You Can Build It But They May Not Come
Quit job. Move country. Manage first product. Build what was asked for. No one buys it. Get laid off.
Not exactly a typical whet-your-appetite experience. Therein lies part of the appeal of product management though; there are no direct answers, no one-plus-one-equals-two. There are a lot of judgment calls, a lot of attempting to validate you are doing the right thing, many complex interweavings, and murky grey areas. Maybe you never really master it. Maybe that means you never tire of it. You certainly learn along the way. The whole discipline relies on learning key information and sharing that knowledge. So here’s a big lesson I picked up from my first year as a product manager.
In my first product role I got an early chance to tackle a version 1 product in a new market for the company. I started by looking at the other products already in the market, got a sense of the common features, and then we set to work building them. I showed our developers where I thought navigation and buttons should go. I signed up to a newsletter aimed at the target market to get a sense of the topical issues. We built robust reporting. Progress was stop-start whilst client-paid projects came and went, but around six months later we were beta testing. During beta was the first time any target users saw our product, let alone told us about their jobs and what mattered to them. We got a bit of feedback, and added a feature.
It was then time to launch our product. We did what we thought was required. We made a promotional website and an animated explainer video. We allocated a small daily budget for Google Adwords and Facebook Ads, to catch all the people looking for a solution like ours. We were ready. We eagerly checked the daily report of users coming in and progressing towards purchase. We waited for our first paying user. And waited…
No one came
Nothing happened. Not really. Few signs of interest, no paying customers. A few months later I was caught in a round of layoffs, and the new product was likely abandoned as a forgotten dream.
So I was left looking for a new job and visa, and left wondering what had happened, or not happened in this case. I had done all I was asked. I delivered the product I was brought on to manage. The executives were happy with the product. But no one bought it. No one came.
A few years of experience and Pragmatic Marketing training courses later, I can point to a major missing area of understanding in my first stab at product management. Customers. Not just in the direct “well there weren’t any so the product failed” sense. There was a gap that needed to be bridged. We built a tool, threw it over the wall and hoped someone would catch it. We assumed someone would care.
You cannot leave interest to chance. You cannot work away behind closed doors tinkering with and polishing your finest creation, and then release it to the world with the feeling that it is so good it will sell itself.
Fill the gap
Product management needs to be the link between the development team and the market. Both ways. Product communicates market context and problems into the development team so they can best understand how to address said problems, and be best placed to build something that will really benefit the market. But that’s only one side of the coin.
None of the organisations I have worked at have had a dedicated product marketing role. Not one of the hundreds of people at my current company is a product marketer. So product management has to fill the gap. Sure, you could document your new product, hand the specifications over to marketing and say “there you go, take it to the people”. Maybe that would work, maybe it would not. Marketing likely would not be too-fussed either way, since they would soon be paying more attention to the upcoming seasonal campaign they needed to prepare for. As is so often the case for product managers, it is a matter of doing whatever is necessary to make the product succeed. Define the launch plan and goals. Gather and share early customer testimonials. Measure the product’s impact on the business.
Product management need to work the relationship with potential customers outwards as well as inwards. They do not need to sell, but they need to know how they might. They do not need to market, but they need to guide those who do. They do not need to sign channel partnerships, but they need an idea of which to target.
What was missing those few years ago, the absent element that left my product a damp squib, was traction. I needed to get early adopters using my product, get them talking about it in all the right places, get the ball rolling. I simply did not know that, let alone how to go about it.
Since my first anticlimactic product launch, Weinberg and Mares have launched their book Traction. Therein, they explain the Bullseye framework for identifying the channels that will gain new products momentum as quickly as possible. They detail how to test channels at minimal cost, akin to lean marketing, to get your organisation quickly pointing in the right direction. They surmise that it is not the building of products that is hard, it is the getting people to adopt them that is most challenging.
Get out there
In my first product role, I needed to get in-and-amongst the target audience. I needed to know what they read, who they listened to, where they looked for guidance. I needed to know what influenced them. I did attend a market conference that year; I needed to do more along those lines. Find out how our target consumed information, and how they might find us. When I joined my current company, they had already established successful sales and customer growth in their target area, which have just kept growing since. In contrast, my first product role entailed entering a new area, attempting to break into a new market, and we needed to know how.
So I would recommend that nascent product people do what I did not. When you are talking to potential users to find out what matters to them, find out how they participate in the market. Are they even the buyers, or do the buyer roles sit with someone else? Who do the buyers learn from, where would they expect to find your product and how would they expect to consume it? You need to find out not just what your potential customers need solving, but how the potential solution would fit into their lives, how they need it. That knowledge will give you the best chance of delivering the right product in the right way, so you can iterate smartly through building, launching and beyond. You will set your product up for success.
Is figuring out how to reach your audience in your job description? Maybe, maybe not. Regardless, I think a lot of product managers are drawn to the role because they want to help make people’s lives better in some way, and to do that your product needs to reach those people. So reach out. Who doesn’t like to succeed?