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Interview: Bob Moesta (Part 1 of 2)

Co-founder & Chief Strategy Officer, Intercom

Des Traynor

@destraynor

For your product to succeed, you have to understand the mechanisms of value. What’s valuable, and when?

A recent post titled Focus on the Job, Not the Customer explored the Jobs To Be Done (JTBD) method as a means of improving a product. Since then the idea seems to have caught on and has been explored on many different blogs, videos, podcasts and more. Bob Moesta has spent most of his career profiting off this style of designing and improving products, and now works with Professor Clay Christenson helping to develop an online course to help teach it to entrepreneurs. In addition, Bob applies JTBD directly through his company The Rewired Group.

I interviewed Bob earlier this month to ask specific questions about Jobs To Be Done. There’s audio of the entire interview, and I’ve transcribed the relevant pieces into two separate posts. This first one focuses on why this method is gaining such traction right now, how it works, and how to build a brand around a job to be done.

Who is Bob Moesta?

Des: Welcome, Bob. Can you give our readers and listeners a little background of what the Rewired group does, and discuss your role within the group?

Bob: Our business is set up in two areas. One area is that we help large, Fortune 500 companies find innovation, find whitespace, and then help them develop new products and services that will go into that whitespace based on the Jobs To Be Done framework. The other half is an incubator where we help technology companies build and scale their businesses. Half the time we’re entrepreneurs, and the other half we’re consultants. We’d all love to be more entrepreneurial, but at the same time the consulting work provides insights into the problems and issues of bringing innovation to market. We actually like to do both.

Des: That’s a split most of our listeners will be familiar with. Many of our listeners will be start-ups either spun out of, or dependent on, consulting businesses.

Bob: Exactly. One point being that when we work with Fortune 500 companies, we exclude ourselves from any of the verticals that we work within. We consult in areas like consumer packaged goods, medical devices, education, and all the start-up stuff we do is not in those spaces, we stay far away from those verticals.

Why is Jobs To Be Done Popular Now?

Des: Looking at Jobs To Be Done, it seems to have hit a wave of incredible popularity. Since I first heard of it back at the Business of Software in Boston, I’ve seen numerous writers, analysts, designers, entrepreneurs, everyone from Asymco who runs Critical Path through to Ryan Singer, a product manager at 37Signals, seems to be talking about it lately. Yet the papers cite examples dating back to the 1980’s/ early 90’s.

Is now the right time for Jobs To Be Done thinking, or has it always been here?

Bob: It has always been here. I was in the consulting business until ’99 and then I decided to just go and apply it. In building 3 startups and selling them, I found utilizing the framework has been very powerful. I got frustrated in trying to teach people how to use it, and then Clay reached out about 3 years ago and said “I need some help with this and you live and breathe it”. It’s pretty much part of my DNA. Clay asked me to come back and help in the medical and education space. When Clay asks for help, I always respond.

But the popularity is coming for three different reasons. The first reason is that Clay is promoting it a lot more, and it is an essential part of disruptive innovation. Products get pulled into scenarios or situations that they’re not really suited to do, but as the market continues to progress we settle for certain things.

Secondly I think it’s hard from a marketing perspective to market the product and yet find places where people are using it in extreme situations and realise that that’s an opportunity. You end up tweaking the market and it doesn’t work. A lot of the ways people tried to find whitespace puts their current products at risk. It’s very hard for people to modify their current product to go after areas where people are struggling. So the jobs framework isn’t a “top-down” category, where you start with a product category and go after it. It’s literally starting with situational context and motivation, and then aggregating things up. As markets get saturated, you find you need different methodologies to turn to.

The third thing is that a lot of existing marketing methodologies are geared to finding large markets as opposed to finding niches and growing them. It’s the difference between hatching a 50 million dollar business, versus seeding a business that people then migrate to. JTBD is definitely about seeding one. It’s for finding existing behaviours where people are struggling to innovate, as opposed to say, hatch these big businesses.

Des: Hatching versus seeding is interesting distinction. That’s the key difference between how a start-up can apply this sort of thinking versus how Coca Cola could apply this type of thinking.

Bob: Yeah, that’s right. I guess that’s another reason why it’s suddenly popular. Theres lots of people promoting it now using common terms, we’re partnering with people who are willing to publish papers on it, and in addition there are people such as yourself who are willing to talk and interview me on these things.

Des: Certainly a lot of ideas can catch on simply through the appropriate use of words; for example, the Lean Startup Methodology. The naming was crucial. It was phrased in such a way that everyone wants. No one wants Fat Startups, or Clumsy Programming. The way the terms evolve help enormously for spreading ideas.

Bob: Yep, I agree wholeheartedly.

Abstracting on the Job To Be Done

Des: I’d like to turn to a couple of the questions that come at me when I explain Jobs To Be Done. Taking the classic milkshake example, people understand it immediately but then come back with the same question. How do I know when to stop abstracting?

In the case of the milkshake the abstractions stopped at “solving the boredom of a long commute” but why didn’t it go further to a faster car, or a different job. Both of those address the problem too. Similarly if we stopped shorter, a bigger milkshake or a pre-buttered bagel would also do it.

Is it easy to know when you’ve identified the job that your product solves?

Bob: The short answer is no. It’s not easy. The place I stop, is where I can find adjacent categories I’m stealing from. When people are growing a category, there’s no real growth, you’re stealing from some other category. Podcasts are stealing from magazines, people are buying less magazines and books because they can listen to podcasts. So it’s looking at it and trying to understand the adjacent categories from the consumer side.

The jobs approach is not that unique. There’s a lot of people at Ideo and people in industrial design who have an empathetic methodology which lets them understand why people are choosing. It’s important to understand the true consideration set.

In the Rewired Group we talk about Demand-side Innovation. Consumers are the ones who are struggling, so we stop abstracting when consumers can’t think about it. It’s about getting into their head and finding out where they’re struggling, then working out how far you can go before they literally won’t believe what you have is a solution to the problem they’re experiencing. So a consumer hungry on the way to work isn’t thinking “Hmm I need a faster car or a different job”.

Des: Do you have a software example of how this would identifiable?

Bob: Sure, so let’s talk about Microsoft Word. The consideration could be “What else are they gonna use to capture their thoughts”. You’re not gonna go to something real broad but at the same time you want to realise that Word does compete with an audio recorder in some circumstance, and it does compete with paper and pen. It’s not just software it competes with. It’s about how am I hiring it or not hiring based on the situations I’m in, and the jobs I’m trying to do.

Finding Lines of Integration

Des: What do you do when a product does more than one job? Even take a milkshake. One job is to taste good with a burger, another might be the commuter in the morning, another could be the father buying one for their child? The paper says that if you aggregate you get this one-size-fits-none product, so what do you do? Do you split the product? Offer the same product with different branding?

Bob: That’s a great question. It’s one of the problems we’ve been struggling with how to articulate. I’ll put it this way…

I’m an engineer. The difference between an engineer and a scientist is that an engineer makes something work economically so the company you work for makes a profit. It’s all about managing trade-offs. To me, every product does multiple jobs; the question is at what point do you find a conflict between one job and another. So with cars it could be wanting to go fast, and say, gas mileage. There’s a point where people will not buy if you violate these attributes.

We talk about these things called “lines of integration”. Most people integrate along attributes, or benefits. What we try to do is integrate along the lines of value. We look at how people are measuring “doing the job”. Once you find a conflict between doing one job and doing another job, you see if you can separate the mechanisms of how you deliver it. That’s how to decide to say “okay I’m trying to build a word processor for the medical community” vs “a word processor for education”. If those two jobs have different value codes, then I can separate them into different products. If I can find a way to do both, then I don’t keep them apart. So it’s about finding those conflicts of interest, and conflicts of value proposition, not from a benefit perspective, but from a performance perspective.

So jobs is really about understanding the mechanisms of value. What is the customer trying to get done, and how do they actually measure how a product does what they want it do to.

Modularity in products

Des: The software engineer in me is thinking what about modular platforms. What about building a base level of functionality, and then offering plugins for addressing different jobs? Right now while I’m talking to you I’m using a call recording plugin for Skype, for example. Is this modular architecture something you see as being wise for product strategy?

Bob:Yeah, so me and Clay talk about modularity all the time. People often over-engineer the product so it includes too many features, what happens is that it’s not just a cost aspect. It’s a complexity aspect. People can’t figure your product out. Not just from a usability perspective, but from a brand perspective. What is the product about?

So the more you can make it modular and then extend it, the greater the amount of value you add. It’s really about getting down to situations where people value the same kinds of things and are searching for the same kinds of things. It’s looking at it from the physical side of things, with the use case, and then also from the social and emotional side, that you lay on top of it.

Building a Brand

Des: How does this modularity work with branding? How do you build a brand that permits you to extend to various verticals? Do you build a brand on a more abstract idea? Like “think different”?

Bob: I subscribe to the David Aaker approach to branding where we have an endorser brand, a driver brand, a descriptor brand and an ingredient brand. So each brand has a job. The endorser is saying, basically, you fall in this area. So let’s take a laptop for example.

IBM is the endorser brand, Thinkpad is the driver brand, it defines a type of laptop, the descriptor brand says 700i or whatever and then you have ingredient brands, which is like Intel Inside or whatever.

It took me a long time to realise that most new purchases and switching happens in the mind. You have to be able to articulate this for them. The better you organise your brand the better you can communicate that you can help them solve their problem.

Part two of the interview can be found here.