An Insider’s View on Product Management

July 30, 2009

The importance of being first to market

Or is it? In the wake of the excess of the late ‘90s where in the name of market shares acquisition colossal amount of money were spent, one can seriously doubt it. What happened to the like of pets.com, eToys.com and the infamous Webvan?

As always the truth is not as simple. Being first usually confer a serious advantage to companies but also brings its share of problems. The whole intent to be the first mover in a new market segment is to capitalize on the lack of competition to capture mind shares and market shares.

Position your brand in customers’ minds

From a marketing point of view, this is a unique opportunity to establish your brand as the dominating player in a new field. Who has the best cola? Coca-cola. Who has the best car rental services? Hertz. And so on. By building customer loyalty early on with great customer service and establishing a superb reputation, a savvy product manager has the opportunity to strengthen his brand and create a formidable barrier to entry for potential competition.

However there are risks as well in being a pioneer. The market may not be established yet, and prospects may reject your value proposition because it does not match conventional assumptions. Therefore a lot of the marketing budget will go into educating the prospects and having a few –not too formidable- competitors can help you create the market place. Other typical issues include having miscalculated the target audience or the pricing might be incorrect. Finally distribution channels might be inexistent and will need to be created from the ground up.

Establish product leadership

From a product point of view you get a chance to set the standard and be seen as the market reference and thoughts leader. By setting the bar high enough and emphasizing your unique approach and technology, product manager can slow down competition and force them to play catch up with you.

Similarly, being first market mover and first to come with a product induce risks. Competition can capitalize on your customers’ feedback and mistake to improve your product. By the time they start developing their solution they typically have a much better understanding of the problems and needs in the market . Furthermore developing new technologies is expensive and a lot of trial and errors go in the process. By observing your attempts, mistakes and success, competition can innovate in a must cheaper and most effective way. They might even hire some of your experienced staff away or reverse engineer your solution to benefit from your inventions.

Apple’s Newton, a market failure

Apple with the Newton is a perfect example of a first market mover that was not able to capitalize on their ground breaking device. Apple was able to capture public imagination with the first version of “PDA” and basically invented a new market segment. However the product was not technically fit, too bulky, and was targeted to the wrong audience with a price tag too high. Apple had a chance to fix all this, but they were too slow in the process and the quality issues start catching up with them. A few years later, PALM that benefited from Apple mistakes and experience – and their own experience building the Zoomer with Casio- revolutionized the PDA with a cheaper, smaller and simpler solution appealing to a broader set of users.

Weigh pros and cons

Thus, product managers should carefully weigh the pros and cons in being the first mover in new markets. This is a strategy that with proper management and marketing can result into long terms advantages but that also involves a fair amount of risks.

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June 14, 2009

Developers, developers, developers, developers

It’s all about developers, developers, developers and developers. Steve Balmer put it better than anybody during his memorable performance where he was jumping around on stage or recently at MIX08.

What’s at stake?

Don’t get fooled by Steve Balmer, there is more to it than just a dance. Indeed any platform is only as good as the applications running on it. There is hardly anything new to this. You can build the most intuitive, powerful, robust and scalable platform in the world. It means nothing until you get applications that can take advantage of those capabilities and bring value to the end-users.

The demise of NeXT Computer

The best example is the raise and demise of NeXT Computer. When NeXT released its first computer in 1989, the operating system was second to none. It was crushing the competition and dwarfed Apple and Microsoft offerings. The OS was brilliant, robust and was swarming with innovations way ahead of his time. The hardware? Powerful, slick and stylish. In 3 words: a dream machine… As for marketing, the charismatic Steve Jobs was wowing crowds at conferences around the world. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, everybody was in awe but nobody would buy it. Granted the hardware was expensive at $6000 for a box but that should not stop people to pay if they see value in it. People pay for Mac even if they are twice more expensive than PCs because they judge it’s worth it. In fact the major issue for NeXT was really the lack of applications – NeXT never bothered to attract developers until it was already too late and some industry insiders even touted them as arrogant. They thought developers would come on their own, but they never did. As a result the public never bought the machines because it could not do anything useful for them and the company died from lack of applications.

Steve Jobs won’t get caught twice

Since then, Apple’s CEO has learned his lesson. The iPhone success can be attributed to its operating system, its well designed hardware, and the marketing genius of the Cupertino’s giant. However Steve Jobs, this time is well aware that Apple supremacy can be ephemeral and smart phones are an excellent base for distributing applications. To get more market shares and consolidate their position Apple needed to provide the most value-add above any other phones. Indeed in July 2008, Apple launched the App Store program to sell third-party applications for iPhone and iTouch. The store has been successful beyond expectations – they reached last winter their first Billion applications download in less than a year. Naturally, the competition has finally woken up and is trying to catch up. Nokia, Research in Motion, Palm, Google and Microsoft have all launched or announced their own version of the store.

The war is raging

If we look around us, the war for developers is raging and is all but limited to the mobile market – it’s all over the internet and has never been as intense. Companies small and big are exposing Open APIs, providing SDKs and creating developer communities. Indeed, the stakes are colossal for those who want to control the technologies of tomorrow:

  • Cloud supremacy: Microsoft Azur, Google App Engine, Amazon EC2 or somebody else?
  • Social Media dominance:  Facebook and its 50,000 applications or MySpace, Open Social, and others?
  • Rich Interface Application (RIA) control: Microsoft Silverlight, Adobe Flash, Sun FlashFX or will developers stick with AJAX?

Make developers a priority

Undeniably today more than ever, third-party developers have become strategic assets for companies. Thus, product managers should prioritize developer programs in their business strategy (when adequate for their product line). Yet, such requirements are too often discarded because not contributing directly to the bottom line – it’s well known that developers are cheap and don’t pay. In consequence companies are running the risk of missing incredible opportunities or to get caught unguarded as competition has already made its move.

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