A Tale of Two Products - the no product manager product

Product management or a similar function is a necessity in the longer term as you transition from engineering or sales lead organizations to marketing lead.

When starting a new job as a product manager,you are occasionally handed the reins on a product that has never had ANY product management. There are many reasons for this. In this specific case, it was a hardware technology product that came out of a small startup. My current company provided some interim funding during the development process, and then about 5 years ago decided to bring it in and commercialize the system. All good so far.

But, as part of the initial folding this small, engineering heavy group into our larger organization, no product management was assigned to this product. Since I wasn’t around at that time, I can’t offer any insight on why this decision was made, but the result is not surprising.

The initial product requirements were about 1/2 of a page of a double spaced typed sheet of paper. I found it early in my tenure here. In summary it said: “Turn the existing prototype into a saleable product. Acknowledge that it is missing functionality. Acknowledge that it is expensive to build (code: we will not meet profitability targets).” Nothing about performance, market segments to target, user experience, projections of sales, how to take on entrenched competition, and the like. Sigh. Naturally, a business case was done, but withsuch wildly optimistic assumptions, that it is a wonder why finance didn’t drown in their own barf.

So, the existing package was hammered into a product to launch. About 6 months later, to great fanfare, we launched the product. However, we immediately experienced difficulty in the market. There was a class of less capable (performance wise) systems that were about 1/2 our price. Competition from this sector was fierce, and instantly we were compared to this class of system. Then the smaller systems all added a very important analysis package that we were lacking. Suddenly, they were beating the pants off us in pricing, AND capabilities. Increasingly, our sales funnel came under pressure. Lots of lost orders. You can imagine how sales took that.

But, our technical, engineering led organization kept dismissing these real world issues. “Look at our performance, we beat the pants off the low cost segment” and other arguments were offered. Basically “you are incompetent for not being successful”.

Oh, and one additional point. While we are a large, fortune 500 company, we had virtually no market footprint in this space. This class of instruments are dominated by four major players (who between them have better than 80% of the market sown up, making it a difficult market to gain a beachead in) with about 40 years each in experience in the technology. We were unknown, and struggle to this day to get our name associated with this market.

Fast forward 5 years.

Sales are sluggish. The missing analysis that all our competition has turns out to be required for over 80% of the deals. Instant lockout. Our costs are still high (no effort has been made to reduce costs). Out of box quality is awful. Just about every unit sold needs to come back to the factory for repair. Field service is well neigh impossible (need a clean room environment for many/most repairs). And the killer: Software has not changed since the original launch. 5 years with no releases that address the missing features, while our competition has moved to add capability, AND improve the UI/UX with sensible touch interfaces, gesture based commands, and a suite of automation features that greatly reduce the need to skilled users to get great results.

Sigh. How does this happen? How would Product Management help prevent it?

The primary reason this occurred is that a small, engineering driven organization was brought into another organization, and not given any direction. This freedom was not channeled into product improvements, but instead into their personal research. Complete lack of focus.

The secondary reason is that by quickly turning the prototype into a shipping product, many warts were discovered. There is a big difference in a hand-full of instruments assembled by 4 Ph.D.’s, and transitioning it into a manufacturing organization, staffed by skilled, but not expert technicians. Systems took a lot longer to build, and there was lots of rework on every system built.

Quality of the suppliers was not on the radar of the original design. The principal criteria was performance. But once volumes ramped, significant variability in incoming supplier quality reared its ugly head. Failure rates were high (and somefailure modes were unexpected, and quite surprising).

Finally, at (launch + 5 years), an honest assessment of our UX and capabilities shows that we have become even further behind the complete spectrum of competition.

You might be asking: Didn’t you have a roadmap? Of course, there was a roadmap. There were new designs, new capabilities, and a path to get us to compete well in the marketplace. It was crafted by Sr. Management and the Engineering team. But, without a guiding hand to write specs, requirements, and to guide the efforts, the engineering team continued on their intellectual investigations, and were continuously dragged into production escalations. Roadmaps were revised, dates pushed out, and finally, changed to reflect their preferences. The missing component was any connection to customers, and market needs.

Result: we remain behind the 8 ball, with a product that has profitability issues, missing many usability features, and doesn’t fit into any of the key market segments for the technology.

In all my years or product management/product marketing, this is the most dire state of a product I picked up. I am used to post acquisition blues (“How the %^&* didwe EVER lose an order to that POS?!?!?”), and gaps in maturity of processes/products. I understand that startups are a bit loose, and just getting ‘it’ out the door is “the” challenge. But to bring a product and technology in, and let it languish like this for 5 years? Argh.

Where we are headed

We have product management trying to right the ship. Detailed requirements have been delivered to drive the next three generations of product evolution. Deep details on reliability, supportability , and performance specs. A major revamp of our UI/UX to bring it inline with the expected product. Competitive positioning is underway. Deep competitive analysis was one of my first tasks, and I continue it as time goes on.

We still have margin troubles. We buy too much of the technology we use (high price, and lack of control of the IP). But there is hope to be a good niche’y play.

All in a day’s work.

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