How To Be A Good Product Manager

Tips on product management, product development and product marketing. By Jeff Lash

Consider your market window as part of your product strategy

Posted on March 31, 2009 by Jeff Lash · 14 Comments

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If you want to be a bad product manager, start developing a product and release it as soon as possible. If you’ve got a good idea for a product, why wait? You need to get it defined, get it developed as quickly as you can, and then release it right away, without any delay. Everyone knows that the first product to market usually wins, and the sooner it’s released, the quicker you’ll be profitable.

If you want to be a good product manager, consider your market window as part of your product strategy. Often companies come up with what they believe to be a fantastic idea for a new product and there is a tremendous push to release it as soon as possible. There are usually two main reasons for this push:

  1. The hope that the sooner the product is in the market, the sooner it will recoup its costs.
  2. The belief that a competitor may also be trying to get a similar product to market, and you would like to have first-mover advantage.

To address these sometimes mistaken beliefs:

  1. While a product obviously can not start recouping its costs until it is available for sale, simply releasing a product into the market is no guarantee that it will sell. There are countless examples of products which have rushed to market and flopped. Whether the product actually solves any buyer problems and whether those problems are ones which buyers will pay to have solved are much more important factors in determining the product’s likelihood of success. Even for useful and well-designed products, sooner is not always better. Some innovations are just ahead of their time, and first movers enter the market either before a large enough group of customers is ready to pay for the product, or before the cost structure makes it profitable for companies to produce the product at a reasonable profit level, or both. Sometimes there are external forces which slow down adoption of a technology. HDTV is a perfect example; while the first HDTV broadcast was in 1996, it was not until the mid-2000s that a critical mass of HDTV broadcasters emerged. In a classic chicken-and-egg problem, many consumers held off purchasing an HDTV until enough programming was available, so being an early entrant into the HDTV market may not have equaled quicker recouping of costs due to the lack of economies of scale and low sales volume.
  2. Companies often scramble because of (sometimes irrational) fear that a competitor is developing the same product, with the belief that whomever is first to market will win. While there may be a first-mover advantage at times, there is no first mover guarantee. Additionally, there may be benefits to being the second mover into a market. Often the first entrant in a new market shoulders much of the burden at explaining the product and its benefits. While that organization must spend significant time and money educating the market about the need for this product, competitors can meanwhile be at work creating superior products and leveraging the technology innovations introduced by the first mover. Once the technology begins to gain more widespread market acceptance — thanks to the first mover’s marketing efforts — others can introduce their products with a better value proposition.

In Assessing Product Opportunities, Marty Cagan lists “ten fundamental questions” which product managers should be able to answer, including: “Exactly what problem will this solve? (value proposition) … For whom do we solve that problem? (target market) … What alternatives are out there? (competitive landscape) … Why now? (market window)”. It is this last question which is often overlooked when the others are answered relatively well. If there is a problem which customers will pay to solve, and there are no other alternatives, and the organization is well-suited to solve the problem, common wisdom is to launch as soon as possible. The argument is usually “Why wait?” vs. “Why now?”; unfortunately, “Why now?” is usually given minimal if any attention as a legitimate question.

Note that a market window is market-focused — not internally-focused — by its very definition. Often there are factors based on internal reasons which can dictate the development or launch of a product. Finance may push for launch to be delayed until the next fiscal year to avoid avoid early capitalization or depreciation of associated costs; development may ask to speed up the process because key resources are need on another project which is starting soon; tech support may want to wait to begin certain pre-launch planning because it is taking longer to hire the necessary additional support staff needed.

These are internal reasons why product development and launch, and unfortunately they often influence product planning and timelines. While it is easy to argue that they should not dictate the development and release schedules, the truth is that they often do, much more than product managers would like and ultimately to the detriment of the success of the product and of the organization as a whole. As much as possible, product managers need to be able to prove why there is a specific business case for hitting a specific market window. The stronger the business case is for that window, the more likely it is that the organization will adjust related areas to ensure the window will still be open.

The element of time is an important one in the product’s success and needs to be evaluated along with other valuable criteria. Looking at the market window strategically — versus being based on development and project timelines, or based on other internal factors not dictated by the market situation — may uncover some opportunities which can improve the product’s likelihood of success, helping ensure cross-functional support for hitting that window. Good product managers use time to their advantage and plan their product development and launch accordingly.

How To Be A Good Product Manager features tips on product management and product marketing, written by Jeff Lash (@jefflash on Twitter), Research Director, Product Management for SiriusDecisions.

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14 responses so far ↓

  • Consider your market window as part of your product strategy « It’s the software, stupid! // Apr 1, 2009 at 12:31 am

    [...] Read on… [...]

  • Brendan // Apr 1, 2009 at 9:57 am

    Great post, a similar problem that happens to us a lot is we build a product plan around taking advantage of a market opportunity (our business is cyclical), we miss the window because of software delays or some other reason, then we release as soon as we are finished because the product, which will now have significantly less impact in the market, is clogging up our product pipeline. In this case, everything that determines our release time is dictated by our internal perceptions of priority. Sigh.

  • Roger L. Cauvin // Apr 1, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    Another reason to release early is to “test” every aspect of the product: the benefits of the product, the sales and pricing, and the positioning.

    But it’s true that you severely undermine your chances for long-term success if you create a bad first impression. To the extent possible, you want the first impressions to reflect the intended position of the product in the marketplace and the brand perception you intend to instill in the mind of customers.

    Thus I’d say it can be advantageous to release early if some combination of the following conditions exist:

    1. The product can fulfill its brand promise.
    2. You manage expectations.
    3. You release to a small subset of the target market (which then may render the release a beta of sorts).

    Roger

  • Jeff Lash // Apr 1, 2009 at 5:40 pm

    My intention wasn’t to argue that you shouldn’t release a product early, though I realize now that is probably the main message that comes out of it.

    My point was more to understand the market window and consider that as part of the business case — in some cases, the window may already be closed and no matter how fast you can build and release the product, you’re going to have a tough time getting any traction.

    There may be good reasons to speed up a product’s release to take advantage of the external situation. For example, if you are building a product for Realtors, maybe you originally planned to release it later this year when you expected the real estate market to rebound. Releasing a new product when sales are slow may be a tough sell. However, with historically low mortgage rates and the new first-time home buyer credit, real estate activity has started to increase again, so the market window may be open earlier than you originally thought.

    Alternatively, if you were planning on releasing a new iPhone/iTouch App in the coming months, there may be good cause to delay your release and take advantage of the new iPhone 3.0 software which is planned for release this summer. That also may provide the additional advantage of allowing you to ride the publicity that always comes with a new Apple product or software release.

  • Saikat Sinha // Apr 2, 2009 at 12:26 am

    I completely agree with JeffLash’s last paragraph. Superbly said!!

    If you are a new bee in the market, you should always try to ride on first mover’s publicity stunts. It always gives you the benefit of educated market. Now you don’t need to spend your tight budget and time on educating them without guarantee of success.

    Till the time your target market is getting educated you should focus on improving value proposition of the product while keeping your eyes wide open to look for the optimum time to launch your product. It’s more like a tiger’s hunting strategy. It always waits for the right time to jump on its prey…

  • David Locke // Apr 14, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    Moore’s technology adoption lifecycle (TALC)predicates a series of market windows. In each the customer is different. Listening to the customer is something that you need to segment, so you listen within and not across market windows.

    The TALC is also, contrary to what Moore said, an asynchronous clock. You can’t set a firm date, but there is a process, a sequence. You may have to wait for the market.

    Concepts come into a firm or a market. They come from a logistics system: inbound concepts, outbound products. Virtual inventories don’t have the same costs as physical inventories, so JIT can be overkill.

    As you plan your releases, consider the trends that are driving adoption and de-adoption. When can we enter? When must we leave? What duration isn’t worth the costs?

    A proactive time stance lets you influence the market. A proactive stance lets you shock the market if you like that approach, but that’s only useful for sustaining innovation. A proactive stance means that you have time to build up a sequence of moves made public only to your advantage. Proactive can enable you to outdisance the fast followers by having them churn their requirements.

    You can keep your developers busy without releasing. There is always more to do.

  • Dr. Jim Anderson // Apr 20, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    Good points all around; however, this sure sounds like trying to “time the market” with stock picks. Maybe a better way to look at things is to clearly identify the problem that your product solves.

    This changes the question that you are trying to answer: it’s no longer what is the status of the market window, but rather “does this problem still exist for my customer”.

    - Dr. Jim Anderson
    The Accidental PM Blog
    “Home Of The Billion Dollar Product Manager”

  • David Locke // Apr 26, 2009 at 8:47 pm

    I worked in a place that moved from geek to consumer markets. The geeks screamed, so on the next release they moved from consumer back to geek.

    The underlying problem existed in both markets, but in terms of product expectations the customers very far apart. So I ask you, which customer are you going to listen to?

    Granted, they should have renamed the product along with the redesign and launched it as a separate consumer product. Still, you have to know if you customers are different the next time launch.

    The decison here was consious, no market timing involved, but yes, under Moore’s paradigm, you have to make a decision to enter the next market. Then, you have to enter it as if it matters. That may take a much larger effort than revising the user interface.

  • Marshall // May 19, 2009 at 2:33 am

    If innovations are just ahead of their time, only very few high end customers could try to use them, what coule be expected to do next step?

  • David Locke // May 24, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    Marshall, Discontinuous/Radical innovations must be adopted. Technology adoption is a slow process. You productize your technology for a single client. Then, you sell that technology into the client’s vertical.

    When you say “only very few high end customers,” it sounds like you are talking about continuous innovations in the consumer market. This is a matter of standardizing the technology, so the price falls and your customer base broadens.

    Early adopters is a term that has two meanings. The first paragraph talks about the B2B early adopter while the second paragraph talks about the B2C early adopter. Many people don’t keep these groups straight.

    The B2B EA happens at the birth of a category, while the B2C EA happens in the consumer market, which is also the late mainstream market for B2B products, which these days have been migrated to SaaS.

  • PuristProductManagement // Jun 10, 2009 at 11:12 am

    Yes completely agree with the post, but timing is as important as resource planning. Getting a product to market in the ideal world should be about getting the product out as soon as development is complete so as to be able to capitalise the expense as soon as possible. However, I feel this should be more about delayed development than delayed release. Timing the product launch and then working backwards from that point has often helped me get products to market at the right time, not the soonest time.

    Great post!

  • Passionate PM // Jul 16, 2009 at 3:11 am

    This is a great article for any Product Manager.

  • Adi // Mar 17, 2010 at 7:23 am

    Agree with Dr Jim. Its like timing the stock market and everyone does want to be Warren Buffet but few succeed.

    Back to basics – finding customer hot pains and solving them at the earliest would be best.

    How many technologies are predicted correctly to be successful? Most successes/failures are talked about with hindsight bias. Would you not have launched HDTV if you were its product manager at that time?

    Having said that, I do agree that there is definitely a time to market window, and product managers should try their best to make that window – but i am just not sure on the “how” part.

  • David Locke // Mar 17, 2010 at 11:29 am

    Finding customers w/hot pains is a fine way to do Moore’s technology adoption lifecycle for a discontinuous innovation, but most of the time the lifecycle is not done, and the innovation is not discontinuous. What ends up happening is the encoding of a vertical/functional domain, aka content, rather than carrier.

    If you are pushing a discontinuous technology, you make the market, and that market’s market window, so there is no timing issue. There is no point in being in a hurry. But, if you are coding the latest fad, timing becomes the issue, as is longevity. When you are in a hurry, you can achieve the wrong success, while failing to achieve real success. Hitting the wrong window, playing the wrong game isn’t much help.

    Moore’s technology adoption lifecycle is a clock. You know that this, then that, then that is going to happen, what you don’t know is when. You drive this by investment and sales rates. You live through it by establishing limits to voice of customer programs, and by using some technical architecture to enable market phase transistions. Then, you make your quarterly numbers. Don’t worry about becoming the fad, worry instead, about living long, consistently growing your market, and knowing what and when you must create the next technology and its product and service stream. Doing these things will earn you a nice premium from the financial markets if you are chasing dollars.

    Engaging in free in the wrong markets is a bigger problem than hitting your market windows.

    HDTV was a lobbying effort. There was no question that those that lobbied for it were committed to making it happen.

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