates me personally is to focus on issues that are important to me. Right now the focus is on misinformation and disinformation and what we can do to reduce their impact on our society and values.
This is something that we take great pride in at Viafoura we help many Canadian publishers (CBC, Sportsnet, Toronto Star, Postmedia, etc) build online communities while making sure that our opinions and population in Canada are not influenced by incorrect information.
I think the root cause of all issues is uninformed decision making. Especially decisions on matters that are backed by science and data. These should not be debated. We should debate on the actions we need to take based on those facts.
So in short, keep that goal in mind, do something that you like and is important to you and it should keep you motivated. If it’s not, pick a new goal.
What’s the best advice you have gotten?
“If you want something really bad, it happens.” So don’t get discouraged. Realize that achieving an objective requires practice and time. Failure is a rite of passage, don’t let that discourage you from getting to what you want. Nothing big has been achieved easily. Anything big requires a lot of dedication. The path to success has many failures so keep going. It’ll all be fine.