Michael Jackson: VP of Product

Posted on November 4, 2009. Filed under: startups, Uncategorized | Tags: , , |

There is this illusive animal in startup land that every consumer facing internet company is searching for.  The mystical VP of Product, who has such a profound understanding of how the consumer will perceive your value proposition that they can sculpt a user experience to perfectly achieve the desired behavior and interaction.  Ask any venture capitalist what is the hardest position to fill with A-level talent, and they will speak of this unicorn hire. As I develop my own sense for what I am looking for in a product hire, I find myself strangely attracted to…Michael Jackson?

Despite a true sense of ambivalence toward the King of Pop and his recent departure, last night I went to see This Is It.  For those who haven’t seen it, the film documents MJ’s preparation and rehearsal leading up to what was supposed to be his sold out comeback tour after 10 years in hiding.  I guess I was expecting to watch a two hour window into the disturbing train wreck that was Michael’s life, but what I saw was a professional with amazing product vision and a maniacal focus on perfect execution.  It is apparent that he was able to experience his own product through the lens of his consumer (in this case ticket holders).  More impressive, was that he was able to drop in and out of that lens during his rehearsal (product development) and modify his product in real time without any user feedback (audience response).  It was as though he was experiencing his own product as he was creating it, with a preternatural understanding of how seemingly minor modifications would mean all the difference between a good user experience and the best user experience his consumer never expected.  This type of intuition is an intangible which is challenging to identify in an unproven product hire, but I think it is the “magic” from a talent perspective.

But talent alone is not enough to win on a product level.  Knowing nothing outside of this film, my guess is that the success of MJ’s product (measured strictly by impact, not dollars, although there were plenty) was as much a function of his motivation as it was of his talent.  Why did he care so much about creating this perfect product?  The tour was already sold out, he had nothing left to prove on a professional level, and he couldn’t possibly attain any greater fame.  Rather, his pursuit of perfection seemed to be entirely organic, motivated by a genuine desire to delight his audience.  This is what I dream about in a product person…Someone who gets off on getting our users off.

Lastly, I was amazed by the infrastructure that Jackson’s creative partner and stage director, Kenny Ortega, built around his product luminary.  For purposes of this startup analogy, we’ll call Kenny the CEO of the “This is It” tour, which would have been a $80M+ revenue enterprise just on London ticket sales.  Ortega’s entire function, in coordinating and managing what I’ll estimate to be about 100 contributors to the production (employees), was to eliminate the friction in Michael’s translation of his vision into an actual product.  Perhaps the lesson to take from this is that a great consumer company is built on the back of a great product.  Marketing, Bus Dev, Sales, Fundraising, and every other function deserve strong, but supporting roles.

So yea, if you’re the MJ of consumer internet products…holler, I’m working on something kickass.

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15 Responses to “Michael Jackson: VP of Product”

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Finally! I love it. Great start. Maybe the other MJ would’ve been a better choice though.

after five minutes of trying to think of something snarky to say about the King, i give up. Welcome to the blogosphere jordan.

Difference between you and the rest of us is you see linkages and ideas like this very clearly, and everyone else gets unclear pictures with the same data points. Pretty special start.

Shine on big man. Welcome to the dangerous world of blogging. I’ll continue my nonsense while you actually produce something useful.

quiet impressive, and i don’t get impressed
easily. This is a great start, can’t wait to read and learn more about you

Thai food is available for the office.

This is a really good post. You captured what it means to be great at product. 🙂

great post JC. you make an awesome parallel here. i like it. ps. i also like the tiny smiley face in the upper left.

very insightful. not surprising that MJ became
a product genius, as he (like Stevie Wonder)
was raised in that magical community around
Motown Records. Berry Gordy was one of the
greatest product guys of the 20th century.

exactly…New York startup community needs a couple of it’s own “Motown Records” to spit out the next generation of product visionaries…we have no Googles, Amazons or Facebooks to birth a wider talent pool…

That’s not quite exactly true. The Google/DoubleClick NYC offices have a pretty significant PM and Engineering pool these days. I would conservatively put it at 250+. Maybe more.

That’s a big number. I will now challenge you to name a single startup in NY that was founded by an ex NYC Googler…I can name 15 bay area startups that grew out of PayPal….

[…] I wrote yesterday about the qualities Michael Jackson embodies that I wish for in a VP of Product, and today I put forth Jim as an example of what I look for in a founder, or a co-founder for that matter.  With the last company I started, I picked my co-founder almost entirely on character (and of course competence and intelligence), because starting a company is fucking hard.  You need to run through wall, after wall, after wall, and keep on running, no matter how hard it gets.  People often site idea and execution as the two factors that dictate the success or failure of a startup.  Perhaps I’ll tack on gumption as a third, and say if you have the drive of my buddy Jim (and you’re the MJ of consumer internet products)…holler, I’m working on something kickass… […]

Fabulous post. And fabulous blog. Wish I lived in NYC so I could holler at you about becoming your MJ (not a parallel I’d ever drawn before).

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    I’m a NYC based investor and entrepreneur. I've started a few companies and a venture capital firm. You can email me at Jordan.Cooper@gmail.com (p.s. i don’t use spell check…deal with it)


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