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How to Find X When Your Product + X = Successby@correspondentone
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How to Find X When Your Product + X = Success

by Correspondent OneDecember 18th, 2022
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Ahhh 😌. Wouldn't it be nice if there was a world with short instant-success business tips? Yes that one, the same world with free housing and magic carpet rides. Unfortunately there is no such world, and unfortunately there is no TLDR for successful product management 🤗. This is a long read. Hopefully though, like the Harry Potter novels it'll be so good you wouldn't want it to end 😁.
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Exploring a Product’s Path to Success

Ahhh 😌. Wouldn't it be nice if there was a world with short instant-success business tips? Yes, that one, the same world with free housing and magic carpet rides. Unfortunately, there is no such world, and unfortunately, there is no TLDR for successful product management 🤗. This is a long read. Hopefully though, like the Harry Potter novels it'll be so good you wouldn't want it to end 😁.


Picture this. You have a product. You're most likely either a founder, if that's you, by the way, congratulations on beginning the adventure that is entrepreneurship, or, you're someone who likes a challenge, working in a company where your task is bringing growth. Brilliant. Either way, you have a product. The next step is crucial. As you may imagine from the contrasting fortunes of Google's Android going from launch to success and Microsoft's Windows Phone going from launch to failure, the path to either is not always obvious. In this article, I’ll list some theories that would help you understand what’s best.

Symbiosis

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One avenue worth exploring is finding a symbiotic relationship with another business. An example could be Company A offering a bonus item or discount code with the purchase of an item from Company B. Such as Spotify offering premium membership codes inside cans of Pringles. Ideally, look for companies of similar size or companies that are keenly interested in efforts to boost their sales. This would increase the likelihood that such a deal could be done without requiring a cash payment. Companies are also likely to accept deals that require minimal to no effort on their part. This also has the added benefit of effectively hedging a bet on marketing methods, as your product would benefit from all the marketing methods used by your partner companies too. It's essential that partners are chosen carefully so as to avoid detrimental brand association.

Once You Get to Know Me

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It is very helpful to know how your target customers feel about your product. After all, customer sentiment is usually primarily responsible for customers picking products, or not. Surveys are your friend here. Directly speaking to customers is even better. During surveys of your target market, learning from those who have heard of your products and chose not to use it could also be as helpful as those who use your product. For example, knowing what to remove could be as important as knowing what to add.


Be Careful

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Being the first in a new industry that proves to be successful in the long run could be a great growth strategy. For example, being the first website or YouTube channel to host tutorials on a new programming tool could lead to prominence in that field.


An alternate example is a programmer who discovers a new platform, e.g Windows Phone at its time of launch. As a developer, putting a lot of resources into a young platform may mean great exposure at a time of little competition. It could also mean wasted efforts on a platform that ends up in failure.


There are some growth opportunities that aren't particularly clear as to whether they are a good idea or not. There isn't a particular magic formula for business success and it is in instances like this that careful analysis and planning are required. A case is the game streaming platform Mixer by Microsoft. It launched as a competitor to the more popular platform Twitch. In the early days, two successful categories on Mixer were new Mixer creators who rose to prominence through the less crowded platform and prominent creators who were paid a lot of money to leave Twitch and use Mixer exclusively. This meant that even though Mixer eventually shut down a few years later, for some, their time on Mixer was well worth it. The larger creators even though returning to reduced fan bases on Twitch, had the benefit of the Mixer signup bonus to make the exercise a possible net benefit. Smaller creators who could not carry over their followers made on Mixer to other platforms and had to start over with much smaller fan bases may not feel so. However, the argument could be made that those smaller creators would not have gotten their fame if they had started on Twitch. The lesson here is that it's not always a simple decision of committing or not if you're chasing maximum benefit. Sometimes the decision needs to be a careful consideration of the entry point and exit strategy.

Care should be taken on growth strategies that alter the product significantly. An example could be taken from the book Growth Hacking, where author Shawn Ellis described how raising prices at his startup, Qualaroo, led to a 400% increase in revenue. Apparently, the higher-priced product gave the product an appearance of quality. Though this may have led to a loss of smaller customers, this was more than offset by the gain in large corporate customers. In other words, they essentially switched out their customers. It would be up to the individuals to determine whether they want to alter their product focus as such.

Whenever you receive information or advice, it's a good idea to examine its basis. For example, the book, Hacking Growth (published in 2017), cited a 2005 study on software to share the belief that companies should not release too many features in a product at once. Herein lies a problem. 2005 was a long time ago. No social media, no smartphones, The PlayStation 2 was a current-gen console. It also followed up by talking about a presentation that showed Microsoft Word with every toolbar enabled. This could be seen as an over-generalization and misrepresentation of a product leading to a faulty conclusion. The idea was never to utilize MS Word with every toolbar enabled. How features are presented and enabled is what matters, not how many they are. The focus should be on giving users the things they need.

Don't Be Evil

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Be careful of growth strategies that come at a non-obvious cost to the company. An example would be the case of the pharmaceutical company Mylan (now Viatris after a merger). They manufacture the product EpiPen, a first aid drug for allergic reactions, which they acquired in 2007.


At that time the price was 100 USD for a two-pack. By 2009 the price was about $103.50. A series of steep price increases raised the price to about $609 in May 2016. All this occurred during a period that saw less than 4% annual inflation in the US.


Through a combination of marketing,  lobbying, and price hikes, the $200 million a year income of EpiPen rose to $1.5 billion by May 2015.


Now from a mathematical point of view, this represents fantastic growth. However, revenue was not the only thing Mylan had grown. It had also grown resentment.


Eventually, push-back came, in the form of a class-action lawsuit settled for $264 million. Now some of you may have noticed that $0.264 billion once is a lot less than $1.5 billion per year(though revenue not profit). Viatris is not the first in history to use this 'cheaper to do the crime' model of business, but it does come at a reputational cost.

Another example is the company FaceBook (now Meta). For many, its unethical data and business practices are legendary. These helped it grow its advertising revenue as well as its product addictiveness. After breaking a previous FTC settlement on data handling that helped achieve high growth. Facebook was fined $5 Billion by the FTC. The prior quarter saw revenues of over three times that amount. Once again a fine, but not exactly a calamity.

Like Mylan, Facebook had its users over a barrel with an effective monopoly. They had essentially utilized the 'drug dealer model' and now users were so dependent on them. It was hard to regulate them effectively.

However, if you push them hard enough, just like The North, consumers will remember. While Viatris and Meta are still profitable companies today, their reputations have taken a solid dent.


Facebook will have realized this when they launched their ill-fated cryptocurrency project Libra Diem. Almost immediately the pushback was significant. Even theywere aware of how low the stock of their reputation was, they prominently promoted it as the effort of a consortium. They were not successful in swaying public opinion enough. Partners began to drop from the project and even a rebranding exercise was not enough to save it.

Another large tech company with a similar reputation problem is Google. In November 2019 Google launched Stadia, a cloud gaming service. It was immediately hit with a wave of pessimism. With it's reputation of shuttering products, see killedbygoogle.com, people didn't trust paying for games that would be locked to Google's control, but most of all they didn't trust Google to keep the service running for longer than a few years. Google sought to combat those fears with campaigns but pessimism remained. Well, if it walks like a duck, looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is very likely, a duck. In late September 2022 Google announced it was shutting Stadia down. A rather simple prophecy had been fulfilled. Part of the reason Google might have shut down Stadia was because they did not see a strong enough user adoption. Ironically enough, a problem that came about because people did not trust Google to not shut Stadia down prematurely. Coupled with its privacy concerns, Android monopoly (see story)) and app store fees, Google was now company with a growing reputational problem. Google had a phrase, "Don’t Be Evil" during their early days. They have since dropped it.



It's Not Thaaat Hard

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Some growth hacks are 'common sense'. I put that in quotes because perspective and background really do matter. An example was FaceBook discovering that a reduced data version of the FaceBook app, FaceBook Lite, was able to spur growth in developing countries. An example: India, Facebook's largest market by user count, has a median monthly wage of about $200. The median monthly wage in the US is $54,000. People with low-cap data plans would therefore be more likely to prefer low-data usage apps. As data would be relatively more valuable to them due to its cost.

Another example is the Microsoft Xbox One launch 'drama'. Microsoft initially planned to require the Xbox One to connect to Microsoft every hour to retain the ability to play games. The reaction to this, along with the removal of the ability to play used games, was brutal. It was so bad that Microsoft backtracked on the idea. One theory was that people in Redmond (Microsoft HQ location) were so used to their constant and easy access to the internet that they subconsciously assumed their customers' lives were that connected as well.


Having a good product design overview helps to avoid scenarios such as these. Pay attention to your customers before you design the product.



Data, Data, Data

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Do data analysis of your product usage. How are people using it? Could a small feature be in fact the most used part of your product? If it's a shopping app, on what screen do most of your users quit using the app? Is there a problem there?

Information gathered here could help you decide if changes are needed. However, be careful when analyzing data. Causation is not always equal to correlation.

Also, know your users and their types. For example, there are many people who spend hours a day scrolling through social media but do not post anything. There are others who post but may spend less than an hour a day online. Both categories are useful. Ideally do not try to solve the 'problem' of people spending less time using your app if that is not a problem for that category of users.

One of the most important but also difficult tools to get is direct feedback from your users. Feedback from your users could help you plan marketing campaigns by knowing what to highlight and who to target. Feedback could also help you know what new features to implement.

When you are testing new features in your product, it is advisable to introduce them gradually and test them as you do. As opposed to infrequent large changes. This would help avoid building on a mistake.



Quality x Product

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Here is a question many entrepreneurs need to ask themselves before starting work on a project:

Should your product exist?

Struggling for a product to be used is not a great idea. If your product falls under the category of frivolous. It might be best to seriously consider if putting time and money into it is a good idea.

Your initial market may not be your whole target market. Facebook for example started via targeting university students in the US. Consider what to change in your strategy and product if you’re trying to drive growth to a larger market.

If a pivot is likely, try to do so as early as possible. This would help avoid spending a lot of resources marketing a product only to change it significantly not long after. There are cases, of course, like Netflix that pivoted while they were well into being a mature company. But new companies may not always be able to financially afford a rebranding.


On quality. Lots of mobile app developers are now aware that notification reminders to use an app can help drive engagement. However there is a risk of notification fatigue among users. Ideally only send notifications to users when it is of clear use to them e.g. an item they were seeking is back in stock. There is a risk that your app would be deleted entirely if it's seen to pester.


A strong first impression is key. There are lots of mobile apps that are opened only once and then forgotten. Similarly there are lots of websites that users leave after only checking the page they arrived on. Impressing your audience at first attempt is key, because even if not all become your customers, this impression can lead to your product being spread via word of mouth.



Organics

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Ahhh, the dream of creating a product with viral growth. There's nothing quite like watching a product launch and do the marketing job for you. I can only imagine it's the same feeling tired new parents might get if their toddler suddenly started taking care of him/herself.


And as it happens, unlike toddlers, products do sometimes launch to marketing success of magical proportions. Whether intentionally or not. However viral growth can work both ways, and once something goes viral, it's hard to keep a handle on.


Take the launch of the video game Fallout 76 for example. A much-anticipated game from a franchise with millions of fans. However, the game was launched with a litany of problems, from mistakes in design to bad choices in management. The fans were not pleased. The ensuing protest that spread over the Internet like wildfire was, strong. The result was that even people, like me, who had never paid any attention to the game's launch heard about its troubles. Ladies and gentlemen, that, is not how we would like to launch a product.


The moral of that story is that in creating and launching a product, care should be taken to create something worth spreading organically.

It is worth remembering in this day and age of marketing = digital marketing, that a real world exists. Yes, large parts of that real-world might involve people's heads glued to their phone screens, but word of mouth is still a powerful organic growth tool (organic growth in this case refers to growth obtained without paid marketing efforts). In-person conversations are likely a more convincing medium than online messages. So whether it's by friends or sales representatives, remember the offline channel.


When you are online and seek to spread via word of mouth, consider the point of view that the recommendation is framed. For example, Friend A sending a message to Friend B about a product is arguably better than the company taking the email address of Friend B, and sending a generalized advertisement message. Companies could give message design tools to customers, via a web form, for example, to help them send bright, well-designed, but still personalized messages.

Obtaining new customers via your existing ones is an effective method. Sometimes incentivizing your customers via offering referral programs where customers get some benefit is worth considering.



Careful Now

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Realistically, no one is a perfect business expert. So assess all the advice you receive. Yes, even this one.



Cover Photo by Kristopher Roller on Unsplash