Paul Jackson is the Director of Product at Newsmart, a UK-based digital service that helps international professionals master business English via premium news content. In addition to being a SaaS product and services manager for over 15 years, Paul also curates and publishes the widely popular weekly product management newsletter Pivot Product Hits.
We were lucky enough to chat with Paul and pick his brain on the transformation of digital products, how the product manager role has evolved in a short amount of time, and which fellow PM thought leaders he swears by.
Hi, Paul. Tell us a bit about your background.
Paul: My background is predominantly in user experience and interface design. The UK — and London in particular — is a very service-oriented economy, so agencies tend to predominate more than startups. That’s changing now but a lot of UX and Product folk came up through agencies like AKQA, LBi and Sapient — including me. Incidentally, these are now being surpassed by ‘Digital Product Studios’, like UsTwo. I’m old enough to remember the days before UX was an established title — in fact my first role was as a “Usability Engineer” and, after that, “Information Architect.”
Veterans reading this will recall how much time was spent in those days articulating what User Experience was to skeptical designers, engineers, and business folk. Product Management is, in many ways, following a similar trajectory. A lot of time is still spent answering the question ‘What exactly do you do?’ Like UX, it’s still an awkward question to get from a complete stranger.
I crossed over to Product Management about 5 years ago, when mobile was in its ascendancy in media. I started managing the tablet apps for The Times and The Sunday Times, two of the UK’s leading newspapers. Digital was then seen as more of a threat than an opportunity and Product Managers were in the frontline of fierce debates between editorial and technology about “Who owns the product?”
What kinds of problems is Newsmart solving for its users?
A huge global trend that is rarely discussed in the West (for obvious reasons) is the degree to which English is becoming the de facto international language. In most regions of the world, knowledge of English is integral to any notion of self-advancement. This is a grassroots phenomenon, not the result of any Western government agenda.
Changes are occurring that are unprecedented. Japanese corporations like Uniqlo and Nissan are embracing English as their internal language despite the majority of employees still being native Japanese-speakers. This is having a massive cultural effect, especially as English proficiency is traditionally quite low.
Initiatives like these are creating a market for new digital services. Much of the EFL (English as a Foreign Language) industry remains grounded in traditional classroom-based methods of learning. Most e-learning products are basically digitized course books.
Newsmart is an e-learning SaaS product that adds a “learning layer” to daily news content from the Wall Street Journal. For users, it solves the problem that language learning is boring (and the content dated and irrelevant) especially for engineers, senior managers and executives who don’t have time to attend classes and need programs that adapt to their schedules.
For the business (in this case Dow Jones), it’s pioneering new forms of monetization and revenue from their core assets. I’m a firm believer in the value of professional journalism but the economics of content businesses are under intense pressure as traditional business models decline.
The market for digital English-language teaching is huge but it’s dominated by free vendors that cater to lower levels of proficiency. Newsmart’s strategy is to become the executive choice for business English. Users improve their English whilst learning about the latest developments in virtual reality, big tech, and bitcoin from the WSJ.
What blogs, podcasts, and other thought leadership do you like to turn to for inspiration?
Basically, all of them. My newsletter focuses exclusively on content from the previous 7 days so I’m on a perpetual quest for high quality articles and videos for the next edition.We’re in a halcyon era of product management content right now. Click To Tweet
We’re in a halcyon era of product management content right now. In the two years since I’ve been publishing the newsletter, there’s been an explosion of output from Product Managers via Medium and on forums like Quora, Quibb, and Mind the Product.
Any particular shout outs you would like to make?
There are new authors, blogs, and Slack communities emerging all the time. The ones that stand out are the most frequent and consistent. Front of mind would be companies like FirstRound Capital and Intercom, and individual PMs like Cliff Gilley, Rich Mironov, Roman Pichler, Ken Norton, and Marty Cagan (of course).
I’d also have to mention Ben Thompson and his Stratechery reports on the product strategy of Unicorns. Stratechery is one of the few newsletters that’s well worth paying for.