3 Product Management Lessons, Inspired By A Bowl Of Ramen

I’m walking out of the supermarket with a dumb grin on my face. I’ve just bought 2 cups of dried Ramen. I’m skipping caña’s & tapas tonight because I’m going to eat these salty €1 noodles and write this blog post about staying frugal.

All week we’ve been speaking with VC’s and investors. A new product launch gets people excited. And true to the Silicon valley cliche, every investor eventually asks us:

“And how much of a pay rise will the founders take?”

Easy – we’re going to eat ramen, because we’re frugal founders, and actually reduce our salaries! It’s impressed the hell out of everyone all week.

But 5 minutes ago, excited about penning this blog post, I opened my bowl of ramen.

And found a fork.

And it blew my mind.

I immediately knew this blog post had to be about something else. Something much more important than frugality. Finding that fork summarised the last 8 months of mine and Matt’s education in selling, marketing and building our startup. I knew this fork could have turned our startup around sooner.

Let me tell you how my bowl of ramen, and the fork inside, is going to save your startup:

Have you ever really looked at a $1 cup of ramen?

I’m going to assume everyone reading this has an idea of what dried, store-bought ramen is. But I doubt that many people have ever really looked at a cup of ramen, for half an hour, and decided how it made them feel.

I did.

At first, I thought it was a dumb idea, and I thought about throwing this post away. But I kept at it. And after about 15 minutes, weird things started to flow. After 30 minutes, I knew that products really do affect us in more ways than we realise!

When you first look at a product, in this case ramen, you get instant reactions such as:

  • Its cheap
  • It’s fast food
  • It’s efficient

But after half an hour (or longer), you start to peel away at your subconscious, and start uncovering more emotional thoughts and personal feelings.

In particular, the main feeling that stood out to me was one of comfort and convenience. The convenience made me feel relaxed – I don’t need to stress over preparing food, ensuring the kitchen is cleaned and tidied before and after. I don’t even need to stress about making a choice in flavour, because all ramen basically tastes the same (salt).

Have your ever gone to your “storefront”, purchased your product (software, online course, service etc.), consumed the product, and then really just thought about how it makes you feel?

In my opinion, when you can connect to the deeper emotional needs and desires of your customers, you’ll be able to hone in on making sure the product really fits that need.

And in this case, that emotional solution comes from a simple fork.


Ramen comes with a fork and not chopsticks

Once I’d written down all of the ways I felt about Ramen, I started to reverse-engineer everything about why it’s so successful (100 Billion units of Ramen were sold last year).

I knew there were lessons here that product managers, marketers and sales people could take into their own company. Particularly if you’re still pre-product-market-fit and in a position where you can make rapid changes about your product and positioning.

There are 3 key lessons in particular that stoodout for me. And if you think I’m crazy and I’ve lost my mind, please bear with me until after these 3 lessons and I hope you’ll see that maybe there’s more to this metaphor than just an eccentric ramen-eating CEO!

1. Be honest about who your customer is and their needs

Ramen is a traditional japanese dish – a dish that for most Japanese restauarnts, carries as much national pride as sushi. A culture as proud as Japanese would imply that dried ramen would be sold to be consumed in the traditional sense – slowly, with chopsticks, as a family around the table.

But that’s not who buys dried ramen from the store. Ramen is about investing as little time as possible to get a pile of cheap carbs into your body, so you can forget about eating for a few hours.

Dried ramen is for the lazy. The busy. Students, coders, bachelors. No one craves $1 ramen. No one warmly sits around the family dining table and enjoys a sociable meal of dried ramen.

Ramen comes with a fork so that I can eat it as fast as possible, and get back to my day.

Who’s your customer? You might want them to be the CFO at a fortune 500, but are they actually the part-time office manager for 6 small businesses? Are you lying to yourselves by putting all of your emphasis on enterprise language, account managers and SAP data integrations, when really your customer wants to be spoken to in a friendly and informal way, with a self-service tool that integrates to Xero and Quickbooks?

Having an aspirational target customer can be heathy, but not if it’s at the expense of your customers right now. Sometimes this can be to the extreme of shifting the whole company to focus on just one particular customer type. In Lean Startup terminology, this is known as a “customer zoom in pivot”.

When Justin Kan was trying to gain traction for Justin.tv, his self-titled reality TV show and later, a live streaming service, he just couldn’t unlock the elusive “hockey stick” growth – despite huge media attention and YCombinator backing.

However, he identified one extremely engaged group of users, online gamers, were live streaming their online gaming sessions and getting huge audiences. Justin spun out a side service, Twitch.tv, to focus only on the needs of gamers. Amazon later acquired Twitch.tv for $970m.

2. Branding & packaging can separate commodities

Ramen is pretty simple stuff. Dried noodles with some seasoning, served in hot water. Believe it or not, the €1 (1 euro is about $1.10) ramen I bought today wasn’t the cheapest in the store. In fact, it was the most expensive, at 10x the price of the cheapest.

Yes – there were €0.10 ramen noodles in the store. There were maybe 7 different varieties in increasing price, until we got to mine.

I honestly didn’t look at the prices first (people rarely do). Because it was in a big awesome bowl, the type I know I can eat from straight away, with awesome big Japanese writing down the front. And sitting right next to it was a can of energy drink.

I already knew the combo deal I’d be buying. I’d already started to subconsciously play out the experience in my head. And none of these inferior noodles, in their plain plastic square packaging, with no proximity to energy drinks, can deliver that same experience.

Because my ramen gives me an efficient, hunger-busting, energy refuelling and fully authentic Japanese experience.

(Side note: the outer picture actually shows the ramen been eaten by chopsticks. As I’ve said earlier, I might fantasize about the authentic romance of twiddling my noodles past my lips with chopsticks, but in reality and if I was being honest with myself, I really just want to shovel the food into my belly as quickly as possible and using the fewest brain cells to oversee the process. So they’ve double nailed this one: allowing me to feel authentic but giving me what I actually want)

The right packaging separated my ramen from it’s much cheaper competition. And the intentional placement of a few of the stores energy drinks on the shelf next to it also convinced me to cross-sell myself a $2 can of caffeine, for a fuller experience.

Where can branding and packaging set your commoditised product apart? If it can turn $0.10 noodles into a $3.10 noodle + drink combo meal, what can it do for your $99 /mo SaaS product? How can it make transform your $400 /mo social media management service into a $1,000 comms. & PR solution?

3. When things go wrong, add salt

Ramen tastes like crap. And at some point in your startup or company, whether you like it or not, there will come a time when you do something pretty crappy too.

It might be a really early feature that ships out too buggy. Or you could hugely oversell a new customer, leaving the onboarding team fighting a futile battle with a customer who expected features that simply aren’t there. Or you get out only 3 blog posts that month, missing your target of 10.

There comes a time when you need to know your limits. Accept your limits. Accept that your tiny team of 2 engineers are already overworked. Accept that you just don’t have the feature set of your more expensive competitor. Accept that your single intern marketing employee just isn’t as experienced or skilled a writer as the CEO that she took blogging duties over from.

You need to learn when to just say:

“OK, the noodles are flavourless. We used dried spices. That beef flavouring never went within 100 miles of a cow. But we added salt.

Because salt makes everything taste great! You probably can’t find a food that doesn’t become tastier when you put salt on it.

Adding salt isn’t giving up. It isn’t accepting your have a low quality product. It isn’t about tricking your customers, and it isn’t about under-delivering.

Adding salt is about picking your battles. Knowing how many things you can realistically focus on improving each month, with the budget and headcount available, and remembering that one thing that people really love about your product or company.

What’s the salt in your company?

  • Are your prices the best value for money in the market?
  • Is your product UI/UX the most modern and simplest to use in your market?
  • Is your CEO the most charismatic charmer who can warm even the coldest of accounts in one visit?
  • Do you deliver the most accurate search results of any other competitor?

When everything goes wrong and tastes it tastes crap, remember, you can always add salt.


Published by

Liam Gooding

Liam is the cofounder and CEO of Trakio. Previously an engineer, he writes about growing subscription companies using data-driven techniques and inside glimpses to Trakio's own growth journey. He wrote a book, "Growth Pirate!" which discusses data-driven growth strategies for startups.