How Science PhDs embraced business thinking

Are you thinking about how to commercialise your research? Perhaps you wonder how to turn an idea into a commercial product or service? Fancy yourself as an innovator? Or just want a better understanding of business in practice? Perhaps you just want to make the world a better place?

These teaser questions were posed to attract a group of Science PhDs – from universities including Sussex, Cambridge & Durham – to come to my session at the STFC (Science & Technology Facilities Council, UK Research & Innovation) summer school 2019.

Split almost equally between making the world a better place and a more commercial learning objective, we set off working through a structured, step by step approach to creating a new business model. After all, even when making the world a better place, there are costs to cover.

Armed with flipchart paper, post-it notes, pens and my step by step exercises the students came out with flying colours – they

  1. Got an understanding of the different elements that make a new product / business / service profitable
  2. Had an experience taking a step by step approach to testing out a new business idea
  3. Explored what evidence to gather before spending time and money on solution development.

But don’t take my word for it – here is what they said…

“…I really enjoyed it and I feel like I’ve learned a lot… It was really interesting to see how building a business can be thought through in a scientific way… Very methodical that clearly laid out the steps you should take and the things you should consider… Julia’s real life business stories throughout were really good to hear and well used within the teaching… The workshop was fun and also very interactive… Was pitched very well for someone who has little or no business experience… Helps you understand the time and resources you need…Very good insider information on the real processes to actualise a new product idea…

I really enjoy working with scientific brains at these workshops: The first visible emotion is a head-scratching frustration as I ask them to imagine what value they could create for who. Uncomfortable with “making stuff up”, I re-frame this as developing hypotheses about target customers’ / users’ problems. Ah – now we are talking hypotheses – this is beginning to make sense! You can see how they visualised the “persona” of the target customer in this photo.

One of the main challenges is to pull back from a natural inclination to design features and solutions; instead they are to think through where the biggest risks are in their hypotheses. And then it hits – ah – we are going to design some experiments where we are going to gather evidence to test out these hypotheses. We are seriously talking the same language now – this language of creating business models has come from the science world! And putting those personas at the heart of the innovation challenge, rather than solutions, we work out how to find them and how to ask the right questions to get at the evidence we need to support our hypotheses.

Really interesting here was a discussion that starts with “we are students, we don’t know anyone!” As we worked through each team’s persona we surprised ourselves thinking through the contacts that each had through the university itself – from tutors to innovation centres; from societies through to local businesses who offer placements; let alone friends of friends / friends of family members. Even a cold call to find the right contact, explaining that “I am a PhD at Sussex University and I am looking in to a solution for people who run environmental services at the local council” is going to carry a lot of weight – these students are seriously clever and have so much to offer!

In this photo you will see 3 main artefacts: (1). A persona, (2). A value proposition statement for those personas and (3). A business model canvas. So that last exercise of the day is to map up what a sustainable, repeatable business model could look like using this great tool designed by Strategyser. The exercises running up to this are designed to get the team clear on the first few boxes of the canvas which are all about desirability – thinking through whose problem you can solve. So it all comes together in a bigger picture at the end of a rather lovely day!

Thanks to Seb Oliver and Louise Winters for the invite to Sussex and I look forward to the next time!

What Product Doctor did in 2018…

It’s August and I just realised that I did not do my 2018 update – I guess a good sign – been busy! It was great to continue my relationships with some existing clients and to get involved with a new hub for new sports-related businesses.

I ran more business-related workshops helping Physics PhDs at Sepnet and Sussex University find commercial models for their research and have blogged here about those experiences


At UCL, I coached the talented Feodora Rayner in taking forward The Mobile Academy model to find new business models for today’s technology capabilities. I was also invited back to UCL to deliver my trilogy of masterclasses for rooms full of start-ups.

At Pearson , I was happily engaged on a number of different projects from a variety of different departments:

  • I designed and ran training for a group of their suppliers, all about new innovation approaches being adopted by their commissioning teams
  • I provided a series of one-on-one and team product coaching sessions
  • Excited as ever, I also rolled my sleeves up and delivered insights from a number of qualitative research projects – it is great to see the successful products that are getting traction as a result

I ran a rewarding couple of days workshop with startups and scaleups at Sport Tech Hub.


Here’s what they said about it: “…Changed, clarified and refined the way I think about my risky assumptions, hypothesis and running the next round of customer feedback …very engaging, productive and useful… of immediate value whilst rooted in good practice and known tools and techniques…helped break down important steps in a clear and structured way…”

I rocked into 2019 with sign off to some blended product coaching / qualitative research for a rather exciting new product PLUS a secret – which I will tell you about in 2019!

Thanks to great clients throughout 2018 and their testimonials.

Physics PhDs: Science brains go commercial

My Practical Innovation workshop scored very well last week with Sepnet 2nd Year Physics PhDs, so I was asked to share more about what went on: Positioned for those who wanted to change the world through innovation; commercialise an idea or just find out more about business, participants told us this was a “…fun, engaging, informative, interesting and interactive…giving a realistic view on how to propel a product out of the lab…”

Using case studies, we sketched, discussed, laughed and work-shopped through four questions:

1) What problems we could solve for who?

2) Could these be at the heart of a sustainable, repeatable and profitable business model?

3) What is the biggest and riskiest assumption we are making?

4) How could we go about finding evidence to support this assumption before spending time and money on solution development?

These big-physics-brained-participants embraced both the step by step approach and the iterative discipline of gathering incremental evidence before taking big steps. I certainly do fancy a career in new product development for many Physics PhDs I meet – as entrepreneurs or within a company. Feels like we’ve more to do here!

Case study for DIY Research & reminder: Don’t forget data mining!

I have found myself being a little nostalgic over the past month, both as a result of going to a “25 years since launch” reunion of Mercury one2one (the first mass consumer mobile offering in the UK – which morphed to T-Mobile and then to EE) and through collaboration with Tristan Kromer of Kromatic. 

I found “lean thinking” in earnest when I designed a 12 week CPD innovation course for UCL – in 2012 – when mobile apps were in early stages of high growth. It doesn’t sound that long ago does it –  but see how the hockey stick curve does exist! The lean approaches really resonated with my approaches and also provided some additional very neat tools that helped me to explain it to others.

When I deliver coaching sessions I like to explain the approaches with real case studies – just as I then like to coach participants to apply the approaches to their own projects. I had not really thought of this example – it was from 2004/5 – but let’s see if it is useful. First please remember the context: this is pre i-Phone / before App Stores democratised the market – the mobile operator had full control over everything you did on your mobile.

Here is what I did to gather insight and what action I took that got T-Mobile UK customers to send more total picture messages than any other mobile operator’s customer base in the UK, despite being overall 4th in the market.  

Product Challenge

Usage of picture messaging was way behind forecast – capability had been launched 1 year+ and “good” camera-phones had crossed the chasm into the early majority – market penetration was reasonable enough to achieve the forecasts.

Research Methods

All of these methods were executed by my team and I – ourselves. We consulted with our in-house research teams – got their input to our research scripts and approaches – we wanted to keep them on side and benefit from their expertise.

  1. Observation – As we were out and about we all observed strangers and our own social groups. We kept diaries and shared our observations when back in the office
  2. Street Interviews – My team and I hit the streets with a short questionnaire – we were really near Hatfield University – a key early adopter segment
  3. Focus Groups – Held with a few quite distinctly different segments
  4. Analysis of System Data – We studied the data we had for those customers who were sending picture messages – closely analysing the segments and their usage patterns for clues.

We chose to do observation first off – it was the easiest and quickest and achievable through our natural lives – as we ourselves were out and about. We saw lots of photo taking but not much sending – we also saw that there was a correlation between age and behaviour. Next we chose  street interviews to query down further why they were not sending and we got an idea about the barriers to usage for this segment. As they were naturally not pre-screened, we spoke with users and non users. For the focus groups, we recruited people who were sending a few messages per month and chose segments outside of university students to compare and contrast the responses. We also recruited non users, who were high text messaging users to compare and contrast here too. The request for the data was submitted to the tech team as we started our qualitative primary research so there was a time lag in receiving the data.

Key Findings

  • Price: Voice and Text usage was already bundled; picture messaging was a charge per message – so cost was for some a barrier to usage. This came out of focus group and street interviews as a reason not to send messages.
  • Usability: You had to send a message before you could receive one (a hard to solve technical issue that had been inadvertently build into the design – this was tech-lead and not involved any user experience back in the early 1990s ). As the product people, we knew about this awful glitch in the user experience and we gathered evidence in our street interviews corroborating that this was a problem – people had not received messages that their friends had said were sent; so did not want to spend the money sending a message if their friends also would not receive it.
  • Occasional Usage: People frequently took pictures and showed them when they were with friends, but did not frequently send them when remote – remember that this was pre Web2.0 / pre Facebook – before mass self-publishing and broadcast took a hold. We observed this behaviour – showing mates in the pub pictures but not sending them when they were remote and it was described to us in focus groups.
  • Content: Through analysis of system data we discovered something that blew our minds – more picture messages contained GIFs than JPEGs (photos taken on the phone were all presented as JPEGs). This was totally missed in the face to face customer-based research as we were so busy looking at photo-taking and sending! This also sparked some further DIY face to face research into what content people were sending as we could not see that in our system data.

Resulting actions that got us to #1 for number of messages being sent

Using the classic 4Ps of product management as a checklist (Price, Place, Promotion & Place) we put together an integrated set of actions to address our insights:

  • We ran consistent call-to-action communications above and below the line encouraging customers to “Prove it with a picture message for only 20p”. We had the call to action / user case message that was supported by the price reassurance (not the only way around!). We wanted to challenge people into instantaneous sharing. We were also lucky enough to be able to solve a problem for the advertising department who had spare inventory at airports and so we also ran the “Prove it with a Picture Message from abroad as well for only 20p” in these prime holiday-maker spots. (We had also made good use of a technical industry-wide issue where it was not at that time possible to charge differently for international picture messages!)
  • We gave all customers 5 free messages to get them over the technical issue of “send before you can receive” and included an in-box leaflet promoting this to customers of new camera-phones which were improving in quality all the time. This in itself more than tripled usage straight out of the box.
  • Could we find some other things that people could do with their photos other than send them person to person? We collaborated with Kodak to see if we could encourage people to start building online photo albums … now there’s a thought!
  • We flooded the base with free animated content encouraging them to send it on – of course they could send on 5 free to start with. Our further research in to the GIFs had told us that people were sending (1) at key events e.g Xmas was massive and (2) to express emotions (ahem…see current popularity of emojis – the insight remains good!).

Appendix: Some funnies… 

  • We found an Australian content provider who had created a character called “Emo”. He was a chameleon who presented himself differently depending on a full range of emotions – that included changed his colour, outfits and movements. The creator gifted me this drawing telling me that it would be worth a lot of money one day… anyone interested in this early iteration of an Emoji?!
  • From the research, we knew that GIFs people sent were often a bit “edgy” – so we sourced some particular Xmas content that fitted the bill. There I was, suited booted and straight laced (as always) in front of the board getting their sign off to “Bondage Santa” whose cartoon walked on to the screen and opened his cloak to reveal. My presentations to the board never felt the same again!
  • Just before I left, we were asked to “innovate!” – oh the popular corporate cry that so many of you will resonate with! Based on these insights, I took the “sex sells” insight a step further and suggested (along with my technical counterpart) that we invented the self-destructing picture message. Unfortunately the appetite was not there – but SnapChat was not far behind – along with the whole App Ecosystem which of course changed the mobile operator life forever.
  • Finally, dare I tell you about the promotion that was being run when I first inherited picture messaging in to my portfolio? Customers were sent a speech mark in the post upon which they were to write captions and take pictures of the caption in context to picture message back to us. From decorated plates of faeces to downright lewdness- unbelievable – and we had these peoples addresses!

What Product Doctor did in 2017…

I spent the largest part of 2017 in corporate-land working with different levels of the organisation to embed the decision making structures, behaviours, processes and leadership required to enable teams on the ground to embed a more “lean” practice.

It can be dangerous to coach teams on the ground to adopt lean innovation practice without having the budget or decision making structures further up in the organisation to support them – attrition is the most likely outcome. 

Here you are adopting best practice identifying risky assumptions; designing experiments to gather evidence to reduce those risks and asking for small amounts of incremental investment to do that…but the budget pot is not there – there is no money assigned to test out hypotheses.  Solving this problem requires a commitment from high to set aside some money for “innovation” or “experimentation” or “early stage ideas”; allowance for the line in the annual budget and commitment from Finance to know how to administer and account for it.

Imagine that you are working on a new idea or an improvement plan to an existing product only to find out after 6 months of effort that it is no longer “on strategy”.  A well communicated sharp strategic focus is one of the most important things that leadership can provide then innovating teams will know which trees to bark up and which ones to leave alone. I remember myself being set a task to “innovate” back in my corporate mobile operator days – it was 2004 (4 years before Apple launched their app store) and after lots of customer observation and qualitative insight (of course!) I came up with two ideas: (1) The concept of the mobile as the remote control and (2) The disappearing picture message – only to be told that they were not “on strategy”. Guess what – that was the trigger for me to leave!

Certainly gratifying was working with decision making cross functional management teams on asking the right questions at the right time to the right people to enable efficient, transparent and effective decision making. The principles of lean innovation are rarely under question (after the right level of debate!) and no one really argues with taking the “product lifecycle” approach to identify what to do / and not to do at each stage. Of course each business unit needs help to apply models and toolkits practically to their particular products and there are process changes and supporting documents that need to be in place to estabish a standard approach in a way that are not required in small businesses.

Through coaching a senior propositions manager at Pearson I also got the joy of winning a classic piece of Product Doctor qualitative research where I carried out some value proposition based qualitative insight work with both parents and children. The respondents were recruited in particular around their levels of drive to do well at school / college.  Without giving away anything about the innovative product in question of course, here are a few insights that I enjoyed discovering:

(1) These “driven” students are very aware of what distracts them and many will switch off their phones / move them into a non distract mode / give them to parents to look after when they have homework / revision to get through

(2) Many referenced that they find they can concentrate better with online /  mobile study and revision guides (as long as social media notifications etc are turned off) – they find that looking at screens can really focus them

(3) Social elements are really important for many of them – learning / revising with friends; creating good relationships with teachers and equally, if these are not good relationships it can negatively effect their study

(4) Parents of these particularly “driven” GCSE age teens are really listening to them – trying to let them make their own decisions

My workshops for UCL continued with startups in their Hatchery, under-grads, post-grads, researchers and staff. My trilogy of workshops is (a) Developing Value Propositions; (b) Getting off the Starting Block (using business model canvas); (c) Working with Risky Assumptions (defining experiments to gather evidence and my DIY User Research Toolkits).

I was delighted to extend my engagement with Sussex University Physics PhDs to Sepnet – the South East Physics Network, a consortium of physics departments in nine universities (Herfordshire, Kent, The Open University, Portsmouth, Queen Mary, Royal Holloway, Southampton, Surrey and Sussex. It’s incredibly stimulating working with such bright brains who have been solving physics based challenges, helping them discover commercial and sustainable models for their work.

2018 is already high energy – I am coaching a private company; my series at UCL has started; my series at Sepnet is about to start and I am getting ready to deliver the first of my new style “DIY User Research training programs” for a corporate client. As always, the participants will have the space to work on their own products throughout and the new element for 2018 is that when the series of four workshops is over, they will be presented with their very own bespoked “DIY User Research Manual” which will contain all the workshop guidance and toolkits plus the real examples they worked on during the sessions.

Continuing to love the diversity in my work, I always leave time for new projects – so do get in touch if you get a calling!

Thanks to great clients throughout 2017, whose testimonials you can read here. 

What Product Doctor did in 2016

In 2016, as Product Doctor, I worked with an interesting and diverse range of clients:

  • As a Product Coach at Pearson Education I continued to work with teams across the business to improve efficient and effective decision-making deploying best lean practice. Some call it the “Lean Enterprise”. It strikes me, having worked out of Hong Kong, New York and London that their offices really do have the best views (although London is obviously the best!!)
  • I ran Customer Development / Research masterclasses at University College London (UCL) for a range of small to medium businesses
  • Designed and ran a series of qualitative user research sessions for a new mobile messaging app with young teens helping develop brand, value proposition, feature set, roadmap and usability
  • Designed and ran bespoke Customer Development workshops for
  • Workshop-ed Risky Assumptions and Experiment Design with World First helping them with Customer Development by incorporating real customer interview sessions
  • Formed a series of workshops for a group of Sussex University Physics pHDs to help them develop sustainable business models and get out of the building to start talking with customers
  • Delivered mobile industry history classes to new hire at GSMA (a large industry trade body)
  • Delivered a presentation for Product Tank which was recorded here

You can see testimonials from those clients here.

I am always open to and always leave time for new projects and I enjoy diversity – in particular where the challenge is around Customer Development / User Research, so feel free to get in touch!

PHD Students at Sussex Uni with their fab mentor Colin Hayhurst

Where are we?! At

View from Hong Kong Pearson office

World First Workshop

Synthesising what we learnt about real customers from practice research interviews held during our Customer Development Workshop.





How the team felt they could improve their own research skills – thanks to observers for both keeping quiet during the customer interviews and providing such great feedback back to the interviewers!

Outcomes from The Mobile Academy

Please flick through this report that I put together to show the outcomes of this project – the bringing together of a very diverse group of people for real life business learning.

I love how one thing leads to another; my specialist “Lean” Tutor on the academy brought me in as a Product Coach to support the Lean Enterprise program he was pioneering at Pearson Education. I really enjoyed the move back from Start-Up to Corporate – an environment I had not been in for 10 years. Working through how to apply best practice lean innovation was of course much more in-depth and the implementation required far more design thought including decision making structures, empowerment and availability of “innovation funds”… all for another post!