Episode 62

Project Management vs. Product Management for Education Entrepreneurs

In today’s LMScast, Chris Badgett talks with Sebastian Cazacu about product management and project management for education entrepreneurs. Sebastian is a project management consultant and trainer who expanded into the online courses business a few years ago. His expertise in project management can help as you’re planning and strategizing your online courses.

Many people get confused when they think about product management versus project management. Managing the product means to manage the business, because the product is the value generation engine in your business. So whenever you say product management, it means you’re managing all aspects of your business involving the product, starting with envisioning, creating, and selling the product, and also delivering and supporting the product. All these aspects are related to the product as the core part of your business. And for an education entrepreneur, the product is their course or education product.

Project management means to manage the work that you need to do in order to achieve various objectives as you advance your business. When you’re executing a project, the result of that project will be the product.

When applying a product management versus project management approach, it’s important for education entrepreneurs to establish a product life cycle. The first phase is to clearly strategize your product into something you can create an action plan for. The second phase is to experiment and test your assumptions about your product. The third phase is growing your business and improving your processes.

Education entrepreneurs should consider which learning management system they’re going to use before finalizing their online course strategy, because their choice of LMS will also help shape their product through the tools and features available in the LMS.

Our LifterLMS course development platform has built-in features to let you engage with students, combine courses together into a certification program, and offer a free sample lesson as part of the course marketing strategy. Try a demo of lifterLMS and see for yourself what it can do for you.

You can get more information about Sebastian’s planning guide to help education entrepreneurs make better choices as they strategize their business at EducationProjectRoadmap.com.

Remember to subscribe to our newsletter for updates, developments, and future episodes of LMScast. Thank you for joining us.

And if you’re an already successful expert, teacher or entrepreneur looking to grow, check out the LifterLMS team’s signature service called Boost. It’s a complete done for you set up service where your learning platform goes live in just 5 days.

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Christopher: Hello, Everyone, and welcome to this episode of LMScast. I’m Christopher Badgett, and I’m joined today with Sebastian Cazacu. Today we’re going to be talking a little bit about project management, what management means, and getting into some business life cycle stuff that you can apply to your courses.

Sebastian, thank you for coming on the show and tell us a little bit about yourself. Who are you, and what do you do?

Sebastian: Hi, Chris. Thank you for inviting me. I’m Sebastian Cazacu. I’m doing project management consulting and training. For the last 15 years I have combined training practice with consulting for various projects for various industries. Lately I decided to expand my business horizon into this online courses business. Three years ago I did my first online course about project management certification. It was a very cool experience to me, and I decided to take it as a, as a full time job let’s say, as a full time practice. I thought that my expertise in project management could be useful for a lot of entrepreneurs … education entrepreneurs, especially solopreneurs, because project management, usually it’s perceived as being the corporate discipline. The thing is, you can, you can benefit a lot from using project management even if you are one person show. This is why I’m here. Because you invited me once again.

Christopher: That’s awesome. We’re glad to have you. What’s the difference between managing the project or managing the product as it relates to online courses and education entrepreneurs?

Sebastian: That’s a very good question, especially because many people are making this confusion between the product management discipline or expertise and project management. You see, managing the product means actually to manage the business, because the product is the value generation engine in your business. So whenever you say product management, it means you’re managing all aspects of your business which are involving the product, starting with envisioning the product, creating the product, selling the product through different various marketing techniques, but also delivering and supporting the product. All these aspects are related to the product as the core part of your business.

Christopher: In this case, we’re talking about a course that’s the product, right?

Sebastian: Of course. Whenever I say product in our case means the course or an education product. It could be a series of webinars, it could be a coaching program. It is a product, and I could add one more thing, because usually people distinguish between products and services as being different things. As a matter of fact, we should distinguish between goods and services. They are all products, but digital goods, for instance, are what we usually call information products. They are tangible, they are storable, whereas the services in our case would be the service of teaching a particular piece of content, a particular online course. The truth is we need both in education-based business. My product in our case, I mean both goods and services.

Coming back to your question, since product management means to manage your overall business, project management, on the other hand, means to manage the work that you need to do in order to achieve various objectives as you progress your business. It’s a different, it’s a different approach, let’s say, but they are complimentary. Usually we say that the product, in our case a course or an education program, is actually the result of performing or executing a project. Whenever you’re running a project, the result of that project will be the product, the course, or the combination of content and services that you are delivering along with the content.

There are different disciplines, however, and they need to be somehow integrated into a coherent approach. Otherwise people might feel a little bit confused about which comes first, which comes next. A good practice on that, a recommended practice on that would be to have an integrated approach to combine product management, which is the front-end of your business, with project management, which is actually dealing with everything you do to create all the deliverables, let’s say, or to achieve specific milestones in your product life cycle.

Christopher: Is there a particular ratio that’s healthy, like for example 50/50 or 80/20, or do you know is there like a metric there?

Sebastian: I’m not sure I could, I could indicate a precise metric on that. This is because the particular ratio of product and project management depends very much on the complexity of the product, but also on the complexity of the work you’re doing to create, to sell, and to deliver that product. The thing is, each product, in our case education products, requires a particular approach, because product management is used in many industries. Actually product management has been developed in automotive industry but is now used in everything we develop, software development for instance is one of the good examples that uses product management along with project management. I wouldn’t be able to give a precise ratio between product and project management.

Christopher: That’s cool. That makes a lot of sense. Some of our audience are solopreneurs, so I think the important note there is if you’re a one-person show, you need to be able to wear both hats and switch between the two. Like, okay, I’m a teacher now. Okay, now I’m running a business. Is that like a very simple way to say it?

Sebastian: Yes. This is one of the challenges actually in applying project management and product management in this particular business. Because in a corporation, you have multiple people working on a product, working on a project, and you have different roles. In a way it’s much easier to separate different types of work if you have multiple people, multiple roles. Whereas in a solopreneur scenario, you need to do everything on your own, or maybe you have just a very small team, maybe virtual assistants or something like that. That’s one of the reasons for putting more emphasis on the process, because if you have a sound process but a simple one, you’ll be able to apply good project management practices, even if you’re working alone.

Christopher: What’s the first step in applying a project in product management approach? Is it developing that process, or what is it?

Sebastian: That could be an option, to develop your own process. However, the effort that you need to invest in developing your own process could be overwhelming. It takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of experience in project management if you want to develop your own process.

Christopher: You’re saying don’t reinvent the wheel?

Sebastian: Exactly. Thank you. That’s the theory here. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Rather than reinventing the wheel, try to use as much as you can experience that has been created by the people, and we have a lot of documented experience in this field to use. You don’t need actually, you can get it, because it has been tested, it has been used in many industries, including eLearning industry. As a matter of fact, eLearning, when we say eLearning we tend to think only about solopreneurs like us or small companies, but eLearning and education projects may come up in corporation environments as well, in corporate environment. I mean there are a lot of companies using education products or online courses to support other business objectives, not necessarily to sell their courses, but to support visions of other objectives. As a matter of fact, I believe you are doing that with your own product. You are providing education content, education product, to support your core product, which is LifterLMS, not the course itself.

Christopher: Absolutely. Yeah, we have something called CourseClinic rolling out very soon to support the education entrepreneurs and try to lay down some of those frameworks.

Sebastian: That sounds very interesting. What was it again?

Christopher: CourseClinic.

Sebastian: That sounds interesting.

Christopher: What is, I mean so what is that first step?

Sebastian: Coming back to our first topic which was about product versus project management, I would strongly recommend that first step would be to clarify and to establish what we call a product life cycle. This means to have a complete picture in your mind about the way you’ll do business with a course, with an education product. Without going into too many details in this episode, because we could talk for hours about this product life cycle, I would suggest to keep it very simple, having just three major phases.

The first one would be to strategize your business, your product, which means to turn your idea into a clear strategy, into something that you can plan and create an action plan for it. Having just an idea is not enough to start a business, we all know that. The purpose of this, of this first phase, is to turn your seed vision or idea about what you could teach into a clear strategy on how to make money out of it or how to support other business objectives or even other non-profit, not for profit objectives. Because I know a lot of people using eLearning, for instance, in raising funds or supporting charities or other causes. When I say business, I mean the objective that you want to achieve, not necessarily making money.

The second phase of this life cycle would be to test your assumptions, because in strategizing your business, you’re making a lot of assumptions. You don’t know for sure what your customers need, what your customers want. You don’t know for sure how will you run your business. You need to do a little bit of experiment on that. You need to learn about the product, you need to learn about yourself as well. About your capability of delivering of creating different deliverables within the business life cycle. That’s the purpose of the second phase experiment. It’s based on the idea that you’ll be able to grow your business after you learned enough about what you need to do.

Before stepping up to the highest level of business, you need to learn first. You need to experiment. You need to work with a selected group of people as early adopters or VIP customers. You can call them whatever you want, but it’s really important to do a little bit of experiment. At the end of this phase you will be able to create a new strategy. This time it will be a growth strategy, which is the content actually of the next and last phase, which is boost your business.

The third phase is boosting your business, it’s growing your business. You could think of growing the results, increasing the results of your business, but also you can think of improving your processes.
The processes that you are using to create products, to market your products, to support your customers, everything that is related to the product. When I say growth, I don’t mean only money. I don’t mean only sales. I mean growing the business as a whole, as an integrated system.

To summarize, these three phases would be the first thing you need to adopt in your business: strategize, experiment, and boost. Once you have established that, you can break down these phases into actionable steps and to develop the so-called project roadmap.

Christopher: That’s awesome. I’ve seen a lot of people missing some of those, so if you don’t have like a strategy or like a ship without a sail or without a rudder, if you don’t want to … Go ahead.

Sebastian: Something like that. It means you’re starting your trip without knowing exactly where you want to go.

Christopher: Right.

Sebastian: I mean you can go to … You can’t reach your destination point only by chance if you don’t set your destination point just before starting the trip, right?

Christopher: So stack the odds in your favor and spend some time doing the strategy work on the front-end.

Sebastian: Exactly, absolutely.

Christopher: Then the experiment, the experiment thing that I’ve seen is that it’s easy to think you have all the answers or you know, and you’re not really listening to the customers. You’ve been doing this forever, so I’m just going to create my thing but you’re actually limiting your upside, because you’re not experimenting with real people and just getting valuable input and feedback on your core assumptions. That’s a good one.

Sebastian: Exactly. To be honest with you, I believe this is one of the most frequent mistakes we do in starting up any business. We take these assumptions as being validated just because we think something. We presume that our customers will need something, and we presume that we’ll be able to do certain things, certain things in creating and delivering the products, but actually we don’t know for sure. It’s just a set of assumptions. We need to test these assumptions.

I’ve encountered a similar situation three years ago when I started to create online courses for my regular, traditional, in-class project management certification course. I thought it would be very simple. I just need to put my content online, and it’s nothing more than that. I presumed that everything is all clear and set. I discovered it’s not that easy actually. It’s a new set of customers, a new set of customer demands, or expectations. It’s a new business, so I realized in my own experience that strategizing such a product is probably the most important success factor.

Christopher: Absolutely.

Sebastian: The main thing is, like, you test each and every assumption in working with customers, with real customers.

Christopher: Absolutely. No, it’s all right. There’s a famous entrepreneur that says … Steve Blank, he’s part of the Lean Startup thing. He was one of Eric Ries’s teachers. He always says, “Get out of building,” which maybe if you’re totally online might just mean get out and go talk to your customers or your potential customers and that thing, give them a call. The growth mistake I’ve seen where people maybe, they get some early attraction, but maybe it’s like a beachhead market where there’s, like, all this other potential that they could lean into to grow their business, to scale their impact with their courses, to perfect the learner experience, so that it can have a potential to spread more naturally through people who just get so much value out of the program or the course. Yeah, like once you get some success, don’t stop. Keep challenging your assumptions, and keep looking at the growth opportunities.

Sebastian: Exactly. And this is where product management actually comes into place, because doing a good product management means to be able to understand what your customer will want in the future, while delivering them existing product as in today. This dual role, this dual perspective on the market, is the basis for having a sound growth. Otherwise it’s just making just one step further, not reaching the final destination point, which is growing, establishing a growing engine.

Christopher: Let me shift gears, just on another question. LMS, as we all know, stands for Learning Management System, but what’s the difference between the LMS and project management? How is that management different?

Sebastian: Yeah, I totally agree. The term management might confuse a lot of people, because as a matter of fact I’ve been asked by some people trying to understand this relationship. Look if I’m using a learning management system, does that mean that I’m doing project management? Actually, no. Learning management system is a platform, is a technology platform, that helps you to deliver the education process to your students, to your customers. It helps you to create the content as well, because when you structure the content, when you include engagements, or different forms of interaction, it means that you are creating the product. I would say the LMS is not only for delivering, but also for creating the product.

The LMS is for managing the learning process, whereas project management is a set of practices, a set of processes if you will, that helps you do the work and organize the work that you need to do in order to deliver that product or the resources that you need to combine in order to come up with the final product, which will be eventually delivered to your customers through the use of learning management system. There are two different topics. Two different solutions for different problems.

However, I believe there is a strong connection between the choice of the learning management system and the first phase in the product life cycle that we have talked about a few minutes ago, strategizing. I would strongly advise anyone getting into this online course business to think of the learning management system they want to use before finalizing their strategy, because you might discover a lot of synergies between the strategy that you have in your mind or you created for your business and the features that the platform gives you.

It’s a very fine tuning between choosing making these strategic decisions of choosing the right LMS and strategizing your overall business. I guess you have plenty of examples about this strategic choice in working with your, with your customers for the LifterLMS product.

Christopher: Absolutely. Absolutely, yeah. I mean looking at the tools and way they overlap, it can definitely, just seeing what’s possible with engagement and stringing courses together, or creating certificate programs based on groups of courses taken in any order. All those use cases once you’re familiar with the product options help you form your strategy.

Sebastian: Not only for creating or delivering the product, but also for marketing the product to your customers. I remember your last blog post, if I’m right, which is show don’t tell.

Christopher: Yeah.

Sebastian: Show don’t tell. Having such a feature in your product helps you to create a different campaign to market your product. You can use the real example instead of just using the sales page as the description of your product. You can give people the opportunity to have a hands-on experience with your product.

Christopher: Which I think is … I just want to say that’s interesting, because, and for those of you that don’t know, there’s a feature in LifterLMS where even in a paid course or a free course you can mark a lesson that’s free, so that somebody can get in and experience that without having to register or create an account, so you’re literally, like, giving them a free sample. That involves your product, your course management, because you have to create the lesson there. It also involves the product management, because now you’re opening up a window for some marketing opportunity. Maybe you decide from a marketing perspective that you want to give people a taste of one of your best lessons to help them on their decision to purchase or enroll in the course.

Sebastian: That’s a very cool feature, and like I said, this is very important in that first phase of strategizing your business. If you know that you can use, you can use such a feature, you’ll create a totally different strategy for both creating and marketing your education product. That’s why I said it’s really important to keep in mind the LMS as a platform while you are strategizing your business.

Christopher: I just want to add, that feature actually came from a customer, so that happened by going out and engaging … Getting out of the building and engaging with the customer and finding out …

Sebastian: You have performed the experiment phase.

Christopher: Right. For people looking for a good book, there’s often like a wealth of opportunity in one industry that’s totally different from another one, but if you learn how another industry does it, you might be able to apply it … That’s very advanced, you might be able to apply it to your industry, so some of these ideas we’re talking about and Steve Blank and stuff are related to the Lean Startup methodology, so there’s a book called The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries, who is a student of Steve Blank.

If you look at software development and how software develops, if you have some time explore that a little bit, and maybe it will help you figure out how to develop your product, which is not a software, but it’s an education product, because there really are a lot of overlaps.

Sebastian: Yeah. I fully agree, and I believe Lean Startup method could apply to any creative product, not only software product. Many people think that Lean Startup method or Agile methods are conceived, are designed only for software development, but this is not true actually. Any product which requires a lot of creativity, which involves a lot of uncertainty, could benefit from using this, from using these approaches, like Lean Startup method, Agile development, or Agile project management. Yes, it’s a good starting point for anybody who wants to establish a growing business, not just to sell a course.
I mean anybody can sell a course, can create some content and publish it on the internet. It’s pretty easy. But if you want to create a growing business, you need to rely on some proven methods. The ones that you’ve mentioned are proven by the market in many other industries as well, not only in education startups.

Christopher: That’s awesome. Let’s start wrapping it up, and I just want to ask you, Sebastian, you’re like a fountain of wisdom and knowledge around these things. Where can people go to find out more about what you’ve got going on and learn more from you?

Sebastian: As a matter of fact, I’m working on a guide, on a planning guide, that would help education entrepreneurs to make better choices in the way they strategize and experiment their education-based business. The website for that is EducationProjectRoadMap, like the name it says, it’s a roadmap, and I’m providing just a few, let’s say, hints on how to plan your overall business depending on various business conditions. Because like we said before, you can do online courses for a variety of reasons and within a variety of business scenarios. You can, you can do online courses just to create a profitable business. You could also use online courses to support other business objectives, like, I don’t know, maybe educating your customers before they become customers. You will use the educational content as a way to attract customers. Or you could use online courses as a way to decrease your support effort once you deliver the product, and many other business scenarios. You could expand your existing practice, for instance. If you are a consultant or a coach like myself, you can use online courses to create a new and different income thing for your business, or you could simply use education products just to support any other objectives.

Depending on each case, you want to make sure that you are choosing the right planning strategy, the right planning sequence, and this is what I put together as a guide, as a planning guide, on EducationProjectRoadmap.com. Thanks.

Christopher: That’s awesome. That’s awesome. Let’s do … I like to leave people with an action plan, so let’s each throw out one negative wisdom just to close it out, and mine would be, just to challenge … Spend some time challenging your assumptions. Before you challenge your assumptions, I would just take a step back, look down on what you’ve got going on as an education entrepreneur from 30,000 feet, and look at what assumptions you’re making. From there, you can run experiments, you can test, and so on. But you can’t do any of that until you acknowledge that you are making assumptions in your online course project. That would be my one takeaway. What would …

Sebastian: That’s awesome. I would add something to your idea, which is build a learning mechanism into your business by using project management processes. If you use a process, it means that you are inviting learning capabilities in for your own business, which means you’ll be able to learn as you progress in your business, and you’ll be able to give better and better results. Otherwise it’s like reinventing the wheel each and every time. I would, I would consider that as one of the hidden benefits of using roadmap or a process, you can call it whatever you want, but it’s pure project management. Which, by the way, it’s called by some people the art of common sense. It’s not rocket science. You don’t have to think of it like something very complex, very … It’s just the art of common sense. Build up a learning engine into your business. It’s a long-term investment. It’s not just for one course or for one business objective.

Christopher: Awesome. Everybody, if you’re interested, go check out the EducationProjectRoadmap.com, and thank you all for listening. We’ll catch you on the next episode.

Sebastian: Thank you so much.

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