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:
- The hope that the sooner the product is in the market, the sooner it will recoup its costs.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.