Product Management STL

Hot Dawg! – How Thomas Broadwell Learned about Product and Portfolio Management from Operating a Food Truck

Thomas Broadwell

When Thomas Broadwell started his own food truck, he said, he was driven by naiveté and optimism.

Gateway Dog House was inspired by his father, who had moved the family from North Carolina to St. Louis and couldn’t find Carolina-style hot dogs (characterized by mustard, onions, beanless chili, cheese and a North Carolina creamy coleslaw – “a big giant mess,” as Thomas put it). When his father passed away in 2003, the mission got on Thomas’ heart, and he set out to make it a reality.

But the cost of brick-n-mortar was huge. So Thomas addressed it from an Agile perspective; rather than anchor himself to one location, why not let the food economy of St. Louis drive where the business was – literally?

So he began driving around, seeking out different locations.

Today, Thomas is a product manager with Daugherty Business Solutions, but many of the skills he brings with him to work were developed and honed as a food truck vendor, and then later as the founder and chairman of the St. Louis Food Truck Association.

Gateway Dog House was a Proof of Concept of sorts. True to product management principles, Thomas began with a minimal viable product – releasing his product to market with only basic features to test its viability. Once he’d proved out the value, he converted and built a new truck – Papa Tom’s Fancy Franks (because the family provided so much more than hot dogs).

Some of the biggest lessons Thomas learned was that food vendors really need to know their customers, products and suppliers. And that it’s better to run out than to take back extra.

In product management, Thomas works closely with the business to determine the market trend, gaps in the market and what solutions could be scalable and extensible. This involves defining customers with personas (fictional characters that represent the primary characteristics of the customer base). From there, he determines the relationships, a problem statement and the path to revenue.

When Thomas started his food truck, he was one of six vendors in the St. Louis downtown area. Everybody operated in their own silo, and everybody struggled with increasing regulations from the city.

It was this mindset that led Thomas to form the St. Louis Food Truck Association. He realized the successes and failures of other food truck vendors were paramount to his own success. If one truck was operating in an unfavorable way to the public, it would affect all of the trucks. Likewise, if one truck was doing something really well, it would help all the trucks. And so he met with the other vendors, and they began to formalize a process, creating guidelines for how to do business.

As a team, they realized the whole was more valuable than the sum of its parts. By jointly congregating in successful locations, they could provide customers more variety, increasing the chance that customers would return and bring friends. By pairing trucks with savory or sweet counterparts, they could entice customers to purchase a dessert with their meal. By participating in Food Truck Fridays and events across parks in both St. Louis county and city, and leveraging their own social networks, they could pull in thousands of people – 10x the audience any one of them could’ve brought.

If operating Papa Tom’s Fancy Franks was an example of product management, then the St. Louis Food Truck Association was like managing a product portfolio.

As a product manager, Thomas understands that the most successful organizations are the ones whose portfolio of products connect and interrelate, or have extensible code that can go across different parts of a product (like a hybrid cloud product that can support any number of clouds). It’s ultimately about providing a single experience for a customer that solves a grand problem.

In many ways, the St. Louis Food Truck Association operated like a Product Management Office – bridging truck owners and customer needs by establishing set standards and methods for food trucks, establishing relationships with the city and fire marshal, and creating relationships with everyone on the board.

As a product manager, Thomas has had to act as the bridge between the business and IT. He crafts his messages to focus on business outcomes when he speaks to the Business, and gets more technical with IT professionals.

Probably the greatest tenet Thomas learned from his food truck is that a product should never be developed for the sake of work. It must be a labor of love that fulfills a need for a customer.

That’s how you end up with something people will really want to sink their teeth into.

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