Recently, I was interviewed by Business Insider and the reporter centered our discussion around my career arc and the types of projects I’ve worked on over the years. She also asked me about my philosophy on leadership and what experiences it comes from. I got my start as a leader after a moment of deep frustration where a mentor told me that I needed to stop complaining and take charge. I often look back at that moment and think about how it came to be.
One way to view the difficult situation is that I was working on a team whose job was to sustain a set of old technologies but, because we were founded with a research culture, believed itself to be a pioneer into new areas. At the time, I was too inexperienced to understand this, having only ever worked in one place. No one ever clearly told me that every product and every team have different expectations depending on where it sits in the “Product Life Cycle” and that fighting these expectations will always be an uphill battle.
Now I see things a bit differently. I’ve worked in, inherited, started, or experienced teams in every part of the product life cycle. For folks unfamiliar with the concept of a Product Life Cycle, I’d like to explain it and how it impacts the people and projects you work on. Maybe this will help you understand if you’re in the right place to achieve your goals and maximize the impact of your efforts.
What is the Product Life Cycle?
The product life cycle describes the period of time over which a product is developed, brought to market and eventually removed from the market. The cycle is broken into four stages: introduction, growth, maturity, and decline.
Introduction — newly introduced products that are trying to achieve product-market fit.
Growth — products that have found an audience and are growing rapidly with increased sales and profitability in mind.
Mature — well established products whose revenue streams or ecosystems are often leveraged to find new products (see: “cash cow”)
Decline — products experiencing unrecoverable declines in revenues or usage
Every product — and the teams who support those products — exists at some place on this spectrum. More interestingly, because companies often support multiple products (a portfolio) they must acknowledge that different parts of the organization will operate better with different types of people, processes, and expectations.
Put another way: smart companies think about the right organizational culture for each of their product teams. Smart employees will do the same.
A Story for Each Phase of the Product Life Cycle
Introduction phase teams are where you’ll find the pioneers and risk takers. There will be little established process, a high sense of urgency, and an understanding that discovering how to get a paying customer is critical to survival.
Although I worked on several new technologies at the beginning of my career, the first real startup team I worked on was Info Navigator. The thing I remember most vividly about it was that most people thought we would fail, thought that even if we were to somehow succeed we would at best be a distraction, and avoided helping us so not to be associated with a “crazy” project.
The team felt constantly under threat of being disbanded but the heat and pressure bonded us. And most often, introduction-phase teams are the first to get cancelled when organizational priorities change. We worked like mad to beat the clock.
So it was surprising that when we pushed through and launched the project to some modest success, to see how many “supporters” we had all along. People who previously wouldn’t answer an email suddenly were calling themselves co-founders of the team. A memorable phase given to me by a peer at the time: “failure is an orphan, but success has a thousand fathers.”
Growth phase teams are filled with the types of people who bring paved roads to the Wild West. They arrive with process, metrics, specialization, and optimization.
Power BI was the most successful growth phase team I’ve ever operated. I learned that things change after you gain traction. Skeptics become supporters, you’ll get swamped with feature requests from customers, and there is generally less tolerance for exploration. Optimize. Optimize. Optimize!
Growth is undoubtedly the most fun phase of product development as every decision can have massive impact to the business or users. The downside is the growing number of stakeholders who will have opinions to synthesize and a general decrease in innovation.
That last point is what I remember about Power BI. I had to cut resources from innovative features I loved (Natural Language Query!) to fund mundane customer requests (login with OAuth). But making those trade-offset meant becoming one of the fastest growing products in the company.
Mature teams are where you find people who are used to well-established process, not accustomed to having their business questioned because it has been proven successful, and who generally prefer predictability.
The simplest way to think about mature businesses and their predictability is that they pay for products in all the other life cycle phases (I suppose they also pay the investors :-) ). They are the golden goose, the cash cow, the vault, the foundation upon which the company rests.
You don’t want risk in your mature products. If your company has a mature business, then you must know that all new product decisions will be weighed against how they impact that core business. In some cases, this can be a great boon. For example, you might leverage pre-existing businesses to rapidly grow a customer base or create an ecosystem advantage against competitors. But it can also be a detriment to innovation — why should a company spend time investing in new areas that put the core business at risk when it could take those same resources and simply make the core business more efficient? Welcome to the Innovators Dilemma.
A vivid memory this regard comes from a conversation I had with a member of the Microsoft “old guard.” We had just announced Power BI reaching 500 MAU and members of the Excel leadership team asked to meet and discuss future integration ideas. After the very productive meeting one of the leaders of Excel, a gentleman with about 25 years at the company, pulled me aside, smiled, and said “you know Nick, I have seen people and teams like you come and go over the years. Power BI is hot now, but there will always be an Excel team.”
He didn’t mean it as an insult, he meant literally that he had seen several teams attempts to disrupt Excel over the course of his long career and none of them worked. Of course, he hadn’t seen mine ;P
Declining products exist either because they are being replaced with modern technologies or approach, they are a source of significant revenue in an industry with no growth, it would cost more to shut down the project than it’s worth to maintain, etc. I have the least experience with declining products. As you can imagine, these products are just not in my nature, but I have met people who seek out and thrive in this environment.
My favorite example of this is a weird one. Did you know that Microsoft was one of the first companies to make an internet connected wrist watch? In 2004, the company created a smartwatch product called “Spot” that used FM radio signals to stream news headlines, stock quotes, weather and instant messages from Windows Messenger.
The watch was ahead of its time, however, and was discontinued in 2008. But it was several years later, in 2012, when the product team maintaining the backend services for this watch was finally disbanded. They had been keeping the lights on all that time.
As I was interviewing engineers for my new InfoNav startup team, I had the chance to meet with someone from the Spot group. I couldn’t believe that people were still maintaining tech that had become folklore and history on the level of Microsoft Bob.
I remember the engineer said to me: “Nick, a lot of people ask me why I stuck it out on this team. I fell in love with the dream. I loved the idea and our customers. I defended them for as long as I could and I wanted to see the story to the end.”
I’m not sure what happened with this engineer (he had no interest at all in my new team), but I like to imagine that the “circle of product life” kicked in and that he somehow found his way to Apple to begin the Watch dream anew.
Hope you enjoyed the read, rock on!