business advice

The product is all

type-setI loved Bob Lutz’ book, Car Guys vs. Bean Counters.  It is a virtual ode to product people.  Lutz is one of the most important people in the history of the American car business, because the supremely ugly American cars we saw back in the 80s were made by committee, but the great cars that we’ve been seeing lately have come from product folks.

It brings to mind a memory as a young marketing manager starting out on my career. I was standing outside with an old geezer of a sales guy while he puffed away on his 50th cigarette of the day. “If the dogs won’t eat the dogfood, it won’t sell. I don’t care how many pretty pictures you put on the packaging”. Sage advice.

The product (or service) really is everything.  It seems like an obvious statement, but it’s of such vast importance that if it’s not made a key importance, you’ll never succeed wildly.

People talk about the magic of Apple.  Why?  Because their products are incredible. Customers don’t know you through your income statement, nor your legal department.  They know you through your products.

The worst sales team in the world is transformed into the “greatest” sales team with a good product.   A weak marketing department is suddenly on fire with a great product.  PR comes easy with a great product.

So what is your product or service?  How do you make it?

Good product development starts with a something that is actually desired and in need.  This does not come about through theorizing.  It comes about through talking to customers and prospective customers.  One of the most successful consumer products of all time came from an in-home visit.

I rarely released a product without doing extensive surveys to understand customer needs and wants.  Pragmatic Marketing, which runs product management and product marketing seminars, has an acronym – NIHITO.  It stands for Nothing Important Happens In The Office.  All this means is that a product manager who is sitting in his office, not talking to customers, is not getting the real story as to what’s actually needed by the customer.

It’s good advice.

Sometimes you have an absolute genius (or you are one yourself) who can think up the most amazing product ideas that are all wildly successful.  Consider yourself lucky if you have a spare Steve Jobs lying around the office.

But the reality is, most companies don’t have geniuses like this.  You need to work for it. You need to talk to the customer.

If you talk to the customer, the product ideas roll out naturally.  If you don’t, you’ll find yourself arguing theoretics in meetings at the home office.  I’ve been there too many times.

So talk to the customer and figure out what they want.  Then document it and use the information when you talk to the people who make the product (the engineers, the developers, whomever is making the product in your company).

In an online world, you can do surveys for nothing.  We used to run surveys for $20k-$30k just per product. Now, services like or Google’s consumer survey service make the cost negligible. Give survey respondents a chance to win a gift card, keep the survey short and sweet (longer surveys lose respondents), create questions that have meaning (don’t ask stupid questions because some guy in the office insisted – ask questions that will give you a real answer) and most importantly, get it out and use the data. There are also tricks, like using Google’s keyword finder to locate what people are looking for online right now.

It sometimes occurs that product developers (or others) don’t believe survey results.   This is normal and I’ve had this problem.  You don’t need to be combative (“I have the survey and you are an idiot for not believing it” doesn’t always work).   Developers really do have good ideas, but the broader point is that the customer cannot be ignored in the process.

There are examples when surveys were a bust.  However, on further analysis, it was because the surveys didn’t get the right answer.  A famous example is the battle between Steve Jobs and the marketing department at Apple.  The marketing folks had surveyed customers about what type of printer they wanted.  They asked for a daisy-wheel printer (for those of you who weren’t around back then, this was basically a typewriter attached to a computer).  Jobs, in his typical fashion, refused to agree and argued that customers would want a laser printer.  He won the argument, and there was the birth of desktop publishing and so much more.

However, the problem is fairly clear.  Reading through the results, the customers were asking for a letter quality printer.  They didn’t know about laser printers, they knew about daisy-wheel printers.  The survey could have been done quite a bit differently with much different results.

Surveys can also take the form of surveying your competition or using secondary research (meaning, outside analysts firms that create research).    Secondary research is often a bit dangerous.  Whole fortunes have been lost following the lead of an outside analyst.  You need to keep your wits about you and try to filter out what’s important.  However, analysts do create a lot of noise and they are worth listening to.  Just use your own common sense.

You can also just use a prototype or a beta to figure out if customers will like the product. A famous story is Dropbox.  The creator, Drew Houston, created a YouTube video of the product, still in prototype form (this is the idea of a Minimally Viable Product).  People loved it.  The rest was history.

Doing surveys to define products is a bit of an art form and takes some practice.  But the key point is – don’t design products in your own little bubble.  Get the customer involved with the product creation process and you’ll win.

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