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How climbing Kilimanjaro made me a better Product Manager

By Sílvia Coimbra
Sílvia Coimbra
Believer that infinite curiosity may take you everywhere. Also, member of Ganni girl gang.
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How climbing Kilimanjaro made me a better Product Manager
In 2016, I challenged myself to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and raise money to build a school for refugee children. Partnering with a non-profit organisation (CatalyticAction), I created a crowdfunding campaign and opened it to the world. The message was pretty simple: 1 euro = 1 meter of altitude.

Everyone could join and support the journey, one meter at a time. To be able to reach the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, I would need to raise an ambitious 5,895€ (matching Kili’s 5,895 meters altitude), with all the money going to CatalyticAction.

The results exceeded all my expectations. 6,226€ raised. 136 donors. More than 500 shares on social networks. Coverage on the Portuguese national television (RTP). One new school for 320 refugee children. All in just 15 days.

The personal reward I took from the whole experience is not so easily measured. The meaningful rewards don’t come in the form of praise or numbers, but instead in learning, gratitude and love. In the end, we are the sum of everyone we have ever met, of everything we ever did.

There are five important lessons I took from doing this challenge, that I apply to my everyday job of Product Manager.

Lesson #1: Why, why, why: go back to first principles

I started with the quest to help refugees in war zones. Without specific knowledge or experience, my first step was to gather as much information as possible and ask a lot of questions, mainly around:
  • The refugee crisis -  what was actually happening? How real was the message from the Media?
  • Non-profit organisations - who were the players and what were they doing? Was it better to partner with a small or big organisation? How were they measuring impact?
  • Different options for helping - what would be the best approach to contribute positively to the refugee crisis - money, time, energy, capabilities?
Only after answering all those questions, I came to the conclusion that the best thing I could do was to partner with a small established organisation and create a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to build a school for Syrian refugee children in Lebanon.

As a product manager, we always start with a problem or customer need we want to solve. It sounds obvious when I say the first step should be a deep understanding of the problem in hand, however we tend to see companies running directly to the solution as the initial thinking process is not viewed as an exciting part of it  - yet I believe it is one of the most important things a product manager can do.

My favourite reasoning approach is First Principles, mostly spread by Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX. First Principles thinking is the practice of actively questioning every assumption you think you ‘know’ about a given problem, and then creating new knowledge and solutions from scratch.

"In 2002, Musk began his quest to send the first rocket to Mars—an idea that would eventually become the aerospace company SpaceX.

He ran into a major challenge right off the bat. After visiting a number of aerospace manufacturers around the world, Musk discovered the cost of purchasing a rocket was astronomical—up to $65 million. Given the high price, he began to rethink the problem.

'I tend to approach things from a physics framework.' Musk said in an interview. 'Physics teaches you to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. So I said, okay, let’s look at the first principles. What is a rocket made of? Aerospace-grade aluminium alloys, plus some titanium, copper, and carbon fibre. Then I asked, what is the value of those materials on the commodity market? It turned out that the materials cost of a rocket was around 2% of the typical price.' Instead of buying a finished rocket for tens of millions, Musk decided to create his own company, purchase the raw materials for cheap, and build the rockets himself. SpaceX was born.

Within a few years, SpaceX had cut the price of launching a rocket by nearly 10x while still making a profit. Musk used first principles thinking to break the situation down to the fundamentals, bypass the high prices of the aerospace industry, and create a more effective solution."

Obsessing about the problem and its root cause before running into solutions will drastically reduce the likelihood of building something that isn't valuable or useful to people.

Lesson # 2: Know your customers and ask "What are you doing differently?"

After deciding what to do, I started questioning myself how I could do something differently. I knew creating a standard crowdfunding campaign on Facebook wouldn’t be enough to meet the target of 5,985€. My target customers were my direct and indirect network: mostly young people, meaning-oriented, impact seekers with fast-paced lives and a short attention span. They needed novelty, surprise and inspiration. With that in mind, I joined climbing Kilimanjaro to the equation.

Raising all that money was a big challenge. So I wanted to do something that could represent it well and show my commitment to supporting the project. Something both scary and exciting. Climbing Kilimanjaro seemed crazy enough. Nowhere else on Earth is it possible to scale a mountain of such a height without crampons, ice picks and a frozen nose. So, Kili was the perfect choice: the add-on that would take the project from standard to inspirational.

Getting to that decision was only possible through empathy - a very important capability for product managers when it comes to knowing their users. Data and numbers can give you great insights, identifying what customers are doing, and even predicting what they will be doing in the future.  However, only human interaction will allow you to build empathy for the people who will use or be impacted by your products. Gathering user feedback - by conducting/observing research, doing customer support, and talking with an existing or prospective customer, will allow you to understand customers aspirations, motivations and desires as well. Empathy usually results in a more open mind, free of assumptions and egos and it is a better way to listen and observe.

Lesson # 3: Storytelling - the power of turning chaos into simplicity

At this point of the project, I had the following variables: climbing Africa’s tallest mountain, supporting children’s education, Syrian refugees in Lebanon, a non-profit organisation in the UK - four countries, unrelated activities and no background to justify any of the correlation. Pretty random.

Adding to that, we’re living in an era of ‘Big Data’ information overload. There is too much data chasing too little mindshare these days. I knew my customers would give me 1.5 seconds of their time and attention. So how could I tell a simple and inspiring story? Ultimately, after a lot of invisible hard-work, my story was simplified to 1 euro = 1 meter of altitude.

The same happens in product management. People don’t buy a product because of individual features. They buy it because of the value it delivers - so it’s really important as product managers to think about the story you need to tell, especially when you are launching new innovative products, which don’t fit in an existing category, your customers don’t yet know they need it.  It becomes your responsibility to explain and tell them how their lives will improve and for you to inspire them to try it.

Personally, I believe good storytelling comes down to the pursuit of simplicity. So much has been written about simplicity in the past decades - from the Ten principles of design by Dieter Rams to the "Laws of Simplicity” by John Maeda. There is a fundamental difference between making a story simple, and making a simple story. Making a story (or product) simple means removing all unnecessary complexity so that every user can easily understand. Making a simple story (or simple product) is about scoping down or deliberately choosing to focus on the smaller/easiest parts of it.

Lesson # 4: Gather all the feedback you can and then have the courage to ignore it

I am a strong believer in the power of collaboration and how the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. So naturally, during the whole campaign I asked and validated my plan with a bunch of different people. Climbing for the kids wouldn’t have been possible without the help of so many amazing people. I reached out to not only close friends and people in my professional network but also to university professors I had never met before - it’s always impressive to see how everyone is so willing to help.

Every single of them gave me very valuable feedback and improvement ideas that have made the project much better and bigger - one university professor offered the support of two of their consultants to do more detail research about people charity behaviour. However, some ideas didn’t fully fit my initial scope and deadlines or were not completely aligned with my core values. So I thanked them and decided to move forward without their suggestions.

Having the courage to ignore feedback often happens as a product manager. New users can’t fairly assess your product, existing users will ask for features not aligned with the product strategy, teammates will have different opinions about how to solve a problem, commercial teams will base their opinion on the next big lead. The media will be listing the must-have features your product is missing. Really, everyone will have an opinion about it. Personally, I hear them all but make sure I assess each of them before any kind of implementation.

Lesson # 5: Focus on the goal, the rest is just steps

One week before flying to Tanzania, a journalist from a national newspaper asked me "What happens if you don’t reach the top?”. Surprisingly I had never thought about that so I simply answered: "that is not even an option”. And it really wasn’t - I had decided long ago I was going to get there.

Climbing Kilimanjaro is not as hard as it seems. It is about mental resilience, focusing on the goal, and moving forward. Of course, not everything is flowers and rainbows: for seven days you walk for eight hours, you have no shower or toilet, legs hurt, nights are insanely cold so you never really rest and the low oxygen makes it hard to breathe. However, once you reach the summit those are only small details of a much bigger and meaningful journey.

During the seven days, the summit night is the hardest one. You reach the basecamp at 4,200m high at 4 pm, have dinner at 6 pm and sleep from 8 pm to 10 pm. At 11 pm you start an 8-hour climb to reach the top (5,895m) at sunrise. During those 8 hours, I constantly doubted myself "There’s no way I can do it. How can I go back home and say to all those people I didn’t make it?”  I was so tired and oxygen was so low I couldn’t reach the water bottle in my backpack (it involved moving my arm 10 cm), but it’s impressive how our minds can deal with extreme situations: I emptied my mind and entered automation mode. Not a single thought. Only one step after another. And breathing.

So whenever your motivation drops and everything seems to be against you, you should always find the drivers that will allow you to overcome it, and take one step. And then another. Product managers will know the feeling.
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