We’re running a business, not a technology company


One thing I always try to remind myself of, is that in the end, my job is to make the business successful. Product Management is a business optimization function. In short: get the most valuable products to market with a limited set of development resources to generate enough revenue to meet or exceed the business goals.

Now, given we work in technology, there is a lot of pressure to “innovate”, to create new technological differentiation against competitors, to develop the next “big thing”, or produce a new or novel offering that can be positioned uniquely in the market.

And, while there is nothing wrong with any of that, it is important to remember that although those things may be important, they are not paramount. The most important thing to do is address market needs more effectively than anyone else. This could mean doing the more mundane things like playing well in their existing environment, or providing platform support, or creating command line tools, or making sure the products are easy to use.

None of those things may seem all that exciting or novel, but they are important to customers who must use these products to meet their business objectives. There is no point creating a unique product showcasing great technology that few people want to buy.

Keep in mind that technology changes much faster than many people’s abilities to accept that change, and one of the best things you can do for customers is to actually help them mitigate that change where possible.

Case in point. Back in the early days of Java, I was product manager for a line of Java components. Java was growing and changing quickly and Sun was deprecating APIs regularly. One of the things we did was to provide consistent APIs to our customers so that as they moved from Java (1) to Java 2, they didn’t need worry about those changes from Sun. In short, we provided them a layer of insulation from the underlying technology changes. This was hugely valuable to customers and helped our business as well as our reputation as a company that delivered real value to them.

In the end, optimizing for the business success, and NOT simply technological leadership, should be the goal of every product manager.

Saeed

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8 responses to “We’re running a business, not a technology company

  1. Hi Saeed,

    Your first paragraph is right now. But then when you talk about innovations, providing the tools that customers want etc. I tend to respectfully disagree. A business survives by its ability to anticipate customer’s changing needs. Just listening to existing customer needs and providing them solutions just for those needs will leave you behind.

    For example, a business can spend all the cycles in supporting the different OS’s out there because that is what the customers use today, only to be wiped out by a newcomer who offers the same functionality over the web as a Saas service – OS’s don’t matter and customers will jump ship in a hurry given that they will not have to deal with multiple platforms, implementation, maintenance and upgrade woes.

    Remember the days of trying to debug using command line tools – came the Visual IDE tools for developers and changed the way software is written and debugged.

    The jist is to focus on the problem and not on the details of how to solve the problem – customers have a tendency to make you focus on the latter – only if I could get an extra option, I wish this widget was red in color etc.

    On the other hand, as a product manager you should also lead development so that they don’t develop solutions using the latest technology and then look for problems to solve (a very common scenario).

  2. Hi Gopal,

    Thanks for the feedback. The key point of my post was to ensure we focus on the business success and not on technical success. Being in the technology industry, it’s very easy to try and be leading edge or bleeding edge, and certainly it looks good on the resume to be able to cite those technical advances. e.g. The following may look great in someone’s bio:

    – delivered the market’s first fully distributed, web-services enabled, secure transaction processing system with real-time analytics.

    Sounds impressive, but was that product successful? How successful in the market compared to competitors etc. That’s the key point. Technology in and of itself is necessary, but not sufficient.

    And with respect to market changes like SaaS, if one is caught completely blind sided by such a change, or sees it and ignores it, then that is bad product management. Those kind of changes don’t happen every day and those changes don’t sweep the market overnight. People need to react to them from a business benefit perspective.

    Change is a process, not an event. 🙂

    There’s a lot of stuff in product development, which is critical but not technologically leading edge. All of those things are the kinds of things that make products truly stand out against their competition. They are the details that many technologists tend to gloss over, but product management absolutely have to pay attention to. Really great usability is one example. Most technologists won’t invest enough in usability, but those who really understand the market and what users value pay close attention to it.

    As much as the iPod can be seen as revolutionary and “innovative”, the truth is, they focused on the user and not on the technology. 1000 songs in your pocket makes sense to everyone. 4GB of RAM for your MP3s only appeals to technologists.

    I am often times advocating for the less technologically sexy thing, but what is clearly beneifical to the the business. This can annoy technologists who see that kind of thing as “mundane” thinking, and not “taking big leaps”.

    Saeed

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  4. To sell a product , i think we need both technology as well as a yardstick to meet the user needs. i would like to give you one simple example, when the mobile phone came for the first time it was used only for coomunication, it was fine. but as time progressed mobile companies started adding many value added services like movies, audio etc . and they became very popular. their sales are up how doyou define this?

  5. Venki,

    If I understand your question, you’re asking how to define the evolution of the cell phone, from a phone, to a device that can do other things. This is simply evolutionary progress, and is nothing new to be honest.

    Phone companies have been selling services on land lines for a long time. Call waiting, call display, automatic redialing etc etc. With mobile phones, there is a lot more freedom, and certainly with the advent of higher bandwidth wireless data transmission, many possibilities avail themselves.

    But, keep the point of my article in mind. The capabilities that are being provided are new and novel, but certainly business focused. Most services are driving revenue in a very direct way. For example, the ring-tone market is very large worldwide. The technology behind it is VERY simple.

    Saeed

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  8. I think Gopal makes some excellent points. You’re right about things like usability, too, and the first paragraph in general.

    I have a couple of bones to pick, though, one similar to Gopal and one not.

    The Java backwards-compatibility example is really interesting. I wonder if it was really that valuable (how would you measure that?), and whether the language would have been better served by ditching its baggage (old APIs, etc) and staying lean. Remove those deprecated things already 😉 There are certainly a lot of opinions towards the latter on the net. What do you think?

    I totally agree one should focus on the business, not the technology. But I think Gopal is right sometimes we have to lead the user. By just listening to the current users (or non-users) and their current problems, we risk being solely reactive. And that opens us up to the big can of worms of disruptions, The Innovator’s Dilemma, etc. What do you think?